Wiebenson is an architect, planner and formerly was a professor of architecture.
(On Thursday, the D.C. City Council voted to spend $27.7 million to acquire the land and pay for the design for a city-owned convention center, projected to eventually cost $110 million. This was another step in the lengthy and controversial path toward such a center.)
Maybe doubts about financing will kill off plans for a convention center here. Or maybe uncertainties about just who is to benefit will doom the project. Still, with the recent support of the City Council and the Board of Trade, it seems that a center might get funded and built.
Yet there is a danger that the City Council might be putting up the wrong building.
You would think that $110 million, before over-runs, would be money enough to buy a perfect center, a custom-tailored center, one that solved problems indoors and out. But the current design has its problems. For instance, the plans call for installing back doors where the front doors should be.
If the center is built, then its proposed location just south of Mt. Vernon Square seems reasonable. There it would be handy to two Metro stations served three different lines. And conventioneers walking to these stations would pass through Chinatown, where it is hoped they would spend money.
They might even walk a few more blocks and help downtown stores, or even walk a couple more blocks and visit a musem.However, instead of providing doors that open in this direction, to encourage all conventioneers to spend all their money, the plans call only for truck docks.
With taxis much handier to get to than the stores, it is unlikely that many conventioneers will leave money near Mt. Vernon Square.
Plans also call for a back door that would be even worse than one encrusted with truck docks. If H Street's commerce is to get a boost, it needs more than just conventions; it also needs some continuity of activity along the street. Yet plans call for two blocks of tedium relieved only by the comings and goings of trucks.
The new FBI building on Pennsylvania Avenue has a depressive effect on stores to either side, and it is only one block long. It is possible that the center could be twice as destructive to local commerce, making downtown even less active than it is now.
Making a better than is easy. You move trucks off H Street and put in an entrance lobby instead. You could even put in some stores beside the lobby, at least 10,000 square feet of them on the ground floor with additional space in mezzanines, all without making exhibit and service areas any smaller.
This would not only make the building a better neighbor, it would make it work better too. Its lobby would then connect to several subdivisions that might be formed to its exhibit space.
Further rental space could be built above truck docks - space for offices and studios. This would provide some 25,000 square feet of additional income and added vitality for the project.
This building does not have to be limited only to a single purpose like so many of our public buildings. It can have shops, offices, studios. It can become a part of the life of the surrounding neighborhood.
The current plans have another serious shortcoming - a glass roof two blocks long and about 40 feet wide. The roof is now shown to point south, as through it was intended to maximize heat-gain problems. This sort of roof can dramatically increase money needed to cool the center in summer. This is more than just wasting money, it is wasting energy. And, it would be done by our city's government right up front, as sort of a public statement.
The center could be a lively, boisterous building that points the way to improved design and to improve energy efficiency. All too often plans for public buildings take on a momentum, and early rough drawings become final roung buildings.
D.C. officials have said that they are not locked into the existing design and are soliciting suggestions for improvements. We can hope that they will receive and use the suggestions.
A Chinatown businessman has suggested that Chinese motifs be used where the center approaches Chinatown.
It is only by using such suggestions - little and big - that the present, unfortunate plans for the center can be improved. If they are not substantially improved then this building.