Sunday, December 19, 2010

Convention center search: Site selection nearing

The city is currently undertaking once again, another convention center study. There has been a number of highly-acclaimed consultants who have vehemently advised against the parkside convention center site. There was an OU presentation that proposed other potential sites, such as the Bob Howard Ford site north of the proposed boulevard and the steel yards in the east end of Bricktown. There have even been some Bricktown merchants surprised by that idea, and the steel yards are not a bad idea because it provides good access to Bricktown and doesn't block circulation because the site would just back up to 235. I don't think the idea will go very far though because it is nearly a mile from the CBD, which is just too far.

I also don't think that the Bob Howard site, the closest proposed site to the current CBD, is going to go very far. Fred Hall announced that he's closing his family's dealership last month and is going to pursue a massive mixed-use development of the entire 6-block site, which spans from Walker all the way to Robinson, from Reno to the proposed boulevard. One of the few vital components of the Core to Shore plan that is universally agreed on is the need to focus the signature retail on that site, and Fred Hall, with his resources and connections, is just the guy to pull it off, so that's great for OKC. I don't think Mayor Mick wants to put the convention center there because he was quoted in the paper saying it would cut off circulation to downtown, which is incredibly true. I don't think that the proposed site along East Main in Bricktown works either, although it's an interesting idea--putting it in the parking lots north of the East Main storefronts.

With that said, it looks like it should be south of the boulevard. That's by process of elimination, unless someone with credibility seriously comes in and suggests Meridian or something both suburban and nutty.

Moving on, this a brief critique of the parkside site:

This site can not be allowed to happen for many reasons. The obvious one is that the park frontage would be squandered. A convention center does not bring the vitality we want surrounding the park, and the idea of having apartments in the facade of the convention center is not an innovative solution to the convention center problem. Pretend we're not even talking about a convention center, any kind of structure that is not broken up and 2-3-4 blocks long would have a negative effect, looming over the park. Hell, even if it weren't convention at all and were all apartments, a 2-3 block-long apartment building, basically an upscale commie bloc, still isn't exactly the development we're looking for. A mix of commie blox and convention center, I imagine, will have an effect fairly similar to a commie bloc and a convention center. As mentioned by the ULI report, it creates a dark wall effect and will cast a shadow on the park in the A.M., also something people will overlook but would have a potentially devastating impact on enjoying the sunrise in the park. The HOK report, another one of the many studies done, is no fan of the access to existing assets from the parkside site.

Jeff Speck though, another consultant, brought up the trump card, and probably the biggest concern for the parkside site. Superblocks. There are too many superblocks clustered together. In the above graphic, you'll notice I shaded the area of sueprblocks: in a huge cluster from I-40 all the way up to Park Avenue, there is not a single normal downtown block (except for the block with Devon's HQ and the Renaissance Hotel). A whole damn mile of urban renewal's effects. That would be truly devastating on the chances of spending all this money actually creating a world-class city. Never underestimate the importance of the little things, like the street grid. A street grid is extremely important, it impacts how the city flows. The reason the area south of I-40 died is probably not because of the I-40 land bridge itself, for proof, check out Omaha--a nearly identical city in many ways, that is seeing a lot of development in their "NoDo" area which is just on the other side of a very similar huge land bridge freeway.

The difference is that it lacks what likely did cause the death of downtown's south side--the superblocks simple cut it off from the rest of downtown. We have the Century Center, the Cox Center, the Ford Center, the Myriad Gardens, and EKG all clumped together like that. It shouldn't take a rocket scientist to tell that such a configuration of all these superblock sites right next to each other will likely cut off the circulation to South OKC. Broadway, which is normally the most important street in a city, dead-ends in front of the Cox Center. Main Street, also normally an important street in a city, dead-ends on both sides of the new Devon site, thanks to the failed 80s proposal to build a Galleria mall on those 4 blocks. So for people to claim Core to Shore will CHANGE ANYTHING by moving I-40 to make room for extending the cluster of superblocks further south is just absolutely insane. C2S's primary focus needs to actually be breaking up the superblock cluster. Restore some of the grid. Try and find ways to restore some of the N/S circulation through OKC.

Oh and by the way, the idea of a "pedestrian spine" along the Harvey axis was just killed by ODOT, who is requiring the pedestrian bridge to be moved a few hundred feet off-kilter from the proposed axis. So much for that idea.

Here are some proposed sites that I think would get Core 2 Shore a greater chance of success, and more importantly, ensure vitality around the park on at least 3 sides (assuming that the boulevard concept is going to be reworked). The key is that the park needs to be surrounded by mixed uses. Apartments in the facade, essentially the awesome combo of commie bloc AND convention center, isn't going to cut it. What will is enveloping the park with districts that will draw their identity from the park. The park is a space that needs to draw its definition of space from being well hemmed-in by streetwalls on all sides, but those walls can't be continuous, they need to be broken up, they need to be highly-interactive walls that give in to other walls, that give in the other walls. You can't eliminate the urban form and still expect urban, it just doesn't work that way, no matter how desperately you try to emulate Dallas.

