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Convention Center Too Big For Its Britches, Hopes To Expand Underground

Matthew Rutledge via Flickr
Washington State Convention Center in Seattle

David Starkey of Scotland traveled to Seattle this week for an astronomy convention, and he learned something that blew his mind. 

"If you’re a non-astronomer it won’t mean anything," he says, "but you can find mini-black holes inside the accretion disks of big black holes. And I didn’t know you could do that.

"I don’t know if it excites me — it horrifies me,” he says, “because it means all of my research might be wrong."

This is what convention centers do. They bring together people with the narrowest of interests to inspire and challenge each other. And of course, to sell stuff to each other. 

Jeffrey Blosser, the CEO of the Washington State Convention Center in downtown Seattle, says all that trade brings $330 million to the region. But he says we turn away $200 million a year because our convention center is too small for the biggest conventions. 

For example, a convention of emergency room physicians recently turned down Seattle’s facility.

"That is a show that we know we could get back, that’s been here before, loves Seattle, loves the destination, the convention visitor’s bureau, everybody, and they’re not coming back,” he says. “They won’t even take a look at us because we’re not big enough."

Why do emergency room physicians need so much space? For all the vendors selling the latest equipment, from surgical robots to lighting.

Blosser says he wants a single, massive 170,000-square-foot exhibit space. That's the size of three American football fields. It's a plan that hasn't been approved by the building department, and they don't own the necessary properties, but he says they're confident. 

[asset-images[{"caption": "Washington State Convention Center CEO Jeff Blosser", "fid": "113967", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201501/Blosser.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]

[asset-images[{"caption": "When asked how far along the design for the convention center expansion is, Griffin drew a simple rectangle on a pad of paper. \"We haven't started yet,\" he said. ", "fid": "113969", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201501/Griffin.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]

The existing convention center has around 200,000 square feet of exhibit space.

Where in Seattle could you fit such a space?

Try underground. In this case, under Olive Way, said Matt Griffin of the Pine Street Group, the project’s developer.

"The idea is to make an exhibit space that large, you have to go below grade,” he says. “Then we’ll put Olive back in place after we build the building."

Doubling the convention center exhibit space would let the convention center stagger multiple events. That’s good for hotels. Right now, hotels are full when conventions are in full swing, but there’s a lull during the downtime while conventions set up and break down.

The project would be paid for using existing hotel taxes in King County and Seattle. In exchange for these taxes, hotels expect the convention center to help them fill rooms.

But not everyone thinks convention centers should grow. Sharon Sutton, an architecture professor at the University of Washington, a former chair of the Design Review Board (a group that reviews the design of large buildings to make sure they fit into the neighborhood), says the existing convention center has strengths and weaknesses.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Sharon Sutton, an architecture professor at the University of Washington, thinks the convention center shouldn't grow larger.", "fid": "113970", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201501/Sutton.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]] The arch over Pike Street, she considers a strength. "It helps me tell Pine and Pike apart," she says. She also appreciates how the building designers attempted to break its massive volume down to something approaching human scale, especially on the south side where it faces Freeway Park. But the pedestrian experience in front of the main entrance leaves her cold.

"I avoid walking this way," she says. "I always walk through Freeway Park because of the traffic, because of the noise." 

Seattle’s convention center in Seattle is the right size, Sutton says. "There’s this movement now to make much bigger convention centers ... and they’re totally inhuman."

Sutton says convention centers are important. People need a way to come together and network. But their sheer size means they can also be very destructive. All those people in one place – they generate lots of traffic, and the profit isn’t shared by everyone in the city.

Sutton says we should instead focus on adapting existing buildings throughout the city – into smaller convention facilities.  

"We have to get away from the idea that these conventions have to be centralized in a specific area of the city," Sutton says.

She says if we could do that, the whole city would benefit from money conventions bring in.