I’m staying out of the whole hot topic of the moment that seems to have everybody in a tizzy. But I don’t care about what’s happening this Tuesday, next Tuesday or the Tuesday when it comes to highlighting this very eloquent argument by Doug Loudenback as to why downtown matters.
A city’s downtown is its heart and heartbeat, the focal point of its identity. It is fair to say that a city’s downtown affects not only people who live and work there, it affects the remainder of the city and all of its parts, as well. Think about it — when you think of other cities, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? One doesn’t need to be an urban planning expert to know that the answer is, “downtown.” Petula Clark (or her lyricist) is presumably not an authority on cities, but I think you’ll agree that her 1965 tune correctly captures what most of us want in a downtown: vibrancy, lots of people, and lots of things to do.
Downtown When you’re alone and life is making you lonely
You can always go – downtown
When you’ve got worries, all the noise and the hurry
Seems to help, I know – downtown
Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city
Linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty
How can you lose?
The lights are much brighter there
You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares
So go downtown, things’ll be great when you’re
Downtown – no finer place, for sure
Downtown – everything’s waiting for you
Don’t hang around and let your problems surround you
There are movie shows – downtown
Maybe you know some little places to go to
Where they never close – downtown
Just listen to the rhythm of a gentle bossa nova
You’ll be dancing with him too before the night is over
The lights are much brighter there
You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares
So go downtown, where all the lights are bright
Downtown – waiting for you tonight
Downtown – you’re gonna be all right now
No flashback today – my work computer crashed and I’ve been busy this weekend with family stuff and preparing for Wednesday’s debut of the “Skirvin” book.
Random thought: 20 years ago the average downtown restaurant was a workday affair, open maybe from 10:30 to 3 p.m. at best.
It’s really nice to have a great shop like Hobby’s Hoagies at Robert S. Kerr and Walker (first floor of the Legacy apartments) open day and night, everyday, serving some of downtown’s best sub sandwiches, pizzas and Italian dishes downtown. The place has a great sense of community – and it’s got character. Think about this for a second and consider how much character and community you find at the average corporate restaurant.
It would be a shame to see a place like this die. For all the multi-million developments around downtown, it’s this sort of shop that gives downtown its life, that is helping restore it as a real neighborhood.
“Downtown is dead and we helped kill it. There’s no major retail, no major attractions and no place to eat.”
- Councilman I.G. Purser, April 17, 1988.
The quote is correct. But factually, it was wrong. Downtown had only one hotel open, and it was on the verge of closing. People didn’t play or live downtown, and they were choosing more and more to work outside of downtown as well.
And that, my friends, was “Point A.” It was 21 years ago, to be exact.
Downtown is now home to a blossoming local retail scene that includes two bicycle stores, a handful of clothing stores, several gift shops, a liquor store, a music store, theater, a big box retailer, a boutique grocery, art galleries and a winery.
Dozens of restaurants are open day and night, seven days a week, catering not just to downtown workers but also to thousands of people who now live downtown and stay at its seven hotels.
Downtown is home to the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum – an attraction we never sought, but are with us and draw millions worldwide who come to find out for themselves about the “Oklahoma standard.” It’s home to a spectacular Oklahoma City Museum of Art, Bricktown – which is envied by many around the country, and the iconic Myriad Gardens.
Thanks to the arrival of the NBA and the RedHawks, it’s difficult to peg any week during the year in which there aren’t at least 10,000 people coming downtown to be entertained.
Now the skyline is about to change dramatically with construction underway on the 50-story headquarters for Devon Energy. Project 180 will pump $140 million or more into a makeover of downtown streets and parks.
Downtown isn’t dead. It’s alive. It’s thriving.
And that, my friends, is “Point B.”
And I’ve been asked by some readers to explain how we got from Point A to Point B. As the author of “OKC Second Time Around,” a history of downtown history I compiled with Jack Money dating back to the inception of urban renewal in 1956, and as someone who has witnessed much of the comings and goings of all this the past dozen years, I guess I’ve learned some things.
I’m only one person. I’ve talked to a lot of folks, I’ve done a lot of research. But I don’t know it all. I never will. So all I can provide is my best shot at condensing what I’ve learned, and letting others determine what it all means.
This is history, as requested. Not a reflection or commentary on current events.
