(SING TO THE TUNE OF SESAME STREET’S “ONE OF THESE THINGS”): One of these things is almost identical to the other, one of these things has got me very curious, can you tell me which thing isn’t just like the other, before I finish this song …
To quote the annoying voice feature on the Apple computers up in the photography room with every typo committed by the photographers (and trust me, they happen frequently): “CURIOUS.”
On Friday a panel selected by the Urban Renewal Authority will evaluate the five proposals for the site and potentially select three to pitch their plans to the board (this likely would translate into a de facto selection of three finalists. Technically the meeting amounts to being a staff work session – exempt from the Oklahoma Open Meetings Act. But I plead my case with Urban Renewal director JoeVan Bullard to let me sit in on the discussion. No go. I promised to sit quietly in the corner. No go. I promised to keep my phone setting at “vibrate.” No go. I was about to offer to bring free donuts for everyone – but then Bullard pulled the card all government employees are taught on their first day on the job: “it’s important for the people in the room to feel free to have an exchange of opinions and ideas, blah, blah, blah.”
Fine. No free donuts from me.
So let’s do the next best thing is guess what issues might be discussed, and how each project might fare.
Let’s start with the narrowing of the list from five to three. The guys with Home Creations have a good track record, and are the sort of suburban developers downtown would love to attract. But their proposal is unlike any I’ve seen in response to an Urban Renewal project. Two phases? Nope, commissioners don’t like that. Offices? Commissioners have been out of the office development business for the past quarter century. The number of units and investment is also far less than that proposed by the competition.
Don’t be surprised if Home Creations is the first to be thrown out. And don’t be surprised if the downtown leadership and development community quickly contact these folks and show them other opportunities that might be a better fit for their ambitions.
If such a scenario unfolds, that leaves four.
I’m going to tell you what everybody on the inside of this deal has agreed on since the proposals were unsealed: the Edge proposal pitched by Gary Brooks and Mike Henderson is considered to hold the lead spot. They’ve successfully built respected apartment complexes throughout the metro and it’s assumed financing won’t be a problem. The proposal this time around has lots of density (though I messed up in previously reporting that it includes retail) and has a low tax increment financing request in comparison to the others.
But that’s not to say they will win this competition – they have a mixed history on the Legacy at Arts Quarter project down the street. It achieved an unprecedented residential density in the history of Urban Renewal. But most observers agree the final product fell far short of the project’s initial proposed design, and Henderson was about to run out of contract extensions by the time construction started.
After talking to several folks seasoned in this sort of thing, it’s generally agreed that the proposal by Marva Ellard is also likely to make the finalists cut. Her project also has quite a bit of density and she earned respect the hard way by redeveloping the Sieber Hotel apartments, which enjoys full occupancy. Her portfolio is shorter than Brooks and Henderson, though it should be noted she also was originally partners with Bill Canfield in winning development of The Hill in Deep Deuce. Ellard also asks for more TIF money than that requested by Brooks and Henderson.
So that leaves us with two guys playing duck, duck, goose and only one chair left. And that’s where things get … complicated.
MORE TO COME
As momentum builds for work starting on a streetcar system, there are discussions going on behind the scenes as to whether the Central Oklahoma Transportation and Parking Authority should actually be in charge of the operation. The thinking among some critics is that this city trust has done a poor job with the rubber tire trolley system created through the original MAPS initiative and isn’t winning rave reviews for its approximately half-century operation of the city’s bus system or the more recently launched river cruisers.
But the following article brought to our attention by planning consultant Otis Wright reminds us that history is filled with examples of private operation of public transit that don’t exactly work out as well as hoped for passengers and taxpayers. Oklahoma City’s own history with streetcars is looked back on fondly, but also had its ugly moments as detailed extensively by Oklahoma City’s beloved history blogger Doug Loudenback.
