On the south end of Fort Worth’s tidy, finely-wrought latticework of a downtown, the mammoth Fort Worth Convention Center Building helps ensure a steady array of visitors whenever a major event is in town. Why shouldn’t it? That’s precisely what convention centers do. This convention center seems to benefit from a slightly greater-than-average effort to aestheticize its façade—to give it more visual interest and character than the usual windowless cube one typically expects of convention centers.
But, in the grand scheme of things, I’m not sure how much a pretty façade is going to matter when it comes to attracting lucrative conferences. The biggest issue facing a convention center that seeks to remain competitive with peer cities is its ability to answer a single question, as referenced in this article’s title. Does it fit?
The organizers of a major trade show or conference must identify at an early point the exact order of events and the quantity of floor space necessary to host it. Bearing this in mind, the largest and biggest conventions are not likely to find that (as an example) Asheville, North Carolina is going to meet their needs, even if it has a disproportionately large number of hotel rooms and attractions for a city below 100,000 people. Conversely, a place like Las Vegas has an almost infinite amount of available conferencing and exhibit space, with 2.5 million square feet in the city’s primary convention center alone. (The abundant array of hotels, casinos, and resorts more than quadruple that already large number.) Yet the intense desert heat and the devil-may-care entertainment options may still render the LVCC an unsuitable location for a number of organizations or trade shows.
The site selection for most big-city convention centers prompts a symbiotic relationship between the downtown and the venue itself: the majority of convention centers are in or close to a downtown, taking advantage of the walkability and hotels—simultaneously, the success of many hotels, restaurants, and specialty shops depends heavily on a well managed convention center that routinely draws visitors and their loose wallets. But this isn’t always the case: McCormick Place, Chicago’s premier convention center (and almost identically sized to Las Vegas, despite Vegas being a much smaller city) stands a good two miles to the southeast from the heart of the Loop, Chicago’s core business district. While plenty of visitors would be perfectly happy to walk that distance through picturesque Grant Park, it definitely precludes the convention-goers from snagging a quick lunch break in the Loop; it’s too far away. (Instead, many visitors to McCormick Place probably take advantage of the numerous ethnic eateries along Cermak Avenue, the primary street to Chicago’s Chinatown, which is just a few blocks away.)
Fort Worth Convention Center is no exception to the “Goldilocks zone” rule. (Or the Cinderella match, if that fairy tale is more one’s style.) Compared to the venues in Chicago and Las Vegas, it’s tiny: just shy of 400,000 square feet of space for exhibitions, meeting, and a primary ballroom. But this measurement is comparable to a city of Fort Worth’s size—Texas’s fifth most populous city. And while it pales in comparison to the 2M square-foot convention center in Fort Worth’s big-sister city just thirty miles to the east, most people familiar with the Dallas-Fort Worth Metropolex rate Fort Worth more favorably than Dallas for the scale and walkability of its downtown, rich with tidy old Art Deco and Art Nouveau buildings. As long as the convening organization doesn’t need too much space, the glass slipper fits. Or the porridge is just the right temperature. No need to sign a contract at the Kay Bailey Hutchinson Convention Center n Dallas. And it would be ridiculous to assess a convention center’s success through size alone; if it’s good at retaining a high level of occupancy and bookings throughout the year, it’s doing well. The prevalence of restaurants, boutiques, and (perhaps most importantly) hotels is an indicator of a consistent stream of visitors.
The massive building across the street from the Fort Worth Convention Center, on the right side of the above photo, is an Omni Hotel with 600 rooms, completed in 2009, and final approvals are currently underway to expand it to over 1,000 rooms. This Omni upgrade, delayed a few years due to the pandemic, isn’t taking place in a vacuum. Simultaneous with the Omni’s expansion—probably the impetus—is an expansion of of the Fort Worth Convention Center that involves demolishing the saucer-shaped component on the north end of the facility.
This arena formerly hosted sporting events and major music concerts but is obsolete after the 2019 completion of a larger Dickies Arena (14,500 seats) a few miles to the west. And the floor plate that the convention centers’s arena occupies is better suited to more exhibit halls, ballrooms, and meeting spaces. In other words, this fast-growing Texas city is recalibrating both its convention space and the accompanying demand for lodging, as a greater caliber of organizations will conclude that this facility is big enough to host their events.
