A Case of Space

by Cara Gardner

It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a... convention center? If you've seen the design for Spokane's $77 million convention center expansion, it may look, more than anything, like a speedboat -- that is, a 100,000-square-foot speedboat. But that's only from the air. At ground level, Spokane's updated convention center will be a modern feat of efficient space usage, stretching diagonally from in front of the City Center DoubleTree Hotel to the parking lot near C.I. Shenanigan's. The plans were created by LMN, a Seattle-based architectural firm that constructs everything from sports stadiums to urban centers around the world.

"We were challenged to get 100,000 square feet of exhibition space on that site," explains Jed Marquardt, a partner with LMN and head architect for the convention center design. "In the early studies, it was imagined that the site might be totally vacated, including Azteca and Shenanigan's. But negotiations in property acquisition [determined] Shenanigan's is best to stay. To get those square feet into the site that was of minimal impact to [Shenanigan's] and the hotel produced a shape that was the most efficient within the budget."

Convention centers have become showpieces for the city's that build them. And in the convention business, the facility itself is often a part of the competition to win convention business. The boat-shape is unique and should get Spokane noticed, but those working on the design say the shape wasn't arbitrarily chosen.

"It's impacted by the environment," explains Kevin Twohig, executive director of the Public Facilities District (PFD), the entity that will build and manage the center. Twohig is working closely with LMN and Integrus, a Spokane-based architectural firm, on the design. "It's the river, the curb [from Division Street to Spokane Falls Blvd.], the restaurant [Shenanigan's]. All those things made it want to do something different than a rectangle."

Before the first materials even arrive on the construction site next summer and the Spokane Convention Visitors Bureau starts to book the first conventions, the success of the new facility may already be determined. Experts say the updated convention center's success will depend on how the building accommodates its users.

Don Grinberg, director of convention center architecture for HNTB of Boston and one of the leading convention center architects in the nation, looked over the design plans for Spokane's new Exhibition Hall and commented on some of the decisions LMN architects have made.

"The details are going to matter," he says.

Walk This Way -- Possibly the biggest challenge for the designers is the walkway that connects the old convention center with the new Exhibition Hall to the east. Conventioneers will get a chance to look out on the Spokane River as they traverse the walkway.

"It's a very difficult site because... the east site is removed," says Grinberg. "Just to put a tube there isn't going to be enough. It's going to take very strong ideas to make it work."

Currently the design illustrates an elevated walkway. Marquardt says that's about all the budget allows for.

"How you do it is a function of the budget and the number of people who will be using this connection. We've all been in the concourse of an airport that is undersized, and there is a constant weighing of the traffic load."

But is a concourse-type walkway the best way to move conventioneers from one building to the next?

"How do you psychologically knit together the old and new buildings so there's not a sense [that] once you go over [to the other building] you can't go back," wonders Grinberg. "[It must] complement the connector so it's not like people are thinking, 'Why is this taking so long to move?' It's about having a pleasant experience, not making it too tube-like."

John Brewer, president and general manager for Spokane's Convention Visitors Bureau, says he's concerned about how the walkways will turn out.

"We're worried that the walkway could be a detriment if it's not addressed early enough."

"We will try to make that walkway as an attractive piece of the convention center as the total; we're not going to shortchange it, but it is a challenge and not an unexpected one," Marquardt says.

River Access -- "The architect did the right thing to put people facing the river," Grinberg says of the Exhibition Hall's registration area, which faces the Spokane River. He says architects have learned from mistakes in the past, such as the New Orleans convention center, which, as Grinberg says, "turned its back on the waterfront."

But one concern is that there won't be enough public access to the riverfront, and that only those at conventions will benefit from the view.

"How does the public engage the waterfront instead of [feeling like] this thing just landed there?" asks Grinberg.

"The convention center will expose more individuals to the river than are currently using it," Marquardt points out. "You're going to put thousands of conventioneers into the lobby and through a connecting link that we intend to incorporate down to a connecting grade to the river. Our hope is the total number of users to the riverfront will actually increase."

