Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Bright Side of the Pennsylvania Convention Center

After two unions failed to meet a deadlined agreement with the Pennsylvania Convention Center, the massive exhibition space covering three full city blocks may finally have the opportunity to reinvent itself. Given the damage already done by more than two decades of costly union headaches, it will take time for the facility to recover from the reputation it's developed. 

But beneath that sullied reputation, complaints that would make Comcast blush, and the politics that plague its administration, stands a building that's hard to ignore but easy to forget. One that, perhaps aside from much of its architecture, really is great. Sure, scissor lifts and cranes loom over Race Street, lined with parking garages and windowless brick. Chinatown's 11th Street greets pedestrians with vacant store fronts too costly and shallow to find tenants. Even Arch Street, although the center's most used facade, is lined with three blocks of dated monotony. 

However, some buildings can be above architecture, but only if they manage to serve their intended purpose and serve it well. And the Pennsylvania Convention Center could be one of those places.

I was talking with a friend of mine who attended a volleyball convention in Philadelphia a few years ago. Not the biggest of conventions by any means, this year it was held in Washington, D.C. The reasons for moving it to D.C. are obvious and gripes about the Pennsylvania Convention Center have been discussed ad nauseam here, in the media, and message boards.

What was much more surprising was the praise that the Pennsylvania Convention Center received despite its cost. After a few minutes of sharing the usual complaints about its unions, our conversation segued to the uniqueness of the facility, namely its location. It truly is as good as it gets.

D.C.'s Walter E. Washington Convention Center is located across from Mount Vernon Square near the newly gentrified Shaw neighborhood. It's surrounded by the suburban creature comforts we may soon find on Market East, within walking distance of hotels and the National Mall, but it's not near the heart of Washington D.C. which largely lies in its unique series of independent neighborhoods. What's worse, Dulles International Airport is not supported by Metro Rail requiring an expensive and often lengthy cab ride. 

This isn't unique to Washington, D.C. The Los Angeles Convention Center is located downtown, a moniker attributed solely to the city's skyline. Even closer to home, Pittsburgh's  David L. Lawrence Convention Center may run circles around Philadelphia's center both architecturally and environmentally, but it's removed from the city's heart, located on the Allegheny River downtown where life ceases at five on Friday.

The Pennsylvania Convention Center's uniqueness is largely due to the uniqueness of Center City itself. I've often said that the center should have been placed in the demolished Convention Hall and Civic Center west of the Schuylkill River, removed from the heart of Philadelphia "where conventioneers belong."

But its presence at Broad and Arch may be exactly where such a venue belongs. SEPTA carries conventioneers directly to its door from Philadelphia International Airport and 30th Street Station. The Philadelphia Marriott is connected to the center. It's two blocks from City Hall, Midtown Village, and Chinatown, and a short stroll to the Liberty Bell and Independence Mall. 

Soon, East Market and a revitalized Gallery at Market East will offer conventioneers those creature comforts they're accustomed to in their bedroom communities. And unlike those convention spaces isolated on corporate islands, in cities that compartmentalize everything from activities to lifestyles, Philadelphia's Center City offers guests the same activities, lifestyles, shopping, and entertainment conveniently situated in the short space between Vine Street and South Street. 

We don't call Center City the "city center" for a reason. It's not a neighborhood. It truly is a Center City, a city within a city at the Pennsylvania Convention Center's doorsteps. If the center's administrators can maximize their freedom from the confines of the Carpenters and Teamsters and recognize the space's unique location, the Pennsylvania Convention Center may finally be what many had dreamed it would be.

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