Passersby and motorists on North Broad Street may wonder what is the huge glass-and-stone building that stretches between Arch and Race Streets. Is it a museum, is it a college?
The confusion results because the building has no sign.
When the $786 million expansion of the original Convention Center opened in March 2011, the glass facade on North Broad Street erupted in color at night with LED lights. But there was no sign telling people what was inside.
Soon that will change. Plans are in the works to erect a sign — displaying blue letters during the day, and white letters lit at night — atop the three steel canopies over the entrance doors on Broad Street. The letters, made of aluminum and acrylic, will say "Pennsylvania Convention Center."
In 2011, when the expansion extended the building from 13th to Broad — a square city block — the priority was to "get the building built, on time, and on budget," said John McNichol, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority.
Customers were already booking the space. "We couldn't risk still being under construction when customers were expecting to start rolling through the building," McNichol said. Putting up a sign was not on the must-do list.
Then, six months ago, the authority's board gave the green light for the staff to begin work, and for Vitetta, the principal architect for the Convention Center, to design signage in keeping with the "culture and integrity" of the building, McNichol said. "We wanted to keep it clean, simple, and concise."
Nan R. Gutterman, project manager at Vitetta, is completing the construction drawings, which will go to the Philadelphia Art Commission for approval, and then a public bid process. The sign should be up by mid- to late summer.
The stand-alone letters will be on brackets installed above the front canopies. Each letter will be 30 to 36 inches tall. "We are currently working on the final height and the final spacing of the letters," Gutterman said. "It's still in the final development, laying it all out."
The face of the letters will be made of acrylic with perforations that resemble pin holes. "During the day, the letters will be dark blue, but at night the light will come through the perforations and will appear white," she said. "At night the letters will be lit."
The project cost, about $100,000, will be paid from state capital money left over from the 2011 construction, which was the largest public works project in state history. "This is not new money," McNichol said. "The commonwealth allowed us to accrue the moneys and carry them over."
The Philadelphia Art Commission gave "concept approval" to the "general configuration that they showed," said William Burke, Philadelphia Art Commission director and an architect. "But they need to come back with a final design. We felt it was appropriate. A lot of people said they couldn't believe that there was never a sign there from the beginning. It's just logical.
"Sometimes people can't do everything they want to at a particular point in time. But what they are proposing now is just what should be there," Burke said.
"Our board leadership was really insistent that we get the signage up," McNichol said. "Anyone who drives down Broad Street doesn't know what the building is. I can't tell you how many times over the last couple years people said, 'We've really got to get a sign in front of the building.' "
The sign is important because the Convention Center is busy with bookings again. After several years when major convention bookings dropped because of high labor costs and uneven customer service, in June 2013 the center came under new private management — SMG, based in West Conshohocken. A customer satisfaction agreement was signed in May 2014 that allowed exhibitors to do more work themselves, cut down on expensive supervisor hours, and shift costs to unions with lower hourly rates.
Last year, the Convention Center generated $493 million in regional economic impact, helping to support 71,000 hospitality jobs, said center spokeswoman Deirdre Childress Hopkins. "The center has seen the return of repeat customers and new business leading into future years."
The Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau said in a statement that it "has recorded three straight years of record-breaking sales and has more business on the books for future years than ever before."
This year, the city will host 16 major conventions — called "citywides" — because they are multi-day gatherings drawing thousands of attendees. In 2016, the city hosted 16 major conventions, which was a 23 percent increase over 2015. Currently, 18 large conventions are booked for 2018, 20 for 2019, and 19 for 2020.
Since the customer satisfaction agreement went into effect, 35 new conventions booked for the years 2015 to 2020, a 52 percent increase over what was previously contracted.