When I left for the John Belt funeral this afternoon, OKC Central readers were not happy campers. First I shared news of City Engineer Eric Wenger removing the dedicated bike lane along Walker Avenue that was promised as part of Project 180. Then I shared news of David Box planning to tear down the Gold Dome.
The funeral, by the way, was a wonderful goodbye to John Belt, and many of his friends gathered on what was the perfect early evening in the Paseo. Patio dining tables were filled, live music filled the street and the colors of the streets were especially vibrant.
Happy birthday John. Thanks for leaving us with such an incredible gift.
So as I return home, I’m surprised to discover the following press release was sent by City Hall at 5 p.m.
To quote Emily Litella…. “never mind….”
Walker will transition to two-lanes by March 29
Walker Avenue between Reno and Couch in downtown Oklahoma City will transition to a two-lane street by the end of March.
The Avenue is currently marked for a four lane, two-way traffic.
On-street parallel parking will be located on the east and west sides Walker. Dedicated bicycle lanes in both directions for exclusive use by cyclists will remain on the street.
The transition, which is a part of Project 180, will make Walker more pedestrian and cyclist-friendly.
Mayor and City Council
Devon Implementation Committee
City Manager Jim Couch (engineer)
Assistant City Manager Dennis Clowers (engineer)
City Engineer Eric Wenger (engineer)
Program coordinator: Michael Clark (engineer)
About Project 180 (from the city’s web site):
Transforming Downtown Oklahoma City 180 Degrees
The initiative, named Project 180, is a four year, $160 million redesign of downtown streets, sidewalks, parks and plazas to improve appearance and make the central core more pedestrian friendly. Plans call for the addition of landscaping, public art, marked bike lanes, decorative street lighting, and additional on-street parking spaces.
The first phase of streetscape construction for Project 180 began along Reno in August 2010. Other portions of the phase one streetscape began in late 2010 and includes construction on East Main Street, North Walker, Sheridan, North Robinson, Dean A McGee, North Harvey, and NW 5th Street.
Also included in the first phase of Project 180 was the dramatic transformation of the Myriad Botanical Gardens. Plans called for changes throughout the garden, including the addition of a grand performance lawn, a children’s discovery garden and play area, water features, an ice skating rink, a restaurant, a dog release area and the addition of a new grand entrance to the Crystal Bridge Conservatory.
One of the biggest changes to the Myriad Botanical Gardens was the re-glazing of the 22 year-old Crystal Bridge Tropical Conservatory. After re-painting, the Conservatory’s aging acrylic panels were replaced with new more durable clear panels. The Myriad Gardens and Crystal Bridge closed for construction beginning April 26, 2010 with portions reopening April 25, 2011 in time for the 2011 Festival of the Arts. The grand re-opening of the Myriad Botanical Gardens was October 15, 2011.
Phase two of the streetscape construction began July 2011 and includes Hudson, North Robinson, Sheridan, Colcord, Couch and Walker. This phase will include the renovation of Bicentennial Park, located in front of the Civic Center Music Hall.
Construction is slated to be complete in 2014. The improvements are paid for through Tax Increment Financing (TIF) from construction of the Devon Tower ($105 million), General Obligation Bonds passed in the 2007 bond election ($40 million) and the Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust ($11 million).
Maybe it shouldn’t be a complete surprise that the vision above – what was promised as part of Project 180, what the city council dictated should happen, what the downtown community asked for – is now fading away before it ever became a reality. I’ve heard repeatedly from those at City Hall with engineering backgrounds that they think the emphasis on walkability has gone too far, that traffic flow is being sacrificed.
When this section of Walker Avenue was recently completed, it was reopened without the parking spots, and only the dedicated bike lanes were visible. This led to confusion by motorists who thought it was still a four lane wide road. There was no education program started yet about the new bike lanes.
Then, this last week, the permanent white striping for the dedicated bike lanes were converted to broken stripes – essentially making them shared lanes with vehicles, defeating the one of the fundamental objectives of Project 180.
I spoke to Public Works Director Eric Wenger about this action, and he stated it was in response to police not knowing whether to ticket motorists who were crossing the solid white stripe and what he called “blocks long” traffic back-ups on Walker Avenue during morning rush hour. I’ve not seen such back-ups myself, nor have I heard any complaints about Walker having traffic problems.
What I do know is that this was a decision taken by public works without going through the Devon Implementation Committee that oversees Project 180, or the city council or the traffic commission.
Wenger states that the bike lanes will be reconsidered if traffic counts get to a point that allow for them to be restored. But if one listens to Jeff Speck, the walkability consultant and author hired by city in preparing Project 180, this goes against all logic in which he argues that traffic increases to what the road is designed for – meaning, if you design a road for 10,000 vehicles a day, traffic will grow to 10,000 vehicles a day, and if for 20,000, then it grows to 20,000. This discussion is not new to Oklahoma City – it came up during the debate over the new downtown boulevard and you can read my blogging about it here.
