Sunday, December 20, 2009

Convention center search: Incorporating Amtrak

I wanted to revisit Omaha, because I have some new thoughts and stuff I wanted to add. After I did my post I posed a question to the Omaha forum, and after they got over the shock of how dare someone from OKC question their downtown planning, we had a productive discussion on the Qwest Center. The overall feeling about the Qwest in Omaha is positive because of the mistakes they think they avoided.

The originally proposed site of the Qwest Center was in the Old Market portion of DTO, one of the most popular areas of Omaha. The Old Market is afterall, the main destination for anyone in town for a convention. The problem with that would have been the number of historic buildings cleared for such a large project in that area. You definitely don't want to risk breaking up important urban fabric like that. So while Downtown Omaha residents agree that the Qwest could have been incorporated better, they much prefer that over sticking it in the middle of their treasured Old Market area. The site in the picture is the site that was chosen in the end, which Omaha residents believe was a no-brainer in hindsight. They took an old rail yard that was no longer in use and cleared that, putting the convention center there. Before the convention center was developed on the other side of 480, there wasn't really much of anything except Creighton University north of there in the first place.

When I'm being critical of the Qwest Center, keep in mind that I have nothing but praise for Omaha most of the time, and it should just go without saying that the Qwest is a great facility from a convention standpoint. But I'm not a convention planning buff, I'm a city planning buff. It should also go without saying that the $280 million MAPS 3 convention facility OKC is adding to its convention offerings will also be an excellent facility from a standpoint with all of the bells and whistles, and there will be convention specialists out there who are more qualified to make sure of that. Assuming that the Qwest and MAPS 3 CC have one major thing in common -- that both will be state-of-the-art, top notch convention facilities -- let's learn from what few areas they could have improved in and end up with an even better facility. I doubt those areas exist from a convention hosting standpoint, but in the planning realm, there is plenty of room to talk about improvement. So with that said...

The main thing Omaha locals are put off with is the lack of synergy between the Qwest and the Missouri River, but adding connections to a nearby riverfront is much easier to do than replacing lost urban fabric. To them, the elevated portions of 480 aren't a huge barrier (or it's not a psychological barrier to them anyway) and they hope the surface parking can be filled in later. The main thing is that NoDo is not a longstanding urban destination like the Old Market is. The Old Market, unlike anything in OKC, has been a longstanding urban destination.. the difference though is that Omaha has not seen a "simultaneous resurgence" in its downtown neighborhoods. They've seen gradual improvement, but they never saw the neglect and despair we had in the first place.

So to them, the idea that it's possible to completely revitalize a whole district (for quality, not just quantity) from the ground up in about 5-10 years is completely foreign to them. In fact, that's foreign to most other cities, and we don't realize that when we're looking at other cities for inspiration. We just have a very different, more aggressive development philosophy here in OKC..and that's just what we've come to expect because of how far we've had to come with our center city. When other cities look at OKC and like what we've done, that's the main thing they're trying to figure out. It is indeed impressive what you can accomplish when you have extraordinary pent-up demand for downtown and a city that is willing to take the bull by the horns and make some things happen.

Another great example brought to my attention was Lincoln:

Lincoln is currently in the midst of a wave of downtown investment, spearheaded by a high profile public project--the new West Haymarket Arena, which will house Cornhuskers basketball as well as concerts. The Haymarket District, an area adjacent to Downtown Lincoln, is another area that is very similar to the Old Market--an established mixed-use urban neighborhood. Haymarket has a university feel, for being so close to UNL. The $400 million arena project (if I understand correctly), which will have around 15,000 seats, is set to go to voters for approval in May -- to be funded by a 4% hotel tax, 4% car rental tax, and a 2% restaurant tax, as well as other contributions from the state and private sources.

If you're like me, you're wondering how on earth it costs $400 million to build a 15,000 seat college basketball arena in Nebraska when we built the Ford Center downtown to NBA/NHL specs in 2002 at a cost of $89 million (and then threw down another $100 million to justify an NBA team moving from cosmopolitan SEATTLE of all places). According to this article that cites a $350 million cost, that money is for relocating rail lines, buying railroad property, I assume some rehabilitation on the site, moving the Amtrak station, building the arena, rebuilding roads and other infrastructure around it, and building 2 parking garages and 3 surface lots. That seems like a lot of expense to go through just for the purpose of adding an arena to downtown if you ask me, although I suppose it's difficult to criticize when the hidden cost of all of this expansion south of Downtown OKC into C2S is a $700 million Crosstown Expressway relocation project (granted the pricetag was mysteriously under $300 million when ODOT began its Big Dig).

I love the actual site plan though. It's very reminiscent of the Albuquerque plan I talked about earlier, in that it builds WITHIN the existing fabric of the downtown and not by creating its own separate superblock. It's also reminiscent of the Albuquerque plans in how it incorporates an Amtrak facility. I think that's a new trend that we're beginning to see, is a return to putting an emphasis on the neighborhood around the Amtrak station. It's similar to that feeling someone would have when they got off the train in New York or Chicago or Cleveland at the Union Station and walked down those front stops and instantly found themselves in the middle of it all. The beating heart of these cities at that time was Union Station. Maybe it's possible that OKC got off on the wrong foot from the beginning when we put our main freight station (Santa Fe Depot) in the heart of downtown and put the main passenger station (Union Station) further to the south. But I digress, maybe I'm getting to be too good at bitching about planning mistakes when my latest target is the City's forefathers, who did everything right for the most part.

Here is a rendering of how the Haymarket Arena incorporates the Amtrak station:

Adjacent to Lincoln Station would be an outdoor pavilion, under which would go the Amtrak line, surrounded by an open area and mixed-use development. The outdoor pavilion that the line runs under shouldn't be confused with an actual enclosed structure that the line goes through, like the LRT in Denver that goes through their convention center. I've argued against such a station in the convention center but I don't see anything wrong with how Lincoln has incorporated the Amtrak into the neighborhood around the Haymarket Arena. It's outdoors, it's open, it's walkable, it's inviting, and it's urban..those are the things I always like to see.

One last thing about the Lincoln site plan -- notice how the two parking garages are tucked behind the development, right up against the tracks. The Haymarket Arena itself is also right up against a bend in the tracks, too. Instead of putting the superblock structure in the middle of a neighborhood they backed it up to the tracks so that they wouldn't have to worry about incorporating the parking garages, and they would only have to worry about incorporating the arena on two sides. Really they only have to incorporate it on one side because on the right side is actually what appears to be a baseball diamond in other illustrations. A typical sweeping entryway rotunda and some side tenants (similar setup to Coach's and Hideaway Pizza at the Bricktown Ballpark) like with what you see on most new arenas is adequate for the one block of street frontage the Haymarket Arena faces.

So the common theme for the better-planned superblock structures: If you can't come up with a creative, adaptive way to mask the superblock (like Columbus), and incorporate it into the neighborhood, back it up against the tracks. That's what Albuquerque has done, that's what Omaha has done, and that's what Lincoln has done. While I would argue that there is certainly a better way, and it is possible for the superblock to be a positive influence, if you can't do that, then at least put it where the superblock will have no negative impact whatsoever. If it's not doing any harm, then that's at least a start. No harm, no foul.

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