Enticing visitors downtown…and then incarcerating them.

As much as street-level engagement for large projects in city centers should, by this point, seem like a foregone conclusion, it continues to amaze how many big ticket items—in cities of widely varying size—either engage in terpsichorean negotiations around it or neglect it completely.  When developers confront a zoning ordinance or design guideline that insists on activating the sidewalks with retail, commercial, residential, or offices, they might challenge the requirement through a number of arguments: the development itself is too small, the street is not prominent enough, the economy for retail is particularly soft.  If the public-sector approving agency for the development fears that the proposal will collapse without kowtowing to the developer’s demands, chances are likely it will pass, therefore lacking that street-level engagement otherwise mandated by code.

But what about when it is a big-ticket item, partly or even completely funded by public dollars?  A case in point is the Greater Columbus Convention Center in the capital city of Ohio:Greater Columbus Convention CenterConstructed by Peter Eisenmann in 1993 and expanded six years later, the façade details arouse widely varying reactions, judging from opinions on consumer rating sites.  Many think it’s faded and ugly; others respect its idiosyncrasy.  While the Easter egg color palette obviously evokes the time period of construction, I don’t usually like to criticize particularly time-sensitive architectural gestures, since it is inevitable that the appeal of a stylistically distinct building will wax and wane on the general cultural radar.  If this convention center seems outmoded now, it’s only a matter of time before the taste cultures shift and it falls squarely into retro 1990s chic.

The problem here is the programming of the building within these walls.  Why so much blankness?  Why so few windows?  Couldn’t the urban design have allowed passers-by to engage with it by providing something to do, let alone something to see?  The criticism here would be more of a stretch if the convention center sat in a forlorn and otherwise overlooked corner of downtown Columbus.  But it doesn’t.  The photo above depicts frontage on North High Street, the most vibrant commercial corridor in the entire metro.  The convention center links the fashionable Short North, an array of mostly locally owned establishments along High Street that connect The Ohio State University campus to downtown; this stretch of the artery represents the southern end of the Short North, right before it continues southward into the central business district of the city.  In other words, it should be bustling, but this side of the street really isn’t.  And the other?View from across Greater Columbus Convention CenterThe photo above (taken by Jung Won Kim) reveal that not only does this convention center façade extend in much the same fashion for several blocks, but the other side of the street, featuring an array of historic commercial buildings alternating with smartly integrated infill, is among the deadest on the entire stretch of North High Street.  I hope to replace this Google Street View with some actual footage over the next couple weeks that will better demonstrate this distinction.  While most of High Street to the north of the convention center ranks among the most desirable commercial and retail real estate in the region, this section has struggled to secure very many stable tenants over the years.  It’s not completely desolate, but certainly not surging: a visit last December revealed that it was actually a bit blighted, which would be unheard of just three blocks north.  The forthcoming completion of a new Hilton in the parcel immediately south of this cluster of commercial buildings (and therefore west-southwest of the Convention Center) may help stimulate some pedestrian traffic.  Here’s a view of the nearly finished Hilton looking northward, with the aforementioned block of commercial buildings in the distance.  Directly across from this is the Convention Center.

And here’s a view of the Hilton looking southward.  Directly to the right of the photo is the underinvested block in question. Both photos are again courtesy of Jung Won Kim.View from across Greater Columbus Convention CenterThanks to the presence of both the Convention Center and the hotel, short-term visitors from out of town will dominate this block of High Street.  Unfortunately, tourists staying in hotels are not historically huge supporters of the local establishments that boosters of Short North aim to recruit.  However, given this segment’s recurrent struggles, if these storefronts eventually attract Starbucks, Noodles and Company, Chipotle, or even something surprising like Payless Shoes, it would be a welcome, stable improvement over the limbo that these old buildings have suffered for far too long.

