Austin Convention Center redesign could be developed via competition to envision 'a world-class, fabulous building' in eastern downtown

Austin officials have been pursuing a redesign of the decades-old downtown facility for years. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)
Austin officials have been pursuing a redesign of the decades-old downtown facility for years. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)

Austin officials have been pursuing a redesign of the decades-old downtown facility for years. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)

Austin City Council on June 10 could take action to push forward a long-discussed expansion of the Austin Convention Center.

Two items on council's extensive June 10 agenda center on the process of planning for how the facility's revamp could play out. If approved, the first item forwarded by staff would see council back the construction manager at-risk method of contracting for the project. That process would allow for the hiring of a general contractor to oversee the entirety of the center's partial demolition, reconstruction and expansion while providing for the separate hiring of a group to manage design aspects of the project.

That allowance for outside design work from an architecture firm is the basis for the second related item, sponsored by District 9 Council Member Kathie Tovo, that would see the city launch a competition to solicit design concepts for making the facility a public gathering space and "landmark of great distinction" in line with the city's Central Library. Tovo, whose district includes the convention center, said her resolution as written may be altered before its potential approval this week but that her overall hope is to open the door for outside proposals on a new Austin Convention Center in the near future.

"We’ve had lots of conversations about the convention center and a possible expansion over the last several years, and it is critically important, in my opinion, that we have on that site a world-class, fabulous building," Tovo said. "I hope that we can get to a place on Thursday where we are initiating a process that will lead to a really great design."

The expansion of the nearly 30-year-old structure has been an item of council interest for years. Officials in 2017 commissioned a study on the convention center's economic and cultural potential that was released in 2019, and last year recommitted to moving forward on an expansion. And while plans for the center's growth westward were put on hold this April, a desire for an overhaul of the existing property remains.

Tovo on June 8 also stressed the importance, in her view, of more regularly engaging City Council in the design process as compared to previous city-backed projects such as redevelopment of the former HealthSouth property to the north. She also said a new, functional facility design backed by the city should tie into the ongoing Palm District Planning Initiative aimed at crafting a new comprehensive plan for the historic sector of eastern downtown, and take into consideration broader pedestrian access and a connection with Waller Creek that previous concepts had not.

"We’ve had a lot of conversation around the convention center. I don’t think the initial design that came forward was one that our community members found terribly inspiring or had addressed their concerns about the interaction of the convention center and the way in which it embraced the need to be present and exciting for residents," she said.

In a June 8 memo on the construction manager at-risk proposal, Trisha Tatro, interim director of the Austin Convention Center Department, said council's possible action this week would only move the contracting process along and not lock the city into any planning or financial commitments. Staff's next update on the redevelopment project's financing model and proof of concept are expected later this summer, Tatro said, and city spending on the project would eventually begin with the selection and contracting of an architect.

"The financial modeling and proof of concept efforts are parallel processes to the selection of the design firm and [construction manager at-risk]. Running these processes sequentially shortens the timeframe for completion of the expansion project, which would decrease the cost of the expansion," Tatro said in the memo.


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