Saturday, December 12, 2009

Convention center search: The best and the worst

As I am currently working on a huge post comparing OKC's convention center project to what a countless number (dozens and dozens) of other cities have done, I figured it might be appropriate to break it up into smaller segments and start with the best and the worst, since that's really what these posts are about: learning from what other cities did right, and taking into account what other cities did wrong.

The best and worst have one thing in common, aside from the fact that they are both large convention centers. That is that they both interact with the surrounding street level in extraordinary ways, let's put it at that. One of them is a colossal failure from a new urbanist perspective, whereas the other is a highly innovative success.

Columbus, OH - city pop 711,470; metro pop 1,773,120. Convention Center: Greater Columbus Convention Center.

Columbus' center is probably one of the most innovative designs I've come across. It might not be LEED-certified and it doesn't come with the bells and whistles that other centers feature, but it is extremely practical, it's big enough for a growing city like Columbus to grow into, and it actually ADDS to the surrounding environs. The design, which is a result of a 1989 design competition (this project broke ground in 1993 and was expanded in 2001), creates a unique streetwall effect that minimizes the impact of having a super block structure. By mimicking the other side of the street, which features historic buildings and infill development, the convention center flows well with the neighborhood -- something most convention centers, no matter how glamorous, fail to do. Usually they end up becoming the bookend for a downtown area.

The center has 1.7 million total sf, 426,000 of which is devoted to exhibition purposes .. and it was built on a shoestring budget, which is what we're looking for with MAPS projects. The 2001 addition, which added 300,000 sf, cost a mere $81 million (which even when you adjust for inflation and building costs, is still a heck of a deal). That's comparable to what we ended up spending on renovating the Cox Center which is 100,000 sf -- total (ridiculously small for a city our size). The Columbus center also features a dedicated convention specialty hotel that is attached, via a skyway across railroad tracks. The convention hotel also interacts well with the street level that is on, in a completely detached part of downtown Columbus. Columbus is an example OKC can learn a lot from because of its innovative layout approach, the design originating from a design competition (which would likely turn up even newer, more innovative ideas for OKC that I can't even think of), the low cost of the project (given its huge size), the attached convention hotel, and the size that adequately gives Columbus room to grow into.


Daytona Beach, FL -- city pop 64,421; metro pop 496,575. Convention Center: Ocean Center.

I don't know where to begin with how much I hate this project. Instead I'll start with just the stats. Built in 1985 and expanded in 2009, the expansion which doubled its size cost $76 million. The convention center features 205,000 sf of exhibit space, not sure about the total.. so it's about half the size of the Columbus center. It also has an attached arena that seats 8,632 for basketball games. Now to begin with how much I hate this project. First of all it's in Florida, which is where good urban concepts go to die.

Typically cities in Florida make me dislike palm trees, because of how garish they look, and the fact that the only cities I've ever seen tastefully use palm trees are Houston, LA, and New Orleans. The design is obviously hideous, and the fact that they tried to hide it behind a jungle of unorganized palm trees makes it even worse. Who knows, it might actually be an attractive project without the palms. The effect reminds me a lot of the striking architecture of the Carpenter Square Theater today known as the Stage Center (which I contend is awesome architecture) that OKC has hidden behind some scrubby trees to lessen the BAM! effect of the edgy design. The result doesn't go over too well.

The bulk of why I dislike this project so much is how it really has zero interaction with the street level. There is no activity going on with that street, and I just don't see myself wanting to be there. The design of the actual convention center has the effect of a people repellent. Imagine with those beautiful Florida sunsets, when the sun shimmers against that silver balloon-looking building, the effect it would on you as a pedestrian to make you want to walk the other way. As far as wanting to wrap a nice little plaza around it, that's an understandable mistake that a lot of urban planners make. Architects love plazas because they're like decorative picture frames for their work (the smartest architects let crowd scenes form the "picture frame"). But if you're going to make the mistake of doing a plaza, at least design one that is attractive. Not one that looks more like a putt putt course in the middle of a downtown environment.

I would say that the hideous, garish design that the MAPS 3 people promoted for our convention center is VERY comparable to the Daytona center (and yes, I know it's one of many preliminary convention renderings that just act as placeholders until we are closer to breaking ground on this in 6-7 years). Let's get a head start on not making the mistakes that Daytona Beach made, because it would extremely costly for us. And if we go with such a hideous, garish design, look at the effect it will have on the park: I don't care how wonderful the park is and how well-designed it is, if you put it in front of a ghastly colorful object, it will look silly. That's why the convention center needs to be removed from the park and why we have no business with ghastly colorful designs in the first place. No wonder the convention center was the least popular MAPS 3 project -- I guarantee if they had just stuck with the C2S preliminary rendering (the "Rose Rock Center") that the convention center wouldn't have cost as many votes. Now, how it interacts with the surrounding environs, that's a whole different issue.

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