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Unconventional Center: Square Peg in a Round Hole Kinda Thing

Note: this is the third in a series

In describing the recent Statler City convention center proposal as a “square peg in a round hole kinda thing,” commenter “Flyguy2pt0” perhaps put it most succinctly. But given the layout of the streets at that location, it may be more like a square peg in a triangular hole.

As discussed below, the Statler City proposal is a scaled-up version of the one they showed back in 2010, but on steroids so powerful they might expect an eastern European Olympic committee to come calling, seeking the formula.

That’s not to say it’s not a serious proposal by serious people – Kideney Architects is the oldest architectural firm in Buffalo, coming up on a century in business. It merits a serious analysis. To take a stab at that, I’ll try it the only way I know how: like being a guest critic at a studio review. I’ve been privileged to review some outstanding architectural and planning work, especially in graduate-level joint studios like the Shelton Square studio that Queenseyes and I assisted with.

Guest critics at reviews have to walk the fine line of being frank and pulling no punches, while also being constructive. With that in mind let me say that, given this design challenge, Kideney had the unenviable task of having to meet a very ambitious set of program requirements in a very constrained setting. It seems to me they did about the best that could be done with it, and also displayed a spry level of creativity you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find in a nonagenarian.

While the proposal has flaws that are hard to miss, I believe they derive from the essential nature of the task and the constraints, rather than any failure in skill or creativity. About those flaws, given that all of our readers and commenters are savvy, thoughtful, and perceptive, you’ve surely noticed and perhaps already commented on them. So bear with me while I make some observations of my own.

Unblocking the blocking of the unblocking of the block

Notice that, in explaining the Statler City proposal, Mark Croce takes it as a given that Genesee Street can never be reopened. Why? He points out that the way the Hyatt is currently configured, there are loading docks and a ballroom intruding on Genesee Street. He then asserts, “Paul Snyder isn’t giving that up.” (Paul Snyder, of course, being the head of Snyder Corp, owners of the Hyatt.)

What’s amazing about that statement is the entire thesis of the Statler City proposal is that, with some creativity, the constraints of the site can be overcome to achieve the goal of merging the Statler and the convention center in a way that meets the needs recently spelled out by Erie County. Yet at the same time, they assert that the situation with Genesee Street couldn’t possibly be remedied. Think about that a minute. To overcome one formidable design challenge, they’re willing to engage the best architects, set them to work, and encourage them to unleash their creativity. But when it comes to the potential to reopen Genesee Street? Instead of taking a closer look, or bringing any creativity to bear, they simply dismiss it out of hand.

In a studio review, that’s the kind of thing a critic simply can’t let slide. In studio reviews, critics aren’t there to do any student’s project for them, or propose a re-design on the spot. And time is of the essence. But if a student asserts, without justification, that a particular option isn’t possible for their project it can be appropriate to challenge that. Not necessarily, “Why don’t you do it this way?” but more, “Did you even consider an alternative like this?” I’ve even seen reviewers, to make their point, rough-sketch an alternative in pencil right on a student’s display board.

Let’s try that here for a minute, with the rough diagram below for reference.

Black = infill, green = green space, light gray = Genesee Street atrium, dark gray = street, dark gray with green stripes = boulevard streetscape

For the sake of argument, let’s make a few working assumptions. Assume a new convention center is built at another site, and the site of the current one is redeveloped. Perhaps the bonds that finance the new construction also contribute to the redevelopment of the current site, including demolition. Say also, that to compensate both the Statler and the Hyatt for the loss of adjacency to the convention center, the redevelopment includes creating underground parking and underground loading docks, directly connected to both hotels under Pearl and Franklin Street. In that case, the current Hyatt loading docks, built partly over Genesee Street, could be removed.

What then about the Hyatt ballroom, which is also built partly over Genesee Street? Sticking with the same scenario, consider how a redevelopment of the current convention center site that would include underground parking and underground loading docks could also spur infill development on the east side of Pearl Street between Mohawk and Genesee (in black on the rough diagram). That site (pictured) is currently a surface parking lot, impacted visually by the ungainly overhead walkway and the nondescript brick backsides of the buildings fronting Main Street, featuring mostly bricked-in windows. The overhead walkway would go away with the convention center, and infill development on the east side of Pearl Street could be connected, under the street, to the underground parking and loading docks on the former convention center site. That could eliminate the need for the surface parking lot.

