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.

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