Purser, who has since passed away, was almost right. Downtown appeared dead. But it still had some life left to it. The annual Festival of the Arts was a critical bit of lifeblood, bringing large crowds of locals back downtown at least once a year. The Myriad Gardens had just opened, and while it wasn’t much to look at after it first opened, it had potential. Minor league basketball, followed by minor league hockey, added to the momentum, providing just the right elixir to give Bricktown its early but small burst of life as an entertainment district.
But all of this was fragile. It was the Metropolitan Area Projects initiative in 1993 that clearly, indisputably, added rocket fuel to downtown’s engine.
How did we get from Point A to Point B? It involved leaders like Mayor Ron Norick and the Greater OKC Chamber’s Ray Ackerman agreeing something radical had to be done. They didn’t conduct the early planning in public. But they didn’t freeze out the various constituencies. The losing groups felt as if they had been given as fair a shot as the winners. There were winners and losers when it came to creating a sales tax ballot to fund major community improvements.
We all know the winners. We don’t think about losers – a museum of natural history, a downtown ice skating rink, the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. They weren’t happy about the outcome, but they didn’t complain about being excluded from consideration during those early behind the scenes discussions. And there was even public debate by the city council over what should and shouldn’t be included on the ballot before they agreed to send it to voters.
The painful journey of getting from Point A to Point B didn’t end with the ballot’s passage in 1993. City leaders had some pretty strong notions when it came to configuration of the Bricktown Canal (it was originally to be built in three segments, not two, making for a much shorter boat ride), improvements to the convention center (they originally envisioned tearing out the old Myriad arena – which would have complicated efforts to attract NCAA and Big 12 basketball tournaments), and other aspects of the nine projects. But they kept an open mind in moving forward, even eventually acknowledging that a plan pitched by bitter nemesis Moshe Tal to lengthen the northern stretch of the canal was a good one.
I recall when MAPS a dirty word, when the projects were widely despised and ridiculed as a boondoggle. I remember when city leaders came to regret early giddy promises of quick construction and completion of various projects. “Over budget” and “behind schedule” became the norm in dozens of stories written by Jack and I.
Some even suggesting “shelving” the arena. Kirk Humphreys, who succeeded Ron Norick as mayor, insisted on fulfilling promises to voters. Consensus building once again involved seeking support by community leaders for a six month extension of the MAPS tax to finish the projects “right.”
Voters approved the extension overwhelmingly. Slowly, but surely, the projects opened and public perception of MAPS, and of downtown, and finally of the city as a whole, was on the definite upswing. When the MAPS tax expired, Humphreys led the successful campaign to create a MAPS for Kids tax to overhaul city schools. Once again, the process involved a lot of behind the scenes consensus building where all the major constituencies at least felt as if their ideas and arguments had a full hearing even if they weren’t incorporated into the projects.
By the time Mick Cornett was elected mayor, he had a lot to work with. And he used his predecessors’ legacy to lure an NBA team to town and major events to the Oklahoma River. He wasn’t alone; with people wanting to once again live, work and play downtown – to experience urban life in Oklahoma City – the market was set for developers and entrepreneurs to build up the sort of retail, housing and entertainment that had been mising for decades.
And that, my friends, leaves us at Point B.
Forgive a moment of self promotion.
My latest book with longtime collaborator Jack Money, “Skirvin” hits stores in December with a launch and signing party at 5 p.m. Wednesday, December 2, at the Skirvin Hilton Hotel at 1 Park Avenue, downtown Oklahoma City.
“Skirvin” is brought to you by the same team behind the award-winning 2006 book “OKC Second Time Around,” which was designed by Carl Brune (who won best design for the title in 2007 Oklahoma Book Awards) and published by Full Circle Books.
As with “OKC Second Time Around,” Jack and Steve use a narative novel-style approach to telling the history of the 99-year-old hotel. Their story, fully foot-noted and sourced, addresses mysterious deaths of key hotel figures, family controversies that cost W.B. Skirvin control of the hotel in his later life, the turmoil of the civil rights era, and the often misunderstood efforts by owners in the 1970s and 1980s to keep the legend alive in a downtown that was on the verge of itself going dark.
