That was my first thought as I toured the wonderful Cityscape exhibit of the Lego skyline that is currently on display at Penn Square Mall. For those not familiar with the project, the exhibit is a fundraiser for Educare in south OKC.
The truth is, parking at Penn Square Mall just to see Cityscape is downright awful. Traffic to get into the mall is downright awful. And unless you’re ready to do some SERIOUS shopping, why would one want to go to Penn Square without wanting to shop between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day?
And yet that’s the gameplan this year. It’s also my understanding that Cityscape didn’t get the space for free – and a glance at the organization’s website http://www.okcityscape.com/ doesn’t show Penn Square or owner Simon Malls as a sponsor.
So my question to downtown property owners is, how badly do you want to attract visitors and regain what’s been lost this past 30 years? Sure Penn Square might be packed with thousands of shoppers. But downtown has a huge workforce, is the city’s cultural and civic heart, and promises up to 20,000 people coming at least once a week for a Thunder game, concert or other special events during the holiday season.
Concerned people won’t come? Tell that to the operators of the Devon Ice Rink. Or maybe the Snowtubing at the Brick (Hey RedHawks, have you ever considered being charitable and letting Cityscape use your special event area in conjunction with the snowtubing?). Better yet, there are several empty storefronts on the Bricktown Canal. What better way to get people to rediscover the canal level and help it reach its ultimate potential?
Sure, there are other candidates: spaces along Automobile Alley, the Great Banking Hall, Leadership Square, Film Row, MidTown…
Think about it downtown. My understanding is some of the suburban folks saw this as a chance to make money on what is truly a good cause. Let all the money go to the kids and enjoy the benefit of attention this attraction can bring to the central city.
Jim Beckel provides us a glimpse of downtown post storm. If you have photos of your own of downtown this weekend, please email me a copy at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll post it here on the blog!
And here are the first responses…. (I’ll update as I receivce images):
(This film is from a collection you can find at www.okchistory.com, a site hosted by myself and Jack Money)
. . . And to Downtown, a Good Night
By Mary Jo Nelson
Sunday, December 25, 1983
There is no doubt in the mind of any kid growing up today in Oklahoma City. Santa Claus is a suburbanite. His realm is the shopping mall.
Like the city’s children themselves, contemporary Santas don’t know about downtown, let alone ever see it.
It wasn’t always that way. For a half-century or more before downtown was razed, the heart of Oklahoma City glowed with the very soul of Christmas. To folks past 40, ghosts of magical Christmases past hover downtown. The season turned it into a wonderland.
The multiple-story limestone and brick department stores employed plenty of friendly, helpful clerks, and stocked enough goods that within a few blocks, you could buy anything on your list.
The streets and buildings were decked out from top to bottom with lights and bells and stars and garlands. Inside and out, the stores sparkled with brightly-burning bulbs, tinseled greenery, bells that jingled and animated figures.
Windows in John A. Brown, Kerr’s and Halliburton’s department stores were taken over by mechanical creatures that danced endlessly simply because Christmas was coming. And somewhere in a quiet corner, those who sought it could find a tiny figure in a creche, detached from all the fuss and yet, somehow, the center of it.
Few people can remember that during the 1930s and who knows how long before, Oklahoma City staged an annual Christmas parade that rivaled the modern Macy’s. It is preserved in historic photograph collections.
Apparently patterned after New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, it featured stilted and costumed storybook characters who marched up and down the city’s brick streets, along the streetcar tracks. Tens of thousands turned out to watch, jamming the broad sidewalks and spilling over onto the wide streets, so close they could reach out and touch the paraders.
The highlight always was Santa Claus himself, riding a genuine sleigh drawn by eight real, live reindeer. It required three or four men to keep the deer in line, but if anybody noticed, no fuss was made about it. Neither was any notice paid to the wheels that substituted for the sleigh’s runners.
The streets themselves were a wonderland for children. Utility poles were transformed to forests of decorated Christmas trees, and strings of lights across Main and Grand (now Sheridan), Broadway and Robinson illuminated the night sky. Stores strung colored lights along their facades, five and six stories high, creating fanciful shapes.
Small Oklahoma towns would drive busloads of children to the capital for the Yule scenery.
