Nick has been very kind to me in that he could have said “hey idiot, you didn’t run all the Downtown OKC 2020 posts!” Instead, he simply asked if all had been run. Well, he, better than I, sadly, knew the answer to this. Because Nick had one great guest blog post I’ve not run. With posts titled “Why Core to Shore Sucks” on his blog www.downtownontherange.blogspot.com and his new downtown blog http://downtownokclist.blogspot.com it’s encouraging to see 20-somethings like Nick so in tune with the community but also willing to challenge the status quo. It gives me hope that our city’s resurgence isn’t close to being done. Now, here’s Nick’s thoughts on what’s ahead for Downtown Oklahoma City:
Seems like just yesterday it was 2000. I had just graduated from kid’s meals to big kid’s meals, and all of my teachers in junior high believed the world was coming to an end..in the end though, all everyone got was a killer computer virus. Britney Spears had just hit it big, along with NSync, the Backstreet Boys, and Jennifer Lopez. It was a simpler time. In Downtown Oklahoma City, leaders were beginning to brace for an expected wave of investment in the inner city after the completion of MAPS 1. Again, it was a simpler time. In the end, what they had anticipated was exceeded again and again and again by what actually came to fruition. Nobody had predicated that the post-MAPS surge in Downtown would have been near as wildly successful as it has been.
Today I think it’s possible we’ve gotten a little full of ourselves. We all need to take a big step backward, try as we might, and remove ourselves from our place in order to get an accurate picture. In order to visualize Downtown OKC in 2020 we have to visualize Downtown OKC in 2000, and 1990, and so on. Most importantly I think we need to visualize Downtown OKC in 1920, 1930, and 1940. OKC needs to go back to the future to a time when it had excellent downtown parks, a great streetcar network, and downtown vibrancy. This period was undoubtedly the golden era for Downtown, so as we turn not to the nearest Core to Shore planner, Chamber exec, or out-of-town planning corporation but instead to our own local historians and downtown buffs, we could gain from looking at all of the grand schemes that never made it to fruition. This spirit behind Core to Shore is nothing new, OKC has always had a uniquely strong desire to want to reinvent itself as the next Seattle. The bottom line is that while there has been a major plan every 10 years or so that came up, there has only been ONE of these grand schemes ever since the 1940s that actually was successful in the end. That was the Metropolitan Area Projects passed in 1993.
That’s not to say that if I.M. Pei’s Urban Renewal was successful, it wouldn’t have been a cool thing, or that if the String of Pearls had been successful, it wouldn’t have been a cool thing, and so on. I am sure there is a lot I don’t even know about, but I do know this: MAPS is the only thing out of everything we’ve tried to actually arbitrarily add value to downtown that was successful. Because MAPS was successful doesn’t mean that MAPS 3 has to be successful, either, success does usually breed more success. The momentum we have going right now is great, and we can’t risk loosing it. The results of MAPS 3 will just be beginning to be seen in 2020, and it will either be all the difference in making that giant leap forward, or it will just keep OKC on its secondary-city track.
The bottom line is that I don’t owe any allegiance to Oklahoma City, in fact, almost none of us do. I have a great amount of admiration for the small few who actually feel compelled that way, however, the deal is that I am a student about to have my Master’s, and I live in a part of the world where luckily I’m free enough to move from one city to another as I want. Personally, I’m a lot more likely to chose a city based on how comfortable I feel there, rather than settling down where my family is. Why should I move to OKC after I graduate, instead of Seattle, Calgary, Austin, Charlotte, New Orleans, Minneapolis, Vancouver, Dallas, Houston, or Atlanta, and so on and so forth? OKC’s task to be competitive is most daunting because, while critics will argue for a slower pace and say that you can’t make up for 50-60 years of decline in 10 years..if this is going to work anytime soon, it is going to have to come close.