Pearl and Mohawk

Infill development on that parking lot (in black on the rough diagram) could include a new ballroom for the Hyatt, and perhaps also office space for Snyder Corp, currently housed in what resembles a clunky 1980s external hard-disk drive plugged into the Huron Street side of the Hyatt. Keep in mind that moving the Hyatt ballroom to the north side of Genesee Street would not mean it would have to be completely separated from the rest of the hotel. For example, it could have below-grade connections under Genesee Street, such as a service tunnel and even a walkway. But another option could also keep it connected above ground: a new, extended atrium over that block of Genesee Street, stretching from Pearl to Main (in gray on diagram).

Why would that new atrium be an option worth considering? First, because restoring the continuity of Genesee Street between Pearl and Main wouldn’t necessarily require restoring auto access – it could mean visual continuity and pedestrian connectivity. Second, because doing anything with Genesee Street between Pearl and Main would have to gain the support of Snyder Corp. As civic-minded as the Snyders may be, they are also businesspeople, so presumably they would want any project to reconfigure Genesee Street to result in something better – or at least not worse – than their present situation.

Imagine, then, this block of Genesee Street, cleared of permanent structures like loading docks and ballrooms, covered with a new glass atrium with good visibility straight through, and pedestrian connectivity from end to end. The atrium would provide a great deal of coatless connectivity, providing direct access to:

  • The 500 block of Main Street and two nearby MetroRail stations outside the doors on the eastern end.
  • Pearl Street and whatever replaces the current convention center outside the doors on the western end.
  • Stairs and escalators to allow access under Pearl Street to the new underground parking created at the current convention center site.
  • Access to all the main functions of the Hyatt: main desk, conference space, gift shop, Morton’s Steakhouse, and the new ballroom.
  • Snyder Corp offices.
  • The Belesario (in the former L. L. Berger Building).
  • 522 Main (former Gamler’s).

Inside the atrium, even though walls and permanent structures would be removed, there could still be concessions like coffee, pastries, sandwiches, etc. operated from carts or temporary booths and even cafe tables. The atrium space could also be used for events, although pedestrian right of passage should be uninfringed. The atrium space could even be operated, maintained, and programmed by the Hyatt, perhaps under a contract with the city.

What would that atrium look like? There are great examples of atrium spaces from around the world (see collage), with the ur-atrium being the 1851 Crystal Palace in London. Perhaps the best model for a new Genesee Street atrium is also found in London – the East Wintergarden at Canary Wharf (PDF), designed by Cesar Pelli. Extremely elegant yet extremely simple, the East Wintergarden has a soaring, unimpeded atrium space flanked by two-story connectors that link it to the adjacent buildings. It isn’t just a signature addition to the architecture of Canary Wharf, but provides essential space for functions and events that bring in revenue. The flanking passages assure that linear access is maintained even when the atrium space is in use for an event, which would also be critical for Genesee Street. You can even take a 360-degree virtual tour.

Canary Wharf East Wintergarden

If this seems like going to great lengths to take steps toward restoring the radial street grid downtown, keep in mind that this scenario would also accomplish something else that we should be looking at doing anyway: giving the Hyatt a much-needed architectural extreme makeover. I’ve always struggled to adequately describe the architecture of the Hyatt. “Space: 1999?” “I. M. NOT Pei?” Preservation Architect Barbara Campagna suggested, “Not Quite John Portman.” A UB professor of architecture added on social media, “Portmanesque? Poor-Man’s Portman? John Portman’s work for Hyatt in Atlanta changed everything for hotel design in the 1960s. Since then, there are poor copies of the concept for lesser Hyatts all over the place.” Other suggestions on social media included, “Logan’s Run,” “Atrial Aneurysm,” “8-Track Tape,” and “Chevy Citation.”

Hyatt from the Electric Tower. Detail from photo by Buffalo News photographer Derek Gee.

The Buffalo News feature, “Every Day a Photo” recently had a great picture by Derek Gee of the gold dome taken from the Electric Tower. In one corner (cropped and expanded above), the architecture of the Hyatt can be seen in all its throwback glory. It’s not like that architecture can be easily updated or refreshed. Unless it were redone from the ground up, the Hyatt – and the rest of us – may be stuck with it.

