Wow. A happy coincidence hits the paper Friday. For the past week I’ve been working on a pretty big write up on the Devon TIF and the now $141.5 million makeover of downtown. To date I’ve tried without much success to explain on this blog why this is such a big deal. Now you can see it for yourselves tomorrow (I may try to post some additional power point presentation material on this site by mid-afternoon). Of course, I’m sure you’ll be reading the story about MAPS 3 first.
How can I explain where everything is tilting? How ambitious is all of this?
Let’s start with the one theme that may or may not in any of the news coverage (I’ve not seen it on TV, but I’ve not seen Bryan Dean’s story yet). That theme is desperation. In 1993 we were desperate. The 20-somethings and the offspring of the city’s elite were ditching their hometown in search of greater opportunities elsewhere. This was a city stuck in mediocrity and was moving backwards.
We couldn’t pay companies (Micron, United Airlines, American Airlines) enough to come here. We couldn’t pay the government enough to come here (the Defense department accounting centers). We had a dead river flowing the middle of our city, students learning in decrepid metal buildings, a convention center with meeting space consisting of rooms harkening back to the ’70s with rain water leaking through the roof, a downtown that desolate after 5 p.m. and increasingly lonely during the day, and an aging ballpark that was about to lose its team. Only one downtown hotel was left open, and its future was in doubt. Hardly anyone lived downtown, hardly anyone wanted to play downtown, and it appeared as if no one really even cared anymore about downtown.
To quote Mayor Mick Cornett, when the original MAPS was passed by voters, the city was acting out of desperation to turn things around.
That’s not the situation today. I’m not suggesting Oklahoma City is perfect and we face no further problems. But this is a different city. MAPS for Kids launched a transformation of public schools that is well underway. Hotels, housing and attractions that didn’t exist previously can be found throughout downtown. The river is a river with groups beginning to fight over who gets to use it the most. People are proud of their city and the younger generation is no longer wanting to flee to other states.
The mayor points out OKC has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country and we’re about to see a new skyscraper built downtown. Mayor Mick argues we’re not acting out of desparation with the proposed MAPS 3 ballot.
And that, my friends, clearly made assembling this ballot a bit more difficult.
So what we have is the biggest gamble yet. The $777 million proposal calls for an ambitious central park and development of Core to Shore. It calls for a convention center, and also a convention hotel. A five-mile street car system would link all the major urban core districts (MidTown, Deep Deuce, the CBD, Bricktown, the Oklahoma Health Center, etc). More river improvements are slated, including a white water rafting venue.
To quote the late Billy Mays, “But wait, there’s more!”
Remember how Mayor Mick said this ballot wasn’t about acting out of desparation? Well, some politicking has taken place this summer, most of it behind closed doors (don’t say I didn’t warn you). The results are quite intriguing. Instead of completing an extensive trails master plan in 20 years, the ballot provides funding for completing it this next decade. Money is allocated for adding sidewalks to major corridors (will the thousands of apartment dwellers living around Quail Springs Mall finally be able to safely walk along Memorial Road to their jobs and area attractions)? Senior citizens who complain they don’t get anything out of these ballots will discover they’re getting acqautics/actvity centers.
The only unhappy crowd, it appears, is to be found in Bricktown, where they see a convention center being built further away from the restaurants and merchants who depend on convention business to keep them alive. No canal extension for them. And the model and renderings released Thursday all show the new convention center in the spot least liked by Bricktown.
So is that it?
Nope. So we have the Devon TIF detailed, though not really. What’s being planned for the Myriad Gardens is beyond what many might expect. And there’s also some efforts going on behind the scenes to turn the McAlpine/Allied Arts area into a real arts campus. Film Row is developing. And some intriguing potential development is in the works east of Automobile Alley between NW 14 and NW 9.
So what challenges remain if MAPS 3 is passed?
First National needs help. It’s a historic landmark. The California owners may finally realize they paid too much when they bought it for $21 million a few years back.
Uncertainty still surrounds the old Braniff buildings now owned by SandRidge Energy. Urbanists say demolition of the buildings will create too much open space and destroy the area’s urban fabric. Some respected, accomplished developers want to convert the buildings into housing.
Rick Dowell’s tower across from Leadership Square remains empty, even though it stands at over 20 stories high. With city assistance, he has removed asbestos from all but a few of the floors. Dowell isn’t a slum lord – he’s managed to renovate and lease out buildings abandoned by far more powerful, wealthier individuals.
We do have other significant buildings that have fallen into the hands of people who are widely considered slum lords. For some reason the city’s non-profit community has decided it’s ok to sell landmark or prime real estate to slum lords. When time allows, I’ll be naming names and asking questions in this matter.
With all this going on, one must wonder if some of the city’s key organizations – the Oklahoma City Convention and Visitors Bureau, Downtown Oklahoma City Inc., the Bricktown Association – are properly funded and staffed to ensure we’re able to get best ride we can out of this future luxury car of a downtown.
A few months back, with the banking crisis killing downtown housing development and other deals, I wondered whether this beat was about to slow down. I’m not so sure that’s something I’ve got worry about now.