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caption: An aerial view of the proposed addition of the Washington State Convention Center. 
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An aerial view of the proposed addition of the Washington State Convention Center.
Credit: Courtesy of Washington State Convention Center

The big, expensive project in downtown Seattle we're not talking about

Here in Seattle we like to debate almost everything: a monorail, the downtown tunnel, more light rail.

But some big-ticket decisions are hardly debated at all, like a proposed $1.4 billion plan to build an addition to the Washington State Convention Center.

Seattle urban designer David Dahl expressed his reservations: "[It's] three times the seawall replacement, more than the Move Seattle levy that was on the ballot last November and it's in the mega-project range. And it's something that I think a lot of people in the Seattle area are wary of at the moment."

On a recent morning, exhibitors prepared for the Third Annual Seattle Pet Expo. Thousands of pet lovers and their pets were expected to attend.

Anne Fernandez showed off an automatic ball launcher from a company called PetSafe.

Fernandez: "He goes running after it, picks it up, and then hopefully brings it back and puts it back in and you have hours of fun tiring out your dog while you sit on the porch having a glass of wine."

The pet expo is just one of about 350 events that take place at the Washington State Convention Center every year. But convention center backers says that's not enough: Their plan is to roughly double in size to bring in more convention center business.

The idea is to build a new addition near the existing center on an eight-acre chunk of land across the street from the Paramount Theater. Currently, it's the site of the Convention Place bus station, which is scheduled to close for light rail expansion.

Matt Griffin, project manager: "Besides our ability to help the convention center and generate the tourist traffic, it's a chance to fill in this hole and create a great pedestrian link to the various neighborhoods."

Griffin said the addition reflects new thinking on how convention centers can be woven into the urban landscape.

Griffin: "The conventioneers will be able to see out and be able to understand they're in a city and not a cornfield; as well as for people on the outside be able to look in and see the activity of what's going on in the inside. And at night it will be illuminated and will actually glow more like a jewel box than a big empty box like many convention centers."

But the bigger goal is to compete for more business. Griffin said the addition alone will attract tens of thousands of out-of-state convention-goers, who are forecast to spend around $200 million a year. All that spending will bring thousands of new jobs.

But critics say we've heard these rosy predictions before. Heywood Sanders, a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio who studies convention centers, said back in the 1990s our convention center wanted to roughly double in size. At the time, experts said that would almost double the number of conventions.

Heywood: "That expansion went ahead, but the results proved a little different than center promoters had anticipated."

The boom in business from out-of-state visitors never materialized, even after Seattle recovered from two recessions.

And Seattle's not alone. Sanders said part of the problem now is that cities all over the country and all over Washington state have overbuilt convention space, mostly fueled by bad advice.

Heywood: "Lots of the consultant studies that say expand your convention center and you'll see a big increase in business simply have never worked out. And that should raise some serious questions in the mind of the public about whether this kind of investment really makes any sense."

Seattle urban designer Dahl shares these doubts, especially given the $1.4 billion price tag.

Dahl describes convention centers as dead zones -- lifeless areas that might produce another Cheesecake Factory, but don't add to the vibrancy of Seattle's urban environment. But his biggest beef is with how little public scrutiny and debate there's been so far.

Dahl: "They've gone a very long way through this process without ever having any comprehensive discussion of it in the public realm. There have been certain pieces of it like design review and the environmental impact statement that come up. But they've never had to come before the city of Seattle and say, 'Is this something you want? Is this something you really need? We think it is, and here's why.'"

A lot of times, Seattle's all about the process. So why is the convention center project seemingly outside of that?

Project manager Matt Griffin: "I don't know if there's been a debate about whether they want a convention center. I would say in all of our public meetings and our environmental impact studies, etc., we haven't had many comments about whether or not to build it. It's always been about when you build it, what aspects should it have."

Griffin said the reason for less public conversation has to do with money.

Griffin: "We're not asking the citizens of Seattle to basically vote for a new tax, this is a tax that the hoteliers had already decided to place on their own customers. And so the people in Seattle aren't being asked to invest their money."

The hotel tax is different from other taxes; a big percentage of it goes to the convention center to spend how it sees fit.

Convention center expert Heywood Sanders: "It's a charming notion. I give a great deal of credit to hotel and lodging interests in King Country and their counterparts around the country who manage to make the argument that hotel tax dollars are theirs, in some sense, to do as they choose, and not public dollars that that public should have some say in."

Some other cities do handle their hotel taxes differently. In San Francisco, for instance, almost all hotel tax revenue goes directly into the general fund. That means lawmakers -- not hotel business leaders or the convention center -- decide how that money gets spent.

The convention center expansion still faces final reviews, including a City Council vote later this year on proposed street and alley vacations.