Historian Jordan Reaves, then of Pauls Valley, “always found some excuse” to come to Oklahoma City at Christmastime during the 1920s and 1930s.
“You had Woolworth’s on one side of Main Street and John A. Brown’s on the other, and between those two stores, you could find anything in the world you wanted for Christmas,” Reaves remembers.
“Then after I moved to Oklahoma City and was working downtown, during the 1950s, I would rush into Brown’s on Christmas Eve and find a woman clerk and plead with her and she never failed to bail me out. She was always sympathetic and helpful and if she wasn’t selling what I needed, she would suggest something and tell me exactly where I could find it.
Now, that’s all gone by the board.”
Mrs. O. Alton Watson remembers taking her three children to visit Santa at Brown’s.
“Even after Ann Sheridan (her eldest) was old enough to know there wasn’t a Santa, she and the others were just paralyzed with excitement,” she related. “You knew all the clerks in the store and they knew you. It was just wonderful.”
Both Mrs. Watson and Reaves recall the crowds as one of the things that made Christmas downtown special. “They had those wide sidewalks, and they were just jammed with people,” Reaves said. “You couldn’t walk. You had to work your way down the street.”
“There were so many people you couldn’t move in the stores, even at night,” Mrs. Watson remembers. “The stores were so beautifully decorated and the toy departments were outstanding. The thrill of it was wonderful.
“Now, it’s too split up. There are just too many shopping centers, and the lights and excitement (of downtown) were something you just don’t get at the shopping malls.”
Mrs. John D. Frizzell had just finished seventh grade when her family moved here from Tulsa. That 1922 Christmas and others to follow will never be forgotten.
“Oh! It was a big deal. The big excitement was you would drive down to Main Street and try to get a parking place in front of Brown’s or Kerr’s or Halliburton’s. Then you would sit in the car and just look at the decorations and watch the people go by,” she said.
“The windows were just lovely. The first animated Santa and snow man I ever saw were in Brown’s window at Christmas.”
Mrs. Glenn Lockwood recalls the windows, too. Each year, she said, Brown’s would have a different scene of automated figures. One year, the story featured Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, all busily preparing for Christmas Day.
“Some Christmases, it would be a Nativity scene, and all the animals surrounding Baby Jesus’ crib were animated.”
Edgar S. Vaught Jr. remembers the community Christmas trees that dominated Main Street just east of Broadway.
“They always had a huge Christmas tree, about three stories tall, and a big lighting ceremony,” he said. While Vaught said he still sees animated figures and lighting in various places over the city, he hasn’t since seen anything approaching the massive volume of splashy lighting and decorations that used to turn downtown into a fairlyand.
The brilliant Christmases of the 1930s were dimmed slightly by the World War II years of 1941-45. Decorators substituted great Vs (symbolizing victory) for bells that had swung across major streets.
When the war ended, Christmas regained some of its glitter. Then post-war city councils routinely approved just about any commercial development proposed, bringing a proliferation of shopping centers.
Urban sprawl set in, and urban renewal doomed many downtown businesses.
Finally, the sturdy old store buildings themselves were destroyed.
Such stores and such Christmases may not be seen again, says Milton Kamber, whose family started in business downtown more than 60 years ago. “We were pioneers,” he said.
From its last Main Street location as a division of Kerr’s, Kamber’s moved to Penn Square, then later to North Park Mall, removals that became the norm with urban renewal.
Today, the contemporary lights of major banks and one giant corportion have replaced yesterday’s yuletides. Except for these, Christmas, like the merchants, has abandoned downtown.
“I know this,” says Kamber. “It will never come back. People will not walk and look for a parking place when they can drive right up to my door.”
(Thanks to Rob for the video link!)
I mean it. Yes, it’s true that Mike Morgan is calling for up to 10 inches of snow for Christmas. And yes, I’ll be disappointed if we just get ice or rain. And yes, anyone who has read this blog for any length of time knows about the “incident.”
But Mike and I are friends now. And if he gets it wrong again, well, it’s Christmas time. And if the Red Baron could stop hostilities with Snoopy during this very special time of year, surely we can as well.