The reason I should consider settling down in OKC is that I believe OKC can be just as competitive as any given city. There is no reason why OKC can’t be the next Seattle. It’s a matter of playing your cards right, investing in yourself, and keeping the boastful civic pride alive. Pride is a commitment that shows through in every thing you do, and Oklahomans should be proud of the city they have set in motion recently, yet cognizant that there is a long ways to go, and mindful that mistakes being made here and there in small places have indeed been holding OKC back. Core to Shore poses a wide array of mistakes about to be made, and brilliant ideas that deserve high praise.
My advice is to listen to Jeff Speck and completely rethink Core to Shore. Extend the timeline on the projects designed to stretch urban infill all the way to the river (but not the ones close to the CBD), and consider breaking up super-block structures. Is it really a good idea to have a contiguous clump of 20+ blocks (central park, new convention center, ford center, cox center, myriad gardens, and more) that isn’t broken up by development? I think that sort of just turns the central park into a front lawn for the new convention center, but that’s just me. Having this huge cluster of civic space in the middle just turns the streets into dead space that isn’t immersed by a vibrant neighborhood.
The boulevard is obviously a waste of money and a bad idea that will backfire. Instead of encouraging pedestrian walkability, it will hinder it by being as wide if not wider than the current Crosstown Expressway. In truth, walking across the current Crosstown is far easier than crossing this proposed 8/10-lane boulevard, you just have to start walking and hope a berm holding up the highway doesn’t come down and pulverize you.
The convention center and central park also need to be reconsidered. The two sites need to be separated, or else I fear that the central park will just turn into a front lawn for the convention center as I said earlier. The convention center needs to be moved to just across the boulevard from Lower Bricktown, where OKC Rocks is. The OKC Rocks silo can be creatively incorporated into an ultra-modern convention center/convention hotel complex that would be the toast of the architecture world. The central park needs to avoid copying Millennium Park item-for-item, which is probably what will happen. If we do so, the park will never get near the notoriety of Millennium Park but instead just be a footnote of, “Oh yeah, and then in Oklahoma, _______, and _______ they also copied this pretty much.”
The focus of Downtown OKC right now needs to be achieving a critical mass of housing, ASAP. There’s no doubt that there is demand for a real downtown filled to the brim with a multitude of housing options, the glaring problem with that however is that nobody wants “downtown living” when the lots surrounding you are still mud pits that aren’t breaking ground on development anytime in the near future. It’s a massive scar on people’s romanticized vision of “downtown living” in all its glory. There isn’t a doubt in my mind that this will change, and that more housing will slowly break ground (hopefully as soon as the credit markets thaw, OKC will benefit from being a stable market that gets a lot of investment from outside). The current rate that we’re moving on housing development just isn’t good enough.
To my knowledge, there aren’t very many developments that broke ground and exceeded my expectations after they were finished. The Centennial is one of the few, Block 42 is another that exceeded my expectations. The Legacy at Arts Central looks nothing like the renderings, the Maywood Park projects might not move forward, The Hill is just a disaster in the making, and not to mention the dozens of developments that never got past the drawing board. The national economy has been the culprit 99% of the time, so it’s hard to blame any particular developer. You just have to keep downtown going and hope that some of these projects will stick, and make it a more attractive environment for more.
Downtown streetcar is probably the thing that can get development rolling the fastest. It would have an incredible array of uses beneficial to downtown, but it’s main attribute would be in attracting investment. Developers can see the rails in the ground, and the wires above the street, and know that the train will pass through here regularly. When you see a bus stop sign, you don’t have the same confidence, and you don’t feel like you’re along a fixed transit line, because you aren’t. The much maligned city buses and Spirit Trolleys aren’t cutting it, whereas rail could solve our parking problem, effectively circulate pedestrians through downtown, and create pedestrian-friendly corridors that cross downtown. There is no other alternative, not even “bus rapid transit” that can do this. I promise, if Oklahoma City passes MAPS 3 and builds a streetcar system, not only will it go to good use, but it will be the development impetus needed in order to build up a critical mass of downtown housing quickly.
