God bless Mary Jo Nelson. I thought the world of the woman. I read her stories in The Oklahoman starting in the late 1970s, when I was in Jr. High, straight through high school and college.
She wrote about downtown. She wrote about architecture. She wrote about urban design. And she wrote about history. I loved every word of it.
And it wasn’t long after I got my start at The Oklahoman that Mary Jo retired. Sure, she continued to contribute over the years, and did some great analysis pieces following the 1995 Murrah bombing and the history of the buildings that had to be torn down. But her heyday was over, and really, no one stepped into her shoes. I doubt anyone ever will.
I know, you’ve read my tributes to Mary Jo before and you’re probably tiring of it.
But wait. Mary Jo Nelson was wrong.
Yep. She was wrong. No, not wrong about everything. But in her hatred of the crimes of Urban Renewal – the demolition of the Criterion, the Baum building, the Warner and other treasures – her efforts to mentor and advise me included a constant admonition. “Why,” she’d ask, “haven’t you gotten the people at Urban Renewal indicated yet?”
And yeah, she was serious.
I’d sheepishly answer I hadn’t seen or found anything that would be considered an actual crime.
But the message was clear. In Mary Jo Nelson’s eyes, Urban Renewal was a crime. The Pei Plan was a crime.
But the more I look into this history, the more I learn about I.M. Pei and the city fathers who attempted to carry out his plan, the less convinced I am that they were criminals.
I believe it’s time to reconsider all we’ve been told, all we believe when it comes to this story, and discuss possibilities that would probably make Mary Jo recoil with disgust.
Yes, there were things done badly. Bad choices were made. It’s hard to come up with any conclusion to the Criterion Theater and Baum Building being torn down to make way for the Century Center plaza that doesn’t end with “how utterly stupid.”
But in the light of day, with no bias, could the case be made that the people who relentlessly pursued the Pei Plan were heroic? Is it possible that Pei was a visionary whose worst crime was his failure to chastise locals who corrupted his ideas? Is it possible that everything we know, everything Mary Jo Nelson believed, is tainted by an effort, conscious or unconscious, to make Pei the scapegoat for our own bad choices?
This next week the final touch will be added to www.impeiokc.com – display of the complete Pei Plan. Read it for yourselves, and then prepare to see Pei’s vision of downtown OKC, 1989, with your very own eyes….
No, this isn’t downtown related. It’s related to the future of journalism. I’ve been at The Oklahoman for 20 years. I’ve seen elected officials bought and paid for, I’ve seen state employees misspend thousands of dollars on their purchase cards on personal shopping sprees, I’ve seen DHS workers abuse the faith placed in them to protect the downtrodden, I’ve seen folks in higher ed forget whose money they are spending.
So, do you want to know if DHS workers have criminal backgrounds? Do you want to know if employees driving state vehicles have DUI records? Do you want to know if state employees trusted with overseeing the expenditure of public funds have been convicted of fraud or financial malfeasance?
If you want to know any of this, just know that one of The Oklahoman’s best and brightest young reporters, John Estus, is trying to look out for your interests. And just know he’s racked up some powerful enemies…
(If I were John Estus, I’d consider this OPEA press release to be a badge of courage)
Time to find out about one of the coolest history projects I’ve ever had the fortune to be a part of – www.impeiokc.com.
Let’s go way back in time – to 1967…..
Architectural Students Work Up Plan for City
By Mary Jo Nelson
Sunday, March 18, 1990
From his Manhattan Tower in 1963, I.M. Pei came up with a costly plan for redeveloping downtown that Oklahoma City residents eventually came to thoroughly dislike.
Eleven years later, Victor Gruen, from his Los Angeles studio, updated Pei’s work with a revised plan that shared the same fate.
Neither resulted in a fully redeveloped downtown.
Another 11 years passed and a young architect’s design to link Oklahoma City’s Myriad Gardens and the never-started Galleria into a single, park-like project won a $10,000 cash award.
J. Paul Lewis, now of Washington, D.C., took his inspiration from the 1985 Festival of the Arts to win the cash prize offered by Edward L. Gaylord, editor and publisher of The Oklahoman.
Nothing has come of the Lewis proposal for the same reason that all development has stalled since Oklahoma plunged into an economic tailspin lack of financing.