“Skirvin” is a story of perseverence, glamour and grit. The book tells how a city collectively refused to let the hotel go dark forever, and how bad it got before finally reopening in 2007.
Join the fun and celebration December 2.
Today’s OKC Central video may end up being one of my favorites. Starting off with a fun look at Downtown in December with Kim Searls, the Oklahoma Focus picture slideshow is an incredible walk back in time, with the story of Christmas past told by the late great Mary Jo Nelson – a woman who can either be credited or blamed for much of who I am today as a reporter. Her influence on me began long before I ever got to meet her. I was the young kid reading her stories in the paper, following every word she wrote about what downtown was, and what it might be in the future.
Galleria Site to Be Divided Up Redevelopment Options Discussed
By Mary Jo Nelson
Sunday, May 5, 1991
The age for a monolithic downtown development in Oklahoma City has come and gone, if you heed a national architectural firm that has created mixed-use centers in the heart of 20 other American cities.
That means a four-block site in the central business district will be redivided and parceled out for individual buildings, city redevelopment officials confirm.
A project on the scale of the proposed $100 million Galleria, or the less ambitious $33 million Festival Market Center, is no longer valid, says John Gosling, architect and planner in the Dallas office of Baltimore-based RTKL Associates Inc. RTKL designed one of two never-built projects intended for the downtown Galleria site, extending from Robinson to Hudson between Park Avenue and Sheridan.
Second Century Inc., a public/private policy body set up to direct downtown rebuilding, is considering ways to disassemble the Galleria land. Main questions are how the large parcel will be broken up and redeveloped, Second Century president Tiana Douglas said.
A pair of office buildings and two-level parking structures are all of the original plans ever built on the Galleria/Festival location. Two massive retail/hotel/office projects never made it beyond concept stage. The redevelopment contractors were unable to finance the ventures.
The failures left a gaping empty space at the city’s core, and Second Century officers say once the location is cut into small parcels, it could take years to rebuild.
“We believe the development strategy for the Galleria property should focus on a series of separate entrepreneurial actions that are, relative to past aspirations, quite modest in scale,” Gosling recently reported to Second Century officials and the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority.
With break-up of the four blocks, at least part of the former street pattern will be restored, Second Century vice president David Jones said. But re-opened Harvey Avenue and Main Street won’t see typical downtown traffic again.
More likely, a T-shaped streetway/plaza will result where pedestrians will share space with selected vehicles, possibly trolleys.
“Main and Harvey won’t become dedicated streets again. Instead, they’ll be passageways limited to some kind of specialized traffic,” Jones explained. “What kind has not yet been determined. ” Second Century hired RTKL to suggest options for redeveloping the Galleria space. As architect and planner for the site’s proposed Forest City’s Festival Market Center, RTKL already had compiled vast amounts of data and understood the whole environment, Douglas said.
Pending construction of an office building for the Internal Revenue Service, to be owned by and leased from a local investment firm, “gives us another opportunity to look at the whole site and do some strategic planning and to some marketing,” she added.
“We’re really not anxious for a grand master plan,” Douglas said. “What we do now will be step-by-step. ” She considers RTKL uniquely qualified to guide downtown Oklahoma City’s revitalization. The Forest City project was one of many the firm has designed for central cities nationwide. Among major urban renewal projects to its credit is Charles Center – the core of Baltimore’s renaissance.
“It’s a different universe out there today” than four years ago, when Forest City Enterprises planned to develop a downtown Festival Market Place, Gosling said. With national economic, financial and real estate climates drastically altered, “we’re trying to make sense in the ’90s for a vitalization plan that would energize downtown. ” Gosling forsees downtown remaining a center for the arts, government, finance and utility companies for the next 20 years.
“We tried retail and it didn’t work,” he said referring to the ill-fated Galleria and Festival Market Center plans. “Now we’re looking at arts programs and working off what you can do from convention and tourist-related interests. The formula is so much more complicated now. ” To speed up expanding convention facilities, Second Century directors on Thursday agreed to spend $60,000 to study the need for expanding Myriad Convention Center and building another hotel nearby. Requests for proposals will be sought from consultants, Jones said. Possible sites for the hotel would be at Sheridan and Robinson, and on Sheridan west of Robinson. Splitting the $60,000 cost will be the Oklahoma City Convention and Visitors Commission and the urban renewal authority.
