More than $1.2 billion in design and construction contracts for the Austin Convention Center's expansion is slated to advance this month as the downtown facility's multiyear closure and redevelopment draws closer.

The details

On Oct. 19, City Council will vote to move forward a pair of expansive contracts with firms that would plan and build the new civic convention center complex.

That facility outline would nearly double the convention center's current rentable square footage. At the same time, the building's overall footprint and impact on the surrounding area would be reduced by moving exhibit halls and loading docks underground.

The new multistory center is expected to span more than 1 million square feet and feature:
  • 360,000 square feet of exhibit space
  • 184,000 square feet of ballroom or flexible exhibition space
  • 180,000 square feet of meeting space
Alongside the transformation of the center itself, other proposals tied to the project include:
  • Reopening Second and Third streets through the convention center block
  • Adding new outdoor and community spaces around the building
  • Integrating the complex with Project Connect's future light rail line
  • Developing an adjacent high-rise project through a public-private partnership
“We are a large barrier between the east and the west,” Katy Zamesnik, assistant director of the Austin Convention Center Department, said during an Oct. 17 City Council review. “There is no ground-level public interaction; it’s very low density compared to the sites surrounding us; there is no green space. And then most importantly for the convention center, it is severely inadequate for the event demand that we are currently experiencing right now.”

The two contract processes up for council authorization this month include:
  • $1.2 billion for partners JE Dunn and Turner to manage preconstruction and construction
  • $65 million for partners LMN and Page to manage design and engineering
The two-part development plan follows council's vote in spring 2021 to separate the design and construction processes while setting a high-level vision for the redevelopment.

The teams were selected through city solicitations released earlier this year. City staff ranked LMN and Page the highest out of seven architecture firms, while JE Dunn-Turner scored the highest out of three interested construction firms.

What's next

If council advances the contracting process this month, staff will negotiate with the architecture and construction teams with the goal of getting their work started in early 2024. Additional support contracts may also be presented to city officials next year.

Department Director Trisha Tatro said finalizing the $1.27 billion in contracts is critical to keeping the redevelopment on track and under budget.

“Given the construction timeline constraints, any delays to the current schedule may require the construction timeline shift one year to accommodate this highly complex construction schedule, adding several hundred million dollars to the cost of the project,” she wrote in an Oct. 11 memo.

The city plans to shut down the existing convention center in spring 2025 before it's demolished and construction begins. The new convention center will open ahead of the South by Southwest Conference & Festivals in February 2029.

Zamesnik said staff now anticipate a roughly 40-month phased construction timeline, although things could change along the way.

“We don’t know what we don’t know. We’re talking about digging a 65-foot hole in the ground; we don’t know what’s underneath that. It’s downtown Austin, and I’m sure that they’re going to find some fun surprises that we didn’t realize,” she told council. “We want to be back in operation just as quickly as I think the community would like us to be as well.”
Convention officials said they're committed to conducting monthly reviews of the project as it moves along. Regular progress reports will also be shared with council and the public.

Staff said they anticipate the convention center's roughly 300 employees will remain on board through the redevelopment, either by moving them to other city event facilities or shifting their work into other city departments.

The cost

Most funding for the expansion's total $1.6 billion price tag, including the proposed contracts now on the table, comes from Austin's hotel occupancy taxes.

Those taxes are pulled from all city hotel stays with a portion reserved for various cultural programming and for the convention center. Council increased hotel tax collections in 2019 to pave the way for the expansion project.

Tens of millions of hotel tax dollars are moved annually into several convention center funds. A $117.59 million transfer is projected this fiscal year.

Hotel tax revenue will also back a series of bonds to be issued after the project is officially underway, according to the convention center department. Facility revenues would cover any remaining funding gaps, and no city property taxes are to be involved.

Once the facility is completed and its operations are stabilized—within five years of its reopening, Zamesnik said—the modernized center is projected to generate an additional local economic impact of $285 million.