By Brittan Jenkins

The planned expansion of the Washington Convention Center is looking to nearly double its size, adding approximately 1.5 million gross square feet to the existing portion of the building that will eventually total about 3 million square feet. Matt Griffin, principal and managing partner with Pine Street Group, who is working on the expansion said progress is moving along nicely as the project pushes through the various entitlement processes, but additional approval phases is slowing the project’s flow even as the potential start date is planned for the third quarter of this year.

Once approved, construction on the expansion is expected to begin in September. While a firm start date isn’t set, Griffin said “If we can start in September, I’ll be thrilled. We just have a bunch of unusual city processes to get through before we get there,” Griffin added. Several of those processes include gaining approval from various boards, which will review it for design, environmental impact and public benefit.

As it currently stands, the project is wrapping up work with the Seattle Design Review Board, which approves the project’s overall design concept and appearance as it pertains to the existing look and feel of the neighborhood. The goal is to not deviate too far from the neighborhood’s current architecture in an attempt to keep neighborhoods unique and diverse in style. The project still has to be approved by the Seattle Design Commission, which is a separate entity from the design review board that advises the Mayor, City Council and City departments on the design of capital improvements and other projects and policies that shape Seattle’s public realm. That commission provides feedback to the convention center regarding the project, the impact of vacations of streets and alleys and the public benefits project. After approval from the commission, the project then moves on to the City Council for approval where it will then be able to obtain a master use permit.

Part of the expansion calls for the Convention Center to vacate alleys and streets, an often complicated process that requires additional approval by the design commission. “When we do vacations, we not only have to pay the city for the value of that real estate but in addition, we have to put money into public benefits, and we have to negotiate those with design commission,” Griffin said. “We have many groups that have their hand out saying, ‘if you’re going to do public benefits, we‘d like you to support our cause,’” he added.

In December, Pine Street Group held an open house to receive feedback from the community on the public benefits they’d like to see. During that meeting, fourteen potential projects were identified including several pedestrian experience improvements in the surrounding neighborhoods, creating affordable housing, building protected bike lanes and creating green spaces for the community and their four-legged friends. Griffin indicated the exact plan for the public benefit will be released next month, but offered his input on what he’d like to see in the meantime, centering his focus around the pedestrian experience and affordable housing.

“Personally, and I think as a project too, the two major areas of interest to us are the experience of the pedestrian in the neighborhood, so we’re looking at ways to work on the Pike/Pine corridor into downtown,” Griffin said. “Second thing is we’d rather put money into housing, whether it is affordable housing or low income housing than sprinkle it all over town into a bunch of little stuff,” he said. “We clearly have a housing crisis, and it seems a shame that we’re going to do public benefit and it’s sprinkled into little projects rather than into something that is in critical need,” he added.

“What I don’t want people to lose sight of is that this isn’t just another private development where some company or business people are just making money,” Griffin said. “This is an asset that we’re building to generate jobs and revenue for the community. It has a public purpose to it.”