June 7, 2001

From concept to reality

  • A brief history of the convention center.
    Washington State Convention & Trade Center

    under construction
    Photo courtesy of the Washington State Convention & Trade Center
    The convention center under construction in August 1986. A series of 200-ton steel trusses are shown being placed across the southbound lanes of Interstate 5.

    The concept for what is now the Washington State Convention & Trade Center began in 1982, when community leaders from the public and private sector conceived the idea of building a convention center to foster new economic development.

    The state legislature agreed with their assessment and established a public nonprofit corporation headed by a nine-member board of directors. The board was directed to acquire land and design, construct, promote and operate a convention and trade center in Seattle, which would by statute “provide both direct and indirect civic and economics benefits to the people of the State of Washington.”

    During the siting and design process, the board conducted careful and complete evaluations of the sites at the Seattle Center and Kingdome, as well as a downtown freeway site over and adjacent to Interstate 5. On March 26, 1984, the board unanimously selected the freeway site for the location of the convention center.

    This site offered the closest proximity to hotels, shopping, and entertainment, as well as the best opportunity for future development. Public comment was widely solicited throughout the siting and design process, including more than 125 public meetings attended by the board.

    A public/private development plan

    The convention center building was originally contemplated by the Legislature to be a joint public/private development. The Legislature authorized the sale of $99 million in general obligation bonds to fund development. These bonds were to be repaid by a room tax levied only on larger hotels located within King County with 60 or more rooms. The $53 million cost of the private portions of the building (land, retail and parking) was to be paid from private sources.

    The convention center building originally consisted of publicly owned exhibit halls, meeting rooms, lobbies and outdoor plazas on the upper floors and privately owned parking and retail stores on the lower floors. All levels whether public or private would share the same elevators, escalators and building foundations.

    The private owner, CHG International and its lender, Westside Federal Savings and Loan Association, agreed to pay for construction of the retail, parking and certain common portions of the joint development. Their ability to pay these costs was guaranteed by Industrial Indemnity Corporation (IIC).

    In December 1984, CHG filed for bankruptcy and Westside assumed their obligations for design and construction of the private portion of the project. Subsequently, eight months later, Westside was placed in receivership, with the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation (FSLIC) was appointed as its receiver.

    Construction contracts already had been awarded, and progress hinged on cooperative participation by FSLIC and IIC, bondsman for Westside and CHG. At that point, the convention center faced the choice of terminating the project and paying the irretrievable costs, or moving forward in an effort to complete the project with a new private developer. The latter course was followed, with the FSLIC and IIC recognizing that it was in their joint interest for the project to go forward.

    The convention center faced the choice of terminating the project or completing it with a new private developer.

    After intensive negotiations between the state, federal receiver and bonding company, a preliminary settlement agreement was reached in November 1985. A definitive agreement was signed the following June, assuring that the convention center would receive the bulk of the funding necessary to complete construction.

    In February 1987, the state acquired title to the private property on which the convention center was constructed, including the partially constructed parking and retail space, the Eagles Building and an option to purchase the adjoining McKay Apartments property.

    This acquisition by the state of the private portion of the joint development project presented a new choice. It was now possible for the state to retain and operate the private portion, or to sell and lease the private portion to a new owner. After lengthy consideration, the Legislature directed that the temporary borrowing necessary to complete the project be repaid from the proceeds of a private sale and lease transaction.

    The board then publicly advertised for a new private developer to acquire and to help pay for the private portions of the joint development project. In March 1987, the board reached an agreement in principle with Paschen/Tishman Joint Venture for the sale and lease of the former private portions of the project.

    Construction over the freeway proceeded on schedule throughout these intense negotiations. The lid over the freeway was complete in November 1986 and the final steel beam was installed at the end of May 1987.

    In the summer and fall of 1987, a joint legislative committee made a thorough study of the convention center to determine whether the existing legislative mandate for public/private development was actually the best and safest way for the state to proceed. While this study was progressing, the board of directors completed a definitive agreement with Paschen/Tishman and presented it for approval by the state Office of Financial Management.

    In January 1988, Gov. Booth Gardner and the joint legislative committee recommended that the state acquire full ownership and operation of the convention center.

    The Legislature also authorized the issuance of $20 million of additional state bonds to fund the project as then constructed. This was an important move by the state Legislature to retain the convention center as a state-owned public works project. The studies indicated that the WSCTC would yield a greater long-term benefit to the state if it were completed with full state funding and ownership rather than through the public/private joint development that had been originally mandated in the 1982 Legislation.

    Construction challenges

    On August 27, 1985, Paschen was awarded two contracts totaling $97.6 million to construct the original building and the official groundbreaking ceremonies of the convention center were held on Sept. 19, 1985.

    Site preparation began followed by foundation pier construction and installation of grade beams, basement walls and footings. January 1986 marked the beginning of major foundation pier construction, as well as the arrival of the first shipment of structural steel from Taiwan.

    Steel erection had begun the summer of 1986 with the most challenging phase of construction, building a bridge over Interstate 5. A large truss structure was erected over the 12-lane freeway in downtown Seattle upon which the convention center facility was built.

    Using a 450-ton American Crawler crane, prefabricated sections of steel trusses weighing up to 200 tons each were lifted into place. Once the trusses were in place, the contractor installed pre-cast concrete beams and slabs between the trusses, forming a lid over the freeway.

    The remaining construction required two more years to complete.

    The original project-funding estimate under the 1982 public/private plan was $202,000,000. Despite its unique design and the numerous construction challenges, the actual funding for the state-owned facility as built totaled $202,844,000.

    A good neighbor

    Building the convention center over the freeway had many benefits for the surrounding area, including a reduction in traffic noise in the surrounding neighborhood, the reconnection of First Hill to the downtown core, and covering the gash cut by I-5 with an additional two-acre landscaped park for citizens to enjoy. A fully accessible connection for the handicapped was created by the completion of the Pigott Corridor, allowing travel from First Hill to the downtown retail district without encountering stairs.

    Historic preservation

    The Fraternal Order of Eagles built the eight-story Eagles Building, a historic landmark located at the corner of Seventh Avenue and Union Street, in 1925. It had fallen into a serious state of disrepair, and in 1995 the Legislature authorized the convention center to assist in the rehabilitation of the Eagles by transferring the state’s right and title to the land and building as-is to A Contemporary Theater (ACT) and the Seattle Housing Resources Group (SHRG).

    The critical initial subsidy for the ACT theaters and the Eagles Apartments was provided through grants from the convention center. In addition to its housing grants, the center conveyed to ACT and SHRG property valued at $5 million and, in exchange for development rights, $2.7 million in cash.

    Public amenities

    Convention center civic benefits have come in all shapes and sizes. From public programs, to simply taking the time to be a good neighbor. To date, more than 400 educational and musical events have been performed free for the public. Landscapers from the convention center together with the Horizon House Garden Club volunteers planted the thriving Community Rose Garden in the summer of 1988. ARAMARK, the convention center’s exclusive caterer, donated over 2,000 meals to local food banks as part of their “guest chef” program. Public areas provide a convenient place for local office workers and other guests to relax and enjoy lunch.

    Brian Baum is community relations coordinator at the convention center. He served as public information officer at the Museum of Flight prior to joining the WSCTC staff in December. Baum is managing events surrounding the grand opening of the expansion and can be reached at (206) 694-5151 or

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