Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Convention Center Hotel Update

From Gordon Cullen's A Concise Townscape:
Let us approach it by simile. Let us suppose a party in a private house, where are gathered together half a dozen people who are strangers to each other. The early part of the evening is passed in polite conversation on general subjects such as the weather and the current news. Cigarettes are passed and lights offered punctiliously. In fact it is all an exhibition of manners, of how one ought to behave. It is also very boring. This is conformity. However, later on the ice begins to break and out of the straightjacket of orthodox manners and conformity real human beings begin to emerge. It begins to be fun. Conformity gives way to the agreement to differ with a recognized tolerance of behaviour.
I'll let that stew a bit while I post the pictures from the newly released Convention Center Hotel, which I bitterly discussed the previous iteration here: Convention Center - Epic Fail.

After the project was awarded to the Norman Foster design, we derided it as unbuildable as a hotel, particularly for the budget proposed. Annnnnnd whaddaya know: Foster was dumped for a local firm.

Now, I'll be honest, I have no problem whatsoever with the new design. At least in terms of the tower. It's fine. But then what is the problem, you ask? Well, to expand upon Cullen's metaphor, a building is just a building. It's like a postcard. You glance at it and toss it away. Maybe, if it is of unique brilliance, you slap it on the fridge with a corny touristy magnet.

But, actual city building, the arrangement of built form, landscape, public space, streets, and the orchestration of which, when properly done, can become DRAMA; when the whole is greater than the mere sum of the parts.

So what do we have here? The cheapest possible solution, which is fine. Just don't dupe the public with the opposite of such. We went to the effort of figuring out how to afford the project WHILE constraining it further to create a mixed use destination from Day one, by stacking the ballrooms. This project builds a mega-garage and drops the two ballrooms on top, simple as that.

Instead of a sum of parts that could actually catalyze change effectively and rapidly, this is just another part (if that). And, we get a fire lane disconnecting the building from the street ALL the way around. THE STREET IS THE FIRE LANE!!!! okay, phew, I got that out of my system.

What next? Oh, the retail is elevated. That should work. And by work, I mean the complete opposite of a business lasting and thriving. And no residential to be found. So by wanting a mix of uses, we got a hotel. No more, and in fact, less because of the nature of, in some senses, the design, but in this case it isn't the architects' fault so much so as the city's for guaranteeing development fees for the developer without any kind of contingencies for quality streetscape, urban form, mix of uses. I.E. the kit of parts that creates neighborhoods, and in turn, cities.

Listed after the pictures is what I wrote for the RFP submission regarding the urban strategies and issues. Compare that vision to what we are actually getting.

The real problem I see here, the lack of residential, the building being "protected" by a moat of a fire lane, removing retail from the street, in effect, disconnecting the building from its context, the city, every design element is a reaction to the current state. And that current state is exactly what I address below. The streets are nasty. The city blocks are bombed out and decrepit.

As long as we continue creating defensive buildings that are reactive to the current state, this city will NEVER improve. We need the leadership and the vision to address the issues proactively or else we get more parts and less sums.

Dallas Convention Center Hotel
"It's Place within the City"


The primary goal in the urban planning and development of the Dallas Convention Center Hotel is to understand and overcome the challenges of the site chosen by the City as well as the site’s place within the city. The site, we believe, is the best possible to engage and interact with the Convention Center physically and architecturally, while being ideal for setting the stage for the next generation of development in the evolution of Downtown Dallas into a world class city.

In order to accomplish that goal, the development of the Dallas Convention Center Hotel parcel must first create an attractive destination immediately to stir excitement and entice people to an area of downtown long neglected and ignored by locals and visitors alike.

Next, it must lay the groundwork for a grander vision as the first phase of a new district that begins to connect back into existing and on-going successes in the city with the ultimate goal of creating a downtown that is a series of successful, interconnected, yet distinct in character, neighborhood sub-districts rather than merely a handful of disparate and isolated parcels of success.

The truly great cities of the world, Rome, Paris, New York, Copenhagen, and Barcelona feed off the created synergies by seamlessly stitching together various pieces of the puzzle, that are unique and therefore cooperative rather than cannibalistic, to create a sum greater than its parts and ensure continued success and positive incremental steps throughout the city.

What makes these cities great is not the individual buildings, but the experience of the spaces and a number of special neighborhoods. This vision proposes to help Dallas create a series of great neighborhoods with the Dallas Convention Center Hotel being the start of one of them.


Urban Analysis

Q: The primary issue facing not only the hotel site, but the convention center as well is that the area is entirely disconnected from its surroundings. Positive redevelopment has found its way to the Main Street area of downtown and the Cedars because of DART, TIF, and other initiatives, but the Convention Center area remains a barrier between Main Street, the Cedars, and the West End. Overly scaled streets, highways, in some cases buildings, and an abundance of surface parking lots have made the area hostile to pedestrians, the vital ingredient towards urban vitality.

A: We are of the opinion that the Convention Center Hotel development must be part of a larger vision that bridges these gaps between successful areas of the city and believe that with this holistic vision, the hotel as a piece of urban acupuncture stimulating the development of a new neighborhood in downtown Dallas with the Convention Center as its anchor reaching out and blending into its neighbors while lessening the impact of all barriers adjacent.

Q: The second major issue to overcome is the lack of intuitive wayfinding or sense of arrival in the current layout of the Convention Center. The new primary entrance is often overlooked for a below-grade entry that is lacking experientially. One can not confidently point to a single place and declare it as the “front door.”

A: The solution to this issue must orchestrate the seemingly opposite intentions of creating a new “address” or front door for the Convention Center while improving the connection to the redesigned main entrance. As the architectural solution will show, we believe that our team has found this solution.