When I look in my crystal ball at how Downtown OKC will appear in 2020, I occasionally see things from the point of view of a skeptic that is underwhelmed by the downtown development that actually has happened, and then more often I see things from the point of view of an optimist that is amazed at the potential of everything happening. It is my great hope that OKC can emerge from these great attempts as an urban, walkable, clean city where everyone would want to live. In 2020 I want to see very few vacant lots in the formerly-called “Triangle” area (most of which is Deep Deuce) and MidTown. I hope that there will be a grand ceremony unveiling a brilliant new central park. I hope that whatever concept is chosen for the boulevard, it works as intended. I hope that the convention center is something we can all be proud of, which for $250-400 million, it had better be. This convention center has the potential to bring in thousands of business visitors a week, so it deserves the bells and whistles. Obviously the new Devon Tower, which will be about 7 years old in 2020, will have become a symbol of Oklahoma’s urban resurgence. It’s important that Oklahomans take seriously the idea of “an urban OKC” or else people outside of Central Oklahoma certainly won’t, and nothing will have changed.
The people of OKC, who have to be the most wonderful people I have ever known, deserve a Great American City, one that can be listed among the ranks of places like Dallas, Seattle, Minneapolis, and Atlanta. OKC can be well on its way to achieving this by 2020.
Today’s Downtown OKC 2020 guest blogger is a good friend – Doug Loudenback – whose blog www.dougdawg.blogspot.com is a wonderful mix of history, current events and unbounded love for all things involving the NBA Thunder (with a residual affection for the Hornets). When I first asked Doug to step into this conversation, he was at first hesitant pulling off his “aw shucks, what do I know” bit. Don’t let Doug fool you for one moment; he’s as informed about what’s going on in this community as anyone I know. Now, without any further delay …
Steve asks us to answer, What should downtown Oklahoma City look like in 2020, and how can this vision be best achieved? Having already read the answers presented by Dennis Wells and Casey Cornett, as well as the indirectly presented answers of Blair Humphreys both here and in his great blog and of Nick Roberts in his blog, I am immediately struck by the near-vacuum in the minuscule room in my brain labeled, “Downtown 2020.” The room likely wouldn’t even exist but for your questions, Steve.Truth is, I’m neither a planner nor a visionary. I’m not an I.M. Pei or, much better than that, a Neal Horton. I’m not a Mayor Ron Norick. I don’t contain within me one iota of a “grand design” and likely never will.
Maybe that represents a left-brain dominance in me and maybe the creative elements of whatever right-brain I have just don’t work. Or, more likely, I have none of any of the above at all. My wife, Mary Jo, is not particularly impressed with my forays into writing about Oklahoma City’s past – she tells me that I should write a novel involving all such things which might make the New York Times best seller list. But, that presupposes that I have the capacity to come up with a creative, perhaps a devilish plot, and then stuff into that plot lots of interesting fictional characters which will result in a best-seller on or off of the New York Times list. With all respect to my sweet wife, that just ain’t gonna happen.
So, when pondering Steve’s questions, nothing came out of my brain when I put the quarters into its mental slot machine. No 2-of a kind, no 3-of a kind, certainly no 4-of a kind, and absolutely and for sure no royal flush. “Damn machine,” I thought to myself – but then I remembered that I’ve hardly ever won a bet in my life. But, that’s another story altogether.
Time for me to take another tack.
I began to think about Steve’s queries in a different way – what perspectives do I have that some don’t, and how have I been spending most my time, say, for the past three years? I do have volumes of thoughts, interest, and time spent about Oklahoma City’s history, as well as a writing here and there. Could my interest in Oklahoma City history somehow relate to Steve’s inquiries? I wasn’t, and am not, at all sure about the answer to that, but here you go.
My approach in formulating this response is to regurgitate Steve’s questions and pose to myself an entirely different pair of questions than he did, they being, “What do I miss most about the ‘old’ downtown, the days before anyone in these parts ever heard of I.M. Pei?” and “How do my answers relate, if at all, to what I would like to see when Oklahoma City 2020 rolls along?