The latest redevelopment plan for downtown Oklahoma City is free. It is fashioned by 35 students who collaborated for beer and pizza.
Architectural and planning students from eight regional universities formulated the latest scheme for redeveloping the heart of downtown, the nearby Bricktown warehouse district and more.
The student plan came out of a combined regional convention last October of the American Planning Association (APA) and the American Institute of Architects (AIA).
So much else had been tried with disappointing results that architects and planners who organized the convention reasoned that a charette could produce a solution for the central city.
Webster’s dictionary describes a charette as the intense final effort by architectural students to design an acceptable solution to a given problem in a given period of time.
That’s what students from the Universities of Oklahoma, Nebraska and Kansas; Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Iowa State and Drury College and Washington University in St. Louis tackled during the autumn convention. With about 20 professionals, the students were locked up for 45 hours at Myriad Convention Center.
Results of the crash assignment now are making rounds of the Oklahoma chapter of APA and various faculty and professional advisers.
Participating students unveiled their work early this year.
Students were given a brief history of why Oklahoma City’s downtown remains unfinished: Pei, hired by the Urban Action Foundation, formulated the plan to raze more than 500 buildings in the central business district. In time, the buildings were demolished. About $1 billion in improvements were completed, but progress came to a standstill about halfway through the rebuilding.
Gruen revised the Pei plan to accommodate economic and political conditions that developed in the first decade of urban renewal. The Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority hired two successive developers to rebuild the four main blocks that once comprised the heart of downtown Oklahoma City.
But Dallas developer Vincent Carrozza never could finance a $100 million Galleria. Nor could Forest City, an Ohio-based creator of major shopping centers, get financing for a scaled-down $33 million Festival Retail Center.
The principal focus site four blocks reserved for the Galleria _remains empty except for a massive, mostly underground parking garage built by the Central Oklahoma Transportation and Parking Authority.
Larry Hopper, an official of the Oklahoma APA chapter, describes some student ideas resulting from the charette as “pretty far out.”
For example, the students at one point proposed eliminating the Santa Fe Railroad tracks, tearing out the publicly owned parking garage under the Galleria site, and reopening Main and Harvey Streets.
A four-block-square garage was constructed, the corridors were closed and the land use was changed, all at great public cost, as part of the Pei plan. The projects made it possible to compile sites large enough for Myriad Gardens, now nearing completion, and the Galleria.
Impossibilities aside, Hopper and others were favorably impressed with the students’ work and their creative ideas.
“Those students showed a lot of initiative,” Hopper said. “They made pedestrian surveys, went into the tunnel system and onto the sidewalks, counting people and who was walking where,” Hopper said.
“They counted parking spaces. They counted cars, and they came up with valuable information.”
Hopper was pleased as well with the students’ division of the inner city into 11 distinct areas, with some sound proposals for each. Among suggestions proposed were a Museum of Indian Culture downtown, extensive landscaping, re-engineering of I-40 access ramps.
Nancy McNayr, a planner with RGDC Inc. was among professional advisers who were particularly impressed with the quality of the student “boards,” the renderings illustrating their recommendations.
McNayr was pleased as well at proposals for expanding Myriad Convention Center to the south, and for additional downtown hotel space, to attract more and larger conventions.
Another student proposal: Build a domed stadium at the juncture of Interstates 35, 40 and 235.
“This location was chosen to strengthen the east-west axis, as well as provide a major node at the crossroads of America,” the group said in a final report. The idea of an enclosed sports arena is not new, but the suggested location is.
David Jones, the urban renewal agency’s redevelopment officer, liked the linkage proposed between Myriad Gardens and Bricktown. Several sponsors favored the student suggestions for linking Bricktown with the rest of downtown; for expanding downtown northeastward along Harrison Avenue, and for connecting Bricktown by rail to the entertainment/museum corridor in northeast Oklahoma City.
“They tended to be very creative,” Jones said. “But they simply ignored the financial and political constraints you always have to consider in any city.”
Among other student recommendations is development of the Canadian River bank, a scheme already included in the proposed String of Pearls Parkway system.
Lack of money remains a central issue. One source, who asked not to be named, may have the answer: “We aren’t going to see downtown rebuilt with out-of-state financing. Nobody’s going to do it for us. We have to do it ourselves.
The money has to come from here.”
