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.”