The questions rephrased, it’s not so hard to come up with answers to the first question, shortened to be, “What do I miss” about the old downtown Oklahoma City. The answers are these:
1. Downtown was busy, very very busy. Not only were the worker-bees downtown, the shopper-and-fun-seeker bees were downtown, too. People, lots of people. All that busy-ness felt good and it was exciting when I’d come to visit as a little kid or teenager coming to “The City” from Lawton (where I largely grew up though being born at St. Anthony’s). And, movies? The Criterion, State, Midwest, Cooper Cinerama, as well as then lesser-rans like the Majestic and the Folly (as well as a lower tier of lesser-rans which shall not be mentioned) were all downtown. The curtains around the theater stages weren’t just trim – they were real – and the decor in the audience halls jumped out at you whether you looked side-to-side or up-or-down. If space existed downtown, it was used one way or another. Downtown was the city’s vibrant heart – the center of just about everything other than state government, schools, medicine, and maybe some other things I’d add if I put my mind to it. It was busy.
2. Downtown wasn’t clean, it wasn’t orderly, but it was downright messy. Downtown had everything ranging from the heart of business with a pair of skyscrapers one could gawk at to pool/domino halls like the Central Club, the Empire, and Herman Vestal’s where bookies took bets and Minnesota Fats played pool, to fine and/or elite and/or popular dining (the Cellar, Bishops, the old Beacon Club, the Petroleum Club, Anna Maude’s), and, for some, the right place to go for a drink during the prohibition era (the Black Hotel, but only as I understand it, of course). And, for sure, stores like John A. Brown’s, Rothschild’s, Wards, Sears, Streets, Haliburton’s, etc., provided a shopper’s paradise, plus downtown had the movies mentioned above. One could step into downtown in the morning and venture into an endless realm of expected and unexpected happenings, some good, maybe some not so good, and at the end of the day wishing that there was time for more. That’s what “downtown” was. For those who didn’t work downtown, the disorder and messiness meant that, on a good day, one might find unexpected surprises not known from the last visit, even the last visit were yesterday.
3. The architecture was eclectic. This point is somewhat redundant of the above but I mean it a bit differently. Whether a building was built in 1910, 1920, 1930, 1940, 1950, all buildings were tied together as being integral to and a part of the meaning of “downtown” Oklahoma City. Nothing was the model of what “should be” and everything was part of the whole that “was.” The First National Center, Ramsey Tower, Petroleum Building, OG&E, ONG, Baum Building, etc. etc. etc., were all parts of the recognizable whole even if they were radically different in style. That’s what happens naturally when a city is built over decades of time.
“OK, OK,” I thought to myself, “What’s the point of what I’ve said above?” I perceive myself to be a realist and know that what’s gone is gone and that it’s just not going to and cannot possibly return. So, I hit the brick wall, no ideas, no thoughts, and, from the brick wall, developed a really serious headache. The old stuff is not going to come back, not the John A. Browns, not the grand old theaters, not the crummy pool halls, none of it. It is all gone.
My left-brain was bruised, dismayed, and forlorn, and it had nothing to say. Through arduous training, it knows when to stop talking, and it did. But, my less disciplined right-brain has never learned that lesson. At the point that my left-brain shouted, “Stop,” it shouted to me, “Start.” It said, “Oh ye of little faith. What if downtown in 2020 was also eclectic, was also the center of where people came who wanted to have fun, and was also downright messy?”
Left-brain says: “The plans I’ve seen so far look anything but eclectic and chaotic. Those plans are ultra orderly and rather look like a suburban residential model which has been transformed and plopped into downtown grid with nice rows of things showing where everything ‘should be’ and in ‘just the right areas, sort of like a gated downtown without the gates.’ Everything is ‘just so.’ Am I wrong?”
Right-brain agrees, but says, “It doesn’t have to be that way.”
In what I’ve seen so far, there is no room for chaos, sin, or serendipity, and the plans in no way lend themselves toward creating a Phoenix of the old downtown which made it the endearing place that it once was. No doubt, the new plans are slick but in their slickness they leave the messiness, the grit, if you will, behind. The plans I’ve seen so far call for a beautiful, pristine, controlled, and wholly managed city of the future, as slick as those plans are to see. And I’m a sucker for slick plans posited by my city’s leaders, ever since Ron Norick, when I began to trust such people.
