The model and renderings for the new Devon Energy tower drew rave reviews this week. But Tulsa blogger Michael Bates wonders how it will tie into life on the street.
Sad, but true, when Devon Energy announced plans to build a skyscraper that will not just be the tallest in the state, but one of the tallest in the surrounding region (bigger than anything in Denver, Kansas City, St. Louis, Dallas, Fort Worth, New Orleans and Austin), I expected Tulsa’s online community to react with bitterness and resentment.It’s weird, really. You rarely see the OKC online community trashing Tulsa – there’s a lot of admiration for downtown
Tulsa’s Art Deco skyline and enthusiasm for any efforts to revive the area. And there is admiration for the design of BOK Arena, and shared celebration over the renovation of the Mayo Hotel.But in Tulsa, pretty much any good news about downtown OKC is greeted with a mix of cheap shots, cliché insults and vows of “it will never happen.”But there are exceptions. I’ve long been a fan of www.batesline.com because its author, Michael Bates (also a columnist at Urban Tulsa), isn’t afraid to ask the unpopular questions. And his latest post may cause some discomfort for Tulsans and Oklahoma Citians alike when it comes to the new Devon tower:
Over at TulsaNow’s public forum, some participants are feeling tower envy, wishing for some deep-pockets oil company to build some new skyscrapers in downtown, but we have to recall that Oklahoma City took a pass, for the most part, on the building frenzy of the late ’70s, early ’80s oil boom. While OKC’s tallest building is of that era, the next tallest is from the ’30s. From the late ’60s to the early ’80s, Tulsa built five new skyscrapers: Fourth National Bank (now Bank of America), Cities Service Building (now 110 W. 7th), 1st National Bank (now
First Plaza), the BOk Tower, and the Mid-Continent Tower — the addition that stands beside and is cantilevered over the original Cosden Building at 4th and Boston.There are rumors of even more tall towers in Oklahoma City, and some OKCers are giddy at the thought of “filling the gaps in the skyline.” The thing about filling those gaps is that the new skyscrapers have to touch the ground at some point, and how these towers meet the street is what matters most to downtown’s vitality. It may look beautiful from five miles away, it may have a great view from the top story, but how does it look to someone walking by on the street?
Bates may very well be onto something here, and it’s a thought that Jack Money and I contemplated in our 2006 book “OKC Second Time Around.” We discovered the writings of William H. Whyte in files maintained by late Bricktown developer Neal Horton. It was easy to see why Whyte’s writings attracted Horton, who was trying to reinvent the old warehouse district as an old towne district that would bring life back to downtown streets:
“As Horton and his partners raced ahead with their grand plans, they followed other downtown renovations like those on Dallas’ West End, Pitsburgh’s South Side, and New York City’s South Street Seaport with great interest. They also took notice of comments made in a 1983 Time article by William Whyte, a renowned critic of modern city planning who had visited Oklahoma City in the early 1980s. “The Blank Wall is on its way to becoming the dominant feature of many United States downtowns,” Whyte complained. “Without the windows or adornment to relieve their monotony, the walls are built of concrete, brick, granite, metal veneer, opaque glass and mirrors … designed out of fear – fear of the untidy hustle and bustle of city streets and undesirables – the walls spread fear.”
- OKC Second Time Around
In his book “City,” Whyte included this study of how the shopfront for Saks Fifth Avenue created a vibrant urban corner in New York City.
In our book Jack and I then noted the obvious – that in Oklahoma City’s rush to improve, it had also built an ample supply of “blank walls” The towers built during the Urban Renewal era fit perfectly into the very sort of design criticized by Whyte. Even older buildings like the historic Pioneer Telephone Building had their old storefronts sealed with brick and marble.
Quoting Whyte again:
“By eliminating the hospitable jumble of shop fronts, restaurant entrances and newsstands, the walls deaden the very city the buildings claim to revitalize.”
Bates’ questions might just apply as well to the proposed new headquarters for the Oklahoma City Greater Chamber. Or drive down Automobile Alley and look at how Steve Mason has brought life back to the1000 block of N Broadway.
Leadership Square – one of downtown’s most admired Urban Renewal era office buildings. But does it have the sort of street-frontage that brings life back to the street?
Pioneer Telephone Building – a marble fortress?