Today’s guest blogger is Blair Humphreys, who ,has had a great influence on my understanding of urban planning over the past couple of years. I don’t pretend to know as much as Blair knows – but I’m often awed by his ability to beyond conventional thinking and to propose solutions not considered. Blair’s experience includes real world urban development, time spent with Hans Butzer, one of the city’s leading design professionals and professor of architecture at OU, an internship at the Oklahoma City Planning Department, and of course, a front row to seat to the city’s political scene. Blair, a national merit scholar at OU, won national recognition and honors while attending Massachusetts Institute of Technology, from which he graduated last year with a Master in City Planning and Urban Design Certificate. Blair is now an instructor and researcher at the University of Oklahoma, and has been following the Let’s Talk Transit far closer than I.
After seeing comments already made by respected Oklahoma City blogger Doug Loudenback questioning whether real public input was taking place with the downtown transit, I asked Blair to share his insights.
It has been a while since I last blogged over at www.imaginativeamerica.com! I recently moved back to Oklahoma City and am enjoying being home. While a new job (and a new house, and new puppy, etc) have kept me from blogging lately, I believe this issue is extremely important and hope you will find the post worthwhile.
I will be at today’s Lets Talk Transit meeting at 11:30am – hope to see you there!
The first Let’s Talk Transit meeting was held on March 29, 2010 and the process will finish on Thursday, May 27, with meetings at both 11:30am and 6:00pm. Let’s Talk Transit is the public’s opportunity to interject their thoughts into the decision-making process for the $120 million MAPS 3 streetcar system:
“This is why these meetings are being held so the public can have a voice about what is most important to them. The public’s opinion is vital in meeting the needs of those who work, live and visit downtown.”
- Rick Cain
I was able to attend the first meeting and have kept up with the process by completing surveys, watching videos of meetings, and reviewing the meeting agendas. In fact, Let’s Talk Transit has done a great job making information on the process available. All of the images and/or quotes in this post come from public documents available at: http://www.letstalktransit.com/meetings (#1 – see note). As I have watched and listened, I have developed my own opinions on the best routes for the MAPS 3 Streetcar, and have found myself in agreement with much of the public input to date, but now I am beginning to wonder whether the output of this “public process” will truly represent the input the public gave.
APRIL 13 MEETING
At the second meeting on April 13, 2010, members of the public worked in small groups to layout proposal for the new streetcar routes. There were six tables each of which was asked to take-on the perspective of a potential streetcar rider: resident, worker, and visitor. Figure 1 shows the various proposals that the citizen groups came up with. All of which were aggregated by the consultant to produce the frequency map shown in Figure 2.
Figure 1 – Routes Proposed by Citizens at April 13 Meeting
Figure 2 – Frequency of Routes Proposed by Citizens at April 13 Meeting
So what did the citizens say? What routes had some consensus?
Top routes selected by the citizens at the April 13 meeting:
- Broadway Avenue – 5 out of 6
- Sheridan Avenue – 5 out of 6
- Walker Avenue – 4 out of 6
- N. 10th Street – 3 out of 6
- Stiles Ave – 3 out of 6
Interestingly, if you take a closer look at the individual maps, you find that a majority – 4 out of 6 of the groups – selected both Broadway Avenue and Walker Avenue as a north-south pair with Sheridan Avenue and/or Reno Avenue serving the accompanying east-west connection (#2). In fact, most of the routes are also similar in their use of straight lines and few turns (#3). Given the number of possibilities, to have such a consensus on preferred routes is incredible. It certainly got my attention. But apparently did not impress the consulting team.
APRIL 29 MEETING
The consulting team returned at the next meeting and provided the meeting participants with north-south and east-west route options. There were six north-south route options presented by the consultant – see options – but the Broadway/Walker pair favored by a majority of citizen groups at the previous meeting was not included, and there does not appear to be any explanations as to why. The consultant presented these route options and then, once again, asked the citizens to work in groups to sketch out their own route proposals.