A hotel is proposed for Sheridan Avenue, west of the historic Colcord Building, in all RTKL options yet submitted. Virtually all authorities agree another downtown hotel is needed to attract more conventions.
The RTKL options set aside much of the western half of the four-block site for expansion of the downtown cultural/arts district. Specifically proposed are an arts museum and a new central library. Other possibilities identified are a performing arts center smaller than Civic Center Music Hall and a location for the Oklahoma Historical Society.
A cultural/performing arts, entertainment/tourism bag that is slowly emerging downtown has begun to work in other cities, Gosling said. But the fundamentals will continue to be based on city, county and federal government, financial and professional services (mainly law offices), utility companies and the corporations that historically have been based downtown, such as Kerr-McGee Corp. “I don’t see any fundamental shifts,” Gosling said. “There aren’t any corporations moving into downtowns today. When they move at all, it’s to suburbs. ” He forsees no more giant projects in Oklahoma City or elsewhere.
Douglas, Jones and Gosling unanimously stress one element: “The day of the speculative office building (such as First Oklahoma and American First Towers) in downtown is over. ” They anticipate no more of this type of construction, probably for the rest of the century.
On the other hand, Gosling said, there is not much contiguous space for large users downtown. He said the one major supplier of 75,000 square feet or more is First Oklahoma Tower. RTKL proposes that about a third of the vacant Galleria space be designated for “build-to-suit” buyers.
“We have enough office space for a five- to 10-year supply. We are seeing some businesses moving up (to more luxurious space) and some law firms returning,” Douglas said.
Two of three options also provide more multistory parking in the center of the four-block site. Existing parking structures were designed to support multiple levels. This would allow ample on-site parking behind future buildings constructed to front on Park Avenue, Hudson, Robinson and Sheridan. Douglas also forsees Sheridan becoming the new Main Street.
In the case of the downtown IRS building, proposed on N Robinson between the Colcord and American First Tower, ” the government is now getting the private sector to build buildings for them,” Gosling said. “We are seeing government departments looking at sites that support downtown wherever they can. They’re not interested in owning buildings any longer. I don’t know if this is a trend, but it’s happening all over the country. ” Besides the IRS project, the State Insurance Fund is searching for downtown space.
Whatever option is adopted Gosling and Jones point to downtown’s advantages. Although an eroding employee base has diminished the amount and type of retail establishments, the area has the tunnel system and “some of the lowest crime statistics in the city. “
I’m glad it’s over. Later today, or maybe tomorrow, I’ll sum up the decisions made this week on Project 180. I think it’s clear now that LED lighting is now on the table, but it’s far from a done deal and I’m seeing evidence that the LED industry is now paying attention to this discussion and sees the opportunity to make its case with Project 180 and counter information given out by consultants and OG&E concerning the readiness of the technology and available warrantees.
Not sure what’s going to happen with the “other” downtown initiatives. I’ve had a lot of people ask me what’s going on. After watching Tulsa leaders and their opposition the past decade, I recognize failures on both sides when I see it. Will we end up being like Tulsa? I hope not.
The folks promoting the cause of LED lights sent me this press release today:
Sunovia Energy Wins LED Street Lighting Contract from Sarasota County
SARASOTA, Fla., Nov. 18 /PRNewswire-FirstCall/ — Sunovia Energy Technologies, Inc. (OTC Bulletin Board: SUNV) has won the bid to provide LED street lighting for Sarasota County’s highly visible main thoroughfare, Fruitville Road.
On November 13th, the county provided a Bid Award notice letter to all bid participants stating that Sunovia provided the “lowest price responsive bid,” meaning Sunovia bid the lowest price while meeting or exceeding all requirements of the proposal. Seven other companies, three of them with ties to Sarasota, participated in the bidding process.
The project calls for Sunovia to provide 148 EvoLucia(TM)-brand 120W LED cobra head-style street lights. Because the LED lights are extremely energy-efficient and require no maintenance for 12 years, the lights will save Sarasota County approximately $14,000 per year in energy and maintenance costs. Further, the LED lights will reduce carbon emissions by approximately 710,730 pounds over 10 years.