For more than a year the message from both Chesapeake, developer of Classen Curve, and Whole Foods has been the same – there is no news to share yet about a potential deal for the upscale grocer to open its first Oklahoma City store.
And yet the talk continues unabated. Two different local television news stations have reported a deal was imminent, only to be followed by more silence by both companies.
Visit the Whole Foods store in Tulsa and cashiers there report their regional manager has told them an Oklahoma City store is set to open within two years.
Speculation on a store grew even more when Chesapeake bought and razed the former Hahn-Cook, Street & Draper funeral home northeast of Classen Curve, leaving a large empty lot waiting to be developed. I’ve heard from several reputable sources the retailer has signed a letter of intent to open an Oklahoma City store within 18 months – a development neither confirmed or denied by Aubrey McClendon, chief executive officer of Chesapeake Energy.
“We too have heard rumors about Whole Foods coming to Oklahoma City and we hope they are true,” McClendon said when asked if negotiations have taken place. “It is testament to where our city has come in the past decade to be mentioned in the same sentence with Whole Foods.”
And so the discussion continues as Chesapeake Energy, which has previously shied away from publicity for Classen Curve, is now cranking it up to full speed. This push has resulted in a package appearing in the Sunday Oklahoman, and more coverage Wednesday by Oklahoman Food Editor Dave Cathey.
Participants on both local message boards and a forum hosted by Whole Foods are pleading with the retailer to open an Oklahoma City store. A Facebook page created by Duncan resident Paula Morrison to petition Whole Foods for an Oklahoma City store has 8,317 followers. She pledges to bring the petition to Whole Foods’ corporate office in Austin, Texas, when the petition hits 10,000.
“Um, Tulsa has a Whole Foods Market and OKC doesn’t,” Morrison explains on the Facebook page. “I’m not sure why, since we’re bigger than Tulsa, but whatever. We deserve a ridiculous produce selection, organic beauty products and the best salad bar ever.”
Since starting the page, Morrison has moved to Duncan. But her pledge remains intact – though she admits she would now prefer to see the store in Norman to shorten the drive. Morrison discovered Whole Foods during a trip to New York City.
“I stumbled upon a Whole Foods on Columbus Circle in New York City,” Morrison said. “I had heard so much about it, I anted to check it out … and they had all this great, ready-made food, and if you don’t want to cook, you can get something healthy and not have to go through the drive-thru at Taco Bell. I felt healthy just being there.”
Two of the Classen Curve’s newest tenants, Bob Benham, whose legendary Balliet’s will open in September, and Keith Paul, who is opening Republic Gastropub this weekend, both say a Whole Foods would be a boon to the area.
“I expect it would be quite a magnet if it happens,” Benham said.
“I’d love to see it happen,” Paul said. “Not just a Whole Foods, but any grocery of that caliber going into this area would be a positive for everyone. It (talk of a Whole Foods opening across from Classen Curve) had nothing to do without decision to do Republic, but if it happens, it would make feel even better about everything. There’s a lot of talk on all this, but that’s all I hear.”
Whole Foods started in 1980 with one store in Austin, Texas and has grown to 270 stores in North America and the United Kingdom.
Whole Foods has only one Oklahoma store – a location acquired through the company’s purchase of rival Wild Oats. The Whole Foods website lists the following criteria for considering a new location:
- 200,000 people or more living within a 20-minute drive time.
- A store between 40,000 and 75,000 square feet.
- Large number of college-educated residents.
- Abundant parking.
- Stand-alone site preferred.
- Easy access from roadway, lighted intersection.
- Excellent visibility, directly off of the street.
- Must be located in a high traffic area.
Just a reminder there may be some delays in seeing comments posted. The spam filter is being very aggressive in holding up comments. Trust me when I say you’re being spared some pretty offensive stuff right now – it’s gone from pawn and loan shops to really criminal kiddie porn.
A few weeks back I wrote about young professionals in other cities writing and asking about opportunities that might allow them to return to their hometown – Oklahoma City. I asked the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber to respond. Chamber president Roy Williams graciously agreed:
A few years ago, the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber realized an alarming trend was taking place: our best and brightest graduates were flocking to career opportunities outside of our state. There are 17 colleges and universities in the Greater Oklahoma City region, and thousands of students graduate each year – thousands of potential entrepreneurs, company executives and city advocates. We were losing our talent.
