Big, Ugly and Stupid – the Buildings Cities Build
By: Guest Authors
By: Gary Paduch
I’ve seen it for 40 years: Big, ugly, stupid buildings. A prime example is the Ocean Center at Daytona Beach, Florida. I see it over and over. Huge, ugly conference centers, convention centers, performing arenas, art centers, every kind of center imaginable and they are all built â€œto saveâ€ a downtown or commercial area.
They cost the taxpayers millions and they “never” work. If we knew the truth regarding their costs and operations, we would all be sick to our stomachs. And we taxpayers sit there like idiots and let them do it. Once built they require a constant supply of cash, just to keep these projects maintained. They produce not one penny in net revenue, not one penny after expenses. They then make up figures about how the economic impact to the area economy is what they really are there to do.
It is a “bald faced lie”, a total rationalization at the very best. I have never seen an operating statement on one of these facilities. Not one! A true statement of gross sales, other revenue from sales and an honest statement of expenses: Light bills, marketing expenses (all marketing expenses) including salaries and advertising, an honest to God reporting of the cold hard facts. All we ever hear about is the “roll over” effects of the visitors or user spending in restaurants, hotels, gift shops, etc.
The truth is the visitors would have come anyway. The hotel and others would have built to fulfill a need “if” there was one. The idea that if you build it, they will come, only works in the movies. Any developer can tell you that the rules of successfully developing any property is to (1) identify a need (2) determine whether you have the demographic numbers (3) design your project accordingly (4) location, location, location.
Politicians with absolutely no understanding of this simple process, project numbers from their imaginations, then they ask an architect what he thinks. Of course, the architect agrees that it should be built and he will pull up examples of other similar projects that have been a great success, yet none of these projects has ever put out a set of hard numbers, operating statements, revenues, management, marketing, maintenance, replacement reserves, utilities, etc.
Every failed project is supported by feasibility studies that are based on “dream world economics.” These white elephant projects are spread all over the nation and cost taxpayers billions each year. Of course, they pay no property taxes, which places an additional burden on the poor “sucker” taxpayers. It’s no wonder so many cities, counties and states are broke.
Little towns such as Johnson City, Tennessee, do it. They have a conference center. It doesn’t bring in enough money to pay the light bill and maintenance, but if you read the newspaper account of its operations, there will be glowing accounts of its future and what great progress has been made, the reality is that it never had the “numbers”, it is functionally obsolete, just like the ridiculous Johnson City downtown parking garage. If we knew the “cold, hard” numbers, we would be absolutely enraged; yet on they go.
Daytona Beach’s Ocean Center has cost the taxpayers 223,000,000.00 dollars, in addition, they built a performing arts center on the mainland side of the Halifax River, with no parking. It was bankrupt before they opened the doors (cost 33 million dollars). If a forensic CPA ever took these places apart and the newspapers would actually print what they found, a vigilante posse would be formed to punish the “well intended” commission who perpetrated these frauds on the taxpayers.
The location of these buildings rarely, if ever, is selected to take into account traffic patterns. The Ocean Center is built right beside the ocean; no one lives in the ocean. It’s green, demographically speaking, it’s located ten miles east of I-95 through a maze of traffic. I-95 is the primary arterial mover of traffic in a “bacon-strip” demo. 100,000 cars a day cannot see the Ocean Center. It’s absolutely ridiculous and the facility has totally inadequate parking in an automobile culture that will not change in the next 50 years. The supporters of this project have said they are trying to attract conventions and conferences. Good luck, Disney World, Universal, Sea World and 50,000 hotel rooms with everything imaginable are located 50 miles away. It’s just not a smart move to fight an 800-pound gorilla. There is no way you can compete — you lose.
Other criteria such as visibility, ease of access/egress, free parking at grade, demographic make up (both income and location of potential users and patrons), user friendly interior spaces and seating. Costs analysis prior to design aesthetics and so on are not even considered. Many of these recently built (last 15 years) look like munition factories or automobile factories; totally lacking in any classical architectural order or fundamentals. Many look like giant manufactured components which they then try to spruce up with banners, fancy street lighting and exotic plants. It’s difficult to tell where the front of the building is. I get a migraine headache when I look at them, they are absolutely dreadful.
It’s design by committee, many of whom, are totally artless and lacking in any practical thinking. It’s pure politics. Often the â€œpoliticalâ€ architects that are hired share the same qualities. The results are municipal projects that are consistently miserable. Cities become developers of these type buildings because of the ease of financing, politics and their taxing authority. It has been a recipe that promotes poorly conceived projects.
I once had a practical construction man tell me that these people only listen to each other; the reality is “they wouldn’t listen to Jesus.” As soon as they build these big, ugly, stupid projects they start complaining that someone “goofed”. There are hundreds of these senseless projects. One example, maybe the most graphic, is the Miami, Florida Performing Arts Center; their first month’s electric bill was $640,000.00, the thing costs over $500,000,000.00, My guess it was even more; â€œoutrageousâ€!
Orange County (Orlando) Florida built a convention center (2 million square feet), at an estimated cost of two billion dollars. It doesn’t take in enough money to pay their basic expenses (lights, management and marketing). It is a colossal joke. The list is endless.
Savannah, Georgia, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, St. Louis, Daytona Beach and on and on. The only one, I know of, that’s a success is the Newberry, South Carolina, project and its leadership was in private hands for the most part. It’s “development 101″. It’s so simple. These cities are like “lotto winners”. They go crazy, but the taxpayer is left with the “tab” when these “geniuses” leave office with their plaques and awards for a job well done.
Now, they are building a performing arts center in Orlando. Costs around $365,000,000.00. It’s in the worst possible location. It can’t be seen until you are on top of it. I predict the costs will be over $420,000,000.00 but we’ll never really know. The location is in a traffic blind, I can’t imagine how local art groups can afford to use it. They just built a new basketball arena; there are already rumblings that it is a financial disaster. We’ll hear more, but we’ll never really know the truth, but we will pay for it directly or indirectly. Smaller centers for local use with a high visibility profile and multiple uses would make more sense.
We’ve all heard the expression “if you dig yourself into a hole, stop digging.” We’ll be forced to stop, soon enough. We’ll be broke. Check out Detroit and Flint, Michigan. They managed to kill the goose that laid the golden egg. If someone ever did it right, it would be an international sensation. But it’s human nature: What are you going to do?
If you want to argue my perspective, show me the numbers, the honest hard numbers. That is your only real argument. Recently I heard the Mayor of Orlando defend the Amway Arena with a compliment from the Commission of the NBA “that we have the finest facility in the NBA”. What else would he say? He’s not a jerk, but the thing is losing money and will continue to do so. No parking. Look at the United Center in Chicago completely surrounded by parking (360ï‚°) all around the arena (Building, Development 101). The Amway is a big, ugly, stupid building. It will cost the taxpayers of Orange County millions and we’ll never really know the truth – â€œneverâ€. I just hope and pray these people don’t start building pyramids.
Arts Supporter, Retired Developer, Writer