With all that mind, the question comes up: is the criticism of COTPA fair? Well, yes and no. I covered the Oklahoma Spirit trolleys from their launch on, and originally ridership was quite high. But the trolleys also were saddled with routes created through sheer political will – routes to the I-40/Meridian corridor that averaged 11 passengers a day (yes! think about that!) and yet couldn’t be killed without facing a backlash from politically connected hoteliers. So the system from the get-go faced a drain on resources, and then the agency, trying to please everybody, pleased no one by frequently changing routes, stop times, and ultimately leaving passengers in the dark by yanking schedule and map signs that provided people a clue as to when the trolleys might stop, and where they might go (to my knowledge the signs are still not back up).
Early on I asked former transit director Randy Hume if signs might be added to the entryway of the trolleys to provide people a better idea on the route and attractions hit by the trolleys. Such signage was used, very effectively in my mind, when I used similar trolleys in San Antonio.
Hume said it was a possibility – one that was never mentioned again.
So what do you folks think? Do you ride the trolleys today? (note: they’re now free, an idea that was brushed aside when the trolleys first hit the street). Will you ride the streetcars? How would you like to see them operated?
In the midst of all the debate going back and forth about whether $30 million of the $280 million budgeted for a convention center in MAPS 3 is to be spent on buying and moving an OG&E substation, this small inconvenient fact emerges: voters were told $280 million of the $777 million in MAPS 3 money would go toward the convention center.
In fact, to this day the city is still making this promise despite information to the contrary told the MAPS 3 citizen’s advisory board by Mayor Mick Cornett and consultants who say city staff told them to assign $30 million to the substation.
Again, let’s see what the city is telling residents at www.okc.gov:
The new downtown convention center will replace the aging Cox Business Services Convention Center – a necessary component to attracting larger conventions and bringing new money into our economy. Tourism in central Oklahoma has a $2.1 billion impact on our economy. A recent study funded by the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce found that Oklahoma City is losing business to cities with larger, more updated Convention Centers. Oklahoma City ranks 142nd in size among convention centers in the U.S. The Cox Center will be almost 50 years old before a new convention center could be built.
That’s pretty simple, isn’t it? Now, either the city is lying to residents on its website, or $280 million is going to be spent on the convention center regardless of where it’s located (the substation site favored by the mayor was thrown out by the citizen’s advisory subcommittee and rated low by consultants last week).
City staff, meanwhile, are revising instructions to the citizens advisory board. On Tuesday Project Manager Eric Wenger said the instructions on reserving $30 million for the substation came from the mayor, stating: “$30 million was identified for the substation relocation and the mayor and council haven’t determined which budget it was to be added to because it wasn’t a specific MAPS project. The mayor has advised us to add it to the decision was made for it to be added to the convention center project.”
On that same day, Assistant City Manager Cathy O’Connor said it was always the intent of the city council to keep the $30 million dedicated for the substation, regardless of the convention center was to be located.
As I mentioned after all this went down, there’s a small problem with this account: so far only the mayor seems to think this is the case. I’ve talked to a chunk of the council and they’re saying they DID NOT make any such decision.
Now city staff are reversing the instructions given Tuesday; Wenger informed the advisory board on Thursday that the council has made no decision regarding any money to be spent on the substation.
It’s interesting to see the misinformation that sometimes comes out of the various MAPS 3 meetings. One bit of misinformation is the implication that the convention center subcommittee somehow agreed that the streetcar system is a lower priority than the convention center and isn’t as important to economic development.
I was there. I didn’t see or hear that. Instead I saw a constituency that, right or wrong, was upset their project was scheduled last. They debated over whether projects with less economic impact were getting a higher priority. Only one person briefly mentioned the street car in a list of items that they questioned has as much impact as the convention center. There was no sweeping indictment by the subcommittee or its members that streetcars have no economic impact, or that the project isn’t as important as the convention center.
Expect similar debates to follow. There are those who would like to see the white water rapids venue on the river sped up for economic development reasons. I’m sure we’ll see pressure elsewhere. Pitty ADG’s Mike Mize and the city’s Eric Wenger, who will have to navigate their way through these choppy waters.
