Situated in the heart of Seattle, the Washington State Convention Center has been a prominent events facility in the Pacific Northwest for over two decades. The Convention Center is now proposing to build an additional sister facility near the existing building to address a growing demand for larger events. This week, our Project Manager Josh introduced us to the billion-dollar Convention Center expansion plan, and addressed some key public concerns regarding the proposed additional facility.
Witten by Josh Janet, Project Manager | PE:
The Washington State Convention Center (WSCC) hosts around 350 events per year near the downtown of Seattle. Many residents in the region have attended conventions there for their respective industries or personal interests; I myself have attended conventions for the American Planning Association and the Urban Land Institute there. The facility contains over 414,000 square foot of total rentable space, which is comparable to many others in the United States but places it far from the category of largest convention center in the United States (that distinction belongs to McCormick Place in Chicago) and smaller than the average size convention center.
This status quo prompted the WSCC to purchase the Convention Place Bus Station property and adjacent properties when they became available for sale from King County, with the grand purpose of an expansion that would double the size of the existing Convention Center. Each event currently booked at the Convention Center requires several days for both set up and breakdown, in addition to the event itself. A second facility would provide more flexibility for either larger events or a greater number of events at the current size to be held, along with more streamlined staging between events. The project would also produce more construction jobs and an estimated 2,300 additional lower wage jobs.
There’s one wrinkle in this proposal, however, that has some citizens concerned. This project requires an alley vacation in order to move forward, which means that, come November, the City Council will need to:
- “Consider the impact of the proposed vacation upon the circulation, access, utilities, light, air, open space and views provided by the right-of-way”;
- “Consider the land use impacts of the proposed vacation”; and
- “Approve proposed vacations only when they provide a long-term benefit to the general public.”
On that last point, questions have been raised as to whether an expansion of the Convention Center is truly the most valuable use of that eight acres of public land near the heart of the city, especially at a time when land costs have hindered the development of new parkland and affordable housing. The WSCC reached out to the general public for suggestions on a community benefits package last December to address that third criteria, but the package that is currently under review by the Seattle Design Commission did not include many of the suggested projects, provided much less in funding for others, and finally included funding for other public benefits that seem to be more beneficial to the WSCC than the general public.
There is no formula for what the dollar amount needs to be for the value of the public benefits package, which complicates matters. However, a coalition of “nine nonprofits, community organizations, and advocacy groups serving neighborhoods adjacent to the WSCC Addition” has released its own package that it argues is in line with previous street vacations (and can be read here). The short version is that they propose funding for five (5) projects related to parks and public spaces, funding for five (5) projects for improved multimodal transportation in the surrounding area, and increased funding for affordable housing.
Based on previous street vacations, the coalition believes that the value for the public benefits should be in the $65 to $70 million range. The WSCC is currently proposing $30 million, of which $17 million is allocated for the development of a plaza five stories up that was already going to be built as part of the project (it would not have been open to the public before). This proposal is questionable because the hours that it would stay open would be limited and it is unknown how visible of a space it would be to the public-at-large.
Properly funding affordable housing is the most important public benefit in my opinion, given the crisis the city is in now for the gross lack housing available to support people of all economic stations. The coalition is requesting $33 million for affordable housing, which it believes will be adequate to fund the construction of enough affordable housing units to accommodate the number that would be necessary to house the aforementioned 2,300 minimum wage workers that would be employed by the WSCC. The current package from the WSCC proposes $5 million for affordable housing.
The WSCC expansion project will likely move forward in some capacity, but considering how substantial of an impact it is likely to have on downtown Seattle’s urban fabric and housing needs in the near future, it is vital that Seattle residents are able to compel its leaders to address the myriad concerns surrounding a project of this scale. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle, so to speak, so it’s better that the consequences be addressed sooner rather than later.
- Boiko-Weyrauch, Anna. “If Airbnbs get staxed, should Seattle’s Convention Center get the money?” KUOW News and Information. 4 June 2017. Available WWW: http://kuow.org/post/if-airbnbs-get-taxed-should-seattle-s-convention-center-get-money.
- “The Community Package.” The Community Package. Last visited 11 July 2017. Available WWW: https://www.communitypackage.org/communitypackage/.
- Hyde, David. “The big, expensive project in downtown Seattle we’re not talking about.” KUOW News and Information. 8 June 2016. Available WWW: http://kuow.org/post/big-expensive-project-downtown-seattle-were-not-talking-about.