I reminded Wenger of this argument, to which he responded that sometimes development along streets causes that growth, and it’s not just the road design itself.
This is the second time I’ve observed an effort by the Public Works Department attempting to make a significant change to the Project 180 timeline or program. Last year, you might recall, Wenger initially indicated the full conversion of downtown streets from one way to two way traffic would be delayed indefinitely. After some further questioning and scrutiny, the cited complications in completing the conversion disappeared, and the conversions were essentially completed last month. Read my blog post about this previous discussion here.
Jeff Speck, who recently visited OKC to sign his book “Walkable City,” is watching this discussion and had this to say on Twitter:
— Jeff Speck (@JeffSpeckAICP) March 13, 2013
It’s been a good dozen years since I first noticed a trend in how cities are perceived. There were urban turn-around stories – Austin, Portland, Charlotte, Denver and so on – that began with mentions among academic circles, then hit speaking circuits, and then, the capping moment: when the stories hit publications like the New York Times.
I don’t know what this whole pattern is called. I call it “buzz.” Sure, it’s great to see downtown Oklahoma City get mentioned during the NBA Finals, or when national news organizations recognize our river redevelopment and so on. But I’ll declare this following blurb in the New York Times story about urban parks as a hint that Oklahoma City is truly at a tipping point:
The New York story is a national one. In the center of Oklahoma City, a revitalized park complex, Myriad Botanical Gardens, recently took root. In downtown Houston, there’s Discovery Green. Dallas is building a park on a deck over a downtown freeway, and Los Angeles is looking at how to gussy and green up an old concrete river bed.
“We’re living in an era of re-urbanization,” said Catherine Nagel, executive director of the City Parks Alliance, which is sponsoring the conference in New York. And the increased population density means that “we need green space,” she said.
Amazingly, we’re getting it: because citizens have demanded as much; because governments have made it a priority; because public and private partnerships have been cultivated. New York is the bright flower of all that.
Now, think about this for just a moment. In arguing the case for the new urban parks movement, this New York Times writer noted Oklahoma City along with Houston, Dallas and Los Angeles. Folks, it’s getting real ….
Everyday I’m downtown. And despite the jeering of one frequently critical OKC Central visitor, no, I don’t spend my entire days taking photos of construction progress on Project 180. But I am downtown. And it doesn’t take more than a few minutes for me to drive through downtown, survey whether construction workers are making progress on Project 180.
You’ve seen the results of my recent surveys – there have been no more than 18 workers, and often far less, working on all of the ripped up downtown streets at any given time. Often there have been no workers to be seen at either 9 a.m. or 4 p.m.
Today was much different. On every job site I saw no less than a half dozen men, often more, working with what seemed to be a re-dedication to getting the work closer to completion. Main Street, which has languished for almost two years due to one delay after another (it was supposed to be done a year ago), had a half dozen guys doing the final touches on landscaping. This completion will be celebrated by business owners who have suffered greatly during the delays.
All this said, my surveys will continue. I have no intention of discontinuing my progress updates – even if the progress isn’t the image most complimentary to the city or the contractors. Today, have no doubt, the picture was one that had to make many folks happy.
Yesterday I made a point out of touring downtown twice – at 9 a.m. and 4 p.m.
I counted no more than seven guys at work on Project 180 streets at 9 a.m. I saw no workers at 4 p.m. To date, we know that owners of Tratoria Il Centro blamed their closing on extended delays on Project 180. We know that Coney Island Hot Dogs and La Luna both suffered big drops in business due to delays. We do not know what the final tally of business losses will be from how this construction has been scheduled. All we can do is look at the torn up streets and wonder, why the lack of urgency in getting them done?
The temperature is in the mid-80s, it’s not raining, so one might think today would be a good day for construction companies to ramp up work on Project 180 streets downtown, right?
Sadly, those who own businesses or have to get around downtown know that it’s rare that one sees more than a couple of guys working on a street at any given time. After hearing continued complaints about the lack of “seriousness” taken by contractors in finishing work on downtown’s streets, I took a drive and took my own survey.
On one job site I saw more than 40 guys busy at work, completing a plaza area. Oh wait. That was on the Devon Energy Center/Colcord Hotel plaza and those crews were hired by Devon, not by the city.
Hudson Avenue, Main Street, Walker Avenue, Colcord Drive, Sheridan Avenue and Broadway are all torn up. I counted 16 guys – total – spread out among these different job sites. On Broadway I saw just two guys “on the job” in front of the Cox Convention Center. For 10 minutes I watched a guy on a backhoe talking to a guy in a ditch. They talked. And talked. And they didn’t seem to be doing anything else.
