Planning for a new $250 million convention center south of downtown is hanging on uncertainty about where to build a desired 600-room conference hotel.
Architects with Populous and GSB on Tuesday presented three design options to members of the MAPS 3 citizens advisory committee overseeing the project.
Two of the options suggest building the hotel and convention center on the same block between the Myriad Gardens and the future Core to Shore park. The site, formerly home to Fred Jones Ford, is bordered by Robinson, Hudson and Reno Avenues and the future downtown boulevard.
Previous concerns about whether the exhibit halls could be built underground — key to the selected site — were addressed as Populous project designer Michael Lockwood assured the committee that underground utilities could be relocated without busting the project's budget.
Todd Voth, senior principal with Populous, said 25 to 30 potential site designs were looked at, and his team concluded that building the exhibit hall underground was critical in preventing one street facade from consisting of loading docks.
“Quite frankly, all the streets that surround the convention center site are important,” Voth said. “We want each side to be the front door.”
Voth's team offered no easy solutions to address how to proceed with design of the convention center without determining a site for the desired conference hotel.
By building the hotel either to the east or south, Voth said his team will have more flexibility in designing the convention center. By building the two buildings together, he advised, the convention center design could ultimately be tied to design of the hotel.
Building the hotel on a separate block, he added, might spare the city the cost of buying an additional block west of Hudson Avenue to allow for future convention center expansion.
“The question that comes to my mind is for the hotel, not from a convention center perspective, but looking at where should the hotel go to encourage more development of downtown,” Voth said. “Do you go on or off site? I don't have an answer to that.”
“It's intriguing to show it south (on the north edge of the Core to Shore park), so you start to have development south of the boulevard. But then are you going to have a developer who will be willing to be the first to build south of the boulevard?”
Another option posed by Voth is to tear down the exhibit halls at the Cox Convention Center before the new convention center is built and use that space for the new hotel.
Civic leaders previously, however, indicated they hoped to keep the Cox Arena portion of the current convention center in place to accommodate opportunities for NCAA basketball tournaments and other events.
The Cox Arena also was recently upgraded to host hockey games for the Oklahoma City Barons and is frequently host to area high school graduations. The newer Chesapeake Energy Arena to the south of the Cox Arena is frequently booked up with Thunder home games and concerts that require larger numbers of seating.
“The (Cox) arena is the one asset in that facility that may have a longer life span,” said Michael Carrier, president of the Oklahoma City Convention and Visitors Bureau. “But once the new convention center is open, the majority of that old facility is obsolete.”
Carrier said it's unlikely a hotel will open at the same time as the new convention center. But selling convention space can be hampered if a hotel isn't at least under construction as the convention center is being built, he said.
The decision to build a large conference hotel has yet to be made by the Oklahoma City Council, which was advised before the passage of MAPS 3 in 2009 that the city faced a minimum $50 million subsidy to attract such development.
Modeling performed by Populous indicates the hotel would likely be 20 stories high — a potential visual impediment between the Core to Shore park and the downtown skyline.
“If these things were not in play, if the Core to Shore park was not something we're considering, and if the boulevard is not the grand boulevard we're talking about, we would want to put the hotel at the Cox site — it's closer to downtown,” Voth said. “This is a tough decision. What are our priorities?”
Cathy O'Connor, president of The Alliance for Economic Development of Oklahoma City, said hiring will begin soon for a firm to complete a study on feasibility of the hotel and what incentives might be required.
But even that study, she warned, won't answer all the questions posed Tuesday by Populous. She also warned that completion of the study is months away.
The only apparent consensus reached at the end of Tuesday's meeting is that the question of whether to build a hotel and where to build it will ultimately be made by the city council, and no final designs can be completed for the convention center until the issue is settled.
Carrier, meanwhile, reiterated his longtime advice that a new convention center cannot succeed without a large conference hotel to book large blocks of rooms for visiting groups.
“It's a policy decision the city is going to have to answer,” Carrier said. “It's something the city needs to start looking at very, very soon.”