Solution #1 puts the convention center in the lumberyard site and places the convention hotel next to the U-Haul building, or perhaps in the U-Haul building. What few people realize or remember is that the U-Haul building is actually not a high-rise shed, but there is a brick building with stories and a brick facade under that crappy sheet metal facade that could be totally renovated. Or the convention hotel could go next to it and leave the U-Haul building to be fixed by someone else. A pedestrian crossing could be put between the two allowing great access to the hotel and convention center. With great access to the boulevard, it's well-connected to the interstate system and within 1 block would be the park, the likely site of the transit hub, the Cox Center, Bricktown, and other hotels. Bricktown would benefit MOST from this proposed site, and keep in mind that is important because we can not risk losing what we currently have going at the benefit of possibly gaining something we can't count on. Bricktown merchants are said to rely 30-40% on business from convention guests, which is increasing as Bricktown continues to fall out of favor with locals (as it fails to reinvent itself and come up with anything new) and as OKC's convention industry continues to grow and emerge as one of the bigger convention destinations.

The convention center hotel in the corner of Bricktown could be a very nice atmosphere. The canal is eventually going to be extended to go through that block and if a convention hotel isn't built there, Randy Hogan or someone else will eventually come out with a development concept for that area. With the convention center, the convention hotel, a restored U-Haul building, and a canal extension through that area, it could be an incredibly serene, urban, and attractive environment.

This site provides medium benefit to Bricktown and Core 2 Shore. It places the convention hotel on the OG+E site, which the mayor has said will be acquired by the city out of the convention center budget no matter what, whether the convention center goes there or not. Mick Cornett is hell-bent on getting OG+E the $30 million he promised them, no matter what. Many of us have argued that the power substation does not need to move, and it can be covered with an attractive modern false facade--this has worked all over Europe, including in several cities in Germany, France, and The Netherlands. But if we're going to do this no matter what, and not even have a public debate about, we might as well develop the site that the city will own--so put the convention hotel there and invest in a pedestrian crossing with a completely safe, constantly accessible connection. The city will need to find some way to traverse Shields and the tracks--maybe with a skybridge over both, maybe with an at-grade pedestrian crossing, maybe raise Shields further up to not have to deal with it, or maybe a combination of these ideas.

This third proposal is one that I am shocked nobody has thought of yet. The ULI report stated that the city is wanting to reserve 40% more land than really needed for the convention center. I think this is a pretty major tidbit of info. In all of the above graphics I have gone with 2 blocks of medium-impact mixed-use development identical to the westpark neighborhood, but there's no reason that one block could not work in between the convention center and the park. This is extremely different from having apartments built into the facade of the convention center because the convention center is moved back up against the Shields land bridge and Broadway is brought back as a street and extended between the boulevard and the new I-40, with normal (or slightly compressed) city blocks broken up filling the room between Robinson and Broadway. This would leave Bricktown out, and Bricktown would suffer a loss of convention business, but that could be mitigated with a pedestrian corridor of some kind, but it would still be a long shot because of the sheer number of barrier to have to traverse in such a short distance. Bricktown would likely have to find a way to deal with 10-20% of its business coming from convention parties.

Please offer any kind of feedback you can think of. If you like these ideas, have come up with your own, or have any say on the matter you should probably find some venue to share your opinion on this matter with the City Council, the mayor's office, the MAPS oversight committee, or someone who is compiling the new study, or so on. There hasn't really been a public debate on this, but there should be, and it would be a doozey.


Anonymous said...

Have you thought about another option with the Convention Center not in the Core to Shore area? Possibly between bricktown and Deep Duece across the railroad tracks from the Hilton. I saw a presentation on that option by BH and it looked pretty good!


Walker, Downtown Ranger said...

I agree that it wouldn't be a bad idea. I do support Core2Shore, actually. Just want C2S to be done right if it is going to be done. There are two potential Bricktown sites, one being between Main St and Deep Deuce, the other being where the Steel Yards are now backing up to 235, out of the way, not blocking circulation.

I just don't think those are realistic ideas. This convention center is going to Core2Shore, and the best we can hope for is bordering on Bricktown, in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

You know nothing about convention space in this country. While I do not like the idea of the park being faced with the convention center, modern convention space is about getting as much column free space on one level as possible. The proposals you have shown only work with a two level scheme. Moving the cotton mill is also an economic impossibility at this time.

How about we take that giant tax payer funded parking lot in front of the bass pro and use it.

Walker, Downtown Ranger said...

That's not true, whoever you are. The ULI panel concluded that the city was reserving 40% more land than necessary for the convention center with the specifications listed. We're going to have a 300,000 sf exhibition floor. The whole convention center however will only be a little over 500,000 sf, so essentially half the size of the Cox even, and granted it has meeting rooms and stuff on multi levels, but I imagine meeting rooms in this center will be "upstairs" too.