Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Convention center search: Fixing the Cox (it can be done!)

I think that even if we get a real home-run convention center before 2020 that no matter what we're still in a position where we have to keep up with the Cox Center as well. Getting rid of the Cox Center after completing a new one is like taking one step forward and two steps backward. We need to analyze the heck out of what a huge mistake the Cox was, and get to a conclusion where we can fix it. And no, demolishing it is not the solution (not that it would hurt in my opinion). There is still hope for making the most out of the Cox.

Remember that the Chamber report on convention center space in OKC recommendation that we're following was adding a certain amount of convention space to the market. That means keeping the Cox, too. And personally I think that this report low-balls the actual need because you'll notice that they just talk about Oklahoma County, which only has 706,617 residents..or comparable to the Omaha or Little Rock MSAs, but I digress. Bottom line on this matter: If we want to get rid of the Cox Center we should be prepared not to invest $280 million in a new center, but more like $500 million, in order to get 300,000 sf of prime exhibition space all brand-new, even when the Cox space is still fresh from a renovation.

Aren't we going to keep the Cox for its arena anyway? Remember that "58 steps" is the only thing keeping the Big 12 Basketball Tournament from being locked up permanently by KC. With the glitz and the glam of the new Sprint Center, their Municipal Auditorium (the site of the women's tourney) is still 13 blocks from the Power & Light District -- not 58 steps (across Reno Ave). Why not just keep up with the exhibition space attached to that arena if we're keeping the arena? Even if you disagree on the value of the Cox's convention space and only see merit to keeping the arena so we can keep getting Big 12 Basketball Tourneys, you must at least see the value in not having a huge facility that's falling apart in the middle of our downtown. We have too much of that right now. Imagine if the Cox suddenly got run-down like the Century Center across the street, what kind of dispersions that would cast on all of downtown. It would be like..gasp..Tulsa.

The problem right off the bat is that the Cox Center should never have been built where it was. Imagine for a second that we never razed the better part of half of our downtown area for the I.M. Pei Plan to Nowhere. What we would have is a Bricktown and MidTown without gaps, and even more urban areas to the south and west of downtown where currently all of the superblocks and blight are. Given that such a cool, urban city needed a convention center, where would you deal with that without disrupting the urban fabric? You could go to the edge of downtown, a strategic site would be between Deep Deuce and the OHC. Or perhaps in the rail yard along East Reno, along the BNSF line, or along the North Canadian River--nothing wrong with riverfront superblocks, because the grid system is going to end anyway. Well we don't have the luxury of talking about those sites. We have to make the best out of the convention center that has lain waste to a former urban neighborhood on the south side of downtown.

I've written in the past about my theory that the Cox/Ford/Myriad cluster of superblocks having done more to kill the C2S task force region than the I-40 Crosstown Expressway ever could have come close to. In fact I think it's highly suspect that a viaduct could be blamed for forming a border in the first place--that's why I-40 was built as a viaduct in the first place, so that the city could continue underneath it. The reality is that we have taken an area where the neighborhood was contiguous with the flow of downtown, and we disrupted that motion. We killed off Broadway. We blocked Harvey. We took life away from Robinson and Hudson. We added another pointless lifeless corridor to the mix, E.K. Gaylord. Today I think E.K. would be rolling the grave at the urban travesty of a street that is named after him, especially when you look at the urban grandeur that was once the young, promising Capitol City of Oklahoma.

To illustrate my point, let's break out the crayons! It's all about "flow" :

We turned ^ that into this..

Consider the First National Bank the epicenter of downtown--consider how the addition of the superblock sites affects flow from the epicenter? From the north, you don't notice it so much. North Downtown's afflictions have nothing to do with I.M. Pei (just Kerr McGee). But from the perspective of the south side of downtown, it's everything. In this sense, yes losing all of that great urban fabric hurt downtown no doubt, BUT what hurt even more was losing the flow from the epicenter to the south end of downtown. We rue the loss of the urban fabric, but I have never heard planners rue the loss of that flow which I believe to be the real culprit of our Core to Shore woes. Flow should be the main thing we are focused on restoring, because we're doing a bang-up job of restoring activity in key nodes of downtown, there just isn't any synergy between these areas. MidTown is bustling, Bricktown is healthy, Automobile Alley is alive, Arts District getting there, we're well on our way to restoring other areas too..we just need to bring it all in and connect it all. Streetcar will go a long ways towards helping us with that, but we still need to reexamine our grid system.

Here's an example of a downtown that still has its grid intact (Downtown Dallas). Looking at the map of DTD, you'll notice that there's adequate connectivity from Downtown into Uptown/Victory/Oak Park and other areas north of the Woodall Rogers Fwy. Yes, Woodall Rogers is still a dividing line but the key thing is that it doesn't disrupt the flow! Look at several of the key streets that cross the underground freeway--Houston, McKinney, Akard, and Pearl. DTD is coming back to life, and Victory, Uptown, and especially the McKinney Avenue streetfront are booming areas. They've had such an incredible amount of urban development that there is actually a glut of residential units on the market there, so essentially, they have the exact opposite problem that we do, and I'd rather be overdeveloped than underdeveloped!

..a downtown that doesn't breathe. The important thing that you'll notice by taking a look at the crayon maps of OKC above is that downtown is dead looong before you reach the Crosstown Expressway. These streets that we killed were once bustling corridors of commerce and city life. Broadway especially, as you can see in the photograph. Just like how a city is made of up neighborhoods, a downtown is made up of corridors like this. When historians wax nostalgic on downtown, they talk about how each echelon of society in OKC had a corridor that was its own: Park Ave was the most well-to-do, reserved for city leaders, lined with ritzy businesses and residences not to mention the offices of city leaders. The streets to the north side of downtown were well-to-do, the further south you got, the grittier it got (the cooler it got). Grand Boulevard was gritty, full of people, crazy, bustling--it was the Times Square of OKC.

We killed downtown when we nullified our north-south running corridors, and let's face it: OKC is a north/south kind of city, you are always going to get to Point B from Point A by going north or south, not east or west. It's funny how the city develops like that over time, but it just does, and you can't fight it. That's why nobody really encounters downtown or any kind of "center city" activity when they cross over into North OKC from South OKC. The break in the system that hurts the most is Broadway, which was the most important street in downtown. Broadway dead-ends in front of the Cox Convention Center, so consider the intersection of Broadway and Sheridan "ground zero" for the urban butcher job.

In my opinion the Cox Center interacts well with the T-intersection of Broadway and Sheridan. It's a decently urban and walkable intersection, and you actually do see a fair share of people walking across the area, interacting with the Renaissance and Sheraton hotels (the Renaissance has a coffee shop, whereas the Sheraton has the better restaurant, so you see some degree of cross-transfer traffic) and the convention center across Sheridan. The entrances to the Cox are positioned with the crosswalks (that we are "supposed" to use LOL). The Sheridan facade is also pretty decent. I am a big fan of imitating historic architecture with contemporary materials, which is what the Cox renovation did. The glass panels and metal slats resemble how you'd see brick, mortar, and stone in a streamline Art Deco building. Overall the Cox gets a B for how it interacts with the Sheridan streetfront, so that's the sole bright spot.

The east and west sides are just huge bare walls, the only thing breaking them up is the entrance to the underground parking on Robinson and some mechanical equipment along E.K. Gaylord. F-. There is however a lot of potential for improving this though: there are some great opportunities for Santa Fe Depot-convention center synergy on the east side, as well as some great opportunities for park-convention synergy on the west side. It's just ridiculous to have an enormous bare expanse fronting those two possible diamonds in the rough.

For future reference, I plan on writing an equally long critical and provocative post in the near future on ripping out E.K. Gaylord. In this post I will talk all about the east side of the Cox, the possibilities for a multi-modal transit hub connecting multiple mass transit interfaces, and what to do about the nightmare that is E.K. Gaylord Boulevard--deadly to cross on foot, depressing to look at, the central artery of a downtown that has been plundered of its soul. So I'm just going to allude to a future post and leave the east side of the Cox alone for now, because that's a whole different can of worms.

If the Cox could be fixed from a planning perspective, imagine the possibilities for more street activity, more businesses, and more density. You could be coming up to OKC from Ft Worth on the Heartland Flyer, and once you walk out of the old Santa Fe Depot the first thing you would see is a real city. You would be surrounded by the hustle and bustle of a real major city, a feeling similar to walking outside the Union Station in cities like Chicago or Philadelphia. The area surrounding Santa Fe Depot will never be as dense and urban as it once was, but we can still make it feel like it is.