Q: The third and somewhat related issue is the scale and feel of the roads adjacent to and approaching the Convention Center Hotel. These roads are simply about moving traffic and must become “complete streets” that provide for the equality of mode of transportation whether it is by foot, bike, car, bus, or even in some cases mass transit. They should be aesthetically designed and detailed to be pleasing and a hierarchy created to help define their role and character within the city.

A: The design team believes that while it is important to access the site, once there the street grid within and adjacent to the site should immediately take on a more pedestrian-friendly urban character, that character or experience then becomes the defining point for the start of the city. A transition and hierarchy in scale of roads allows a decompression and that sense of arrival.

In particular, one potential idea within a grander, more holistic vision for the Convention Center neighborhood, is that each of the streets takes on a distinct character within this scheme. For example, the Market Street entrance into downtown will gain in significance as the Trinity River and its frontage in Oak Cliff redevelop. As it transitions from Jefferson into its Market Street incarnation downtown, it should hit a gateway point and immediately take on an urban character. It is suggested that it should become a two-way street with the Houston Street viaduct become pedestrian only, potentially with a trolley connection to Oak Cliff long-term.


Urban Design

The Urban Vision proposed herein is one of contrasts and compliments. The detailed architectural design solution for the Hotel is a microcosm of the theme chosen for the larger vision. The Convention Center should ultimately be the anchor of a district that bridges Downtown, the West End, and the Cedars and to do so, it must have two faces reaching outward. Similarly, the specific architecture and site planning of the Hotel should accomplish two tasks.

First, it should be iconic to take advantage of its location. It should be a highlight of the “postcard view” of the skyline over the Trinity River Corridor. Secondly, it should contrast the grandiosity of the top of the building with subtle urban fabric of a pedestrian-scale and neighborhood character.

The success of the Southwest portion of downtown Dallas is contingent upon a masterplanned vision. The vision proposed here is one of 7 phases, the development of the Convention Center Hotel is the first step.

Stage 1

It is fundamental to this plan that the hotel succeed on day 1. In order to ensure that success, it must generate excitement and be a destination. The plan accomplishes that goal by dissecting the roughly 700 foot long by 550 foot wide parcel into three more pedestrian- and urban-scaled blocks. The hotel would sit on the largest and southernmost block, as a new face for the Convention Center, and the first step in its “reaching out.”

The northern portion of the site would then be subdivided into two mixed-use blocks in a scheme that we are calling “Barcelona Blocks.” This scheme accomplishes three things. By creating two outparcels for development, it creates a source of revenue for the City.

Second, the mix of uses combined with the design of essentially a hard four corner site, on-site, terminating in a public urban plaza immediately creates a “there” there; a destination. The vision for the vitality and mix of uses is similar to the RTKL design for LA Live in Los Angeles, but appropriately designed within the existing Dallas Context.

Third, the blocks created are similar in size and scale to the blocks moving northward towards El Centro Community College. This allows the design to be transferrable, implementable, and repetitive into a coherent district which is Stage 2.

Stage 2

As the previous paragraph states, stage 2 creates a direct connection between the central plaza of Stage 1 and the green space of El Centro’s recent expansion. It extends the destination created by Stage 1 to the north creating a new neighborhood for the city of Dallas. Austin Street should be amenitized, streetscaped and extended to the parcel to take on the character of a linear plaza, directly linking the Hotel site with El Centro and portions of the West End, amplifying and expanding the destination quality of the Hotel.

The “Barcelona Blocks” infill the undeveloped parcels in each of the blocks bound by Main and Young Streets to the North and South, and Market and Lamar Streets to the West and East. This allows Lubben Plaza to feel like a space; and urban square as it is intended, with active uses facing it on each side.

While the blocks are not intended to mimic the detail of Barcelona architecture, they are intended to reference the principles within the subtlety and genius of the scale and spacing found in the repetitive blocks of Barcelona neighborhoods.

Stage 3

Stage 3 creates a coordinated streetscape for Lamar Street. Lamar is the one singular linkage between the future Convention Center District, the Historic West End, and the present day Victory. The intent is that the West End would be the beneficiary of the energy and movement created between the Convention Center and Victory and that lifeblood would ultimately play a part in rejuvenating it.

Stage 4

Stage 4 is the ultimate creation of the second parallel DART line through downtown. We are aware that the final alignment and construction has not yet been determined, it will play a part in the revitalization of the Southern portion of Downtown. Young Street seems ideal because of its dimension, distance from the original downtown line, and proximity to both the public services along Young and the underdeveloped parcels near these buildings.

Stage 5

The revitalization around a stop at City Hall Plaza and a stop in front of the Convention Center hotel would go a long way towards blending the Convention Center neighborhood with the Main Street area via the activation of the Civic District centered on City Hall.

Stage 6

Cities throughout the world are working to minimize the affect of highways on their downtowns and the civic life within. The Woodall Rogers Deck Park has already had an effect on development to its North in uptown. Stage 6 proposes to create a similar deck park over the sunken portion of RL Thornton Expressway to the South of the Convention Center. Immediately the parcels between the Convention Center and the highway become valuable for Convention Center Expansion, new office, and perhaps residential. The feasibility of this idea would require more study.

Stage 7

The RL Thornton deck park begins to create the Southern-face for the Convention Center. No longer would it be parking lots, service, and largely unsuitable land for development. The park and the buildings fronting it become the seam between downtown and the Cedars and at this point in the grand vision for Southern downtown, Dallas is a long way down the road towards being one of the world class cities.