Genesee Building pre-atrium – photo courtesy buffaloah

And it’s not just about the look, but also the feel – the experience of being in the space. In a social media conversation, I heard comments along the lines that the Hyatt atrium, “always seems dead, empty and depressing whenever I go there.” A fundamental flaw is that blocking Genesee Street and being uninviting from main limits the amount of use the atrium gets from outside the hotel. Another is that its interior design doesn’t lend itself to flexible reconfiguration for events. A new atrium, stretching from Pearl to Main, would be a lively, mixed-use connecting space that would never seem “dead, empty and depressing.” It would also have great views of the surrounding city: the gold dome and the Electric Tower (lit at night) from one end, and the YMCA Tower, Statler, and City Hall (also lit at night) from the other. Not to mention a great view of whatever replaces the current convention center, which is more likely to have a dramatic design if it’s known it will be viewed from a reopened Genesee Street, rather than viewed by a couple of loading docks and the ass end of the Hyatt.

A final note on this scenario for Genesee Street: it could also benefit Huron Street. If, as mentioned above, office space for Snyder Corp could be moved from the Huron Street side of the Hyatt to new infill space at Pearl and Mohawk, that would allow removal of the clunky addition grafted onto the Huron side of the Hyatt. That, in turn, would allow a beautiful, boulevard streetscape to be created on Huron between Main and Delaware. Such a green street would dovetail nicely with the green triangles formed where Huron, Main, and Genesee intersect. It would also create a high-quality street environment for infill development along the south side of Huron. All this is shown in the rough diagram above.

To recap: the scenario laid out here is simply one possible alternative, put forward to rebut the assertion by Statler City that Genesee Street could never be re-opened. The Statler City team has gone to such great lengths to try to fit a square peg into a round hole with their convention center proposal. Let’s keep in mind that we can apply that same level of determination and creativity to reopening Genesee Street in one form or another, if the convention center moves to another location.

Which, of course, would be the catalyst for all of this.

Mr. Poloncarz, tear down this wall!

Another thing that you may have noticed about the Statler City proposal is the side of the current convention center along Pearl Street. Or, rather, you may not have noticed, because it’s noticeably not shown, or shown well. I’m not saying that was intentional, but folks proposing projects are more likely to show you the parts they think best sell the proposal. The other parts, not so much.

Most likely, the wall along Pearl isn’t featured for the same reason as the team is pooh-poohing the idea of re-opening Genesee Street: a key to their proposal is keeping the original convention center building and the services it provides, which includes the loading dock along Pearl Street. You see, taking over a street for loading docks is one of the fundamental characteristics of plopping down a major facility like a convention center in the middle of a district, rather than, say, on the edge of a district or the edge of a downtown. Loading and unloading supplies, concessions, catering, and exhibits on one side are as central to operating a convention center as getting people in and out the doors on the other side. So if you locate in the middle of a district, unless you put them underground, you have to create a wall of loading docks on one side of the building.

Bruno Freschi model

That wall of loading docks has to be retained in the Statler City proposal along with the rest of the original convention center infrastructure. Our article about the proposal includes a picture of the model of Bruno Freschi’s concept to add a level to the convention center. You can see that his model punches some holes in the concrete wall along Pearl Street, to create some transparency, but leaves the loading docks in place. Unless you’re a delivery truck, it’s still a dead zone. You can dress up a corpse, but it’s still a corpse.

As pointed out in the previous piece of the series, that’s a fatal flaw in any proposal to expand the convention center in place, including this one. We can do better, but only elsewhere. We have to tear down this wall.

Selling us short

Speaking of doing better, another fundamental flaw of the Statler City proposal is that it sells Buffalo short. No matter how creative the team, and despite how much bigger they managed to make things over the 2010 concept, they can only get an exhibit hall at the low end of the county’s desired range – and with no real prospects for expansion. That means that, like having to convince us that Genesee Street will be forever blocked, and not to think about the Pearl Street dead zone, they also have to tell us our convention center prospects can’t realistically be any greater than what they can provide.

As I described here, Buffalo was once a first-tier convention city. Now, that distinction is held by places like Las Vegas, Chicago, and New York City – places with over a million square feet of convention center space – or even Boston, with half that. It’s not likely that Buffalo would ever enter even the bottom of that top tier. But what about the top of the medium tier? Competing with cities like Pittsburgh and Cleveland, which have convention centers with exhibit halls on the order of 200,000 square feet? With adequate convention facilities, yes – especially given our location in relation to much of the population of North America and proximity to Niagara Falls.

There are simply too many ways this proposal sells us short – all because of the attempt to jam a square peg into a round hole. In fact, the proposal seems to accomplish the opposite of what it intends, because it shows convincingly that, at this site, even the best option by the best minds falls short of what we need.

