Have you noticed the Austin Convention Center?
You know, that building over on Cesar Chavez and Trinity Streets? Oh, and also over on Red River, Second, Third, Fourth, and Neches Streets? Don’t you think it’s been looking a little…small lately?
Certainly wouldn’t be among my top five reactions, but you could be forgiven for thinking such a thing if you’ve kept up with the center’s recent appearances in the news cycle. Word on the street is Mayor Steve Adler hopes to finance an expansion for the venue, along with other downtown improvements, via a hike of the city’s hotel occupancy tax.
His reasoning, and by extension the reasoning of the city’s Visitor Impact Task Force, is that raising the hotel occupancy tax (HOT) rate from 15 to 17 percent (the highest rate allowed by state law) will better leverage our city’s current downtown hotel boom to raise funds for projects that will, in theory, bring even more conventioneers and tourists to town — which, you know, probably means we get more money or something.
Some of this cash, per Adler, will also go towards housing the homeless population in the urban core. If you think about it, that’s arguably another way to improve our convention center, considering the debacle last year when the American Jail Association decided to take its ball and go home, announcing the organization would no longer consider Austin a venue site for its annual convention after its attendees were allegedly “accosted” by aggressive members of the city’s homeless population.
It would be so easy to snark these folks (you expect me to believe you people work in jails and can’t handle someone asking for spare change?), but as we’ve seen in recent months, the situation for the chronically underserved homeless populations north of the center particularly along Red River Street has taken a turn for the apocalyptic. People going on stabbing and pipe-beating rampages three blocks north of the convention center: It’s actually not good PR at all!
Combine this with the basic fact that, despite its seemingly massive presence on the eastern side of downtown, the convention center honestly isn’t that big. Seriously, we’re working with about 247,000 square feet of exhibit space, while Houston’s convention center, god help us all, has 862,000 square feet. When all’s said and done, our Convention and Visitors Bureau (which we’re calling Visit Austin now, I think) estimates the city will lose more than 300 conventions and $1.3 billion in tourism dollars over the next five years — simply due to a lack of space. Shucks!
Sure, the city will probably expand the convention center, just like it did with the new wing of the building completed in 2004. It’s worth noting that this last addition began construction in 1999, only seven years after the center’s grand opening on July 4, 1992. At Austin’s current rate of growth, it seems like we can’t just build these things to leave them alone!
It’s admittedly kind of an amusing phenomenon to watch Austin build steam, both in population and national prominence, faster than its own civic apparatus can lay the rails for its progression.
Amusing, at least, in benign cases like struggling to finish a new downtown library after more than a decade of planning — rather than, say, being unable to meaningfully confront a massive affordable housing deficit.
Boy, that’s an awful lot of words on things other people have already written about, isn’t it? When I started looking into the convention center to see if there was some way to approach this big box from a fresh perspective, it quickly became clear that the actual history of convention centers in Austin itself wasn’t on many people’s minds. And that makes sense, really — thinking about a center rather than the important events it hosted would be like obsessing over venues the Beatles played instead, you know, their actual songs.
But digging around in the margins of Austin’s historical record holds its own rewards, and some of the things I’ve found are actually pretty interesting, or at least funny, in the manner they relate to our current convention center situation. That’s enough reason for me to dive in.
Chapter 1: Filling the Gap
People of shared interests gathering in large groups is hardly a modern phenomenon, but the idea of a city-owned convention space generating income is a little fresher. Other than church assembly halls or buildings used for city politics, conventions of the political or business sort often found themselves in the plush surroundings of the city’s hotels — the Stephen F. Austin Hotel opened on Congress Avenue in 1924, and quickly became a favorite gathering place of monied trade organizations and political figures.
A 1923 article in the Austin Statesman is one of the first to identify the city as a target for conventions, describing a planned gathering of more than 1,000 members of the Young People’s Society of Christian Endeavor, a religious youth organization. Where do they convene? Camp Mabry, of course!
These kids aren’t just using the assembly hall, either — they’re sleeping in the military barracks. At the time, it was probably one of the only spaces in the city other than the University of Texas with the capacity to comfortably accommodate 1,000 people or more at one time.
Speaking of the university, the Statesman brings up conventions again in a 1929 article about the construction of a new University of Texas gym, which upon completion a year later would be named for its planner Thomas Watt Gregory.
The article’s emphasis on the building’s dual intended purpose as a convention center and gymnasium — with “convention center” mentioned first, mind you — seems to corroborate the notion of very few city spaces boasting this kind of capacity. It’s almost like we keep running into this problem no matter what year it is!