The EvoLucia lights project more than 50 lumens per watt consumed, a relatively high light output considering the low amount of input energy. They contain the newest high-brightness Cree® LEDs ( CREE) and employ patent-pending Aimed Optics(TM) technology to focus maximum light on the ground, virtually eliminating glare, wasted light and light pollution.
“Because the LEDs within our EvoLucia lights are strategically aimed to focus light on specified locations, they achieve higher light utilization and provide higher ‘target efficiencies’ than even other types of LED fixtures,” the company said. “This is particularly important in street and roadway applications, where increased road safety comes directly from the heightened visibility of more light reaching roadways at ground level. Our ‘Aimed Optics’ technology is the only technology suited for direct, one-for-one replacement of HPS cobra head street lights with LEDs–meaning Sarasota can install the LED lights on existing poles with no needed adjustments in pole spacing.”
The new cobra heads also exceed the “Fitted Target Efficiency” criteria established by the U.S. Department of Energy (D.O.E.) for Energy Star® certification. The “Aimed Optics” direct illumination method also allows fixtures to meet Dark Sky guidelines and LEED certification requirements by minimizing light trespass, reducing sky-glow, and reducing impact on nocturnal environments.
If Sarasota were to proceed to a city-wide LED street light retrofit of 62,000 fixtures, the county would save more than $5.28 million annually in energy and maintenance costs and reduce carbon emissions by 223 million pounds over 10 years.
Ed Kramer, Sunovia’s Director of LED Sales and Marketing, said, “We are grateful for Sarasota County’s commitment to energy conservation. While our technology saves a tremendous amount of energy and money, it also has the potential to rebuild Sarasota’s economy around ‘green’ jobs. By choosing environmentally friendly, energy-efficient and Sarasota-made EvoLucia LED lighting, the county has done what is best for the environment, the local economy and Sarasota taxpayers.”
About Sunovia Energy Technologies, Inc.
Sunovia Energy Technologies is a Sarasota, FL-based company that commercializes and markets products within the LED lighting and solar markets that reduce carbon emissions, promote national security and preserve the environment. Sunovia owns the exclusive marketing rights to products produced by EPIR Technologies, Inc., including infrared sensors and devices for the civilian and military night vision markets.
Sunovia’s LED lighting technologies are among the most cost and energy-efficient in the world, and are marketed under the brand name EvoLucia(TM) (www.evolucialighting.com).
Sunovia owns a significant equity interest in Illinois-based EPIR Technologies, Inc., the pioneer of single crystal II-VI solar modules and a global leader in the field of IR sensors and IR imaging. EPIR’s collective infrared knowledge and experience is believed to exceed that of any company in the world. Its founder, Chairman and CEO Dr. Sivalingam Sivananthan, is a recognized world leader in HgCdTe growth.
EPIR holds the patent for growing CdTe directly on a Si readout integrated circuit, for which the company developed a manufacturing capability with Congressional support. Sunovia and EPIR co-own the solar technologies and solar products that are developed under the Exclusive Partnership Agreement. The Partners have a network of close collaborative relationships, including the Army Research Laboratory, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the Night Vision Electronic Sensors Directorate, BAE Systems, and other laboratories around the world.
More information about the exclusive partnership between Sunovia and EPIR is available in Sunovia’s Securities and Exchange filings at www.sec.gov, or at the partners’ Web sites, www.sunoviaenergy.com and www.epir.com.
The Sunovia(TM) logo is a registered service mark of Sunovia Energy Technologies, Inc. in the United States and/or other countries. Sunovia Energy products and services and EvoLucia(TM) products and services are provided by Sunovia Energy Technologies, Inc.
Just caught up with Assistant City Manager Cathy O’Connor on the LED lights. The city has decided to pursue LED street lights under the condition that city staff and OG&E can agree it’s doable by the time the new street light poles go up in a couple of years and that the two sides can come up with a price they can agree on for the fixtures and poles.
The LED light industry, if they were smart, might want to be proactive here and offer up proof the costs aren’t as bad as feared.
This light got, at best, a lukewarm response from city staff when it was first proposed. And consultants were shy about saying it was their preference until the meetings were opened up and architect Rand Elliott urged Jerreck Boss to name his preference and argue why it’s the best choice.
Sure enough, the round fixture is back. And the group has been talking about how it might work into introducing a subtle “O” theme to downtown’s street design.