Perhaps more important than this upcoming renovation/expansion, however, is the very placement of this structure onto the existing street grid—perhaps as good of an example as any of attempting to shove that glass slipper onto the foot of Drizella. (Or is it Anastasia?) The Fort Worth Convention center rests on the southern end of downtown, about a 15-minute walk from Sundance Square, the city’s commercial core. For those familiar with the figure of speech “Hell’s Half Acre”—well, the south side of downtown Fort Worth is at least one source of the name. (Wyoming and Idaho each lay claim to the name as well, though their “half acres” are purely geologic features.) Through much of the second half of the 19th century—Fort Worth’s early days as a pre-eminent cattle trading center—the south side of a much smaller but burgeoning city was the epicenter of bordellos, gambling houses, saloons, and mayhem typically associated with the territorial Wild West. Law enforcement generally allowed this 15-block district to operate unimpeded; it became a popular destination for fugitives traveling westward to evade capture. Ostensibly, by 1890 it accounted for half the city’s crimes, though how city leaders would know this if no arrests took place is anyone’s guess. The reputation of Hell’s Half Acre surpassed the rest of the city’s prosperity, so leadership finally reined it in by the end of the century. Attempts to resuscitate it in the early 1910s lost to greater concerns like the First World War and federal containment of alcohol during Prohibition.
None of Hell’s Half Acre survives today. Commemorative plaques remind locals and visitors of what once was. The district assimilated with the rest of Fort Worth in the subsequent decades, sharing its mid-century vicissitudes like most American cities of a certain minimum size. By the 1960s, no doubt prompted by urban renewal efforts that cleared derelict portions in or near American downtowns, Tarrant County officials proposed a convention center for Fort Worth to compete with the flourishing one in sister Dallas. The result required a rerouting of much of the street grid to Hell’s Half Acre, clearly visible on the map below.
There’s the Fort Worth Convention Center on the south side of town, flanked by two major streets running in a generally longitudinal direction. Not surprising that such a mighty building couldn’t fit on a conventional block; convention centers need broad uninterrupted expanses of floor space. They tend to have breadth rather than height. And Fort Worth’s blocks are atypically small compared to most cities. As a result, the City eliminated/vacated most of the east-west connecting streets to make room for a superblock that contains the Fort Worth Convention Center, as well as the Water Gardens immediately south, which I featured a few years ago.
This unconventional park offers a visually stimulating and tactile place for convention goers to sit out between events, enjoy lunch, or cool off during Fort Worth’s blisteringly hot, long summers. And, while it only adds further to the convention center’s laudable aesthetics, it isn’t the focal point of this article.
It’s those two streets that I care about.
Up to this point, all my photography of the façade and area surrounding the Fort Worth Convention Center has approached it from the Houston Street side on the west, which seems to serve as the front. The Omni Hotel looks out across Houston Street at this side of the building, as does a fancy parking garage in the above photo. By almost all respects, the convention center orients itself along Houston Street. But that of course leaves the other street—the one with the curved road portion that I treated with a pink ellipse in the map snippet above. Commerce Street, to the east of the convention center, received an obvious rerouting with that unusual curve, entirely so that it could fit the building’s massive floor plate without eliminating yet another important street.
But what does this curvy rerouting look like from a worm’s eye view? Not a whole lot. Here’s a walk along the Commerce Street curve.
There can be no doubt that this is the butt-end of the building. It’s the back side, the loading dock, the portion that services all the backstage operations necessary to make a trade show continue without a hitch, so the front-stage guests (and patrons of the Omni Hotel) don’t notice. Continuing northward along that Commerce Street curve, eventually the block regularizes as flying saucer area reasserts its prominence, at least until it gets deconstructed in the months ahead.
I have not found a persuasive rendering of the forthcoming reinvention of this important convention center—the second major renovation effort since the 1968 ribbon-cutting. Apparently it will straighten Commerce Street, which would also require a complete reconstruction of the loading dock that creates such a boring streetscape in the photos above. Because I don’t know if this straightening will improve the pedestrian environment along Commerce Street, I will refrain from any speculation. But the intent through the $500 million disassembly of the flying saucer is to reinvigorate the space around the curve of Commerce Street, where an array of surface parking lots separate the entrance of the Fort Worth Convention Center from the Fort Worth Central Station (the latter of which is barely visible between the trees in this Google Street View).
The efforts over the years to integrate the Fort Worth Convention Center with its surroundings have proven largely successful but far from perfect. Long an attempt to help breathe life and energy back into a derelict neighborhood (it might have been dangerous when it was Hell’s Half Acre but nobody could say it wasn’t thriving), this convention center undoubtedly incentivized visitors to downtown Fort Worth that might not give it the time of day, long resting under the shadow of its bigger, glitzier (but less historic) neighbor Dallas. And the frontage of the building along Houston Street at East 9th Street (the photo above) is at least reasonably inviting, almost making the pedestrian forget that convention centers are big austere boxes by design. But every building’s front door must have a back door (fire codes dictate as much), and transportation planners from the 1960s transformed Commerce Street into an unnatural curve to accommodate the back door to the Fort Worth Convention Center. They managed to get the porridge just the right temperature, but not without throwing in a few unexpected ingredients. Or—my preferred analogy—they molded the glass slipper wide enough for Drizella’s foot. But she isn’t exactly the belle of the ball, is she?