Fast forward about twenty years to a 1950 article in what’s now officially known as the Austin-American Statesman, and we find the city’s Chamber of Commerce stressing the need for a civic auditorium, essential for building “a vast income as a convention center.” Councilman Ralph E. Janes, Jr. goes on to express the need for a civic center as part of the potential for Austin to be the future site of the nation’s capital, if the government eventually decides to move to a “more secure inland location.” I hope that man never lost his optimism.
By the end of summer 1950, a 6,000-seat auditorium was approved unanimously by the Chamber of Commerce, and set for a city-owned site on the south shore of Town Lake now known as Butler Park.
Since 1949, the site already had a venue at its western edge, a repurposed B-29 hangar known as the Coliseum, that hosted various wrestling and livestock shows. Concerts weren’t unfamiliar at the Coliseum either, but as many Statesman articles at the time will tell you, the gritty environs weren’t suited for “the finer productions” — so the push for an auditorium at the site continued, with a final $2.5 million bond election for its construction going to the public in August 1956.
Of course, if you’ve been in Austin long enough, you’ll already know this vote passed — the image above is a dead ringer for what was eventually known as the Palmer Auditorium, completed in 1959 after a series of successful bond elections in 1955 and 1956.
At that point it was simply known as the city’s municipal auditorium, and everyone was quite proud of it, proclaiming that Austin had finally filled an “embarrassing gap in the town’s makeup” and become a contender on the convention scene.
That pride didn’t last long. By early 1970, only roughly a decade out from the auditorium’s completion, Austin Chamber of Commerce President John Nash Jr. spoke at the group’s 53rd annual meeting about its inadequacy:
“There’s no reason why Austin should be third-rate in conventions in Texas,” he said.
How could this happen so fast? Nash cited organizations like the Texas Interscholastic League, which no longer held sporting events in Austin after claiming the city’s facilities were inadequate. He urged chamber members to support a $12.6 million expansion of the municipal auditorium which would combine the existing structure with a 12,000-seat sports and convention facility — a second dome to compliment the first on the shores of Town Lake.
His proposal would be supported by bond funds, but also via what was then known as a “bed tax” on hotel occupancy. In 1970, Austin was apparently the only major city in Texas that didn’t levy such a tax, and Nash believed the time was right to implement it.
But this time around, Austinites weren’t as cozy with the idea. Mayor Travis LaRue described the proposal a few months later as a “sad mistake,” one that would “compound another mistake” — seemingly a reference to the existing municipal auditorium.
This building, lauded only a decade prior as the key to Austin’s cosmopolitan future, had become an embarrassment in the blink of an eye. Primary complaints included limited seating, poor use of space, a lack of size in general — even poor acoustics. This all seems so familiar.
The expansion plan went to a bond vote in the spring of 1970, with its supporters pulling out all the stops in promoting its necessity — even deploying the tearjerking notion of children turned away from a sold-out circus in the current too-small auditorium. Despite this lush imagery, voters quickly rejected the expansion, and city planners went back to the drawing board.
Chapter 2: Waterloo
A bond vote wouldn’t get rid of the perceived economic need for an expanded convention center complex for long. A few months later in 1970, the Chamber of Commerce began studying various sites for what was then called a civic center, combining an arena and exhibition hall.
By 1972, the Austin City Council turned plans for the center’s location over to public opinion, with two major potential sites dividing the opinion of the city.
The first site, known as “Waterloo Square,” would occupy a staggering 16 square blocks of downtown, straddling Congress Avenue directly north of Town Lake, arriving with a price tag of $60 million.
Adjusted for inflation, that’s something like $350 million, or 2.8 New Central Libraries. Although this option would require significant demolition of downtown businesses, its supporters believed the central location would greatly increase overall business activity in the central city, along with a hotel boom to serve the needs of the convention set.
The second option was certainly a quieter approach, a return in spirit to the failed 1970 plan of modifying the Butler Park site on the south shore of Town Lake. But this time, rather than adding on to the existing auditorium, the site would receive a fresh start with a new civic center complex designed to accommodate contemporary needs.
The debate over the two proposals tore a rift through the city in the winter of 1972, with various factions emerging to argue the logic of their chosen site. The Civic Center Committee, a council-appointed group studying the viability of both locations, supported the downtown site, while the Austin Taxpayers Civic-Convention Center Association, a group of downtown businessmen wary of the massive demolition necessary to bring about the center’s downtown option, supported the project at the existing auditorium site.
Come to think of it, this symbolic battle over sites north or south of the river could very well be the origin of North vs. South Austin tribalism, but I’m leaving that one up to the real historians.
In fact, conflict over the center’s placement was so divisive, many prominent figures in city politics went incredible lengths to maintain their neutrality, simply supporting the idea of a civic center being built somewhere rather than actually risking a side. Can’t say I blame them.