Monday, January 4, 2010

Convention center search: The biggest just get bigger

The biggest convention centers just keep getting bigger, but do they get better? Boston Globe architecture columnist, Robert Campbell, writes that the proposed expansion of the Boston Convention Center must do more than make the facility bigger, but it must also make the convention center better for the surrounding neighborhood to take. The convention center opened in 2004 just south of Boston's Financial District and was designed by New York architect, Rafael Vinoly. With 516,000 sf of contiguous exhibition space alone it is one of the largest convention centers in the nation and the largest convention facility in all of New England. Boston officials want to double its size. Some Bostonians have criticized the efforts to expand the convention center on the basis of good urban planning.
So far, this huge new piece of Boston feels like a badly designed New Jersey office park. The streets are too wide (they’re highways in the city, really) and they are hopelessly disorienting. The signage is misleading and the buildings are too far apart to create interesting frontages. Who has ever taken a walk for pleasure in this part of Boston?

The primary criticism of the convention center has hardly been from a city planning perspective, but rather a convention planning perspective: being located in the South Boston Seaport area, it is too far south of most of Boston's main hotels, resulting in a fairly ineffective convention facility. In fact in 2005 Apple signed to be hosted at the Boston Convention Center but opted instead for the smaller and older Hynes Convention Center in the heart of Boston's Back Bay neighborhood. The hotel count issue has been solved though with the add-on of two new convention center hotels, one being the 18-story, 428-room Seaport Hotel, the other being the 16-story, 793-room Westin Hotel.

Speaking of a second convention center, Boston also has kept its old convention center, the Hynes Convention Center--built in 1988, with 193,000 sf of exhibition space, 71,600 sf of meeting space, and a 24,500 sf ballroom. The facility in the heart of the Back Bay is still in tip-top shape, and was designed to last, or at least, fit in with the historic area that surrounds it. Despite fears it might get torn down after being relegated to being the city's 2nd convention center, its events have actually increased 10% since the BCC opened, and the building fits in so well that Bostonians might actually fight to save it from demolition. Can you imagine, a 1980s convention center that people might some day fight to preserve? Freaky.

So with all the strides we've made in going back to the roots of urban planning in the last few years, is it surprising that a 1988 convention center is better than a 2004 convention center? Which facility do you think is better, and do you really think that the Boston Convention Center is really that bad for the surrounding area? You've read the analysis of other convention centers, how they relate to the human scale that surrounds the center beyond its front steps, and how these large buildings interact with the tiny ant (you) on the sidewalk. You be the judge.

Campbell also implores us to look at a handful of other convention centers. Philly as the good example, and Chicago as the bad example.

Chicago's McCormick Place was the nation's largest convention center until recently when Orlando's surpassed it. It is comprised of 4 interconnected facilities located along the edge of Lake Michigan about 2 and a half miles south of the Inner Loop in Chicago. The facility is surrounded on all sides by wide boulevards and highway systems designed to carry the huge volumes of traffic going in and out of this place. A recent 2007 addition of the West Building, featured in the picture, added 470,000 sf of exhibition space for a total of 2,670,000 sf of exhibition space. It (the 2007 addition) cost Chicago $882 million--also features a 100,000 sf ballroom, the size of a football field, one of the largest ballrooms in the world.

The facility is unlike any other in the world, absolutely huge, but there is no connectivity with the neighborhood around it. In fact there is no neighborhood around it, the convention center feels like it's in the middle of nowhere. For all of the money they've put into this thing, surely they don't want people bemoaning the site of the convention center? The West Bldg is the only part of it that really even has an opportunity for a decent frontage with a street, but it's a wasted opportunity as the facility just turns its back side to the road.

There is also a commuter rail station in the basement of the facility, transporting passengers between McCormick Place and the Inner Loop.

Is all really well in Philadelphia? I think Campbell may want to reconsider his recommendation on the Pennsylvania Convention Center, which is currently in the midst of a 878,455 sf, $800 million major expansion (the goal of which is to bring the total exhibition space at the PAC up to 1 million). Which by the way, I hope an important realization that goes without saying at this point in the Convention Center Search series is that "total sf" and "exhibition sf" are always completely different.

In the way of the expansion that shifts the convention center up to Broad Street are several historic buildings that Philly Inquirer architecture critic Ingra Saffron regrets the impending loss of. "The long, bland glass facade that Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback & Associates had designed for the convention center's Broad Street facade is a pretty meager replacement for this stout-hearted office building," said Saffron, in reference to one of the old buildings.

It's true that portions of the convention center, as Campbell wrote, are elevated above the ground level (with city life passing uninhibited underneath), but not all, and certainly not the new expansion portion to my knowledge (which consists of a quick search and skim reading on Philly issues). That still doesn't mean that there is a whole lot of interaction with the human scale, it just means that it isn't damaging the human scale (which I suppose a monolithic convention in the center of Philly could do anything but).

Campbell also celebrates the fact that the PCC is in the midst of Philly, surrounded by a great American city, whereas the BCC is removed from the heart. The tradeoff here of course is that expansions of the PCC mean great buildings must be leveled, whereas an expansion of the BCC, great buildings aren't going to be leveled, but rather, empty space built over, a new opportunity to make something urban out of something that is not.

Take it for what it is. It appears that the convention arms race doesn't slow down once a city cracks the top 10 convention centers, and in all likelihood, it will never slow down for OKC, even after building an all-new 550,000 sf facility south of downtown in addition to downtown's 1.1 million sf, 40-year old, Cox Center. The future of OKC in the aftermath of MAPS 3 is inevitably the pursuit of a convention center arms race, that's the bad news. The good news though far outweighs that negative: for once we are in the hunt with the cities we want to be, "big league" cities, and we control our destiny amongst our competition. Don't look now, but there are cities OUR size (like Nashville) adding $635 million convention centers.

No comments: