News & Views » David Walters

Break The Spell

The old convention center really is the best site for a new arena

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Most citizens of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County will groan at the mere mention of the word "arena." How can something that should be the most exciting downtown development in decades have come to produce such aggravated ennui? Who's to blame?

Just about everybody. The sleazy owners and their spoiled millionaire ball bouncers; the arrogant, bullying NBA; the chicken-livered city council who shed their civic courage faster than a stripper and then sought cover from a fig leaf referendum; the county commissioners who even now quibble over terms for the site; the authors of a pathetically cobbled-together package of arts and sports that divided the community; the no-taxes-for-anything ideologues who rubbed invective into the open civic wound while claiming it was salve for the city; the mediocre architects who had to be led by the nose toward a halfway decent design; and the Planning Commission, who have clung to the Third Ward site regardless of options and have produced, at last reckoning, a woefully inadequate piece of non-urban design for the arena area, threatening to turn that part of Third Ward into third-rate suburbia.

Does anybody emerge with credit? Yes, at least two people. Charlotte Observer columnist Don Hudson has been consistent in his advocacy for a proper design resolution to this fiasco. And local maverick architect Murray Whisnant, whose outspoken and cleverly drawn advocacy of the old convention center site as a better arena location has fallen on consistently closed ears.

Civic leaders and their planners are willfully blind to this possibility, casting Whisnant as a quixotic figure, tilting at windmills. This is because Whisnant's critics are thinking in two dimensions with colored maps like planners are trained to do and politicians have learned to emulate. Architect Whisnant, by contrast, is thinking like a three-dimensional problem solver, seeing how clever design in section and elevation can solve problems that planners' plans can't even begin to properly describe.

The old convention center is a hideous albatross, designed decades ago by architects who were trained to ignore history and context. But beneath this awful building is a whole city block, plus land next to the light rail tracks, that measures 366 x 490 feet. As Whisnant points out, Boston's Fleet Center site is 300 x 468 feet, and seats 18,800 spectators. Charlotte's arena is being designed to hold only 18,000. It will fit on the block.

The site falls from College Street down to the embankment for the rail tracks adjacent to the Transit Center, soon to be a rail/bus interchange. Large service vehicles can gain access from this lower level beneath a new raised plaza that can connect the arena to the rail and bus station. Designing "in section" in this way can eliminate truck service along any of the three street edges, a point apparently lost on the Planning Commission leadership.

Did I say adjacent to the bus and light rail station? Hello out there! Does anyone else see the attractive efficiency of this connection? The site is also slap-bang in the middle of a multitude of parking decks, largely empty during the evening hours. Is this beginning to make sense?

Here, we can replace an oudated eyesore, construct a new hi-tech arena, line it with shops along three frontages to reclaim College, Fourth and Trade Streets for pedestrians, connect directly to transit, and have all the parking we need within a few blocks.

Why do our elected officials and our city staff refuse to seize this golden opportunity? After all, they own the site! What is the magic of Third Ward, where land has to be bought, and Graham Street expensively realigned? Can the city shake itself free of the spell?

Sure, the architects have been paid for work on that site, but is that a sufficient reason to screw up the city? It seems that we can't get past the mantra of "an arena and park in Third Ward." We've been saying it for so long that it's gained the status of an urban design principle, when in fact it's just one option, and not the best one at that.

A park in Third Ward is a great idea. But don't encumber it with a clumsy arena when a better site is available. Surround nature with high-density housing, shops and offices, and let the park grow into one of Uptown's finest assets.

Whisnant has convinced Hugh McColl of his idea. Now Whisnant has engaged my assistance in setting up a one-day charrette (an intensive public design workshop) in the near future to validate the practicality of his idea. This will likely take place in the Charlotte Community Design Studio, a SouthEnd offshoot of the College of Architecture, on a September Saturday soon. Watch this space for more details. Let me know if you're interested in participating. It's not too late for citizens to demonstrate a positive impact instead of just saying "no."

I personally don't care for basketball. I probably would never watch a game of hoops even if you gave me a free ticket. But an arena is a multi-functional civic asset, one that Charlotte needs to stay afloat. So much drivel was talked about the Hornets and taxes that the real issues of cut-throat competitor cities were lost in the squabbling.

Putting the arena on the old convention center site is a really good idea. Is Murray Whisnant the only person in Charlotte to see this glittering potential?

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