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Convention center: Soaring design tinged by controversy

Monday, December 29, 2003

By Patricia Lowry, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Maybe they didn't want to be caught feeding at the public trough.

One of a series

The Convention Center looms over the Allegheny River in the early morning. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

Maybe they wanted to avoid an opening day crowd that was expected to swell to 30,000.

Maybe they just wanted to be outdoors on a beautiful, blue-sky day.

For whatever reasons, Western Pennsylvanians stayed away in droves from the public opening of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center on Sept. 21.

The family-oriented event was part of a weekend of celebrations marking the grand opening of the center, which has been hosting a limited number of meetings, conventions and shows since February 2002.

Those who stayed away missed the chance to take guided tours of the biggest, best new building Pittsburgh has seen in years. The $370 million convention center is also the world's largest certified green building -- and one with some spectacular urban views up and down the Allegheny River.

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Pittsburgh asked for an energy-efficient building, and Manhattan architect Rafael Vinoly, teaming with engineers from Western Pennsylvania's Burt Hill Kosar Rittelmann Associates, delivered one whose green features are thoroughly and expressively embedded in its elegant design. The soaring, suspended, sail-like roof, held aloft by 15 giant cables, allows air coming off the river to be pulled in at the third floor and circulated inside the building through natural convection. Hot air rises and exits through vents in the crescent-shaped clerestory at the top of the roof.

It's also the first American convention center to be illuminated by natural light -- a feature that will save more than 1.4 million kilowatt hours of electricity annually.

The opening weekend's serial parties were a chance to show off the center and generate a healthy buzz about it and the city. And while they certainly generated a buzz, they also stirred controversy.

The four-hour, Sunday afternoon family celebration was funded by a $500,000 state grant and $122,500 from local foundations. The free event, called "Keeping Current: An Electric Afternoon of Entertainment for the Entire Family," promised clowns, mimes, magicians, a mascot, a marching band, stilt walkers, puppets, robots, assorted athletes and, of course, tours of the building.

But a conservative think tank, the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, and a public transportation advocacy group may have put the kibosh on it when they complained that the $500,000 should have been used to restore transportation, health and social services cuts in a tight state budget. Only an estimated 6,000 stopped by for the family fun.

The night before, Save Our Transit had organized about 50 protesters, several of whom dressed as clowns or the Grim Reaper to confront guests arriving in tuxedoes and evening gowns for the "Power Play" gala. The $500-a-ticket event honored "visionaries" from government, sports, architecture and the arts, as well as the philanthropic and business communities that helped make the convention center possible.

More than 20 leaders of businesses around the country were the guests of local CEOs. As an opportunity to introduce them to the region, it was "the initial phase of a 'courtship' that can take many years," said Allegheny Conference on Community Development spokesman Bill Flanagan.

Many convention center bookings, Flanagan said, come from word-of-mouth recommendations.

"Ninety percent of the meetings and conventions that take place here are successfully booked because early in the sales process someone who knows and loves Pittsburgh makes a personal pitch to a key decision maker," he said.

The center hosted 29 conventions this year, nine more than its operator, SMG, had projected.

"It was a great year," said Mark Leahy, the center's general manager. "We had the AFL-CIO here, the National Urban League and the GreenBuild conference, to name just a few. We had over half a million people come through the doors."

Next year, more than two dozen meetings are planned.

In January, about 1,200 people will attend the Religious Conference Managers Association, including 400 meeting planners who schedule 16,000 conventions annually.

"To have the opportunity to showcase Pittsburgh and the region to that kind of a prestigious industry group is a coup," said Joseph McGrath, president of the Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The center's opening generated considerable media coverage, with eight appearances in the convention trade press and seven in the building industry trade press. But only two architecture critics, in Washington, D.C., and Cleveland, reviewed the building. Both had high praise.

"The building is quite beautiful -- not as satisfying in proportion as, say, a Greek temple, but, for a convention center, quite a treat," wrote Benjamin Forgey in The Washington Post.

The building's green features were recognized in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and Newsweek. In November, the convention center picked up a Gold LEED Award (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) at the U.S. Green Building Council's GreenBuild convention. But the presentation, in one of the center's large exhibit halls, couldn't be heard or understood by many in the room because of its bad acoustics.

"Don't expect concert quality in there, but certainly we should be able to have a speaker on the stage and everybody in the room be able to hear that speaker," Leahy said. "We're augmenting that system now with more speakers in the ceiling."

Still to come on the fourth floor North Terrace are cast-concrete benches and 41 planter boxes brimming with Shenandoah Switchgrass. When they're installed in the spring, the riverfront terrace may become what Vinoly hoped it would be: Pittsburgh's outdoor living room.

And maybe some of those who shied away in September will come for a closer look.

Post-Gazette architecture critic Patricia Lowry can be reached at or 412-263-1590.

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