Friday, June 26, 2009

River gateways

Seems like I cross the Oklahoma River nearly every day between Norman and the happening side of OKC, so I was thinking of reasons why it hasn't exactly sprung to life yet. It dawned on me that it isn't really much of a barrier, despite being a pretty wide river and how it completely separates the two halves of OKC. Come to think of it, if it weren't for I-40 construction, you could get across town using the street you're already on. I-35, Shields, Byers, Robinson, Walker, Western, Exchange, Penn, Agnew, May, and I-44 all cross the river. Shields, Byers, Robinson, Western, and Penn happen to be closed for I-40 construction at the moment, but if it weren't for that, there would be 11 river crossings within a 4-5 mile span of the river that we're trying to put more emphasis on. I think that at some point the idea of a "river gateway" or a "river crossing" becomes nothing special.

It seems to me like most other riverfronts don't have this density of bridges to get across a major river, which may seem less convenient than how we're doing it here in OKC, but at the same time it seems to allow for more emphasis on the actual riverSIDE rather than just getting across the river. Come to think of it, are we really pushing for a vibrant riverSIDE or are we just trying to make the river something pretty for us to look at while we are passing it at 40-80 mph? Think about it. Perhaps the problem with developing our river is that it just isn't much of a factor in how we've built our city. Arguably, two cities that have a better riverfront are Little Rock and Cincinatti (although they aren't doing nearly as much to further develop their river as we are). You see they have much fewer river crossings. In order to get across the river, you have to go through downtown. There are special river gateway areas that benefit from all the traffic trying to get across the river. This makes it profitable for businesses to be in the path of a river crossing.

So here an idea that OKC can use: In order to promote vitality in some places along the river, why don't we get rid of a few of these excess river crossings? By concentrating ingress and egress, which already has limited traffic most times of the day, in certain strategic crossing points, there will be a higher traffic count and it will be more profitable to set up shop in certain river gateway areas. How about closing off May and Penn? They don't really go to anything. The only thing in that part of town is the State Fair and the Stockyards, which Agnew leads straight to. Do we really need Robinson and Byers to stay open when there is a bridge just a few blocks over at Walker and Shields? Walker and Shields are obviously a lot more important as far as carrying traffic than Robinson and Byers. Either Western or Exchange might be better off closed, too, and I don't think we can close Western because it is being developed already by Grant Humphreys and it is a major cross-metro artery. As much as I'd hate to close Exchange due to its very cool views of the skyline, perhaps that would be a bridge to consider getting rid of as well.

After closing some of these bridges, that leaves us with I-44, Agnew, Western, mmmaybe Exchange (or maybe not), Walker, Shields, and I-35, and we've gotten rid of May, Penn, mmaybe Exchange, Robinson, and Byers. This would probably better ensure that C2S is a success and that there is actual traffic for once (and not just between 8.15-8.45 and 4.30-5.30) on these river crossings and a business could survive by opening up along here. As the river becomes more of a focal point, perhaps these bridges could even be dressed up a little and turned into works of public art, similar to bridges you'd see in places like New Orleans, Pittsburgh, and Cincinatti. That would be really cool.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Cityshot XIII

I'm pretty backed up in getting photos online. These that I'll be posting over the next few days are still from when I came back home for Spring Break, a few months ago.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Take me to the riverrr

Take me to the river And wash me down Won't you cleanse my soul Put my feet on the ground Take me to the river

Take Me to the River is one of those classic rock songs that I can actually stand to be played..whether it's the version with Al Green, B.B. King, Sheryl Crowe, and Lennie Kravitz..or the Talking Heads, the Commitments, Phish, Annie Lennox, Dave Matthews, Foghat..or anyone else except the Grateful Dead. It's a great song because it evokes base feelings of folk American culture. Everybody likes rivers, lakes, and beaches. Bodies of water are just natural places to gather and relax. Think of all of the great cities..almost all of them are on rivers, or other bodies of water. New Orleans, Memphis, St. Louis, Dubuque, and Minneapolis-St. Paul are all along the Mississippi. Kansas City and Omaha are on the Mo'. Little Rock, Tulsa, and Wichita are on the Arkansas. And so on.

Oklahoma City used to be an exception to the rule. Now that we've decided we DON'T want to be "LA on the Plains" we're doing what we can to bring our river back. Oklahoma City was initially founded on a great river. I've said it before a thousand times..the people who did the initial planning for OKC were probably the best planners in the entire World. OKC had an extensive streetcar network ALL the way from Capitol Hill up to Jefferson Park and the Paseo, a boundary parkway (Grand Boulevard), they had planned for a grand arch over Lincoln Blvd by the Capitol, and we had one of the best urban riverfronts in the country--complete with a zoo, a beautiful central park, and a historic boardwalk (if you want a ton of great pics of the old park, check out Doug's blog). OKC was the place to be after the turn of the century! What happened?

