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Arena Wars 

Workshop produces debate over old Convention Center site

Now that City Council has voted on a location, hired architects and consultants, and is poised to continue negotiations with the NBA, it seems that plans for a new downtown arena in Third Ward are moving ahead quicker than ever before. Some say that's the problem.

Several urban planners, architects and City Council members are afraid that, in our haste to procure a new arena and NBA team, we've selected a poor location for what will be an enormous public investment. These same critics say we've ignored other potentially viable sites, most notably the old Convention Center. In the world of architecture, urban planning and city business, the stakes don't get much higher than a massive downtown sports arena, all of which has resulted in a heated debate.

While some folks may have voiced a collective "It's about damned time" when City Council voted in June to endorse plans for a Third Ward arena and park, others were urging the city to consider all their options. One of the most outspoken of these voices is architect Murray Whisnant, who says building an arena at the old Convention Center site is a creative and innovative option that for some unknown reason continues to fall on deaf ears.

"The most galling aspect of this is that no one has really even looked at the Convention Center site," Whisnant said. "And it's sort of a mystery as to why. The second aspect that bothers me is nobody has said what it will cost to rearrange Third Ward to accommodate an arena. I think it's astonishing that no one has come up with cost numbers on that, and no one has demanded that from City Council."

Whisnant, along with UNC-Charlotte architecture professor and CL columnist David Walters, held a charrette on Saturday, where a number of folks got together and examined the practicality of the old Convention Center as an arena site. During the meeting, Whisnant and Walters addressed one of the biggest criticisms of the old Convention Center plan -- namely, that an arena simply wouldn't fit there.

"People make that assumption, and it's just not true," Whisnant said. "That's two-dimensional thinking. Plus, that area is accessible to transportation and parking, and there's a lot of vacant land wrapped around that area. At the very least it needs to be looked into."

Together, Walters and Whisnant have come up with a rough, yet what they believe is an innovative and workable, plan. It starts with raising the arena playing floor one level above College Street, thus freeing up space at street level for programmable public space. The arena bowl would splay out over the sidewalk on 4th and Trade Streets, to produce public arcades on both streets, and perhaps link into the overstreet walkway system, providing all weather covered access.

Other specifics include 66,000 square feet of staging and service area, about 160,000 square feet of support and administration spaces, am 11,000 square feet practice court facility, and 128,000 square feet of largely street-level retail, concourse(s), concessions and circulation. The overall arena bowl would be contained in a rectangle 474 x 354 feet. This compares to 410 x 390 feet (approximately) for last year's arena design. Such a plan would mean some seating would have to be reduced at the halfway line and added back at the end zones, and there would be vertical circulation problems, meaning more stairs and escalators than a standard design.

"We're looking at this as, "We want a state-of-the-art city, how can an arena play into that?" Walters said. "That's a much different question than, "We want a state-of-the-art arena, where can we put it?'"

One of the most outspoken critics of Whisnant's plans is architect David Wagner of Wagner Murray Architects. Wagner helped the county develop a plan under the auspices of the Mecklenburg County Parks' Master Plan, in which he looked at a Third Ward park in relationship to the proposed arena, and within the context of a train station and other infrastructure possibilities. When it concerns where he thinks an arena should go, Wagner doesn't mince words.

"The old Convention Center is a stupid site," he said. "But everyone has an opinion. What I believe in is a process. We went through a process to place the arena in Third Ward. We paid for that process, and it's called the 2010 Vision Plan. The plan cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars. It was an interactive, community-based process in which the people spoke. That plan identified Third Ward as a "sports and entertainment district,' which was supported by the city, county, elected officials and community leaders. So why are we still going through this goddam process? As a taxpayer and citizen you ought to be upset."

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