But what did Mark Croce say in introducing the Statler City proposal? “We don’t need a massive, one-level meeting hall. Buffalo isn’t drawing or in the running for those types of large conventions. Buffalo’s more competitive with regional conventions and trade shows.”

Yet the county study is, in fact, calling for exactly that: in addition to other things, a large, single-level, clear-span exhibit hall. Would it always be in use, or always be fully utilized? Of course not. But instead of setting our sights low, as Croce does here, what if we strove for the higher end of the range the county study calls for (150,000+ square feet), but designed the space to have the flexibility to serve two smaller events simultaneously? That would be more feasible with a linear plan – say, with a secondary entrance for smaller events – than a boxy space like that proposed by Statler City.

Oh, and about that boxy space: a linear space can be clear-span and column-free, but that’s much more difficult with a boxy space. Although the renderings do not show this directly (did the Statler City proposal include any interior renderings?) with the boxy shape and flat roof, it seems clear that the exhibit hall would feature support columns. But having exhibit hall space that is contiguous and column-free is preferred by convention and meeting planners. If you have any doubt about that, look at how other citys’ convention centers advertise their space.

There are simply too many ways this proposal sells us short – all because of the attempt to jam a square peg into a round hole. In fact, the proposal seems to accomplish the opposite of what it intends, because it shows convincingly that, at this site, even the best option by the best minds falls short of what we need.

Wagging the dog

Statler “Rudnicked.” 2010 rendering by Flynn-Battaglia, Architects

“Gee, I miss Andy Rudnick” said no one in Buffalo ever.

Remember 2010, when the future of the Statler was far from certain? And Andy Rudnick, then longtime head of the Buffalo-Niagara Partnership, was calling for its demolition? That seems like several “New Buffalo”s ago now. Thankfully, a half-dozen years ago Andy Rudnick, after a year of chaffing under, and lashing out over, his loss of influence in the new REDC world, did himself and us a huge solid by leaving town. Smartly, we kept the Statler but got rid of Rudnick.

But in 2010, when the city was faced with the prospect of losing one of its most prominent landmarks, and preservationists were faced with the prospect of the wrecking balls swinging just outside the 2011 National Trust for Historic Preservation conference, there was much grasping at straws for ways to save the Statler. We owe a debt of gratitude to Mark Croce and the Statler City team for stepping up and saving the building. But what we’ve forgotten over nearly a decade is that their plan – from the beginning – included joining the Statler with the convention center. You can see the original renderings for that scheme in this section, and compare them with the new proposal unveiled this month.

2010 rendering by Flynn-Battaglia, Architects

Eight years ago, only one writer, Brian Castner (then blogging for WNY Media), captured the incongruity of the way preservationists at the time were willing to embrace, support, and promote the Statler City team’s plan, despite the convention center link. Preservationists and urbanists signed on to the Statler City plan even though the plan’s “phase 3” would not only keep our despised convention center in place, along with its damage to the urban fabric and blockage of the radial street grid, but even worsen the damage by extending the takeover of Genesee Street. The original renderings for the plan were even done by a preservation architecture firm.

As Castner noted then,

Lest anyone be confused, the leading WNY preservation group just endorsed altering the facade of our most celebrated historic landmark to connect it to the most egregious example of terrible urban planning in Buffalo. Rather than pushing for the Warsaw Pact convention center to be removed, so the coveted original street grid could be restored, Preservation Buffalo Niagara is ensuring its perpetual existence with a permanent link to the Statler.

Fast-forward to 2018, and you can see that the current proposal is essentially an expansion of that original plan. What drove that expansion? The county’s study. The study put a number on how much convention center space we need , and it was substantially more than the original plan could provide. So the Statler City team literally had to go back to the drawing board and their proposal had to get bigger – much bigger.

Yet so much has changed in that time. Community leaders who voiced support in 2010 were probably primarily behind the first two phases of the Statler City plan: publicly assisted stabilization of the lower floors, followed by a floor-by-floor reuse of the tower as market conditions allowed. That speculative third phase, until this month, was largely forgotten. In recent years, with the advent of Green Code, urbanism is ascendant in Buffalo. Many have greeted talk of a new convention center as an opportunity to do away with one of the most egregious of Buffalo’s post-war planning blunders.

2010 rendering by Flynn-Battaglia, Architects

Yet here we are, eight years later, with the Statler City team renewing the argument that full renovation of the Statler is somehow contingent on merging it with the current convention center.