Meanwhile, the Short North portion of High Street, particularly north of Goodale Street just blocks away, bustles—at least by the standards of a Midwest city of Columbus’ size and density:Plenty of shops, plenty of cars, and (particularly during the school year) lots of pedestrians.  The conditions here beggar the question: why design the Convention Center in such a cold, alienating fashion?  By almost every estimate, it was a shrewd location: when stepping out these doors, a convention-goer is blocks from the Statehouse and the heart of downtown to the left, and visually linked to the best of Columbus’ university-driven nightlife to the right.  While I strongly suspect that some historic building stock (of similar appearance to the buildings across the street) met the wrecking ball in order to clear the room for the hulking Convention Center, the idea of a mega-attraction might at the time have seemed like a stimulus for an area that suffered huge disinvestment up until urban living evolved into an overt 1990s fashion statement.

But structures like Greater Columbus Convention Center pervade across the country: arenas, stadia, performance halls, or convention centers.  We continue to build most of them this way.  When they are “in session”—when an event is taking place within their doors—they attract a higher density of people at one time than all but the most successful museums, malls, or urban mixed-use districts (i.e. Short North).  But most of them are only active for a fraction of the week, and regardless of whether the interiors are buzzing or quiet, the exteriors of these hermetic, self-referential monoliths offer little to attract the outside world.  Their visual contribution to the surrounding urban environs involve little more than blank walls.

I would never question the economic development benefits of these attractions for their respective downtowns; aside from revenue generated in both property taxes and direct consumer spending, they bring throngs of people to one place for a limited time—something most downtowns for the past fifty years could never otherwise achieve.  But the design of these structures all too often seems to treat this as a virtue in and of itself—not a means to something even better through a symbiotic relation with the often much more pedestrian-scaled context.  With convention centers and arenas, the multiplier effect is a foregone conclusion.  But where’s the spinoff activity going on North High Street in Columbus?

The biggest offenders in this case are, incidentally, the ones closest to downtowns—the airplane hangars that displaced an assortment of smaller, aging, potentially obsolescent buildings that housed smaller-scale commerce quite easily, back when technological limitations mandated that four-story structures remain the status quo.  Long the Mother of them All, Chicago’s McCormick Place convention center is a minimal offender, since Lake Shore Drive separates it from most of the urban fabric—in this case, the near-southside neighborhood of Chinatown—obviating the destruction of many (or any) historic buildings.  At the same time, virtually no other city has perceived of Chicago’s convention center as a model of site selection, because its non-intrusive location along Lake Michigan, far from the Loop, also failed to link the throngs of visitors to the central business district.

Thus, we instead have witnessed an escalating tendency to push these hulks right into the heart of the city, with practically no other street-level storefronts, offices, or visual stimuli.  I pointed out the inclusion of a new arena in Evansville a few years ago that sacrificed a full block of century-old buildings.  While I’m certain there are others, the only exception to this that comes easily to mind is in Indianapolis’ Bankers Life Fieldhouse, which has one small storefront at its northwest corner, visible on Google Street View.  (It hosted a Starbucks at the time of the Google photos; today it is a Dunkin Donuts.)  But arenas and stadia are not the most egregious urban design offenders: to some extent, their absence of retail storefronts is justifiable because of their erratic levels of activity.  Either they pull out all the stops to host an event, or they are completely empty.  Rarely do those key events take place during conventional business hours, the time when most retailers prefer to operate, so they are not a reliable generator of activity, even if they typically lure sell-out crowds.  It’s a bit surprising that even a Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts would prefer to locate in an arena, despite the fact that essentially in the heart of Indy’s downtown.

Regardless of the weaknesses of major sporting or performance venues, the convention center still wins the urban underachiever award.  The configuration of most centers can accommodate multiple events simultaneously, and these events normally take place during the heart of the business day.  But the designs of the buildings practically never attempt any engagement with the surrounding downtown.  In fact, they do the exact opposite: most of them contain interior eateries, some have their own souvenir shops, and (particularly in the cold climates) a network of skyways connects them to adjacent hotels and parking garages.  An out-of-town convention-goer could spend three days in the host city without ever stepping foot on a downtown street or sidewalk.  But the biggest embarrassment? Public monies fund most or all of these developments!  The convention and tourism bureaus often spearhead the construction or expansion initiatives, and yet by commissioning designs that sequester the buildings from their surroundings, they are squandering many of their own efforts to get people to spend their money downtown—all at taxpayers’ expense.  I can conjure mental images of several downtown convention centers—Indianapolis, New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Jackson, MS, Philadelphia—only the last one offers any exterior storefronts, and that contribution is only a twentieth (at best) of the overall frontage.  The others offer occasional windows to break up the blank walls—just like Columbus.

