Saturday, August 1, 2009


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 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 committment 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 pulvarize 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.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Taft Middle School

Historic Taft Middle School, built in 1930 at May and NW 23rd, is getting an $8 mil renovation which includes 6,000 SF of new classroom space. The school will be able to accommodate 700 students after the renovations are complete.

Jackson Middle School

Jackson Middle School, built in 1930 at Villa Ave and Commerce Street in S. OKC, is receiving a $9 mil renovation including an expansion annex. The school is being expanded in order to handle being converted from middle school to Pre-K through 6.

Northeast Academy

Located at Kelley Ave and NE 30th, Northeast Academy is a charter school occupying a historic building built in 1934 that is targeted for $7 mil renovations in the MAPS for Kids plan. The renovations are to give the school an overhaul and increase its capacity to 750 students.

Northwest Classen High School

NW Classen High, located off North May and NW 27th, was built in 1952 and serves students that live in the historic districts NW of downtown. As a part of MAPS for Kids, the school is receiving a major $16 mil complete renovation. Right now the project is still in the community discussion phase.

Emerson High School

Emerson Alternative School is a charter high school located at Walker and NW 7th in the heart of MidTown. The school was built in 1894 and is receiving a $1.5 mil renovation as a result of MAPS for Kids. They have not yet begun.

Classen School of Advanced Studies

Classen SAS, built in 1919 and located at Emerson and NW 19th (right off Classen Blvd), is another MAPS for Kids high school that's getting a significant $7 mil facelift as a part of the $700 mil inner city schools initiative. Renovation's haven't started but in July 2008 the architect was notified to begin on schematic designs. The school will just be renovated and not rebuilt.

Capitol Hill High School

Capitol Hill High School, built in 1928, is a historical masterpiece that had been falling apart for a long time and earned a reputation as one of Inner OKC's hardest high schools. As a result of the $700 mil-taxpayer initiative to rebuild inner city schools, Capitol Hill is going to get a $10 mil renovation that will bring new amenities to the school such as ... air conditioning, among other great things. The school will not be demolished like some other schools due to its status as a significant example of Prairie Gothic architecture. The school is located at Grand Blvd and Walker Ave, in a diverse area of S. OKC.

Douglass High School

* Note, whoever's job it is to put the MAPS for Kids info up on the web needs to be shot, and someone with a camera and organization skills needs to take their place. The new Douglass is a beautiful school, but no photos online to show for it.

The first of OKC's new MAPS high schools to open was Douglass, located off of MLK Blvd and NE 10th. The high school, which was established in the late 1800s in NE OKC, covers the downtown area in its district today and has been completely rebuilt and reopened in 2005. For $32 mil, the Douglass accommodates 1,200 students, has 81 classrooms, features a cafeteria, media center, 1,800-seat gym, and a theater/auditorium center. It also has a brand-new football stadium finished in 2006.

U.S. Grant High School

Through 2005 and 2006, old U.S. Grant High School was completely torn down and rebuilt at a whopping price tag of $32 mil. The school was built for enrollment of 1,700 students and has 82 different classrooms, a cafeteria, media center, 2,200-seat gym, and a theater/auditorium center. Located off South Penn and 50th Street in the heart of inner S. OKC, the area's population base is growing and becoming more and more diverse. The new U.S. Grant will better meet the needs of its surrounding community and be an exceptional educational environment.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Downtown Trolleys

The smallest of all MAPS 1 projects, $5 million was spent on rubber trolleys that circulate passengers and tourists around the Downtown/Bricktown area. Service has been ongoing since 1999.

Interestingly, this aspect of MAPS was originally planned by Mayor Norick to be full-blown light rail. Funding for that however was stripped by Congressman Earnest Istook who opposed light rail for OKC and refused to send any federal funding its way. Luckily the City today is ready to proceed with full-blown light rail and we anticipate a light rail announcement with MAPS 3 at the end of this year. The original MAPS 1 light rail line would have been 1 mile on the elevated BNSF tracks and then expand out from there. Pictured is a rendering of the proposed stop at 2nd Street.

