Convention center expansion could face tough questions from City Council

A major expansion of the Washington State Convention Center could face tough questions from the head of the Seattle City Council committee that will consider it next week.

Mike O'Brien, who chairs the council's Sustainability and Transportation Committee, said he wants developers to pay for additional bus service before the council allows them to take over three public alleys and build beneath two streets.

"We'll take a hard look at the public benefits we'll get when they buy those streets and alleys and hopefully get to a package that we support and can allow that project to go forward," O'Brien told KIRO 7.

Street vacations are no small thing.

In 2016, the City Council voted against giving up a street for a proposed arena in SODO, essentially killing that project.

The expanded convention center will be built at what's is now the Convention Place bus station.
The project will kick buses out of the downtown transit tunnel about a year before they would leave anyway to make way for light rail.

O'Brien said adding 40 buses per hour to downtown streets will clog traffic and slow each trip by as much as seven minutes.

"When those buses are delayed, we need to buy more bus service to serve the same number of people," O'Brien said. "So, we'll be asking the convention center: What are their plans? How do they plan to purchase that additional bus service?"

O'Brien said he'll also ask developers to increase their commitment to affordable housing.

Developer Matt Griffin said his team has already committed to spending $38 million for affordable housing, as part of a package of community benefits worth about $90 million.

O'Brien wants about $22 million more for affordable housing, saying project leaders should voluntarily follow the guidelines for the city's Mandatory Housing Affordability law, which technically does not apply to the convention center because the permit was filed before the law passed.

"We're big believers in the fact that this community needs more affordable housing, but we think we're doing more than our share," Griffin said.

KIRO 7 asked O'Brien is he was trying to block the project.

"I think this project has the potential to be an amazing public works project, if it does all the right things," O'Brien said.

O'Brien signaled he also intends to pressure developers to increase their goals for hiring contracting companies owned by women and people of color, and to using workers from disadvantaged ZIP codes.
Griffin responded that he expects $65 million to 70 million worth of work will go to businesses owned by women and minorities.

Project leaders say the $1.7 billion project will create 2,300 permanent jobs and generate an estimated $200 million per year from out-of-state visitors and $60 million from Washington residents.
It will also bring a lot more convention space to Seattle.

"The convention center has turned down more business in the last five years than it's booked. It's turned down over $2 billion in business," Griffin said.

O'Brien said he hasn't closely studied the economic benefits of the project.

"I don't hear a lot of people saying, 'Bring more activity to downtown. It's not crowded enough already,''' O'Brien said. “I don't know that the top priority for people in this community is more conventions, but it's not a bad thing."

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