Figure 3 – Routes Proposed by Citizens at April 29 Meeting
Figure 4 - Frequency of Routes Proposed by Citizens at April 27 Meeting
Once again, the citizens showed a very clear consensus on routes with at least 5 out of 6 groups proposing a route that included Broadway, Walker and/or Sheridan. The bright red line – visible in Figure 4 – outlines the core of a simple system on which the majority of the public participants agreed (#4). When you combine the preferred routes from the April 13 meeting with these proposals from the April 27 meeting you get the following:
- Broadway Avenue – 10 out of 12
- Walker Avenue – 9 out of 12
- Lincoln Boulevard – 6 out of 12
- Walnut Avenue – 5 out of 12
- Hudson Avenue – 5 out of 12
- Stiles Avenue – 4 out of 12
- Robinson Avenue – 1 out of 12
- Sheridan Avenue – 11 out of 12
- N. 10th Street - 8 out of 12
- Harrison Ave – 6 out of 12 (#5)
- N. 4th Street – 5 out of 12
- N. 13th Street – 4 out of 12
- The Boulevard – 3 out of 12
So what is the public saying? The only routes shown on a majority of the citizen’s proposals were Broadway and Walker running north-south, and Sheridan and 10th Street running east-west. Also noteworthy is the strength of both Lincoln and Harrison, which speaks to a desire by the public to connect to the Health Sciences Center complex (#6). And once again I will point out the public’s consistency in producing simple systems made up of straight-lines and few turns.
MAY 11 MEETING
At the May 11 Meeting the consultants presented three “conceptual” alignments – see Figure 5 – that were “drawn based on input from past public meetings and the results’ of [the consultant's] analysis.”
Figure 5 - Consultants Conceptual Alignments Presented at May 11 Meeting
Of the three “options” presented, none include the Broadway/Walker north-south pair favored by the public. In fact, only one includes N. Broadway at all, despite the overwhelming support of the public for this route. And while Sheridan is partially included in all three options, none of the consultant’s three options use the straight route on Sheridan found in the majority of the proposals by the public. Also gone is the simplicity of the system favored by the public’s proposals, replaced by an ever-winding path of turns and loops reminiscent of our much maligned rubber-tire trolley system. Some of this winding is done in order to incorporate two options with a Boulevard route, even though this route had little support from the public. According to the meeting summary, Option #1 was the favorite of the citizens in attendance. However, the summary also mentions that a number of concerns were vocalized, including a plea for Broadway to be used instead of Robinson. Of course, this begs the question: how could the consultants take the input of the public which favored Broadway in 10/12 compared to Robinson in 1/12, and decide Robinson was the better choice? Surely the citizen’s input is worth more than that?
MAY 27 MEETING
It was my hope that the routes to be presented at the May 27 meeting would revert back to the public’s wishes and provide a simple system incorporating Broadway/Walker and Sheridan, but the newest “options” – see Figure 6 or download pdf – continue to stray from the input given by the citizens. While the exclusion of Broadway has been changed in 2 out of 3 of the options, the clean Broadway-10th-Walker connection favored by citizens is confused in a series of interconnected loops and bends. And the continuous east-west connection along Sheridan that was preferred by the citizen groups is forfeited, it would seem, so that two of the options can include a Boulevard route. There is no simplicity, few strong corridors, and very little evidence of citizen input.
Figure 6 - Consultants Final Options Presented at May 27 Meeting
These routes will be presented by the consultant today – Thursday, May 27 – in public meetings held at 11:30am and 6:00pm in the City Hall Council Chamber. While the consultant will no doubt claim that these routes were “created using the input received from citizen surveys, hands-on exercises and through open discussion,” all evidence points to the contrary. This is not an insignificant fact. The consultant’s “options” will be placed in the hands of decision-makers that select the final routes and they will be told this represents the public input received during the Let’s Talk Transit process. Mr. Cain stated at the beginning of the process that these meetings are being held so that “the public can have a voice,” but what good is a voice, if no one will listen (#7).
- Give it up for the meeting planners and public relations team. Thank you!
- The April 13 groups that included Broadway & Walker for N-S, with Sheridan and/or Reno for E-S are: 1, 2, 3 & 5
- This typically provides a system with higher degrees of legibility for the user
- Once again, notice that the public recommends simple routes with few turns
- A Harrison line typically connects east-west via N. 4th Street or north-south via Walnut Ave.
- I have heard a lot of people say that even though the HSC has no housing or retail attractions, it makes sense because the workers will ride the trolley to lunch in Bricktown. Sounds great. However, it will take at least one mile of track – or $20 million – to connect to the HSC. And with a 127 passenger capacity and no better than 10 minute frequency between cars, you will not see more than 500 riders per day (or 500 x 250 work days = 125,000 riders per year). Even at municipal bond rates (5% per year on $20 million) this works out to a cost of $8 per rider per year in infrastructure investment (not including operating costs). And the likely routes feature comparitively very little in adjacent development opportunities
- Thank you to Steve for giving me the opportunity. And once again, I apologize for the length of my post(s).