Nothing this article explores is novel within the world of urban design, but it warrants extra consideration because, even as many cities are catching on to strong street-level engagement with other publicly funded ventures, they continue to get convention centers wrong.  Civic leaders across the country learned a lesson from the relative isolation of Chicago’s McCormick Place, but it’s the wrong lesson.  Rather than taking a cue that its isolated position estranged it from the hotels and the attractions of downtown Chicago, other cities have imitated its hulking architecture while displacing the buildings that originally helped a central business district become a locus of all kinds of activity.  Columbus still boasts a fantastic asset in the Short North district that extends for well over a mile across North High Street, but it is just a few blocks less of an asset than it could have been, thanks to the pastel Styrofoam toy blocks that hug the east side of the street…otherwise known as the Greater Columbus Convention Center.

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13 thoughts on “Enticing visitors downtown…and then incarcerating them.

  1. John

    “While I strongly suspect that some historic building stock (of similar appearance to the buildings across the street) met the wrecking ball in order to clear the room for the hulking Convention Center”

    The Convention Center sits on the site of the former Union Station. The arch from the entrance now sits in a nearby park. The High Street freeway cap over I-670 echoes the architecture of the former station.

  2. Anonymous

    short north Columbus is a fragile ecnomic time bomb.businesses open and go out of business regularly because of the short attention span of the customer base,and the overpricing of their product.

    like other cities mentioned in this article,the urban landscape in Columbus is far from perfect.
    it is propped up with taxpayer funded ideas that eventually evaporate into obscurity.

    then out comes the wrecking ball again to tear down another bad idea.

  3. AmericanDirt


    Thanks for the comments and, in particular, the link. I read the dialogue (probably not as closely as I should) and spotted two recurring dichotomies between the men: that of the cerebral/visceral and then the incongruity/harmony cosmology. I can see how Alexander’s high regard of architecture of feeling endows him with a mission of harmonious achievement, yet, in this case, I sympathize more with Eisenman and his belief that incongruities help define harmony, so it is important for them to exist–perhaps thus demonstrating a manifestation of these fully conceived incongruities with the alienating facade of the Columbus Convention Center. This, in turn, forces me to codify feeling/intellect, probably unfairly, in terms of expertise of the beholder–the aesthetic gazer. Do those of us who are not living a profession or discipline (architecture in this case) only appreciate what we see as feeling/viscera, as Alexander prefers, thereby suggesting that it is the more “lowbrow” of the two largely Kantian forms of aesthetic appreciation? It would seem that way, but I don’t think that’s entirely fair to discredit an emotional attachment to art as being purely less sophisticated. However, Alexander’s relentless pursuit of harmony does seem a bit crude, even if to do anything else is “fucking up the world” as he puts it.

    But I would never claim that I’m trying “to prove [my] membership in the fraternity of modern architecture” so I’m entitled to my fairly unsophisticated reaction to Eisenman’s facade, contrary as it may be to my sympathy with his outlook. But this is why I shy away from the subjectivity of architectural critiques–the rise and fall of various taste cultures makes a compelling criticism akin to catching mosquitoes with a fish net. Even something I feel I understand very well, such as music–I still recognize the ephemerality of criticism abrogates its effort to objectify greatness. So it really comes down to the idea that I simply know what I like, and try my hardest to withhold judgment when it would condescend (at least most of the time).

    And I don’t like what this facade does to the street. Could Eisenman still have achieved his goals of incongruity by retaining the hybrid whimsy/alienation, but still integrated some mixture of uses at the street level. Couldn’t he have divorced design from urban design, or would that be a contrived imposition of harmony? Maybe he really did fuck up this block of High Street.