I’ll have a pretty moving post from the past for Christmas, and I’ll pop up a predictions post as well.
Since this blog has always been more of a discussion amonst friends and acquaintances (OK, a lot of friends and acquaintances, sometimes folks with different ideas), I’m going to let you on something I’m trying to deal with right now.
The question is, do I return to school? Yes, I’ve got journalism degree, but I have no idea where the world is heading. For several years I’ve found myself delving more and more into city history. I love reading about world and United States history.
I’m contemplating taking a night course or two each semester and slowly working toward a masters degree in history.
I would love to continue doing what I’m doing. But with a family, and in the world we live in, it just seems prudent to keep one’s options open.
I’ve seen good talented friends lose their jobs this past year. These are people I couldn’t have imagined being out of work. It all gets you thinking – and thanking God for what you’ve got.
The next decade promises to be just as exciting as the last for downtown, and it’s my hope I’ll continue to be in a position to sort through it all for you the readers.
It’s difficult to believe it’s been a decade since Garner Stoll was literally forced out of Oklahoma City after a revolutionary stint as planning director. So, what did Garner do that was so wrong? His “crimes” – the ones I observed as City Hall reporter – included drafdting plans for revival of the Asian District, Paseo, MidTown and Automobile Alley (the evidence of those plans’ success can be seen today). He’s also “guilty” of introducing “streetscapes.” And he suggested that the city combat the problem of sign clutter and he dared to suggest this city’s sprawl was dangerous to it’s health.
What a horrible, horrible man. A decade later the council members who wanted Stoll removed are gone and forgotten. But his work lives on.
Leader’s exit leaves questions over plans
By Jack Money, Steve Lackmeyer
Monday, July 10, 2000
For years, municipal planning in Oklahoma City was about where to build apartments, shopping centers and housing additions. Nothing too radical, nothing exciting.
But that traditional definition has changed, thanks to a relatively young planning department created in 1993.
Planning is now about creating tree- and flower-lined medians along major inner-city corridors like NW 23. It’s also about requiring sidewalks in all new neighborhoods, and the creation of an ambitious 200-mile urban trail system where residents can stroll, bike or skate throughout the city.
In their ninth-floor offices of the city’s Main Place Building, planners have spurred the creation of new jobs for people living in the poorest neighborhoods. New partnerships with other agencies are being credited with launching housing and commercial development in the inner city.
Ultimately, it’s about making life more pleasant for the nearly half-million people who live in Oklahoma City. And this new planning philosophy also is credited with involving the public in policy decisions about what kind of community Oklahoma City is and will be 20 years from now.
Former City Manager Don Bown, who created the department in 1993, is proud of its accomplishments.
“People at the local level usually only get active when their ox is being gored,” Bown said, citing as an example a city decision in 1994 to require rural residents to use city-provided trash service.
“You only typically see people when something is going on that is really big-time controversial.”
Bown said he liked the planning department’s efforts to involve the public in municipal issues because it educated people. Indeed, repeated efforts to involve those city residents have won the department rave reviews.
Still, despite all of its accomplishments, the planning staff is anxious these days. It faces an uncertain future after Garner Stoll’s departure as planning director. Opposition from developers, real estate agents and home builders stalled an effort to draft a new master plan. That left City Manager Glen Deck to conclude that Stoll lacked the political finesse to get things done.
Stoll is moving to Parker, Colo., a town aggressively fighting its own development explosion.
And though Deck intends to launch a national search for a new planning director, city planners are privately worrying whether they’ll continue to enjoy the autonomy that fostered so many of their accomplishments.
Efforts to involve the public in Oklahoma City’s future started in late 1993, in a competition for a $100 million federal Empowerment Zone grant. The grant required residents of the proposed zone to help make plans to spend the money.
Oklahoma City’s grant proposal, with others submitted by every major metropolitan area, were judged on their feasibility and on levels of public participation. Oklahoma City didn’t win the big prize, but it was designated an Enterprise Community and given $3 million to undertake improvements on a smaller scale.
Citizens were called back to draw up new plans that eventually included loans for new businesses, marketing programs for minority or disadvantaged entrepreneurs and a loan program for exterior business rehabilitations.