My dad’s favorite football quote was from his fellow WWII veteran Marv Levy. As my dad used to recount it, when asked by a reporter if an upcoming game was a “must-win,” Coach Levy responded, “WWII was a must-win – this is a football game.” For Statler City team, however, the convention center expansion game is their must-win – and always has been. For them, this is the big game – the one for which they’ve been preparing for over eight years. This is for all the marbles. If they lose the convention center, it’s not clear that they have a backup plan.

So what must they do? Exactly what we see them doing. They have to propose the best design they can, highlighting its best features and minimizing its flaws. They have to squeeze in every possible square foot to get into the county’s target range, going from the 2010 plan to roof over Franklin Street to now roofing over much of Genesee Street, as well – and even cantilevering over Mohawk. They have to dismiss the possibility of Genesee Street ever reopening in any form. And they have to disparage the idea of a convention center being any larger than the largest project they can shoehorn in.

2010 rendering by Flynn-Battaglia, Architects

The problem is, their arguments are largely hand-waving. Hand-waving is what my college physics professor, Dr. Ogden, would accuse us of if we didn’t show our work, or asserted something was true simply because it had to be in order to get the right answer at the end.

Creative problem solving is important, and there is plenty of it on display in this proposal. But this proposal attempts to solve a problem we shouldn’t have in the first place, and perpetuates that problem, and even makes it worse. And despite doing all that, it even fails in the basic task of giving us what we actually need: adequate space with the ability to expand.

As I pointed out in the first article of this series, Buffalo’s Statler was originally built as a convention hotel, and it caused Buffalo to jump right to the head of the pack in the meetings and conventions business that was coming of age at that time. But in post-war years, convention centers began to be civic buildings, in many cases built by cities to bolster their sagging downtowns, and the sagging downtown hotels facing increased competition from suburban and airport locations.

In Buffalo, our convention center was shoehorned in where it is because of pressure from the Statler owners (reference). As Buffalo Rising’s STEEL said in 2010,

The irony of the convention center site location is that it was crammed into that site to appease the owner of the Statler Hilton. He insisted the hotel was only viable with the convention center at that location. Soon after the convention center opened the Hilton chain moved their [flag] to what is now the Adams Mark (a government-subsidized project). It was called the Waterfront Hilton.

It’s time for the Statler tail to stop wagging the convention center dog. We have to speak now or forever hold our peace. Not only should this couple not be married, but the convention center needs to – finally – get out of this relationship that never worked out for either party, move away, and start over. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to correct a past mistake, and we can’t afford to pass it up. Amplifying it and making it permanent, as important as it may be to some, would likely be another decision Buffalo would come to regret.

Next: Vision 2030

Previous articles in this series:

Unconventional Center: If You Build It, Will They Convene?

Unconventional Center: Kobayashi Maru

Written by RaChaCha

RaChaCha

RaChaCha is a Garbage Plate™ kid making his way in a Chicken Wing world. Since 2008, he's put over a hundred articles on here, and he asked us to be sure to thank you for reading. So, thank you for reading. You may also have seen his freelance byline in Artvoice, where he writes under the name his daddy gave him [Ed: Send me a check, and I might reveal what that is]. When he's not writing, RaChaCha is an urban planner, a rehabber of houses, and a community builder. He co-founded the Buffalo Mass Mob, and would love to see you at the next one. He represents Buffalo Young Preservationists on the Trico roundtable. If you try to demolish a historic building, he might have something to say about that. He is a proud AmeriCorps alum.

Things you may not know about RaChaCha (unless you read this before): "Ra Cha Cha" is a nickname of his hometown. (Didn't you know that? Do you live under a rock?) He's a political junkie (he once worked for the president of the Monroe County Legislature), but we don't really let him write about politics on here. He helped create a major greenway in the Genesee Valley, and worked on early planning for the Canalway Trail. He hopes you enjoy biking and hiking on those because that's what he put in all that work for. He was a ringleader of the legendary "Chill the Fill" campaign to save Rochester's old downtown subway tunnel. In fact, he comes from a long line of troublemakers. An ancestor fought at Bunker Hill, and a relative led the Bear Flag Revolt in California. We advise you to remember this before messing with him in the comments. He worked on planning the Rochester ARTWalk, and thinks Buffalo should have one of those, too (write your congressman).

You can also find RaChaCha (all too often, we frequently nag him) on the Twitters at @HeyRaChaCha. Which is what some people here yell when they see him on the street. You know who you are.

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