Despite declining attendance and revenue, many cities are expanding convention centers or building new ones.

Photo courtesy Events DC

The Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Washington, D.C.  Click to view more images.

After decades of being dissed, New York’s Jacob K. Javits Convention Center is finally getting some respect: A $463 million renovation, designed by the Manhattan firm FXFOWLE, will play to the building’s strengths (preserving its once-revolutionary space frame) while bringing massive aesthetic, organizational, and environmental improvements. And with a subway line being extended to its front door—dramatically improving access to the Far West Side location—the 25-year-old facility by James Ingo Freed (of the firm now known as Pei Cobb Freed & Partners) may finally live up to its potential. 

Unless it is torn down. In January, New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced that because the 600,000-square-foot Javits Center is too small for the biggest conventions, he wants to replace it with a 3 million-plus square-foot facility at Aqueduct Racetrack, in southeastern Queens. Genting, the vast Malaysian company that already runs a gambling operation at the Queens site, has reportedly offered to underwrite the new facility, at a cost of $3 billion or more. The Javits property would then be sold for residential or commercial development.

Spending $463 million to renovate a building slated to be torn down? In the world of convention centers, stranger things have happened. In the last decade, the number of national conventions—as well as attendance at those conventions—has declined, in some cases precipitously, according to Heywood Sanders, a public policy professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio. (One example is the AIA convention; its registration has dropped from 23,916 in 2008 to 13,369 in 2011.)

At the same time, dozens of cities have been building new centers or enlarging old ones. In the last year alone, Indianapolis and Philadelphia have opened sprawling new centers, while plans for such facilities are being floated in Baltimore, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Boston. Miami Beach recently solicited proposals for a mixed-use development of up to 6 million square feet on the site of its existing, 640,000-square-foot convention center. In San Diego, hoteliers are being asked to accept a new hotel tax to cover the $520 million cost of a convention center expansion, with a rooftop park, by Fentress Architects of Denver. It’s much the same in smaller cities: Spokane’s convention center, enlarged only six years ago, is being readied for a new, $60 million expansion.

The good news for architects: The money is being spent not just on bigger centers, but also better ones. According to Rob Svedberg, an associate principal at Atlanta-based Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback & Associates (TVSA), the last few years have seen a pronounced shift from convention centers
as giant, hangarlike buildings—“box with docks,” as they are known—to buildings with finishes comparable to those of concert halls and hotel lobbies. His firm is building a convention center in Nashville with so much woodwork, “you’ll feel like you’re inside a Stradivarius violin,” he says. People who travel to attend conventions, he says, “are looking for authentic experiences. They want to be in a real building.”

Svedberg’s firm also designed the Walter E. Washington Convention Center (2003), site of this year’s AIA convention. If any center deserves to be a financial success, it is this one: an attractive building that seems to invite people in (unlike so many older convention centers), at the heart of the bustling Penn Quarter neighborhood, in a city that is already popular with conventioneers. And yet the center lost $18 million in 2011. Chinyere J. Hubbard, vice president of communications and marketing for the building’s owner, Events DC, says most convention centers show losses and deserve to be judged by how much economic activity they bring to the community. But, she adds, “we have increased our business development effort.” (The goal, she explains, is to land more conventions that make use of food and beverage, audiovisual, and other revenue-producing services.) Events DC has also arranged more than $200 million in city financing for the developer of a Marriott Marquis hotel, now under construction across the street from the convention center.

Washington is following the lead of many other cities in using new hotels to prime the convention-center pump. In Austin, Gensler has designed a 1,000-plus-room, 47-story hotel—the Grand Hotel Austin at Waller Creek—attached to the convention center by an “open-air garden bridge.” Todd Runkle, the managing director of Gensler’s Austin office, says that, in his experience, “the adjacency of a large hotel, usually with meeting space of its own, makes a big difference” to the success of a convention center. Gensler has also designed a master plan for the area around Houston’s convention center, which would be anchored by three new hotels at the center’s corners. 

Runkle, who has been involved in numerous convention center projects, says of the enlarged buildings, “The revenue they generate when they are full makes up for the time they sit empty.” And Loren G. Edelstein, editor of Meetings and Conventions magazine, says that “while a convention center itself might not be making money,” it may be paying for itself with revenue the facility brings to the city in other ways.

But such claims are difficult to prove. Critics like Professor Sanders believe the convention center boosters are making a buyer’s market—in which supply now far outstrips demand—even more unbalanced. Though the decline in attendance began before 2008, he says, “the recession worsened an already bad situation.”

Back in New York, Robert Yaro, of the nonprofit Regional Plan Association, favors the Queens convention center plan, which will free up land on the West Side of Manhattan for development and (if all goes well) revitalize an outer-borough neighborhood. But meeting planners, according to the New York Times, are skeptical; people looking for a New York experience, they say, will not be lured to a facility an hour from Midtown.

One thing is clear: The governor’s big plan for Queens has cast a pall over the Javits Center renovation. While the first phase of the project is proceeding, what would have been important parts of the next phase—including a complete revamping of the plaza in front of the building—are on hold. “We’re not allowed to dream,” says Bruce Fowle, founding principal of FXFOWLE.

But Fowle hopes that the completion of phase one, some of it by the end of this year, will help demonstrate that the Javits Center is far from a white elephant. “It’s still going to be a major transformation,” Fowle says. “When the scaffolding comes down, people will be very surprised.”