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Washington State Convention Center Addition Project, Set to Double the Current Footprint, Takes One More Step to Completion

Seattle, Washington State Convention Center, LMN Architects, Pine Street Group, Clark Construction, South Lake Union, Community Package Coalition
Rendering courtesy of LMN

By Jack Stubbs

The Washington State Convention Center (WSCC) addition project, a $1.7 billion undertaking that will double the size of the current convention center, last week went one step further to completion.

On Wednesday, April 18th, the Seattle City City Council held a public hearing about below-grade street and alley vacations, a meeting that brought the WSCC expansion project one step closer in the city’s design review process. At the meeting, roughly 30 community members gave their input on the project, particularly in relation to various impacts around right-of-way and alley improvements around the project site.

The in-the-works project—which consists of three blocks in downtown Seattle—calls for the addition of 1,230,000 square feet of gross floor area to the existing WSCC, as well as the construction of a 404-unit residential tower and a 500,000 square foot commercial office building. LMN Architects is designing the project, Pine Street Group is the developer, and Clark Construction and Lease Crutcher Lewis are also on the project team as part of a joint venture.

The WSCC expansion project includes more than $92 million in public and community benefits relating to affordable housing, street-level improvements for walkers and bikers around the convention center and public art and new open spaces. The current location of the WSCC in Seattle’s downtown core—the existing complex is located at 705 Pike St., a prominent thoroughfare—means that public benefits need to be explored, according to Matt Griffin, managing partner at Pine Street Group. “The questions the city are asking us [are] about why we are vacating the alleyways below-grade. Due to the location, we have to provide a certain amount of public benefits,” he said.

The public benefits package totals $92,050,000, according to Washington State Convention Center’s web site. Some of the largest projects contributing to that overall figure include funding towards affordable housing (accounting for $29 million); funding towards improving Freeway Park and improving the bicycle master plan along the Pike/Pine corridor ($20 million); and funding towards Waterfront Seattle’s Pike/Pine Renaissance project ($10 million). The public benefits package also includes right-of-way improvements along Olive Way and 9th Avenue and various open space improvements.

According to Griffin, one of the broader goals with the provision of the public benefits is to further ingratiate the WSCC into Seattle’s downtown core and surrounding neighborhoods—and contribute to the continued economic vitality of the city in the wider context by tackling pressing issues like housing affordability. “With the public benefits, we’re really creating a hub here that connects the retail core with Capitol Hill and South Lake Union. We want to be able to provide the connections here for people who live in and visit Seattle. Affordable housing is one of our crises here in Seattle, so we’re trying to do all these things that are good for the community besides the economics and jobs,” he said.

In terms of the evolution of the WSCC addition over the last several years, the recent meeting held on April 18th marks the latest chapter in the design process.

From 2015 to 2017, the project team prepared the draft and final versions of the Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) and held various design meetings for the project. And in 2018, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and final EIS were published as part of the final stage of review.

More recently, on January 16th, the downtown review board gave the green light to applicant LMN Architects—who presented updated plans on behalf of Pine Street Group—at the second Design Review Recommendation (DRR) meeting held for the project.

The in-the-works WSSC expansion will consist of three sites. Site A is located 1600 9th Avenue; site B is located at 920 Olive Way, and site C is located at 1711 Boren Avenue. The project sits at the intersection of several established downtown neighborhoods including Capitol Hill’s Pike/Pine corridor, Denny Triangle, South Lake Union and the downtown core.

Site A calls for the addition of 1,230,000 square feet of gross floor area to the existing WSCC. This figure includes approximately 250,000 square feet of new exhibition space, 120,000 square of meeting rooms, a 60,000 square-foot ballroom space, and parking for up to 717 additional vehicles. Site B calls for the construction of a new 290-foot 404-unit residential tower, while site C is planned for a 500,000 square foot commercial office building.

Given the DRR approval in January and the recent City Council hearing held on April 18th, the plans for the WSCC addition project are well on the way. Construction might begin as soon as mid-2018 pending City Council’s approval, according to Griffin. Construction could be completed sometime in 2021, with occupancy scheduled for some time that year.

In the bigger picture, Griffin hopes that, even though the revamped WSCC won’t necessarily compete on a national scale, the project will still bring much-needed economic revitalization to the heart of downtown Seattle. “The expansion will double the size of the convention center, [even] though it might still only be the 30th largest [convention center] in the country. We’re not trying to be the biggest; but we’re trying to create more space because in the last five years, we’ve turned away more businesses than we’ve booked,” he said. According to the web site for the project, between 2011 and 2015, the convention center was unable to accommodate approximately 350 events due to unavailable space, with an estimated $2.1 billion lost in potential regional economic activity for local hotels, restaurants and cultural attractions.

The hope is that the expansion project will not only generate jobs for the surrounding community, but will also contribute to the continued unique vitality of Seattle’s neighborhoods.

The convention center has a long-standing history, and continues to serve as a focal point for the rest of the city, according to Griffin. “The Convention Center is a non-profit entity created under the country. It has existed for around 25 years and essentially became its own public facilities district in 2010. The purpose of the public facilities district is to generate revenue and jobs for the community,” he said. Along these lines, the WSCC estimates that the addition will generate 2,300 new jobs at the convention center and in the local hospitality industry; 1,600 other jobs in the surrounding community; $200 million in out-of-state visitor spending annually; and $60 million in local annual spending.

The convention center addition sitting in the heart of downtown—and especially the related public benefits package—is meant to improve the existing facility as a community asset. According to Alex Hudson, a member of the Community Package Coalition—a group of nonprofits, community organizations and advocacy groups who have been tracking the project’s evolution since its inception—the hope is that the WSCC expansion will serve the public’s interest in the longer-term. “The WSCC is a publicly-funded project that is being built on the public’s land. This kind of economic development in our city has a responsibility and an obligation to ensure that prosperity is being shared broadly across the city,” she said.

The expansion project serves as a model for how a city like Seattle can continue to grow—but also serves as a reminder that certain zoning and regulatory requirements imposed by the City Council must be met as well, according to Hudson. “[The project] is connected to important values about how our city grows in a way that meets the needs of its workers, but it is also enforced by existing legislation about what happens when we sell the public’s land—which in this case was 1.3 acres of streets and alleyways that are being vacated to make way for this project,” she said.

The existing convention center and the in-the-works addition sits at the nexus of several established downtown neighborhoods including Capitol Hill, Denny Triangle and South Lake Union. And Hudson hopes that, given its central location, the expansion can contribute to a broader revitalization of Seattle’s downtown core. “A convention center of this impact and at this location in our city really ought to be thought of at the level of the district as opposed to an individual building, which is why some of these public benefits are going further [afield],” she said. “We really believe that it’s important to have good connections between the WSCC and the neighborhoods in which it sits.”

The hope is that the project—which will continue to evolve over the coming months—can be a model for positive economic development moving forward, according to Hudson. “This has been a long process but [there have been] results that we can really be proud of. I hope it’ll be a model for future development.”