At the Chamber we have a product to sell, and that product is the greater Oklahoma City area. We were not doing a good enough job selling the area to our own graduates.
What we found through our research was that graduates didn’t know where to turn for their job search. Finding a job is daunting enough, and it’s made more so when there is a lack of centralized information. Even more importantly, no one had informed them of the great opportunities that exist here and all the reasons they should stay. And once they left, it was easier to stay away than to try to get plugged back into the community if they wanted to return.
So in 2006, the Chamber launched the “Greater Grads” program. Greater Grads is based on this simple truth: college students are more likely to stay here if they know about and are connected with the great opportunities here. Our goal is to keep the graduates we have, and attract back the ones we have lost. We do this through education and facilitating connections between graduates and potential employers.
Greater Grads has three main programs: internships, an annual Career Fair exclusive to Oklahoma businesses, and www.greatergrads.com, a web site that provides employment resources:
- Internship program: Research shows that students with internship experience are more likely to stay in the area after graduation because of the network they build. So we work with local employers to help them establish internship programs and connect them with potential interns. As a part of the internship program, we offer a summer luncheon series. The luncheon series teaches students about different benefits of life in Oklahoma City, while hearing from top business leaders around the city and networking with their peers.
- Career Fair: The Career Fair is held once a year in April. More than 100 employers set up booths at the event, and some of them conduct interviews in private rooms during the fair. This is the opportunity for college graduates to find out who is hiring, and to make valuable business connections.
- Web site: The Greater Grads web site, www.greatergrads.com, is a resource that connects students with job postings, for both internships and full-time positions. It also tells graduates exactly why they should stay.
So is the program working? Yes it is! Over the past four years, Greater Grads has reached thousands of college students. Our inaugural year 1,200 students and 119 Oklahoma companies attended the Career Fair, and two-hundred students participated in our luncheon series.
Most recently in 2009, we had 276 students from 51 universities participate in our summer luncheon series. Before the program, 65 percent said they were somewhat or very likely to live in Oklahoma after graduation. After the program, 85 percent said they were somewhat or very likely to stay. Greater Grads is changing their minds.
So why do all of this? This is about a young generation of highly educated workers bringing indispensable skills to the table, especially in terms of creativity, versatility and technological dexterity. Many recent graduates have a strong, broad-based knowledge of the business sector that will significantly enhance the future leadership of our community. We can’t afford to lose them.
If you are a college student, we don’t want to lose you to another state. There are endless reasons to stay here in the greater Oklahoma City area after graduation, or to come back if you have already left. For one thing, we have one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. We have three of the top 100 companies to work for in the entire country with Devon, Chesapeake and American Fidelity Assurance Co. We have an incredibly low cost of living and we were named the No. 1 Best Place to Start a Small Business by Fortune. And as far as entertainment, we have an NBA team, countless entertainment options in Bricktown, river sports…the list goes on!
Once you truly understand the benefits of living here, we believe that you will become as passionate about the greater Oklahoma City area as we are. We have heard the same thing time and time again from companies who relocate their employees here- at first it’s difficult to get them to move to Oklahoma, but once they arrive, they refuse to leave.
I hope you will become involved in the Chamber’s Greater Grads program and learn about all the great opportunities awaiting you here in your own backyard. I would also encourage each of you to check out our Greater Grads video to learn more.
A few days ago, as some of you may recall, we were blessed to hear from Philip Morris, a former Oklahoman writer whose article on Classen Boulevard I posted as a Sunday flashback.
Good news: I get to visit with Mr. Morris a week from Saturday. I’ve been digging into more of his work and it’s quite a find: someone who was devoting his time to writing about urban design issues. Tonight I’ve read stories he wrote about the downtown “parking problem,” the design of the 4040 N Lincoln Building, the pros and cons of pedestrian bridges, and the failure of early efforts to create a model industrial district at NW 36 and Santa Fe (this is something I want to learn more about).
I was most intrigued by an agreement by then Mayor George Shirk to cooperate with the Central AIA’s declaration of “war against ugly architecture.”
Sadly Philip’s tenure didn’t last long – just two years. But he was around long enough to have witnessed the birth of the I.M. Pei plan, and I’m thrilled to hear, knew Mary Jo Nelson (will I hear some fresh stories on my hero? I hope so).
I’ll report back to you.