- “List of convention centers in the United States.” Wikipedia. Last visited 11 July 2017. Available WWW: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_convention_centers_in_the_United_States#By_size.
- Macz, Brandon. “Design Commission questions WSCC Addition urban park.” Capitol Hill Times. 7 July 2017. Available WWW: http://www.capitolhilltimes.com/Content/News/News/Article/Design-Commission-questions-WSCC-Addition-urban-park/26/337/5034.
- “SDOT – Street Vacations.” Seattle Department of Transportation. Last visited 11 July 2017. Available WWW: https://www.seattle.gov/transportation/streetvacations.htm.
- “WSCC Services & Facts.” Visit Seattle. Last visited 11 July 2017. Available WWW: http://www.visitseattle.org/meeting-planners/washington-state-convention-center/services-facts/.
Local governments are always seeking to engage the public in the city-planning process to better address community needs and establish a deeper sense of public ownership. Many cities, however, find themselves struggling to develop effective civic engagement strategies that attract a diverse audience to public meetings.
This week, our Project Manager Josh introduced us to Civic Dinners, and explained how this organization is helping city and regional governments bring community members together to engage in valuable community conversations.
Written by Josh Janet, Project Manager | PE:
City and regional planners often struggle with attendance at public meetings. Anecdotally, Seattle seems to achieve better numbers than other cities I’ve lived in, but it still struggles with reaching a diverse clientele. These meetings attract predominantly retired homeowners, whose voices deserve to be heard but only represent a fraction of the population.
“Civic engagement isn’t rocket science, but it does require thoughtful design and careful implementation.” This opening statement appears in a guide produced by Civic Dinners, a company that serves to build civic-minded conversations in communities over home cooked meals. Based in Atlanta, Georgia, Civic Dinners aims to supplement traditional public meetings and online feedback portals by providing a platform for communities to organize smaller get-togethers that are more likely to be attended, allow for deeper and more diverse conversations to take place, and collect feedback on whatever subject or plan the community is looking for input on.
The way it works is that Civic Dinners works with an organization to prepare a toolkit for marketing, hosting, and engaging the public. These toolkits include:
- Branding, naming, and conversation framing for public outreach;
- Conversation and facilitation design work for 4-10 stakeholders;
- Final question designs; and
- One page overviews and invitations.
Next, Civic Dinners and the contracting organization engage the community to find hosts for these events. Hosts are provided training resources, technical support, and the prepared toolkits for each event. The hosts prepare the dinners, and the only real guideline is that guests be provided equal time to share their opinions, one voice at a time. Finally, the feedback is collected from the host (or through social media) at the end of the dinner and evaluated by Civic Dinner staff to identify key takeaways and common threads from the conversations.
Civic Dinners has tested its platform through a number of successful projects, including:
- ARC Millennial Advisory Panel: The Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) used Civic Dinners to engage 300 participants across 35 dinners over 9 weeks for input on their proposed Regions Plan. Civic Dinners identified eight key themes from the dinners and used those to help organize eight Action Teams for preparing formal recommendations to regional leaders. All eight teams “had two months to formulate a point of view on their topic, co-write an op-ed, interview stakeholders, and prepare recommendations” to ARC. Two teams have since formed non-profits.
- The Gr8 Exchange on Transportation: Over a one week period in Gwinnett County, Georgia, more than 4,000 surveys were completed and just under 40,000 individual responses collected for a public input initiative on transportation. Eighty-three (83) events were held; not all were dinners, but many still included small gatherings to engage citizens and community leaders.
- #ourATLriver: Imagining the future: A single dinner with 100 guests among 10 tables was organized for the non-profit Chattahoochee Now to discuss the future of the Chattahoochee River and the 53 mile stretch that runs through the Atlanta Region. The top ideas collected from each table were shared with the group, along with individual ideas from guests that were collected and implemented into a Chattahoochee River master plan.
This type of event obviously requires more planning than renting a space in a community center, preparing a PowerPoint presentation, and providing a box of coffee and some store-bought cookies. It has decidedly greater potential to reach more people and collect better feedback, though. Civic Dinners is currently seeking six cities beyond Atlanta to pilot a “Year of Dialogue” program to launch a dozen “essential conversations facing the future of cities.” The only real question I have now is: how can this be introduced into Seattle?