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The convention center is getting bigger. So is its carbon footprint

You might think that before a massive project like the convention center expansion is approved, Seattle would decide how the city’s ambitious climate change goals might be affected.

You’d be wrong.

The Burning Question:What would a climate-friendly Seattle actually look like?

Seattle doesn’t evaluate projects specifically on their climate impacts, unlike California. But the city set goals to be carbon neutral by 2050 and to cut back dramatically on carbon emissions that cause climate change by 2030. And Seattle isn't on track to meet those goals. To make progress, Seattle needs to cut emissions from vehicles and buildings.

So let’s take a look at the convention center.

The carbon emissions from construction, energy use and transportation could add a maximum of 2.8 million metric tons of greenhouse gas to Seattle's totals. And that doesn’t include increased air travel to Seattle for more conventions.

The expansion also adds more than 700 new parking spaces, at a time when the city is grappling with traffic problems.

On the positive side, the project will concentrate more growth in the dense downtown, and some of the added hotel tax money coming in will be earmarked for affordable housing and pedestrian improvements.

But former state transportation secretary Doug MacDonald said the expansion is out of sync with Seattle’s climate goals because of the effect on transit.

“The whole connection between reducing carbon emissions and transportation has to do with making it easier for people to get places where they don’t have to use their cars," he said, standing outside the current Washington State Convention Center. "Today, that means buses."

He estimates buses currently carry six times more people than light rail. MacDonald said when construction on the convention center project forces those buses out of the downtown tunnel and onto city streets next year, that could slow travel times and hurt ridership. (Buses were due to leave the tunnel anyway in 2021 to accommodate more light rail trains, but the project is sending them out sooner.)

“The price we pay is our climate goal is subordinated to other things we decide we’re going to do,” MacDonald said.

Matt Griffin with the Pine Street Group is the developer in charge of the convention center expansion. He’s also an enthusiastic public transit user; he even carries an extra Orca card for guests. Griffin said delaying the project for two more years until light rail expands would help bus riders, but at other costs.

“If you look at the economic benefits to the convention center, which is bringing in a couple hundred million dollars a year in spending from out of state, all the money going to housing — for the slight inconvenience on those bus routes," he said. "It doesn’t seem to me like the right tradeoff compared to all those economic benefits coming to our city."

The project will double the size of the convention center and add a 400-unit apartment building and 500,000 square feet of office space. Griffin said developers will reduce the carbon footprint through energy-efficient building materials and other measures, including those required under Seattle building codes.

Susan Wickwire heads the 2030 District in Seattle, a nonprofit that works with builders to reduce climate impacts. She said it will be up to the city and community to work with developers to incorporate the most climate-friendly practices.

“It’ll really sort of comes down to whether they get put into the project,” she said. “Unfortunately, sometimes these greener features might get engineered out because there is a bit of a cost premium.”

Then there’s parking. The project adds about 700 new spaces, even as Seattle tries to reduce single-occupancy vehicles on downtown streets. As now-Mayor Jenny Durkan said during the campaign: “Getting everybody out of the single occupancy vehicles – number-one thing we’ve got to do."

But Griffin said the parking must serve apartment and office tenants as well as the convention center expansion. He said that in the past, a project this size would have included much more parking.

Still, planners estimate that there are 3,000 spaces available in nearby garages, and not all are being utilized. Peak usage is at 64 percent on weekday afternoons.

Andrew Kidde works on transportation for the environmental group 350Seattle. He said the additional parking in the convention center project is “a big mistake."

“To be privileging parking over transit at this point in our history, when we need to reduce greenhouse gases, when we need to get people out of their cars into transit, especially people who are coming downtown … There is really no argument for that,” he said.

The expansion also means more people flying in for conventions. Planning documents concede that these flights “would likely be a major component of emissions” from the project, but also say there is “no reasonable way” to assess them.

“They’re not trying to estimate those emissions, and I think that makes some sense,” Wickwire said. “Although, wouldn’t it be great as part of the convention package to offer carbon offsetting?”

Offsetting is when people pay for measures that absorb carbon to offset the emissions they’re causing. The Natural Resources Defense Council has this guide for purchasing responsible offsets.

As part of the expansion, the convention center has pledged to put more than $80 million of hotel taxes into affordable housing, as well as pedestrian and bike improvements for the surrounding neighborhood.

Alex Hudson, executive director of the First Hill Association, helped negotiate that package. And she said Seattle’s climate goal was part of the discussion.

“We really believe that building a strong, dense, workable downtown Seattle prevents sprawl and helps to reduce carbon emissions,” she said.

That’s the view of Seattle officials as well. Jessica Finn Coven, who heads the city’s Office of Sustainability and Environment, said the convention center location in the urban core and the funding for local improvements makes it a climate-friendly investment.

But Eileen V. Quigley with the group Clean Energy Transition said it’s important for planners to ask how every big project will help the city achieve carbon neutrality.

Griffin said he’s open to new ideas like a price on carbon, congestion pricing for drivers, staggered work hours downtown, and other measures to get Seattle closer to its climate goals. But ideally, he wants those measures to come from the national or global level.

“If that’s not possible, I think that whether it be what Inslee’s trying to do at the state or what California’s doing or even a city – to set examples is a good way to try to move things forward,” he said.

This story is part of our series on climate change, The Burning Question: What would a climate-friendly Seattle actually look like. Read more here.

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