New ‘dynamite’ Palm District Plan moves Austin closer to convention center expansion

Austin
Scenario 5 rendering UT convention center study

The Scenario 5 rendering of an expansion of the Austin Conven UT convention center study.

AUSTIN (KXAN) — In a unanimous vote Thursday, Austin City Council approved the creation of a Palm District Master Plan, puting their support behind an expansion of the Austin Convention Center.

This vote begins the process of expanding the convention center and aims to re-envision it as part of the Palm District, the area around the former Palm Elementary School which was closed in 1976.

The school was acquired by Travis County in 1986. The building is currently being used by Travis County as its Health, Human and Veteran Services, but the department will move to a new building next year.

The resolution Thursday, sponsored by Council Member Kathie Tovo, aims to preserve the Mexican-American cultural heritage in the area near the Convention Center and Rainey Street while also creating a tourism public improvement district there. It also will help create the adjacent Waller Creek District Master Plan.

“This is an area that has had enormous growth and change and has more ahead of it,” Tovo said at Thursday’s meeting. She noted she sees this as a chance to allow people to get around easier and connect with each other better in that region. 

She continued that she believes the Palm District, “will really be a dynamite area of town that I hope — if we do our job well — provides for some of the new needs, but begins with a recognition and a respect for the history and the culture of so many Austinites who have come before us.”

“It’s real important and a big thing that the council is declaring it wants to move forward on the convention center, ” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said at Thursday’s meeting. 

This decision factors in a recently released study by UT Austin which presented several possible options for convention center expansion.

The council’s vote Thursday incorporates the most expensive of those options, Scenario No. 5, a $1.2 billion-dollar plan which would work on revitalizing the area and improving transportation there. It would demolish the current event space, and the new center would be west of Trinity and have room for private development. 

The UT report shows there are lots of potential dollars to tap into, the leisure and hospitality industry contributes 15 percent of Austin’s total economy — up from 11 percent in 2000 and more than the state average of 13 percent. Researchers on the study told KXAN that investment in transportation and infrastructure around the convention center have the potential to reinvigorate and transform that area of Austin.

The recently approved plan also aims to honor the working-class Mexican American families who once lived on Rainey Street, and whose communities were eventually cut off from the east side of Austin when I-35 was created.  

Now, City Manager Spencer Cronk is directed to present a program for the Palm District and what resources would be needed to make it happen no later than August 1, so that the plan can be included in the 2020 budget. This plan would be paid for through an increase in hotel occupancy taxes, the resolution suggests. 

There are still many details to be ironed out and lingering questions for city leaders. Council Member Alison Alter wondered how this new plan would actually bring the people traveling outside the convention center inside to use it. 

A host of community stakeholders have been recognized in this process and will be given a voice in discussions of convention center expansion, including Visit Austin, ECHO and other homelessness outreach providers, as well as the Red River Cultural District. 

The discussion around expansion 

Only a few voices at Thursday’s meeting were in opposition to expansion. One of those was Bill Bunch, a member of Austin’s Tourism Commission, who spoke before council saying he opposed the resolution, calling it premature and worrying that it would be “waste of tax dollars.” He called on the council to reprioritize spending to match what tourists are actually coming to Austin for. 

“Step back from this, don’t lock up these dollars,” Bunch urged the council. 

But another member of the Tourism Commission, Lois Rodriguez, felt differently. She told the council she believes expanding the convention center is the right way to go. 

“Right now we’re at a place where we have a chance to make a really big difference,” Rodriguez said. 

“We can’t give that away to tourists, we need to work on the community,” she said, reminding council that it will be important to find ways to bring hotel occupancy tax dollars back to the Austin community in the ways that will create the most impact. 

Musicians, laborers, and community partners told the council Thursday they want a seat at the table too when it comes to future discussions about the convention center expansion. 

The Waller Creek Foundation said they supported expansion, as did a collective group of members of the commercial music sector in Austin. 

Nakia Reynoso, a musician in Austin, implored the council not to forget about the artists who make up the local music scene. 

“The very tourism industry that we are speaking about today was built today in large part on the backs of Austin musicians,” Reynoso said.  “But what happens when the musicians can no longer afford to live in the Live Music Capitol of the World?”

Reynoso urged council to allow the maximum amount allowable from hotel occupancy taxes to go toward programs and platforms that support Austin’s music sector. 

Many of Austin’s homeless and homeless support resources are located just blocks away from the convention center, speakers reminded the council Thursday. 

“Our homeless neighbors are in dire need of funding or support mechanisms,” said Cody Cowan, Executive Director of the Red River Cultural District. 

“We’re not making the dent we need to see because we’re not doing enough of anything at scale,” said Ann Howard, the executive director of Austin’s Ending Community Homelessness Coalition. 

Iris Leija, an organizer and Austin Central Labor Council delegate, called attention to the people we don’t always see who support the hospitality industry in Austin. She noted that UT researchers estimated that Scenario 5, which the council is looking at for convention center expansion, would bring in hundreds of thousands more people into Austin every year and bring in as much as $485 million in private development and $109 million annually in spending at Austin hotels and restaurants.

Leija worried that money would not trickle down to hospitality workers. 

“The hospitality jobs in Austin are not good jobs,” she explained, noting that many maids have little or no benefits. 

Citing federal labor statistics, Leija noted that in 2018 the median wage for hotel, motel, and resort clerks in Austin is $11.47 per hour and for maids the median wage is $10.48 per hour.

“Many workers in the hospitality industry have little or no benefits, and face issues like discrimination and sexual assault,” she told the council. 

She called for a labor representative to be appointed to the board discussing the future of the convention center, a request that Council Member Greg Casar fulfilled with an amendment to council’s resolution. 

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