This time, though, it is different than MAPS I. The issues facing the city are not the “do or die” circumstances presented in 1993. Then, we voted “Yes,” and we are all the better for having done so. But, the issues today are much different – today, we aren’t faced with dire straits if a negative vote is cast. Instead, we are faced with the more pleasant and less dramatic question, “What is the best thing to do, next,” having already experienced the successes of MAPS I. Back then, bluntly put, the question was whether we as a city were going to go down the toilet or would instead pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. We chose the later. We are not in that dire circumstance today.
So, what’s the environment today as the questions are being considered?
With apologies to all, can you say with a straight face Sylvester Stallone’s 1993 movie, “Demolition Man,” in which a futuristic California city was planned to the nth degree by master planners but was as cold as ice? I admit and understand that the example is exaggerated and may not be the best analogy, but it’s the one that comes to my unimaginative and pedestrian mind. In the movie, it was necessary to resuscitate Stallone from hibernation to deal with the Wesley Snipes character who had already been resuscitated by the city’s master planner to regain control over the city’s underworld (i.e., people like you and me – people who thought freely and on their own). Of course, Snipes was even a worse guy than Stallone in the overall scheme of things, and, in the end, Stallone killed Snipes and chaos ruled supreme! Yea! Everyone was happy, and Sandra Bullock actually KISSED Sylvester Stallone on the lips and, presumably, no one got any more automatic city-fines for saying words like “shit” or worse.
IF there is a point to make from the movie, it is that good order and city planning are not all that there is, just as Peggy Lee wondered so long ago. Good order and city planning aren’t “all that there is.”
The point I’d like to make here is this: city planners, be you the mayor, council members, or others involved, make room for chaos and for serendipity. The beloved Oklahoma City downtown had plenty of both. Worse, don’t impress upon downtown an artificial suburban model where everything is lined up “just so.” That didn’t work with the Pei Plan and voters will not likely approve of a second version of the same tune, particularly after some Bricktown property owners have just sat on their properties waiting for a good deal for sale all the while making Bricktown progress more difficult to occur. We are tired of that and don’t want to see it again, vis a vis the perimeters of whatever Core To Shore turns out to be. Perimeter property should not be included in Core To Shore, perhaps other than conditions which mitigate against just sitting on, and not developing, adjoining properties, so to avoid the Bricktown experience. I’ve not thought through about how this might be done, but I think you get my drift.
So, what have I got to offer to this discussion other than the prospects of chaos? Nothing, nothing at all.
I’ll close this rambling by wholly agreeing with what Dennis Wells has already said. In all of this, DO NOTHING which would chill the maturation and development of those inner-city developments which are already in place in Bricktown, Midtown, Automobile Alley, Flatiron, and leave such things to private investment for it to develop as it will. Bricktown, Midtown, Automobile Alley, Flatiron are generally healthy creatures, but they are young and some are frail. Any city plan for 2020 should take care to insure and not impede their survival.
I like movies and movie lines. In this respect, the movie 2010 comes to mind when at the end the message was sent in uppercase: “ALL THESE WORLDS ARE YOURS – EXCEPT EUROPA. ATTEMPT NO LANDINGS THERE.”
Seems like good advice to me. Our “Europa” is Bricktown, Midtown, Automobile Alley, and Flatiron, our recently developing children of the inner city. Leave our Europa alone.
See, I told you that I’d have nothing particularly imaginative to say. But, I was invited to speak, and there you are.
Today’s Downtown OKC 2020 guest blogger is former Oklahoman collegue Jim Stafford, who is now working with i2e in the Oklahoma Health Center. Jim is your typical Edmond suburbanite who has suddenly found himself bitten with the downtown bug. He says he’s not qualified to comment – I disagree.