Today city staff went out even further insisting that $30 million of the $280 million Core to Shore convention site favored by Mayor Mick Cornett be used to buy out an OG&E substation on the site regardless of whether it’s chosen for the convention center.
As you’ll recall, the mayor tried to tell the MAPS 3 citizens’ advisory board at its very first meeting that this site, and the current location of the Southwest Producers Cooperative are the only two viable sites for a convention center. He also instructed the committee that no matter what, $30 million of the $280 million for the convention center would be used to buy the substation property – essentially telling them if they chose a different site, they would have $30 million less to work with.
Recall also that the resolution the city council passed never mentioned $30 million for the substation – only that $280 million go toward construction of the convention center. The city council never had a public discussion or vote indicating otherwise.
So on July 23 of last year I reported the following:
Councilman Larry McAtee, a member of the oversight committee, said the selection process will be handled fairly, and without bias.
McAtee said the city council never agreed to reserve $30 million for the OG&E property, that no public discussion of such a purchase has occurred, and that $280 million will be budgeted for a convention center regardless of what site is chosen.
“This will get cleared up as we move forward with the process of selecting a site, and selecting the consultants, and looking at the details of the sites,” McAtee said. “There will be an open selection process for the convention center.”
I talked again with Councilman McAtee on Tuesday. He said this whole matter remains to be “debated,” and that he needs to visit with Wenger because he believes the instructions as I’ve reported are incorrect.
“I say give the voters what they voted for,” McAtee said. “And what the voters voted for was a $280 million convention center that was to be located at a later time.”
Conversations with other council members indicate they also had not agreed to dedicate $30 million of MAPS 3 funds for the substation. In fact, on Tuesday Councilman Pete White suggested at the council meeting (Cornett was out of town and not present) that the $30 million be spent on a wellness center for south Oklahoma City if the substation site is not chosen for the convention center.
Now for the good part: Despite all this, despite previous comments by MAPS 3 program manager Eric Wenger in the past that there was no direction on spending $30 million on the substation, that all changed Tuesday at the meeting of the convention center subcommittee. The meeting began with a report by MAPS 3 consultant Mike Mize that the CITY COUNCIL had instructed him to reserve $30 million of the $280 million convention center funding for the substation (when asked about this, he said this instruction came through Wenger).
I asked Wenger, and he confirmed the instruction. I asked him if he could direct me to any moment that the city council had made any such policy decision. He instead told me this instruction was passed on by Mayor Mick Cornett.
I then went to Assistant City Manager Cathy O’Connor. She also could not provide any moment when the city council voted and publicly committed to this expenditure. She insisted, however, that this was always a part of the budgeting for MAPS 3.
Where? When? So far, there is no documentation of any such decision. And clearly there seems to be some dispute by the council on this matter.
So here’s the punchline to all this: the threat of having $30 million less to work with if the mayor’s favored site wasn’t chosen went nowhere with the committee, which includes civic leaders like Russell Perry, Larry Nichols, Roy Williams, and Kirk Humphreys. They threw out both of the Core to Shore sites favored by the mayor and went with four other sites as finalists, three of which were added into consideration after the mayor told the citizens’ advisory board that they really had only his two favored Core to Shore sites to consider.
This committee’s vote was unanimous. Consultants with Populous then provided them with their preliminary scoring, which matched the committee’s choices.
This, my friends, ought to get interesting.
This news might please the hundreds of residents who call Deep Deuce home and see a large fenced in grate along NE 2 that blocks their path to and from the central business district. Maybe, just maybe, this improvement is aimed at moving the water meter under that grate and restoring it as a normal sidewalk. Developers investing tens of millions along the street to build a hotel, apartments and a grocery can’t be blamed if they get excited thinking this city-created eyesore is about to eliminated.