When I became re-involved in 2003 in OKC development, I touted TIF (Tax Increment Financing) as the means through which the MAPS sales tax incentive could be “bootstrapped” to help create a dense mixed use environment. The target: a broadly defined “triangle” bordered by I-40 on the south, I-235 on the diagonal and on the west, a north-south boundary splitting what is now known as MidTown.
My first efforts were with ERC on Deep Deuce, then the Arts District, then The Factory, in which I was technically “Oh for three.”
However, we learned a great deal that we have tried to apply since. We conducted a market study of 14 peer cities that had neither sexy mountains nor shorelines and found that each had between 2 percent and 8 percent of their MSAs’ population within the urban core. At the low end for OKC, that math translates to 24,000 people. Even counting the Jail, we are under 2,000 today.
Now that a number of players have emerged downtown, the geographic focus has naturally gotten blurred. The Thunder and Devon Tower have brought into the game two 800-lb gorillas – the NBA owners group and Devon Energy. To a significant but lesser extent, Sandridge, the Humphreys family, Roy Oliver/Mark Beffort and CHK/McClendon have gained strong positions in the core. Greg Banta/Bob Howard/Mickey Clagg and Corsair/Smith Brothers have made a number of speculative buys in MidTown that are starting to see life. Steve Mason, Chris and Meg Salyer, Nick Preftakes, BMI and Earl Neighbors have taken very different but positive approaches as user/owners.
The Greater Oklahoma City Chamber and the City Staff are clearly and rightfully feeling their oats, while the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority has been weakened by Larry Nichols’ departure and the controversial pick of The Hill’s developer, which probably has spawned a winding down of some trustees’ long running influence. The approval of a un-Urban design for the Chamber’s building was an unfortunate reminder of the darker days in OKC history before the Bombing made consensus and grass roots projects possible over politics.
A perceived negative out there is that the former Triangle group has splintered, which is true but not necessarily a bad thing, as each of us can now play in their own sandboxes and probably get more done, and I think Maywood Park has been unfairly maligned as a bit of a bust as most of the brownstones sit empty. I say unfairly because I think they will ultimately sell, and because the City got exactly what it asked for from all of the Downtown housing developers – expensive, high-end for sale homes.
Neither the City or Urban Renewal wanted affordable rentals, as they turned down both of my ERC proposals for mixed income apartments in the competition for the Deep Deuce site (2002, with Benham) and the Arts District site (2003, with ADG and Raptor). The only for sale projects that have sold out have been the Centennial (albeit to mostly corporate buyers) and the Harvey Lofts rehab (only 17 units between $100k and $200k).
Dick Tannenbaum has made a very successful entre into housing development (Park Harvey and Lincoln), but not without hiccups (eg the failed attempts to condo both the Montgomery and the Classen). Block 42 has more dark windows at night than not, and The Hill deal is a ticking time bomb; the unpaid contractors will soon grow tired of waiting for their money and will no longer play as nice as they have been.
The national meltdown has been a big factor, but the reality is that OKC has never been a big condo market. Also, no one can blame even the richest buyers for a reluctance to buy if the surroundings of a real dense and active urban village does not materialize as quickly as everyone would like.
The reality that the City is experiencing downtown is that critical mass and density matters most, and is not delivered quick enough through the linear production and absorption of for-sale housing. The decision by Urban Renewal and the City to promote and push for upper end, for-sale housing first was ill-timed to be sure, but generally a violation of real estate development fundamentals.
In my opinion, the critical path to successful infill Downtown development in OKC begins first with creating density of people using the real estate on a 24/7 basis. This happens quickest through 2 uses – Hotels and Rental Apartments, which more quickly put more heads on beds than any other use.
Everyone wants to experience an urban “Magnificent Mile” environment like Michigan Avenue, but Daniel Burnham’s Plan For Chicago took 15 years to draft and adopt and over 90 years to develop, culminating with Millennium Park, absolutely the coolest urban green space in America. That is why I think that the current Core to Shore emphasis puts the cart way before the horse. We need to finish the Core first in a most excellent way.