I never thought of myself as a downtown kind of guy. I live in far north Oklahoma City with a fashionable Edmond address. I worked up north along the Broadway Extension. Then one day I changed jobs and found myself working as close to downtown as one can get without actually working there – in the Presbyterian Health Foundation Research Park on the OU Health Center campus.
So now I often venture into downtown to eat lunch and to visit the post office and the offices of friends in Leadership Square. Sports keeps me downtown at night a lot because I enjoy the Redhawks games in Bricktown. My family shares Thunder season tickets with my mother-in- law.
With all that said, I’ve been following the debate over the future of downtown largely through this blog and Steve Lackmeyer’s articles in The Oklahoman. I’m not sure that I have the passion for downtown that Steve is looking for in this, but I will share my point of view on the future of downtown in 2020.
By 2020, there must be light rail service both within downtown and TO downtown from outlying suburban areas such as Edmond and Norman. Once upon a time Oklahoma City had trolleys that went north , south, east and west. I think it’s imperative that we have that again, only this time extend rail into the suburban areas in every direction. And trains need to run from early morning to early morning seven days a week with frequent departures. Oh, and it will have to connect to downtown to the airport, too.
Maybe I have a one-track mind, but I think last year’s gas price run- up proved that we can no longer depend upon automobiles to get us to and from work or to and from shopping and entertainment. Let’s invest in ourselves and ensure that we CAN get to downtown in 2020.
In the past six years I’ve visited six major cities from San Francisco to Atlanta and they all have rail that made it convenient to get into town from the airport — and lots of other places. I didn’t take a cab in any of them. OK, one: San Diego.
I’m intrigued by the city’s Core-to-Shore plans, but know that we need to iron out the future of our intracity transportation first. Let’s hope that I’m not out here alone on an island shouting into the wind and that the rest of Oklahoma City will support a public transportation plan that includes rail as a key factor.
It’s been a decade, I think, since I first met Tom Elmore. The Interstate 40 relocation project was gaining steam and Elmore was clearly upset that his concerns about the Union Station railyard were not being heard. During the previous few years City Hall and the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber had fought the route proposed by the state that would go through the rail yard. But they were outmatched by then ODOT Secretary Neal McCaleb who argued that his preferred route would be cheaper ($236 million) compared to the estimated $306 million estimated for the route closer to the existing alignment preferred by city officials. From the start Tom Elmore insisted ODOT was not being honest about the estimated cost of their preferred route. The price is now $600 million. Tom Elmore is not typically complimentary toward my work. He has told me that he sees The Oklahoman being a part of a conspiracy involving ODOT and highway construction groups determined to destroy Union Station and eliminate effective rail traffic through downtown. And he saw my questioning of him on www.okctalk.com as part of that conspiracy. Regardless, I want all voices represented on this blog. I started offering Tom the chance to guest blog a few months ago. I am very happy that he has finally agreed to participate in Downtown OKC 2020. As you can imagine, Tom has Union Station on his mind ….
What are we fighting for?
Intelligent reuse of the OKC Union Station passenger rail terminal at 300 SW 7th. The terminal building was purchased by OKC government in 1989 using a $1.2 million Federal Transit Grant. They said they wanted it to be our regional transit center, a purpose it suits perfectly. It’s never been used as anything but office space by OKC Metro Transit’s bureaucrats.
The rendering above shows modern reuse of the existing yard space, and why the entire yard is needed: Two tracks for each application (one eastbound, one westbound): Two tracks for Mail, Express and Baggage handling; Two tracks for local Light Rail Trains; Two tracks for Regional Commuter Trains; Two Tracks for Intercity Passenger Trains; Two tracks for freight trains to bypass the yard; Two tracks for special trains for tourism, private and corporate events and so on. Local streetcars could interface with train and bus traffic here at the central hub simply by coming through the horseshoe in front of the terminal building off of SW 7th.
As you can see — the all the space at Union Station is needed for a modern, multimodal center. The OKC Union Station yard originally accommodated 12 tracks for purposes similar to those stated above. Today, it may well be the last, grand urban rail passenger yard in the West with all its original train-handling space intact — a yard over 200 feet wide and 8 blocks long with its original arterial street underpasses still functioning at S. Robinson and S. Walker Avenues.