    As for the Union Station, I have seen that arch, but I mistakenly thought the park site was also the former home–did not know it was at the site of the Convention Center. It looks like it was demolished as long ago as 1979, so almost a decade before Eisenman’s design.

  4. AmericanDirt

    Anonymous, I appreciate you reminding me of the vicissitudes of development in long disinvested downtowns. Columbus is par for the course for Midwestern downtowns, as are most of the others, regardless of how advanced their state of urbanism is (another purely subjective judgment anyway).

  5. Anonymous

    Good article. However, I should point out that when the Columbus Convention Center was built, the Short North was not nearly the destination it is today. The Convention Center site was on the fringe of a rather bland downtown, compared to the condition today where it sits between two revitalized areas. I don’t think anyone at the time could have had the foresight to see how the area would develop over time. When the convention center was built, there was absolutely no market for street-level activity. Today, that has changed, and maybe we ought to start thinking about how to retrofit the building to include some of these elements. We shouldn’t be afraid to mess around with Eisenman’s design. After all, the convention center was never intended to be a monument to his architectural “genius.” –Matt.

  6. AmericanDirt

    Anonymous (Matt)–

    Thanks so much for your response; it’s comforting and not at all surprising that the Short North was not particularly vibrant as recently as 20 years ago. I wasn’t visiting Columbus back then, except for vague memories of the Ameri-Flora festival back in ’93. But I certainly had no understanding of urban issues at that point.

    Your comments touch upon an all-too-common trope in city planning: “If we had known then what we do now…” The point of this article wasn’t so much to place the Columbus Center in the cross-hairs for criticism. No doubt the Columbus CC would look very different if designed today. It might also be in a different location. The biggest problem is convention centers as a building typology have long been hostile to the urban context, and I see little evidence of this changing with recent construction/expansion. The Indy expansion from the last two years at least has a fair number of windows, but still no other uses fronting the street. New Orleans mostly lacks windows, and it stretches for blocks (a whole boulevard is named after it, for crying out loud), serving as a barrier to the Mississippi riverfront, much like the apparent debacle in San Diego. In addition, the Columbus CC underwent an expansion in 1999, when I’m a bit more confident that things were perking up in the Short North. And yet still no sign of improvements to the High Street facade. Chances are the 1999 Columbus expansion took place in another wing of the building, and I don’t know enough about the interior–it’s likely impossible for the designers to include some mixed-use street engagement without significantly altering exhibition or circulation from the inside. But the attitude in the construction/expansion of most convention centers seems to be that they are a sine qua non to a vibrant downtown, so just make them big, and the vitality will automatically play itself out from that point on. Columbus, among other cities, is proof that that hasn’t been the case.

    If we didn’t know better then, we had an excuse. But we do know better now and we still often get it wrong. Perhaps the most important question to ask is, “What are we doing wrong right now that we are completely unaware of?” Can we step outside of our own designs and policies to anticipate how shifting trends might challenge or completely nullify today’s dogma? Obviously I’m asking for a certain level of cultural prescience that might only be reserved to the Warren Buffetts of the world.

  7. Keith M

    I was expecting a mention of how the other side of High is what should be offered on the convention side: restaurants and bars don’t say “deadest” to me as far as High St. S High south of Broad would have to be it where numerous commercial spaces along intact blocks sit rather empty. I think the downtown kiosks help guide visitors a bit, at least as far as the northern end of Downtown and the Short North, although I’ve noticed several convention goers wandering down Gay St. Seems some would *like* to check out what else Columbus has to offer, but aren’t savvy enough to find the spots they’d enjoy, which seems to be a missed opportunity by the city to show off more than just a couple of areas. A bike share station with signage to the Olentangy trail and exit signs with directions to more far flung, but accessible commercial districts and nodes from there would be a very successful in numerous ways (visitors general impression of the city, more businesses benefiting from tourism). Right now, convention goers will have to be happy with the neighborhoods immediately outside f the convention center, if they even spend much time outside of it, that is.

    There was a news article about how convention centers have recently been a net loss in many cities which makes me wonder why so much is spent on them and similar losers (sports stadiums anyone?) which depend on sporadic large events while so little is spent to make more urban business corridors economic assets year round instead of sitting forlorn and empty.