Ford Center

For $89.9 mil dollars the City's crowning MAPS 1 project was the Ford Center, which has brought unbridled prosperity to OKC when it opened in 2002. It seats about 21,000 and has 586,000 SF. Not only is the Ford Center a top-grossing concert venue, but it also hosted the NBA's Hornets for 2 years, many trade shows, the CHL's OKC Blazers, the AFL's OKC Yard Dawgz, OKC's new permanent NBA team, and is in a rotation with KC for the Big XII Basketball Tourney.

When the Hornets came the the arena was 3 years old and the City was already prepared to invest a few million in technical improvements to bring it up to NBA minimum standards. The Ford Center exceeds both the NBA and NHL minimum standards. In 2008 voters improved $121.8 mil in improvements to make the Ford Center one of the NBA's best arenas, in order to make a more convincing case for the SuperSonics. The improvements include a 12,000 SF family center, a new concourse, a new entrance and main lobby, technical improvements, new scoreboard, new restaurants on every level, 2 new rooftop gardens with skyline views, NBA offices, locker rooms, etc.

Oklahoma River dams

In 2004 the City had spent $53.5 mil and 5 years on realizing the long-term goal of putting water back in the N. Canadian River, which has ran dry ever since the US Army Corps of Engineers dammed it after several major floods. Today the goal is to have a civic riverfront used for events that attracts major private and public development. The Oklahoma River has become one of the most exciting hotspots of development since it was finished during the end of MAPS 1.

Cox Convention Center

The Cox Convention Center was an existing I.M. Pei-designed facility that MAPS 1 renovated completely with renovations ending in 2000, totaling $60 mil when finished. The just-over 100,000 SF facility includes a 25,000 SF grand ballroom, several conference halls, 3 main exhibition halls with more than 25,000 SF, a new Renaissance Hotel connected by skywalk, an interior reflecting subtle Native American influences. The Cox Center also has an arena that seats around 15,000 that is most known for hosting the Big XII Women's Basketball Tourney when the Men's Tourney is across the street at the Ford Center. Today, OKC has vastly outgrown using the Cox Center as its main convention venue and a new facility is in planning phases.

Civic Center Music Hall

Civic Center Music Hall is a gem of performing arts centers. $53 mil in MAPS 1 renovations to this venue turned it into one of the most impressive performing halls in the Southern US. The grand music hall seats just under 3,000 and is the home of Ballet Oklahoma, the OKC Philharmonic, as well as many theatrical companies and Broadway plays. Built in 1937 as Municipal Hall, the renovations ending in 2001 added skyboxes, a hydraulic orchestra pit, more seats, a new look, and a coffee shop in the lobby.

Downtown Library

The Ronald Norick Downtown Library, named after the OKC mayor who envisioned MAPS during the 90s, was the last MAPS project to open upon completion in 2004. For $21.5 mil, Downtown OKC got a 112,000 SF central library with 4 stories and iconic architecture. The first 2 floors provide library and research services, the 3rd provides business services, and the upmost level has conference amenities for nearby schools and corporations. Along the east edge there is a restaurant.

Bricktown Canal

The Canal was one of the original MAPS 1 projects and has become an OKC landmark that people around the nation recognize OKC by. The mile-long Canal opened in 1999 (with Phase 2 and 3 improvements in 2004) and costed the City $23 mil; it's lined with parks and old warehouses full of restaurants, clubs, lofts, and businesses. The Water Taxis offer sight-seeing tours and romantic date cruises. Over 500,000 OKCers came out for the ribbon-cutting of the Canal back in 1999.

Bricktown Ballpark

Part of the original MAPS 1. The $34 mil project opened in early 1998 as the first of the MAPS projects to open, which began a shifting of public opinion in favor of downtown renewal. The ballpark seats just over 13,000 and is the home of the Oklahoma RedHawks AAA baseball team. It sits at Reno and Mickey Mantle Street in the heart of Bricktown, and features a plaza dedicated to Mickey Mantle. On the northwest side of the ballpark is a Coach's Sports Bar and a Hideaway Pizza.

Other than hosting the RedHawks, it plays host to Bedlam Baseball every year, the Big XII Baseball Tournament every year, major concerts, Bricktown's 4th of July, and other major events that bring thousands into Bricktown frequently.