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Old Posted Nov 21, 2020, 2:54 PM
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Project Connect train lines, expanded Austin Convention Center expected to connect under downtown streets

Both plans call for development under Trinity Street

By Kathryn Hardison – Staff Writer, Austin Business Journal

Nov 20, 2020, 1:58pm EST

On paper, two of Austin's biggest long-term projects appear to collide.

Both the newly approved Project Connect transit plan and the westward expansion of the Austin Convention Center require underground development beneath Trinity Street between Cesar Chavez and Fourth streets, according to project documents.

But officials with both Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Austin Convention Center Department said a partnership is in the works to create a cohesive development that will benefit both projects.

Those efforts — which would result in two underground train stops downtown and an expanded convention center hub — would help transform downtown Austin in the coming years. They would also generate extensive construction throughout the area as crews dig beneath a swath of eastern downtown.

Officials at both agencies declined to disclose specific details about what this collaboration may look like, pointing out that the groups are still in the early planning stages. And the head of Capital Metro stressed that the development of the transit project is still far off.

Trisha Tatro, interim director of the Convention Center Department, said in a statement that the convention center expansion team is working with Capital Metro "on integrating the designs for both plans into one seamless development," and there might be some construction cost savings from the collaboration. Austin City Council last year endorsed a $1.1 billion plan to expand the convention center west of Trinity Street. The project is still years away, and department officials are working on purchasing agreements for the sites they will need to enlarge the facility.

"As the design phase of the Austin Convention Center expansion moves forward, we will continue this coordination," Tatro said.

Voters approved this month the $7.1 billion Project Connect plan — which includes more train lines for the city as well as a downtown transit tunnel — and a subsequent hike in property tax rates to help fund the construction.

The tunnel is planned between underground stops at Republic Square and the Austin Convention Center, connecting the far-reaching train lines planned in Project Connect.
The side of the tunnel near the convention center is where the two projects seems to clash because the master plan for that facility's expansion outlines that the project must have rights under Trinity Street between Cesar Chavez and Fourth streets for "contiguous below-grade development."

There's also a third piece to the puzzle. Manifold Real Estate wants to build a 47-story office tower with ground-floor retail at 320 E. Second St., which is on the north side of Second Street between San Jacinto Boulevard and Trinity Street. The planned tower would stand in the path of the convention center expansion.

Officials with Manifold could not be reached for comment by press time. Tyler Grooms, principal with the firm, previously declined to comment.

There is a possibility that the city and Manifold could work together on the tower. According to previous ABJ reporting, a partnership was being explored earlier this year for a "vertically integrated tower/convention center expansion."

Capital Metro President and CEO Randy Clarke said his team is working to integrate the Project Connect infrastructure into the convention center expansion, including "vertical development." Ideas are being considered about how a Project Connect concourse could be connected to that development, he said. That type of collaboration could lead to less parking in the area because of access to the rail stations.
But at the same time, Clarke said the groups are working to make it possible for the convention center expansion to include what is referenced in the master plan as a "contiguous exhibit hall" below Trinity Street, while also effectively getting people in and out of the station.

"The volume of people that will be coming in and out of convention center and the linkage between all the lines — it is incredibly important," Clarke said. "It will certainly feed all the hotels and bars and restaurants there and the innovation district."

The downtown station is envisioned as a multi-level station that many people can access around the convention center. The Blue and Gold train lines would run underground, while the existing Red Line and a potential future Green Line could service the station above ground.

Clarke said the project teams still have to go through the design process, but the idea is to create "the largest underground footprint" possible in the downtown area.

That means the station needs to run as far south as possible for people on Cesar Chavez Street to have access, perhaps even pulling in people from the Rainey Street area, which is a short walk away.

Clarke called the station planned at Republic Square the "Grand Central Station" of Project Connect — because of its expected traffic — while the downtown station under the convention center could be, in turn, compared to New York City's other large train hub, Penn Station.

The Blue Line and Orange Line of the light rail system are both planned to have stops at Republic Square.

"These are two incredibly large transportation stations that will very, very much connect the whole city and region together," Clarke said.

Project Connect is a series of transit projects scheduled over the next several years in Austin. Preliminary engineering, design and procurement work for the Orange and Blue lines would take about three or four years after Project Connect is funded. It would take another four or five years to construct and commission the lines.

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