SITE BACKED BY MAYOR RETURNS AS MAPS PROJECT POSSIBILITY
By Steve Lackmeyer
Thursday, April 14, 2011
Edition: CITY, Section: BUSINESS, Page 1B
A site in plans for the Core to Shore development long favored by Mayor Mick Cornett for a convention center is back in contention following the elimination of two other locations.
Populous, hired by the city to guide site selection for the $280 million convention center, had previously agreed with a MAPS 3 committee to eliminate the site south of the Oklahoma City Arena and east of a future central park because of its distance from restaurants and hotels and its isolation from the rest of downtown.
But in kicking off a committee workshop on Wednesday, Todd Voth, a planner with Populous, immediately announced the team had determined the existing Cox Convention Center site and a site along Main Street in Bricktown were no longer considered viable.
“Things change,” Voth said. “Our experience in these projects is that as you get closer to the end the more you get nervous about going over the cliff.”
Voth explained the Cox Convention Center would be too costly and too difficult to dismantle to make it a viable site.
“Fatal flaws” also were cited in quickly killing off another site previously chosen as a finalist — the city-owned surface parking lots along Main Street in north Bricktown. Voth said the site involved extensive removal of utilities, including high-pressure gas lines, has too much restricted access and not enough room for future expansion.
“In our mind, combined with what we believe will be a big building, this may not be the best use of this location,” Voth said.
Skirvin offers plan
Owners of the Skirvin Hilton pitched an elaborate plan last week for the north Bricktown option that called for the addition of a second room tower to make it the conference hotel, with a new gateway entrance that would bridge over E.K. Gaylord Boulevard and the BNSF Railway viaduct to connect with Bricktown and the convention center.
Representatives of the Skirvin were present at the meeting but were not given the chance to make their pitch, and instead were advised to meet afterward with Populous.
With those two sites eliminated, Voth then surprised the committee by reviving a site both Populous and the committee unanimously killed at their last meeting — a location south of the Oklahoma City Arena long favored by Cornett.
In reintroducing the site, Voth said the location would advance development of Core to Shore, a blighted area between the current alignment of Interstate 40 and the future realignment being built a few blocks south.
Voth also cited the site’s proximity to the Oklahoma City Arena and a central park being built west of the site.
Committee members rebutted Populous with their previous concerns — that the site is too far away from downtown’s restaurants and hotels, it is surrounded by unsightly blighted properties and would be separated from downtown by a wide boulevard comparable to Northwest Expressway.
Not one committee member spoke in favor of the site, but Voth responded he needed to have three finalists for which to draw up full comparisons before selecting a top location.
The south Core to Shore site remains ranked a distant third behind two other surviving finalists. One site, east of the Bricktown ballpark along Reno Avenue, was praised for having ample area, potential as anchor for the district, access and proximity to restaurants and hotels.
Populous cited disadvantages as being the site’s distance to hotels in the Central Business District, loss of the Coca Cola Event Center, visual appeal of the surrounding area and a less prominent address for civic image.
The site rated highest by Populous — and winning the most praise from the committee — was the former location of Bob Howard Downtown Ford, south of the Myriad Gardens.
Voth listed more favorable factors, and fewer disadvantages, than with any of the other sites. Favorable considerations include a prominent civic location, an address along the boulevard and across from the future central park, proximity to hotels, parking and the arena, easy access, room for growth, no business displacement and compatible land use.
The only negative factors listed were that it will require a subgrade or upper-level exhibit hall (which could be complicated by the area’s water table), a less efficient truck access and potentially higher construction costs.
Committee member Larry Nichols, executive chairman of Devon Energy Corp., noted the water table did not interfere with construction of sub-ground levels for the nearby 50-story Devon Energy Center. Other committee members noted the nearby Cox Convention Center has below-ground structured parking.
Populous is set to finish development concepts for the three sites by early May, at which time the firm is expected to suggest one location.
Committee member Kirk Humphreys asked Voth why Populous shouldn’t just focus on the site south of the Myriad Gardens since everyone in the room agreed it was the best option. Voth responded he felt all evaluation needed to continue on all three sites as part of “due diligence.”
With the reintroduction of the site south of the arena, the committee revisited the issue of whether the full $280 million pledged for the convention center would be available, regardless of which location is chosen.
Cornett has repeatedly insisted that $30 million of the convention center budget be set aside for purchase and clearance of an Oklahoma Gas & Electric substation on his preferred site. Council members have argued that he is wrong in stating they have already agreed to that spending priority.
Councilman Gary Marrs, who was present at the workshop Wednesday, declined to weigh in on the debate.
MAPS 3 program manager Eric Wenger told the committee the council has not decided the matter, but that he is following the mayor’s wishes in reserving the $30 million for the substation.
“The city has spoken clearly,” committee member Kirk Humphreys joked, “with two different voices.”