The meetings were not always easy. Some participants were distrustful. Others were angered that Oklahoma City’s crumbling school district was not addressed by the plan.
“The jury is still out on the trust issue, because there is still a lot of uncertainty out there,” said Theotis Payne, a participant in those meetings.
Payne, who owns a school in northeast Oklahoma City started with federal block grant money, said attitudes will be slow to change.
“The reality of it is that the city is still controlled by a bureaucracy,” Payne said. “But as long as small, minority-owned businesses have a place at the table, and have input, then I think the city is trying. And that, I believe, shows the city is making some progress.”
Other federal funds were sent to Oklahoma City because it won an Enterprise Community designation. But with the 1995 Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building bombing, the planning department’s priorities changed.
The National Endowment for the Arts and the Urban Land Institute both offered help in developing plans to rebuild bomb-damaged downtown. Design workshops followed, and again, Oklahoma City residents were asked for help.
That effort initially slowed the Planning Department’s plans to improve other inner-city areas, like the NW 23 Street corridor. Those projects were back on track, though, while a new division headed by an assistant planner got downtown property owners through the recovery process.
The Murrah recovery program processed 260 applications for assistance with bomb damage repairs. Of those, 169 were declared eligible for the grants. A new urban design committee modeled after one in Bricktown was created to make sure it conformed with the existing downtown area.
An example of the group’s work includes a new three-story building at NW 6 and Robinson Avenue, which replaced the bomb-damaged Kilpatrick Hotel. After urging by the design committee, owners agreed to build closer to the sidewalk and use a more elaborate brick facade.
In the midst of the bombing response, planners also were moving forward with a citizen-based discussion about trails in the city.
By 1997, the Oklahoma City Council endorsed a formal plan for the trail system that identified 100 miles of trails that could be built if money could be found. The plan also suggested about 90 additional miles of trails to expand the system.
Dick Coyle, a planning commissioner who was chairman of the committee that created the trails plan, said public participation has become part of every long-range plan the department has undertaken.
“It can be time-consuming, and sometimes, it can cause delays, but I think it is good to have public involvement in these types of issues,” Coyle said. Coyle has sat through hundreds of meetings since 1993, many about the trails.
Public meetings on a recently adopted Asian District, the NW 23 Street corridor, Capitol Hill and Stockyards, Midtown and others keep city planners busy.
“I think public involvement is helpful, because if you don’t have the support of those directly involved in those programs, then you don’t have a ball game,” Coyle said.
And throughout it all, Oklahoma City’s Planning Department bolstered the numbers of protected inner-city housing areas, nearly doubling the neighborhoods with Historic Preservation or Conservation District status.
“They really created an emphasis on the inner city,” said Nedra Jones, an area real estate broker. Jones, a Paseo resident since 1990, said planners were always willing to help Paseo find money for housing improvements, home buyer assistance programs and other improvements.
“And planning picked the sorriest area in Oklahoma City to do.”
Jones said Paseo had a 57 percent vacancy rate and the homes sold for an average of $4.11 a square foot before planners started working with residents. Today, vacancy rates are less than 5 percent, and homes are selling for between $50 and $65 a square foot.
Jones said she and other inner-city residents have enjoyed the support of the city’s planning department and wonder what will happen now.
“We are concerned we will get dismissed somewhat… and will have to fight harder to continue to bring the area back.”
Both of these renderings show the intersection of Main and Walker:
I’m sitting here covering the Business Improvement District meeting, and I’m bewildered by what I’m hearing. For nine years areas like Automobile Alley were able to pool their project assessments year to year and go for one big project, like the gateway at NW 6 and Oklahoma Avenue. But now the city attorney’s office has concluded that this is no longer legally possible. No, the law didn’t change. Interpretation of the law, however, did. And now projects must be funded by whatever funding is available in one single year.
So if, let’s say, Bricktown wanted to build a small welcome center building (this is not being proposed, just a hypothetical) in front of the AT&T Bricktown Ballpark, they could not do so because it would be considered a major capital improvement.
Tulsa, meanwhile, has it’s own interpretation of the same law, and they’re actually building an ENTIRE BALLPARK funded by multiple years of business improvement district assessments.