Consider that only a couple of guys were to be seen working on Main Street at Walker Avenue, which was supposed to be done in autumn of 2011. They’re still not done, even though the reasoning for the delays – a basement problem at 420 W Main – was supposedly addressed and fixed months ago.
I suppose City Hall has an answer for all of this. And I seriously doubt the fed up merchants – and those who have already lost their businesses due to Project 180 – are in the mood for any more excuses.
First, some good news from the folks at Project 180:
Oklahoma City has good news for downtown workers – Robinson between Main and Park and Sheridan between Hudson and Robinson will reopen to traffic on Wednesday, April 18.
Traffic will be two-way on Robinson from Sheridan to Park. The portion of Robinson from Park to Kerr will remain one-way so OG&E crews can replace circuits. Once complete, the rest of Robinson will transition to two-way traffic. Sheridan will also open to two-way traffic.
Crews will continue installing landscaping and completing sidewalks along the two streets.
Motorists and pedestrians are advised to be particularly careful as they adjust to the change.
“Remembering to look both ways before crossing Robinson could be a challenge for downtown walkers and cyclists,” said Public Works Director Eric Wenger. “The same goes for motorists when they experience oncoming traffic on Robinson for the first time. Changing decades-long driving and walking habits won’t happen overnight. Motorists and pedestrians need to be vigilant and yield to each other during this time of transition.”
According to Wenger, work is wrapping up on phase four of Project 180, with phase five expected to be complete by the end of this year. Drivers and workers should experience fewer closed streets this fall.
NOW…. FOR THE OTHER PART OF THIS STORY NOT IN THE PRESS RELEASE….
Some OKC Central readers have noticed that the sidewalk on the east side of Robinson between Main and Park Avenue was not being torn up by contractors. They wondered – will the sidewalk still be rebuilt?
The answer, from Shannon Cox, spokeswoman for Project 180, is that engineers decided to leave the sidewalk untouched as it crosses the basements of First National Center and the Oil & Gas Building following expensive delays experienced with sidewalks crossing other basements along Main Street west of Hudson Avenue. This section of sidewalk will NOT be rebuilt.
With money short, this might make sense. But then will the old I.M. Pei globe lights from the early 1970s be left in place amidst the remaining Project 180 upgrades? It seems as if the addition of street furniture and new lighting to match the rest of the street would be a common sense move.
Shannon said she’s uncertain about this question and will get back to us.
More catching up….
Some of you will recall how shortfalls in Project 180 led to the decision, or rather, indecision, by city engineers to go only part of the way in the conversions of Walker and Hudson Avenues from one-way to two-way traffic. As all the dust kicked up by all this began to settle, I realized that the city was essentially going turn both streets (and had already done so with Walker) into two-way, one-way, two-way corridors between Reno Avenue and NW 13.
This discussion began with Public Works director Eric Wenger. But oh my, this discussion has had quite the evolution…
On Feb. 8 I posted the following on OKC Central:
Going through an extensive project update with Public Works director Eric Wenger, I learned the city still has money for traffic controllers for these intersections, but no money for the actual traffic lights.
Wenger said a study not yet done will determine a new timeline and potential funding. Note that the city council instructed the public works department to begin a study to convert downtown’s one-way streets to two-way traffic back in 1999. History shows that at City Hall, a study can translate into a years-long delay (consider the progress to date on a quiet zone on the railway tracks parallel to Automobile Alley).
What this means is the plan now in place would result in Walker Avenue being two-way traffic south of Robert S. Kerr Avenue, one-way traffic between Robert S. Kerr Avenue and NW 6, and then two-way traffic again north of NW 6. Ditto for Hudson Avenue.
Councilman Ed Shadid, a reader of OKC Central, checked on this for himself with city engineers and responded the next day:
I am grateful for your work; your questions are critical to the process.
I believe this Council is strongly committed to the goals outlined in the 1999 T.E.C. study as well as Jeff Speck’s recommendations that these streets be converted to 2-way.
The barriers to implementation go beyond traffic signaling (of which the City does have enough traffic poles and traffic lights in storage if and when we were to need them).
As you state, the sections between Kerr and 6th are not part of P180 or the ’07 Bond issue and will need to be dealt with by the City in house.
Perhaps the greatest barrier is that so many driveway designs along Walker and Hudson have taken advantage of the 1-way street design to make them oblique. Surveys need to be completed to assess which driveways would need to be straightened out to make them perpendicular to the new 2-way street. In addition, restriping would need to be done. Many of these driveways are owned by the County. The obstacles on Hudson are worse than they are on Walker.