As reported previously, the grate along NE 2 just west of Oklahoma Avenue was installed about five inches above the sidewalk surface when construction plans for the adjoining Second Street Lofts didn’t match up with those of the Oklahoma City Water/Wastewater Department for installation of a water meter below the grate.
Water utilities director Marsha Slaughter said the grate level couldn’t be altered without endangering her employees. She said the fenced area, which blocks off the center of the sidewalk, was the best solution, and that to move the water meter would cost “about $100,000 and a high annoyance factor during construction.”
Aesthetics, she said, did not merit that sort of investment to fix the mistake.
So what area is more important in terms of aesthetics – at least in the minds of city staffers who are submitting this proposed $168,000 expenditure?
The rest of the story is as follows: when voters approved MAPS 3, they approved spending $120 million on a park in the area known as “Core to Shore” (the area being focused on, however, is really between the current Interstate 40, the new highway alignment, Shields Boulevard and Walker Avenue).
The park will be built west of Robinson between a boulevard that will replace the current highway and the new highway. No other investment for the area has been announced to date. The area is blighted, has no housing, no retail and soon, no offices or agencies other than the Central Oklahoma Transportation and Parking Authority, which is in the historic Union Station.
To date no developers have pitched plans for the area. The downtown development community has been, and continues to be, most interested in Deep Deuce, Bricktown and MidTown.
If the city council agrees with city staff today, the $168,000 will be spent on an ornate arch design for a pedestrian tunnel that will go east under Robinson Avenue to an area that at this time has no definite future use.
Eric Wenger, director of the MAPS 3 office, points out by making this investment (the tunnel is being paid for by the Oklahoma Department of Transportation), the crossing will be more “inviting” and “aesthetically pleasing” to pedestrians – the very sort of investment deemed unworthy for Deep Deuce.
Tomorrow we’ll find out if the city council agrees with city staff’s judgment and priorities.
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I know, I know, City Water Utilities Division Director Marsha Slaughter is thinking I’ve forgotten this sidewalk blockade along NE 2 that she says can’t be avoided because relocation of a water meter under the grate would cost taxpayers $100,000. Forget that an upscale hotel is being built across the street. Forget that an upscale apartment complex, likely with a grocery, is being built one block east. Forget that this street is emerging as downtown’s ideal mixed use corridor.
Forget all that. And forget spending $100,000 to make the street more walkable and improve the aesthetics. A decision has been made, at city staff level, not by the city council, that the aesthetics and walkability of this sidewalk is not worth spending $100,000.
Now let’s move on to Core to Shore, where there is NO DEVELOPMENT TAKING PLACE other than what city leaders are hoping to force into creation through the spending of millions and millions of taxpayer dollars.
The only certainty out in Core to Shore is a park that voters approved as part of MAPS 3. There is no development set for east of the park along Robinson Avenue.
But the city council on Tuesday will be asked to spend $168,000 on a tunnel under Robinson to allow visitors at the park to safely cross under Robinson to go to …??? The price includes creation of a decorative arch to accommodate wishes to have nice “aesthetics” for the tunnel.
So let’s get this straight: the city is OK spending $168,000 on walkability and aesthetics in an area where this is NO private investment, but won’t spend $100,000 to fix its own eyesore in an area where at least $40 million is being invested this next year alone.
Folks, this is your city council. They answer to you. If you wish to tell them you approve or disapprove of this prioritization, you can email them at the following:
Mayor Mick Cornett: firstname.lastname@example.org
Ward 1 Councilman Gary Marrs: email@example.com
Ward 2 Councilman Sam Bowman: firstname.lastname@example.org
Ward 3 Councilman Larry McAtee: email@example.com
Ward 4 Councilman Pete White: firstname.lastname@example.org
Ward 5 Councilman Brian Walters: email@example.com
Ward 6 Councilwoman Meg Salyer: firstname.lastname@example.org
Ward 7 Councilman Skip Kelly: email@example.com
Ward 8 Councilman Pat Ryan: firstname.lastname@example.org