…..and our debt-generating “state Department of Transportation” wants to destroy this yard facility to make way for the relocation of a mere four miles of highway — a relocation that might have been put nearly anywhere?
At the audio link below, hear the comments in KGOU interview from a couple of years back of mayors from Denver and Salt Lake City — two urban centers now enjoying the rapid growth of their own rail transit networks:
(For other audio files from KGOU’s extensive documentary reporting on this matter, check www.kgou.org, or go to the lower lefthand side of the North American Transportation Institute website, www.advancedtransport.org, for clickable links.)
Oklahoma City and state leadership — perhaps for only a few more days — have an opportunity to save and reuse our beautiful, functionally elegant and historic Union Station center to create an economic and transportation renaissance. The synergy of putting such a historic asset to a vital modern use is inestimable. The question is — do our leaders have the vision, the drive and the courage to do the right thing?
Check the Bing Maps view at the link below: Click on “Birdseye” and swing the map around so that you’re looking south. This gives an excellent view of the facility that you may scan from side to side to see the underpasses and full yard: Link.
Make no mistake about it — OKC Union Station and its rail lines are the only hope this generation has of seeing a truly useful, truly regional transit system in its lifetime.
Don’t let the highway lobby beat us out of it.
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.
Guests blogs on the future of downtown Oklahoma City continue with this latest post by architect Dennis Wells. Dennis is one of those guys I still need to enjoy a long cup of coffee with – most of my conversations with him have been by phone. He has become a leading voice (though not for all) in the residential section of MidTown (he calls it SoSA, others call it the Cottage District). If you’re looking for a traditional neighborhood consisting of identical Dallas-style homes, stay far, far away from the area around NW 8 and Shartel where Dennis is a leading champion for bold modern architecture. Dennis, count on me calling you soon for a cup of coffee. I’ll let you pick the place – that’s always a good insight into who a person is!
What should downtown Oklahoma City look like in 2020, and how can this vision be best achieved?
Oklahoma has some uniquely positive attributes characterized by our people and geography: We are abnormally friendly… We are more Native American than any other state… We reside on top of large amounts of petroleum… We have a rich country music and blues heritage…
There are also some not-so-positive images: We are perceived as being red-neck… The weather is often windy, and seasonally dangerous… Our State is not known for its high-profile natural beauty…
Our downtown should represent us by amplifying our good attributes and by spinning our negative images in surprising ways. Amplify and surprise. Our urban design should showcase our friendliness and somehow promote our perceived negatives as positives.
Right now Bricktown is maturing into a truly world-class entertainment district. Several CBD rim districts are growing into vital niche neighborhoods, and the Devon tower is ratcheting-up our urban image physically and psychologically. This important momentum is happening even in the midst of global economic downturn, and should be protected and nurtured.
The relocation of Interstate-40 opens opportunities for redevelopment of the abandoned highway and creates challenges for unifying the proposed Core to Shore district. A budding river environment offers incredible potential. This is an enviable position, and moving forward here’s what we need to do…
Protect and nurture the existing momentum: There are certain components of the Core to Shore vision that should happen now, but opening large new parcels for development will absorb projects and stunt the growth of all the other rim districts including Bricktown. The existing CBD and adjacent districts need more time to mature and “finish out.” There are too many gaps in the existing downtown that need to be filled with housing and other good urban architecture.
Validate the Boulevard design: Why are six new lanes of traffic needed where previously there were zero? An impressive new boulevard will be great where it’s justified, but Core to Shore will already be lacerated once by the new I-40; why would we purposefully construct another pedestrian barrier? Where is it written that ALL of the old I-40 space has to be used for a boulevard? What if local artists competed to transform remnants of columns and/or roadway into works of art, or unique public spaces? The avoided demolition dollars could be used to create a signature landmark for the city.
