Three Convention Facilities Better Than One in Albany

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August 2004

Three Convention Facilities Better Than One in Albany

By Paul M. Bray

Forget the more than $150 million convention center/hotel notion for downtown Albany and think about a three conference center alternative.(Note that the cost estimate for the convention center/hotel has increased and the proposed scale has decreased since 2004.)

The creation of an Albany convention center authority may move along the long simmering development of an 85,000 sq. feet or more convention center and 400 bed hotel for downtown Albany. I have my doubts about its financial feasibility, but feasible or not, I suggest there is a better solution: expand the Empire State Plaza Convention facility and build new conference facilities at University Heights and next to Ualbany on the Harriman Campus.

In 1998 a consultant’s report recommended “a dramatic upgrade of the existing Empire Convention and meeting facilities, the addition of 28,000-square-foot, high quality ballroom and 3,880 sq. feet of dedicated breakout space”. For an estimated cost of $18 to 19 million, the consultant stated, “the new ballroom when combined with the New York Museum’s Terrace Gallery will provide a spectacular, one-of-a-kind setting that can become the signature function space of Albany’s public assembly offering.”

There has been talk about building a hotel and small conference facility on University Heights. The idea is to include the New Scotland Armory as part of the facility. This would augment the research, educational and medical advances taking place in Uheights since philanthropist Marty Silverman arrived on the scene.

Now there is talk about the usefulness of having a hotel and conference center facility built on the Harriman Campus or along Fuller Road to serve the needs of the hoped for burst of tech development from the State’s large investment in nanotech research.

All three of these smaller conference center proposals are on hold or in limbo while the Mayor Jenning’s grander proposal sucks up the oxygen. The Mayor may not have actually blocked the smaller projects, but idea of the large downtown convention center casts a shadow over the smaller projects as few in Albany are willing to incur the Mayor’s wrath.

The two options reflect polar opposite views of development and change: transformational and organic.

The Mayor wants “transformational” change or what NY Times columnist David Brooks calls “the idea that through some drastic change in your material surroundings, you can take a giant leap towards happiness.” Transformation may be fine if you don’t have high regard for what you want to change, in this case Albany, and the rewards clearly out weigh the risks.
Look at newspapers in cities around the country and you see article after article talking as the Seattle Times does, “convention centers in fierce competition for dollars”. Convention centers in cities across the country are overbuilt and taxpayers are taking it on the chin.

Even if you are willing to accept the financial risks, you should also take a close look at the impact of a large convention center.

Convention centers are event driven facilities catering to out of towners. As the Project for Public Spaces points out, “they don’t serve the public life of the city.” They are not the kind of place that a resident of Albany will go to hang out. Given Albany’s lack of downtown retail and social spaces, we don’t need another self-contained architectural object like the Pepsi Arena.

On the other hand, the three smaller projects are organic and fit in with and increase the value of the existing assets of the Empire State Plaza and Albany institutions of higher education.

Urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg on a panel with Senator Clinton at RPI mentioned convention centers and declared, “Think small. You may be able to build something grand and big but what’s it going to do for the poor folk?” He pointed out cities like Baltimore and Cleveland that built big ended up increasing the “wedge between the haves and the have-nots”.

The law creating the Albany convention center authority calls for “a structure for involvement of the community”. I hope that all options end up on the table and all segments of the community are heard. Then we may get three centers linked to Albany’s economic engines in place of one unrealistic downtown center.