He says the public will have complete access as well. "There is a 24-hour connection beneath the building that will go around that side of the hotel and Shenanigan's."

Enough Parking? -- "The original plan had called for about 800 parking stalls to augment the facility," says Brewer, with the CVB. "The plan right now shows about 400 stalls. [That] barely replaces what's already there."

Marquardt begs to differ. "There are 400 [stalls] on that site, but the project includes a site set-aside to the south. We have worked diligently to make sure the numbers -- there is parking inventory that Shenanigan's, the hotel and the convention center must have -- will be met. Once you get facilities that are as large [as this], parking always becomes a problem."

LMN designed parking underneath the convention center, a tactic that has been questionable since 9/11.

"Owners are concerned about [parking under facilities]," says Grinberg. "In buildings where it's already there, owners are spending [money on] security cameras and more staffing. But should you not do it? Well, all things being equal, maybe not. But if you want to get more [use of space], then I imagine they'll be careful."

Marquardt agrees that creating parking under the facility may force more caution, but says it's a no-brainer.

"We can't shut down the notion of what we want to do in good planning and good design with an excessive -- and I use that term cautiously -- terrorist condition."

The PFD has secured rights to the property to the south of the existing convention center, and there are plans to perhaps add more parking on that site, which would be more useful to events at the Opera house and for general downtown use.

Walled Off -- Part of the Exhibition Hall design includes a screen wall, which begins on Spokane Falls Boulevard and rises with the curve around Division. While some say the wall will block views and isn't visually pleasing, Twohig says it will serve the opposite purpose.

"On the simplest of terms, the last thing we want people to do is have them looking at trucks," Twohig explains, noting that the screen wall shields the public from the area trucks will use to unload equipment at the Exhibition Hall.

Initially, some advocates for the city gateway as Division Street enters downtown, which has been an ongoing design project in the WSU-Spokane architectural department, said the screen wall would impede the gateway. Calls to WSU-Spokane regarding the screen wall were not returned.

"We've contacted WSU-Spokane to get [the gateway] design information, and what we've gotten is a PowerPoint presentation," Twohig says. "[The gateway is] designed to focus on the main transportation link. Our whole idea is to facilitate, complement and work with the gateway intersection."

Wagging the Dog? -- Both LMN and Twohig admit one of the biggest challenges for the convention center design is working around Shenanigan's, one of Spokane's favorite haunts. While it's nice to have a restaurant nearby, Grinberg wonders why a 100,000-square-foot facility for the city took such pains to work around the restaurant.

"It seems like the tail wagging the dog," Grinberg says, "like the whole design is to avoid the restaurant. How different would the design have been if Shenanigan's wasn't there? It [raises] the question, are we doing things because of this restaurant?"

It was decided early on that Azteca would have to move, but negotiations ensured that Shenanigan's could stay. Grinberg says that sites often come with challenges like that, and he thinks LMN has made the most of a tough site. Still, he notes that the restaurant's parking lot is also a hindrance.

"It's funny that the stern of the 'boat' sticks out into [Shenanigan's] parking lot. Parking lots are not ideal uses for edges of a river."

Filling the Boat -- It's easy to see that LMN faces some hurdles. On the one hand, Twohig says the design created by LMN is a done deal; on the other, Brewer hopes to be able to negotiate on details.

"I think it is a fantastic design that's going to allow us great flexibility in selling the facility," Brewer says, adding that he thinks work needs to continue on making it more user-friendly.

"There are some concerns we have that we're meeting with the PFD on that could have an impact [on sales]," Brewer says. "If some of these challenges aren't met, [conventioneers] may be one-time users. And right now our community does well with repeat visitors. If they don't have a good experience, I can sure understand why they wouldn't come back. But we're really in a position to be much stronger convention destination than we are."

Publication date: 11/20/03