Create seamless pedestrian access between key nodes: The existing pathways between the convention/hotel area and Bricktown are offensive. There are several ways to improve them, but canal extension is the best. Some sort of transit system that is frequent and fast should be provided between other CBD nodes and the rim districts… This service should be frequent and free between high density tourist nodes. MAPS-3 should include a component for ensuring top-tier connectivity between Bricktown and key adjacent areas.
Most of us are not urban planners or engineers or politicians, but the process for determining and implementing any urban plan requires all of their skills. Steve Lackmeyer does a great job of extracting our thoughts, and this web log is useful in that regard but ultimately we must make sure we’ve got the right planning team, and then rely on them to do their jobs well, and on the voters to approve their work.
…Now, how do we spin our redneck image? Easy… stock the canal with giant catfish and get Larry the cable guy to host an annual Bricktown Noodling Festival, which we’ll schedule during peak tornado season!
Today’s first Downtown OKC 2020 guest blogger is Casey Cornett. I’ve asked more than two dozen people to participate in this experiment. One cannot avoid notice that Casey does share the mayor’s last name, and yes, he is his son. But Casey is someone who truly lives, works and plays downtown.
And his blog is a good daily read – and provides a glimpse of what’s it like to be young and full of hope for what’s to come downtown. And like his dad, no matter whether you agree with him or not, he’s a hard guy to dislike.
Steve Lackmeyer asked me to write a bit about “What should downtown Oklahoma City look like in 2020, and how can this vision be best achieved?” After rereading the question a couple times I began to notice a gap in the word “should” to the word I wanted to use…”could.”
Downtown Oklahoma City will undoubtedly look different; especially by bringing a more impressive skyline with Devon’s 54-story skyscraper and leveling the offensive crosstown bridge and shipping it off to a resting place not to be missed.
I could go on all day long on what I want downtown to look like in 2020 and could dream-up some ideas on what it could be…but let’s stick to the question, “What should downtown Oklahoma City look like…” Not sure if I’m the right person to ask, but I’ll at least give you a glimpse on what I should be doing in Downtown OKC in 2020.
As I gaze into my polished crystal ball I see myself hoping off the cable car at the stop off Sheridan between Harvey and Hudson and starring up at the iconic skyscraper and shielding my eyes from its glass reflection. Watching the cable car scoot on down Sheridian I scurry across the street into the Myriad Gardens immediately noticing how shiny the Crystal Bridge has become…the scrubbing and cleansing the outside has received over the past decade really helped in getting rid of all the gunk due to all the neglect from the two decades previous; which left it anything but “crystal.”
Heading farther south through ‘The Gardens’ my dog, “Reina” starts to bark at all the squirrels and geese that have started to plant themselves in the area due to the Core to Shore initiative passed roughly 10 years beforehand. Pulling on the leash and retracting Reina from his jubilee we trot on through the park, passing the street musicians and kiosk stands selling fruit and souvenior hats with “405″ across the front and the occasional “I (heart) OKC” shirts.
After the quick mile jog we get down to the river and I let Reina loose in the dog park off the river front and sit on the bank gazing off over the river at the 100,000-light ferris wheel and reflect over how anxious I was to find out more info about this Santa Monica Ferris Wheel once I read about its purchase online back in the summer of 2008 at a friend’s apartment in Edmond (can’t believe I chose to live in Edmond).
Whistling over to Reina and putting the leash back on him we head on back over the Skydance Bridge towards the rustling and bustling roar of a downtown finally stretching its legs from over a 100 years of pent-up excitement. We stop for a snack while I dangle my legs over the edge and scratch Reina’s tummy as cars travel underneath us sending wind gusts up to cool us down from the hot Oklahoma summer sun. Peering off to the East I start to notice all the trees that have started to finally reach the rooftops of all the recently occupied residential complexes.
Pedestrians keep walking by us on their way down to the river and some are headed the opposite direction to downtown to start a night rememberence while stopping to pet Reina as they often do…he has become an exuberently friendly face to those urbanites I’ve come to know over the years.
I take a second to think to myself, “The once dirt river and abandoned buildings has now turned into all this??? My kid’s will never believe me.”