I believe that the following represents a better chronology for a critical path for OKC’s Downtown Development
1- Plan for Core to Shore through a broader 20 year long process and horizon, led and participated in by more than a couple dozen people, incrementally stopping and adjusting every 3-5 years to review how the market is responding. Mix in Social Initiatives like the Jail (on a more modest, phased basis, not as a response to another unfunded Federal mandate) and Homeless Center with the sexy stuff so that voter fatigue doesn’t kill the Goose that Laid the MAPs Eggs.
2- Avoid the consolidation of power in administering Business Improvement Districts comprising the current and emerging “districts” that make up the Downtown Core. Remember that absolute power corrupts absolutely.
3- Let the Neighborhoods and Districts decide where their boundaries begin and end and manage themselves through Business Improvement Districts and other Owners Associations. The localized characteristics of Auto Alley, Bricktown, Deep Deuce, Maywood Park, Midtown, Film District, Lower Bricktown, Courthouse Block, Devon/Botanical Gardens each have their own forces of will, market attraction and good design attributes that will help compel and sort out the timing and priorities of projects – politics should not.
4 – Use TIF creatively and broadly to include Sale and Room Taxes for discrete user-driven projects, as per the examples of the Skirvin Hotel and Devon Tower.
5- Inventory current infrastructure opportunities and challenges in the Core and create a priority list that gets addressed by TIF. Example on one end of the spectrum – we can cheaply double parking on Broadway through angled striping and narrowed, slower traffic; versus the other end of the spectrum – the costly Boulevard through nothing to nowhere, which only happens five years after the Feds fund I-40.
6 – Agree that density, shared parking, connectivity and walkability are good and should be the paramount ideals for Project design.
7 – Focus on Big Users and what they need to come into the Core.
8 – Rental apartments can be tailored for sites big and small, renters rich and not so rich, and are the most finance-able class of real estate today and for the foreseeable future.
9 – The Quiet Zone (property owners are seeking new gates along the BNSF railroad to quiet train noise as it passes through the Flat Iron district) is a threshold need that must happen first BEFORE any other project Downtown – it is absolutely essential to any private project of scale, and will create incremental value on both sides of the tracks for miles East and West, North and South.
10 – Do not try to Force the Core to Shore – it is my sense that a relatively small group of parties are unduly influencing priorities. I am okay with the MAPs 3 Convention Center Idea just South of the Ford Center, but it is still a long ways to the South shoreline. Our version of Millennium Park will have to be birthed and season for 10 years before development happens naturally further South. The thing that could change this is if a huge User shows up, but none are on the horizon that I can see.
Please understand, I make no claims as to whether all of this is good or bad. It just is. The good news is the midget Mexican rappers and sumo wrestling are part of Cinco de Mayo celebrations tonight in a fairly dry tent at the Iguana Grill, NW 9 and Broadway. Thunder coach Scott Brooks, meanwhile, will be serving drinks at the Bricktown Brewery at Oklahoma and Sheridan Avenues.
Now if only we could get Brooks to sumo wrestle with the midget Mexican rappers … or am I being politically incorrect here?
It was, I admit, a quick answer that might have even been tainted by a bit of ego. Visiting with author and consultant Jeff Speck last week during a dinner with members of ULI, the discussion turned to Broadway and how ridiculously wide it is.
Speck, author of “Suburban Nation,” has been hired by the city to prepare a plan on how to make downtown more friendly to pedestrians. Nobody at the table seemed to believe that Broadway once had angled parking. I spoke up and said “yes it did” without hesitation.
The pressure was on after that. A.J. Kirkpatrick, one of the city’s bright up anc coming assistant planners, was at that table and I know he reads this blog. By giving such an answer, and being so cocky about it, I had to come up with the proof to back up my assertion. I knew I had seen an image of angled parking along Broadway, and sure enough, after doing some searching in my archives at www.okchistory.com (a private history site maintained by myself and Jack Money), the above illustration is at least a start at providing evidence to Speck. This 1920s image appears to be looking north from Sheridan Avenue.
Downtown is about to undergo changes that could arguably rival the original MAPS program. Developing ….
Had a tough day yesterday – I drove through 90 minutes of torential rain to Tulsa to cover the National Trust for Historic Preservation, caught up with a few downtown sources there, wrote and filed my story on old Phillips 66 stations, and then began my trek back to OKC. Driving back, the company car’s tire blew out, and not having faith that a bicycle tire could make the remaining 50 mile drive, I had to wait until almost 9 p.m. for a wrecker.
Now I’m at Coffee Slingers at NW 10 and Broadway, where Melody is currently slinging brew with a smile for about a dozen people (several people walked in right after this photo was taken).
