Ed Driscoll

'The Largest Convention Center in the Nation, Period’ – In Queens?

Back in the 1950s, Mies van der Rohe, then at the height of his superstardom in the world of modern architecture, was one of those rare architects who, for better, and occasionally worse, was able to see just about every design he drew up on paper built in the real world. One of the very few buildings that Mies never saw completed in his lifetime, was his monumental early-1950s column-free design for a convention center in his adopted hometown of Chicago.

Around 1977, when New York City proposed a convention hall on the Hudson River, Dirk Lohan, Mies’s grandson, heading Mies’s successor design firm, responded by transplanting a virtually identical copy of the old 1950s design from Chicago to Manhattan. As architect Stanley Tigerman noted in the 1986 book Mies Reconsidered, published in the centennial year of Mies’s birthday:

By doggedly repeating the brilliant Chicago exposition hall proposal in another location because he was requested to do so, Lohan makes a joke of the earlier proposal by implying that one concept destined for the Chicago lakefront is equally useful on New York’s West Side. Ironically, by such an action, Lohan confirms the long-held popular suspicion that Mies’s “glass boxes” are, after all, repeatable.

Sadly, for too many of today’s self-described “liberals,” it’s the most of the ideas from the 1970s that seem repeatable, long after they’re proven outdated. As E.J. McMahon of the Manhattan Institute writes in Newsday, “Cuomo’s big idea looks like 1970s:”

‘The largest convention center in the nation, period” — in Queens? Is he kidding?

Nope. In his State of the State address Wednesday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo did, indeed, tout the same sort of white elephant already being chased by states and cities across the country.

Cuomo envisions a “state-of-the-art” facility at Aqueduct Racetrack nearly 20 percent bigger than the 3.1 million square foot McCormick Place convention center in Chicago — which, as it happens, is reported to be running at only 55 percent capacity after a costly expansion of its own. In fact, as Steve Malanga of the Manhattan Institute think tank points out, there was already a nationwide glut of convention-center capacity even before the recession put a big dampener on the entire sector.

Elsewhere in the country, taxpayers are being stuck with the bill for underused, publicly subsidized convention-center and hotel space. Cuomo, however, said the state would pursue the Queens project as a $4 billion joint venture with the private operator of the Aqueduct racino.

This expectation, in turn, is surely based in part on the governor’s hope that New York voters in 2013 will approve a constitutional amendment expanding casino gambling — one of his other top economic development priorities.

“It will be all about jobs, jobs, jobs, tens of thousands of jobs,” the governor said.

As job-creation strategies go, convention centers and casinos are straight out of a 1970s playbook. In this respect, Cuomo’s “New NY” agenda looks more like “Old NJ” — Atlantic City, N.J., that is, if on a much bigger scale.

Without specifically addressing Cuomo’s proposal, in City Journal, Steven Malanga describes it as little more than “Convention Wisdom — Cities keep squandering money on hotels and meeting facilities:”

Boston exemplifies double-down madness. The city shelled out $230 million to renovate its convention center in the late 1980s. After the makeover produced virtually no economic bounce, Boston concluded that it needed a new $800 million center, projecting that it would help the city rent some 670,000 extra hotel rooms a year by 2009. The new center, which opened in 2004, fell far short of expectations: the actual number of room rentals that it generated in 2009 was slightly more than 300,000. Now Boston tourism officials are proposing to spend $2 billion to double the center’s size and add a convention hotel, to boot. The officials optimistically predict that the expanded facilities would inject $222 million annually into the local economy, including an extra 140,000 room rentals a year. Despite these bullish projections, officials claim that the hotel needs $200 million in subsidies.

Boston is far from alone. Hoping to help its limping convention center, Baltimore paid $300 million to build a city-owned convention hotel, which opened in 2008. The hotel lost $11 million last year and has barely been able to pay its employees or its debt service. Yet Baltimore is now considering a massive $900 million public-private expansion that would add a downtown arena, another convention hotel, and 400,000 feet of new convention space. The projected cost in public money: $400 million.

Rinse and repeat ad nauseum, until the tax payers are too broke to shakedown for more building funds. Or not. After all, New York’s proposed convention center in 1977 came only two years after the New York Daily News’ infamous “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD” cover.

Curious isn’t it, the disparity between how broke a city or state is, and its ruling class’s ability to dream gigantic collectivist projects to help take their mind off the ongoing fiscal nightmare they created?

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