Additional funding will be necessary to complete the downtown master plan but prior to that we need to survey those areas and study the geometry and design of 2-way streets in those areas.
The conversion of 2-way streets up to Kerr is still some time away. The conversion between Main to Couch will occur by the end of the year and the conversion from Couch to Kerr will occur after that, possibly into the beginning of 2013.
Obviously, this didn’t quite match up with what I had been told – at least it seemed to hint that Walker Avenue wasn’t as indefinite as I had been led to believe. I then got a call from Assistant City Manager Dennis Clowers, himself the former public works director. And I posted the following update:
Assistant City Manager Dennis Clowers just called me. They’re aware of this conversation. Clowers was the former public works director and that department is one of several that answer to him.
He said the city “has every intention” of finishing the conversion of Hudson and Walker to two-way traffic. But, he added, “it’s not just going to happen overnight.”
He repeated what was apparently told to Ed Shadid. I challenged him on the studies, noting studies began a dozen years ago. I asked, what is more urgent – a cosmetic makeover of the Civic Center park or the safety and function of Hudson and Walker Avenues?
At this point Dennis, who I do respect greatly, acknowledged this matter may not have been addressed with the diligence it deserves. He acknowledged the two-way, one-way, two-way pattern will be less safe for visitors than what we had before. He said city staff is going to get on top of this, and that this matter will be addressed with the same urgency being given to the park.
For downtown businesses, development of the urban core, consultants have determined street traffic patterns can make or break economic development.
More conversations ensued as I shared with readers how the city council had tasked the public works department with converting the one-way downtown streets a dozen years earlier. I posted the following on Feb. 10:
As noted by frequent OKC Central contributor Dennis Wells in a comment on yesterday’s blog post, the city has shifted its response on the street conversions. Assistant City Manager Dennis Clowers reports that the Project 180 contract will include money for complete conversion of Walker Avenue to two-way traffic after all – and that it will be done this year.
Clowers reports no change in plans, however, for Hudson Avenue. More studies and evaluations on funding, etc., are said to be needed before the section between Robert S. Kerr Avenue and NW 6 can be converted to two-way traffic. This means visitors are likely to encounter a two-way, one-way, two-way traffic pattern along the street from Interstate 40 to NW 6 until the city addresses this matter. I will remind readers, the city council instructed the public works department to begin conversions of one-way downtown streets to two-way traffic in 1999 – which was 13 years ago.
So what’s new?
The city council was provided an update on this whole matter on Tuesday. They saw in a black-and-white power point a schedule that now promises that both Hudson and Walker will be fully converted to two-way traffic by late 2012. When quizzed, City Manager Jim Couch reported no further studies are needed, and indeed, bond monies and surplus traffic signals and poles are available to make these full conversions possible without any further delays.
He also reported a similar gap along Robinson Avenue – one I admit sort of escaped my attention – will be addressed on the same timetable.
Watch the report here:
Alright, enough posting of music videos.
I’ll admit, I’ve been a busy guy the last few days. And there’s a lot going on.
We’ve got a press conference coming up tomorrow at what many will always refer to as the Bricktown Ballpark. Like it or not, the name is about to become Newcastle Field at Bricktown. Yes, the ballpark built and paid for by city taxpayers will be named after the Newcastle Casino and the town of Newcastle. The naming rights are controlled by the owners of the Oklahoma City RedHawks, Los Angeles-based Mandalay Sports – power granted to them through a lease they inherited that the city council approved way back in 1998 (not a single member of that council is now at City Hall).
I received an urgent string of emails yesterday as I was busy covering some stories going on at City Hall. For those unaware, a couple of old buildings, both real gems, are being torn down along NE 4. One, the old Le’Ora’s Beautye Salon, had a surprise as the brick walls started coming down…
My friends speculated that from the carton design on the graphic, the sign might date to the 20′s and would be well worth trying to save. But even as this discussion was underway, demolition had already started. The wall was taken down and feared lost forever… but what’s trash to one person is a treasure to another. I am told the sign, left in a pile, has been rescued by fellow history enthusiast and is in safe keeping. I’ll verify this soon and report back…
Final note: Many were surprised to hear that Larry Nichols, executive chairman at Devon Energy, asked that an effort to name the Civic Center park after him be dropped. This quietly occurred while debate was raging over a makeover of the park, and one councilman, Ed Shadid, was very unhappy to learn this after the final vote took place on the tearing up of the old park. I can also report that according to Carol Troy, chair of the Civic Center Foundation, Nichols personally contacted City Manager Jim Couch to request the naming be dropped. I am unaware of Couch making any report of that request to the city council prior to their Feb. 28 vote on the park redesign.