Efforts to build a large expansion of Seattle's convention center are picking up steam, just as the economy loses power. At the coming session of the Legislature, lawmakers will look for projects that have immediate economic benefit. Doubling the Washington State Convention and Trade Center, as reported here earlier, can provide immediate construction jobs and pretty assured (and unionized) hotel and restaurant business. Moreover, the money to fund an expansion would come from visitor taxes (mostly on hotel rooms) and so wouldn't feel like a hit to taxpayers.
What's proposed is a stand-alone meeting palace, about the size of the current convention center (200,000 square feet of exhibition and meeting space), or maybe as big as 300,000 square feet — thus moving Seattle into the serious mid-sized league for this business. Ah, but where?
The most likely location would be atop the Convention Place bus station and entrance to the Downtown Transit Tunnel at Ninth Avenue and Pine Street, just across from the Paramount Theatre and one block north of the current convention center. The property is owned by King County, as it is used by Metro Transit. County Executive Ron Sims said this week that he would be very interested in leasing the air rights to the convention center. Sims has tried for years to convert that very utilitarian block of bus stops and parking into housing or offices or even cultural use.
The downtown hotels, with heavy investments around the current Washington State Convention and Trade Center, would be strong advocates for such a site. Moreover, the hoteliers are feeling mighty abused by the way the Legislature snatched $55 million of convention center reserves to help balance last year's general fund budget, and some in the industry go so far as to suggest the hotel industry would sue over that bulb-snatching if the convention center expansion were not next door.
At this point, it gets interesting. One other site being explored, on the central waterfront, could come into play as a way to raise more money for the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project, though there's still so much uncertainty along the waterfront as to make that unlikely. The third site is Seattle Center, most likely along the eastern edge, where a convention center expansion would replace Memorial Stadium. This is the site that lost out to the over-the-freeway solution for the convention center back in the late 1980s. As explained by Sims, the bowl of the stadium would be used for underground parking, and a convention center on top might also do away with or adapt the oft-renovated, ugly-duckling Center House.
Sims, who has been making proposals for dramatically reshaping Seattle Center (and muzzling himself when Mayor Greg Nickels blew up at the intrusion into the city's turf), is somewhat intrigued by the Center site, and he reports some support from high officials in Olympia, including what he calls considerable interest from Gov. Chris Gregoire.
Seattle Center says it has heard nothing of the idea, and Center spokeswoman Deborah Daoust says "it's not something the Center would support." She notes that under the new Century 21 Plan for Seattle Center, just approved by the City Council, that area is to be for summer concerts and open space, through reconfiguration of the football/soccer field and grandstands. Moreover, turning the ungainly Mercer Garage (across the street from the Opera House) into a site for a hotel, which the convention center would need, would also run afoul of the City Council's decision to retain ownership of the garage. (The thought is that the garage may not be needed if underground parking is built at Memorial Stadium, but this idea is stoutly contested by the adjoining Teatro Zinzanni.) The City Council also nixed Center plans for an enlarged exhibition/conference center to the south of KeyArena, suggesting that it doesn't want the Center backsliding into the conference business.
While it's hard to see how a convention center enhances Seattle Center (few repeat customers for culture, for instance), nor how the downtown hoteliers could be induced to swallow such an idea, there could be a case for made. Such a new facility could be a game-changer — large enough to perhaps budge the Seattle School District out of Memorial Stadium altogether, and able to help dramatically the rental income at the Center, particularly if KeyArena turns into a deeper drain of revenue without the SuperSonics. It could be a consolation prize for nearby restaurants and bars, facing loss of business from the Sonics' departure for Oklahoma City. Likewise, you could argue that the Downtown Transit Tunnel entrance is better used for dense residential development or offices, right atop a multi-modal transit center.
Finally, speaking of KeyArena, Daoust reports that the Center is hoping to make a decision in the "near future" about a deal with a major concert promoter for helping to book, market, and present concerts and other events at the Key. She says three major promoters, apparently including giant AEG from Los Angeles, are in the running. A long-term lease arrangement might be necessary, and that, in turn, might be a good indication that the city has pretty much waved good bye to major league basketball.