  8. AmericanDirt

    Thanks for your sharp observations and suggestions, Keith. I too sometimes wonder about the rationale for building these monsters, though I would guess that a big part of it is the negative PR that one associates when a team/convention pulls out of town because of an inadequate facility. The previous mayor of Indianapolis clearly didn’t want to be known as the one who lost the Colts–a pretty damning legacy. Furthermore, when a city has forged a solid convention contract with an organization of national repute, it obviously doesn’t want to lose it: no doubt it was a black eye to the City of Milwaukee when Gen Con (which began in Wisconsin) moved to Indy in 2003 due to the perceived inadequate size and poor maintenance of Milwaukee’s convention center. Notice that I say “perceived”–I’m quite the empiricist, and how the general public perceives a certain phenomenon (like stadium size) sometimes inoculates the buzz from reality.

    Acquiring and securing the site may also have a big factor–the clarity of title in a large, publicly owned parcel is easier to work with than the hodgepodge of ownerships and tenures that one must deal with in a corridor that consists of many smaller buildings and parcels. The complexity of a deal can engender a sort of creep that is unsavory to both lenders and developers, since delays can push a project’s term outside of a favorable market cycle. And urban business corridors may depend more heavily on market cycles than a publicly managed stadium or convention center.

    Other than that, I think you’re touching on great recommendations for retail character, which I love thinking about, though I hope I’ve never been caught saying “they should put a __ there”. It is very hard to develop or regulate for retail. I see that a lot on blogs, and I know that the market tail will generally wag the building’s dog. Retailers will look at demographics and the physicality of the building. Function follows form more often than not. And a bunch of old commercial buildings right across from a convention center and next to a hotel are hardly likely to attract that edgy new vegan restaurant. I’d love to be proven wrong. But convention goers are all too conflated with other vacationers, though they navigate in tourist cities through different mentalities. Vacationers have the time and (at least on occasion) the hunger for local culture; conventioneers are there for a convention. Quite often we urban advocates lean toward solipsism in our assumption that everyone else craves local urban culture as much as we do. But realistically, do the majority of conventiongoers care about the city? Even in a chain-restaurant-averse city like New Orleans, familiar brands like Gordon Biersch sit directly across from the Convention Center. (Other parts of the sprawling New Orleans CC neighborhood are still run down.) Other than that, they usually spend their free time on Bourbon Street–not much in the funky corners that locals enjoy.

    Hats off to the conventioneers who explore Gay Street in Columbus, but the reality is that people who have been walled in for a full day in an unfamiliar environment aren’t necessarily going to crave more unfamiliarity and experimentation when the long day closes. The most reliable supporters of local culture in Columbus neighborhoods will remain the locals.

  9. Anonymous

    “The forthcoming completion of a new Hilton in the parcel immediately south of this cluster of commercial buildings (and therefore west-southwest of the Convention Center) may help stimulate some pedestrian traffic.”
    Unfortunately, some of that pedestrian traffic will be lessened because they have decided to put a pedestrian “skywalk” from the 3rd floor of the hotel over to the convention center. Granted, the street there has some sight distance issues but I don’t understand the logic especially after a skywalk and an indoor mall was torn down to make way for street level development.
    It always feels like we take one step forward and then two back. Someday I hope we’ll get it!

  10. AmericanDirt

    Ah, the dreaded skywalk. We can rail against them, but they’re just never going to go away. Far too many people love them, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a deal-breaker for the Columbus Hilton.

    And perhaps you can judge this better than I, but is this Hilton really filling a void in Columbus for hotels of its caliber. I don’t think the Smith Travel Reseach reports are suggesting that occupancy rates there are particularly high. A friend of mine who lives there speculates that its completion could quickly put another nearby hotel out of business–the tourist/convention demand simply isn’t great enough yet.

  11. christine

    Looking for a parking space down town is not that easy, especially during the weekends or holidays. Most people have no choice but to park wherever they could find a free space. Some of the parking areas don’t even have parking lights.


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