I give you the existing floorplan for the Cox Center:

An improved version:

Now keep in mind all of this is coming from someone that knows nothing about convention centers! I don't claim to be an expert on the convention industry. I just know that more has to be done to make the Cox open up to the east and west side. On the west side there appear to be hallways that dead end--take a chunk out of that bare well along Robinson and open those hallways up to the city. There could be an entrance behind meet rooms 9-12 as well as on the SW corner, where you could extend a hallway and open it up to the intersection at Robinson and Reno. Between the two entrances, the remaining blank wall space should be spruced up with art work similar to the Tulsa Convention Center exterior artwork. What I would really like to see is a huge mural depicting the urban fabric that we lost in urban renewal, not as it appears in black and white postcards, but as it would appear in 2010 with vibrant businesses and peppered with modern touches.

There should also be another grand entrance facing the intersection of EKG and Reno. Here is where there is the opportunity for cutting a chunk of the Cox Center out that doesn't look to be vital and using that space for part of an intermodal transit hub. Without getting into the technical details of all that (saving it for a future post), there would be lots of people and lots of different forms of transit. Streetcar. Amtrak. Rubber tire trolleys. Taxis. City buses. Cars. People walking. It could encompass additional structured parking for personal vehicles or utilize the underground parking already beneath the Cox, and from the exterior the hub would be a glass facility that you can see inside and outside of, very open to the outside, and connected to the Santa Fe Depot, as well as perhaps the main entrance of the Ford Center (which is on the NE corner of the Ford along Reno). The key though is that any connections between the depot, the hub, Cox, Ford, and whatever else should be open to the outdoors. It should add to the street life, not be anything separate.

And lastly, on the south side, I believe the best way to add more life to the Reno side would be by extending the Bricktown Canal along Reno. As it is Reno is a 4-lane road, with plenty of additional space between the Ford and the Cox centers--no reason why it couldn't still move traffic east and west if some of the right of way was gobbled up for an urban canal that connected to the Bricktown Canal. This way you're creating a pedestrian mall that connects the restaurants and nightlife of Bricktown to the convention center and area, and you could end it in the Myriad Gardens or at least along the south edge of it. The south side of downtown could be turned into an urban playground by smartly extending the Bricktown opposed to taking it through Core to Shore as the Bricktown Association proposed, and using it to double the impact of the existing superblock fiasco. Any canal extension should be bridged between the Cox and Ford, but the key thing is that the linear corridor along Reno should be reinforced. The way to go would be in avoiding creating "pedestrian highways" from the entrance of the Cox to the entrance of the Ford, and instead to make sure that Reno is the dominant "pedestrian highway" through here. That will go towards bringing more inclusion from the rest of the city and breaking up the superblocks to some extent.

Maybe, just maybe, an idea that can be considered is a Broadway tunnel underneath the Cox and Ford centers. It would be expensive though, and I wouldn't call it a priority. It would be advantageous though to have traffic be able to flow smoothly from C2S straight up Broadway into North OKC. When you talk about creating connections between South OKC and North OKC, and how downtown should play a part in that, the idea of bringing Broadway could symbolize the turnaround of OKC. I wouldn't advocate it though because like said, it may be cost prohibitive to do so, esp considering the underground parking underneath the Cox, and it wouldn't be as easy as these other ideas I've thrown out there.

The ultimate idea has to be that the Cox Center is still a valuable facility. With 1.1 facility, it still has a lot to offer OKC. We have nothing to gain by demolishing it, and everything to gain by improving it. I know that we might not want to, I know that a lot of us were excited to think about a massive mixed-use development on the Cox site when we saw MAPS 3 pass. But keep this in mind: MAPS 3 convention center will only be around 500,000 sf, and 850,000 sf after an expansion. The Cox is 1.1 million sf located deep in the heart of downtown. This is Sheridan and Broadway, ground zero for where things began to go wrong with us from urban renewal. We have the opportunity to converge several different priorities and ideas out there and create real, sustainable future vitality. We want to extend the Canal. We want a transit hub for our streetcar system, and our future commuter system. We should want to do something about the Cox.

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