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Welcome Conventioneers

Richmond's new monolithic convention center must relate to the city to succeed.

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Its designers, Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback and Associates of Atlanta and SMBW Architects of Richmond, have designed a chest-beating, brick, glass and precast concrete-encrusted complex that makes no apologies for its audacious size. Just look at the center's fa‡ade and its exaggeratedly sized colonnade of 16 soaring pier columns.

Along North Fifth Street, arguably the complex's front fa‡ade (although the architects, for better or worse, attempted to address all street fronts with equal presence), the Convention Center stretches for three, long blocks— from Broad Street northward to Leigh Street— with a continuous, two-story urban wall of mostly glass. This is interrupted by the occasional sidewalk curb cuts, building setbacks, the interruption of Marshall Street and a phalanx of pylons that project above the roofline and are lighted from within to project a deep yellow glow at night.

On the building's North Third Street side, there is another primary entrance, which leads to a visitors' center. Also along this front is a high, fussy serpentine wall that attracts unnecessary attention to the fact that it serves no purpose other then to hide loading docks and service areas.

Aside from the architecturally subdued East Broad Street front, which evokes a 1950s brand of modernism found in the former Woolworth's and G.C. Murphy buildings across the street, and two mostly decorative towers, the Convention Center sets its own architectural tone.

To the west, the scale is completely out of whack with the fragile fabric of mostly 19th-century Jackson Ward. And to the east, well, it doesn't matter as much. There, the Convention Center faces the Coliseum, which is already engulfed in a visually disjointed netherworld of ill-conceived plazas, sunken roadways, surface car lots and awkwardly designed parking garages.

Judging from such inaugural events as the Maymont Flower Show, the family-oriented, grand opening weekend and an auto exhibition, the building's interior works quite well. It is a delight to promenade along the interior's light-filled concourses with floor-to-ceiling windows. These concourses ring the center's meeting rooms and exhibit halls, and allow fascinating vistas of surrounding downtown buildings, streets and sidewalks.

But one thing is striking: Those sidewalks are woefully empty. This, of course, is a primary reason the Convention Center was built — to inject life into the ailing retail district. One can't help but wonder, however, if the operation — i.e., this megastructure and the parking decks that are planned to support it — won't kill the patient.

Exhibit One: Three over-the-street skywalks link the Convention Center with adjacent parking decks. These keep people off the streets. Visitors can leave from their homes, drive to Richmond, pull into a garage and waltz across a skywalk directly into the Convention Center. After attending to business or entertainment, they can return home without having touched a Richmond sidewalk, brushed shoulders with the life of the city or even inhaled the local air. Sure, things are currently grim commercially in this district, but designing pedestrian bypasses only compounds the problem of unpopulated sidewalks.

Exhibit Two: The Convention Center is encircled by sidewalks that are wider than what is standard downtown. Aside from a few curbside trees, there are no landscaped areas, no cafes, no pedestrian amenities. Nothing is pedestrian-scaled. Even missing is the obligatory, oversize abstract sculpture — something that has become a standard way of softening monolithic, modernist buildings here. (Consider the financial district's red sculpture in the BankAmerica Plaza, the royal blue sculpture in front of the SunTrust building or the silver rods that chime in the Federal Reserve Bank driveway.) As silly and soulless as these pieces can be, they do provide human scale and provide reference points.

For some reason, rather than placing such a sculpture where it could have enlivened the lifeless blocks surrounding the Convention Center, a specially commissioned, large-scaled sculpture was placed inside one of the skywalks that crosses Marshall Street. Thus patrons are rewarded doubly for avoiding the downtown sidewalks. On a structural and architectural level, the skywalks are horizontal and sculptural elements in themselves. They need no extra adornment.

Exhibit Three: The areas immediately south and east of the Convention Center will probably be construction sites over the coming years, as hotel construction and expansion and additional parking decks are built to serve the Convention Center. This will discourage pedestrian-oriented activity from developing in the area in the near future. And are these auxiliary buildings going to make up for the lack of sidewalk life surrounding the Convention Center itself?

Solution? The exterior of the Convention Center needs considerable visual activities and programming. Perhaps sidewalk cafés with brightly-colored canopies or umbrellas can be set up on the broad sidewalks. Street vendors could be encouraged to set up their wares when conventions are in town. Benches could be placed in oasislike settings. And yes, large banners and sculptures could be installed to break the overall environmental monotony.

Importantly, to the west — where Jackson Ward's antique buildings, ranging from antebellum houses to the art deco Hippodrome Theater abut the Convention Center — rests the best hope of meshing the Convention Center with the life of the city. But the neighborhood and preservation groups must be vigilant in protecting every last shred of urban fabric. Please, no more demolitions for asphalt surface parking. And, even here, considerable, design-sensitive, in-fill construction will be required to make things whole again.

So the Convention Center has landed and ain't going anywhere. Now, a new and difficult challenge awaits — how to weave this elephantine structure into the life of the larger downtown. If the Convention Center cost $136 million to construct, we should consider allocating considerable, additional resources of energy, imagination and funds to integrate this incredible hulk with the rest of downtown. S

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