A lot of the discussion today at www.okctalk.com is about the proposed new headquarters for the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber. And one idea mentioned, that I’ve not heard mentioned to date, is intriguing – why not create a grand traffic circle at NW 4, Broadway and E.K. Gaylord?
I suspect I know the answer. But I’ll let others debate the matter.
I meant to write something earlier this week about Michael Bates’ recent trek through downtown Des Moines. His observations about the lack of development around the city’s arena is a caution to Tulsa as it celebrates the opening of BOK Center, and something that Oklahoma City should also consider as it looks at where a new convention center might be built.
Let’s start with the idea that building an arena downtown will spur development around it. Here’s what I said in a May 2, 2006 column:
“Oklahoma City and MAPS is being mentioned a lot these days in Tulsa. The campaign for Vision 2025 was filled with comparisons to Oklahoma City, including the idea that Ford Center has boosted fortunes in neighboring Bricktown and that a Tulsa arena could spark similar development.
Bricktown merchants will readily admit the arena has been a bonanza to their businesses.
But they were all doing well before the opening of Ford Center, and it’s difficult to identify a single a business, other than the Courtyard by Marriott, that tied its opening to the arena.”
So BOK Center is open. It’s difficult to see how it isn’t a huge asset to downtown Tulsa – the design is stunning, and it’s clearly drawing Tulsans to rediscover their dowtown. But the verdict on surrounding development is still uncertain. A nice restaurant is open across the street, and owners are hoping to open a bar on the next block. And Tulsa has moved its City Hall in hopes of having the old one razed (no big loss for architecture or preservation folks) and replaced with a hotel or other arena-related development.
Michael Bates has his doubts:
“Since Des Moines has been cited as a model of downtown redevelopment — remember Bill LaFortune’s “No more! to Des Moines” at the BOK Center groundbreaking? — I was curious to see what was new.
I found the Iowa Events Center, cited six years ago by Whirled sports columnist Dave Sittler as a compelling reason for Tulsa to build a new downtown arena. The nearby area was as dead as can be — parking ramps, parking lots, office buildings. The arena sits near the river, but turns its back to it.”
Michael Bates should not be confused with a suburban anti-anything-downtown type. I’ve been reading his blog for years, and I’ve found his writing on downtown development and preservation issues to be consistently thought provoking.
In this same post Bates had some interesting comments about the Des Moines farmers market – and it makes me wonder what is ultimately possible for downtown Oklahoma City.
“On my way south to the stadium, I saw a lot of foot traffic and what looked like a street fair. Coming back north, I found the Des Moines Downtown Farmers’ Market, which occupies a four-block stretch of Court Street, plus two blocks each of 2nd and 4th Streets, from the old county courthouse to the river, every Saturday morning from early May to late October.
It was interesting but not surprising that the market was not held near the arena or in the ballpark parking lot or along the river. Instead, it was in perhaps the most interesting part of downtown, an area where old buildings had been converted to lofts with retail and restaurants on the first floor. New infill buildings were built to fit in with the old. Once again, old buildings — not rivers or ballparks or arenas — are the key ingredient to lively streetscapes.”
So, how does all of this play into Oklahoma City’s consideration of a future convention center site? Every site proposed to date has been in Core to Shore – away from existing hotels, restaurants and clubs. And the Core to Shore discussions I’ve listened to have envisioned a convention center as the means toward sparking development of the area. And all along, we’ve been told Core to Shore is the only realistic place left to build a huge new convention center. But what if that’s wrong? What if there were a spot no local had ever considered – what if there were a spot that is located in the heart of all the downtown hotels, restaurants and clubs – and had immediate access to hundreds and hundreds of parking spaces?
And what if choosing this location could literally be the final key to having a strong, vibrant and full Central Business District, Bricktown, Deep Deuce and Automobile Alley? Couldn’t such a feat be the key to sparking development of Core to Shore? Think about it – instead of trying to create a new island of development next the existing incomplete downtown, wouldn’t it make sense for Core to Shore to grow as a result of downtown being finished?
Such an option doesn’t exist you say? You’re wrong.
NewsOk video on Sara Sara Cupcakes, which will open at 7 NW 9 this fall. The old house was quite dillapidated, but is currently being renovated by shop owner Toni Hoffman and block developer Steve Mason.
A very, very cool vibe is emerging along NW 9, where the Iguana Mexican Grill is already proving to be one of the hottest new restaurants to open downtown in quite some time.