Severe flooding did in the North Canadian River. In 1953 the U.S. Army Corpse of Engineers dammed it up and dried it out so that it would never flood all of South OKC again. Now South OKC was without its river, and shortly after that Crossroads Mall came to speed up the decline of Capitol Hill and other once-great South OKC districts. Fast forward 50 the 80's there was the "Strings of Pearls" plan for riverfront 1993 Mayor Ron Norrick envisioned a riverbed that had to be mowed twice a year would become a community platform..and in 2004 we got our river back.

In 2007 consummate Oklahoma architect Rand Elliott made national splashes with his award-winning design for the Chesapeake Boathouse; the concept of high-end sculling facilities on a treeless river in Oklahoma drew the interest in dozens of distant media outlets. Rowing, boathouses, regattas, and crews had had become reserved for the Northeast..and only the most elite Ivy League-country club circles of the what was Oklahoma trying to do by envisioning a whole regatta district? The idea seemed so out of the box that many were willing to give it a shot. Olympic Trials came to OKC, national regattas came, other water sports came (some, such as the Triathlon..might have been a bad idea), and soon enough the Oklahoma City Boathouse Foundation had a year-round schedule of major events. Many of these events have grown to draw several thousands of people to the Oklahoma River shores south of downtown. I like how the magazine Architectural Record puts it:

"The Chesapeake Boathouse has little in common with the traditions called to mind by Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River rowers forever in midstroke in a Thomas Eakins canvas. Rather, Elliott addresses the tricky architectural issue of origin head-on: through a deft evocation of our modern fascination with sport and speed, mingled with Oklahoma City’s very real, shared civic desire for reinvention, in lock-step with the city’s larger ambitions to shed its Dust Bowl image."

The lone Chesapeake Boathouse would be a major success for three great reasons: 1, the fantastic design that won many awards and came to represent OKC's ambitions to reinvent itself; 2, the audacity of bringing crew sports to Oklahoma and turning into a major spectator event for people from all walks of life, completely reinventing the sport as it had been known in the Northeast; and 3, the excellent execution and leadership of Mike Knopp and Ron Norrick who have wowed Oklahoma City with their vision for a unique river unlike any other. As a result of these things, everything culminated in just the right way..people involved in national regattas were interested to give it a shot, the people of OKC have been impressed, and the business community has come together behind the vision. In many ways..this is a brilliant continuation of the Maps legacy..the people coming together and doing something bold to reinvent OKC. Doesn't get any better than that.

Then someone along the line must have come in and asked the question..what if we had more than one stunning facility here on the river? That's how this project got to be big. Really big. People began to realize the magnitude of what we were working with on the banks of a diverted river that had to be mowed twice a year not long ago..that used to be located in the most blighted portion of a very run-down city..that used to be where gang members would always go to dump the was (and still is) a nightmare trying to navigate one-way roads in order to get from core-to-shore. Is the magnitude of the plan any greater when you consider what a change it is from the old status quo? Who knows..that sort of thing only matters a lot to me, but the bottom line is that OKC can become synonymous with crews and regattas and water sports of all kinds and this can legitimize Oklahoma "City" for good.

Enter OU, UCO, and OCU. (Where is OSU?) Enter Olympic Training Center. Enter Chesapeake Finish Line Tower. Enter the American Indian Cultural Center. Enter Core to Shore and other development. Enter Maps III ideas. Now the picture is getting crowded, but we're seeing a cadre of exciting things happening all along the river.

All of these facilities are much, much, much more than just boathouses. Ironically, the one I know the least about is the OU Boathouse, which is the one with red poles, obviously. I can say that obviously it will be the home of the most-major collegiate program coming to the banks of the Oklahoma River.

Other collegiate programs are UCO and OCU that are both going to have collegiate NCAA rowing programs, all three of which will be based here. The OCU Boathouse, which is the two-story one (and the largest) with blue poles, is 34,000 sf total (about twice the size of all of the others, including the 16,000 sf Chesapeake Boathouse) and comes with the most innovative rowing features ever built. It will be of use to the OCU crew and Olympic athletes training in OKC. Both the OU and OCU projects are expected to be finished within 60-90 days of eachother in Fall 2010.

The UCO Boathouse will be the second largest facility, at 27,000 sf, and it will include art gallery space, a UCO Jazz Lab location, and the UCO rowing team's high-performance training facilities..not sure the exact projected completion date for UCO, but I know it is supposed to begin soon after OU, and I assume its construction phase will outlast OU's since it is a much larger facility. When these projects are finished there is another impressive slate of huge national and international events planned for the river that will put these facilities, and OKC's bolstered river amenities, to the ultimate test.

To sum up what's in play, I like what Glenn Merry, the CEO of USRowing, said upon visiting OKC for the Devon Boathouse (OCU) groundbreaking.

"I think it’s beyond unique,” Merry said.

In some venues back East, rowing is thought of as an elite Ivy League sport, he said. Oklahoma City, however, has been able to attract 30,000 to 40,000 people from "all aspects of life” to its rowing regattas.

"I think Oklahoma City has a larger vision than anyone else,” Merry said. "It’s pretty exciting what’s going on here.”'

I agree, it definitely does seem to be a larger vision than anyone else, taking an elite Ivy League sport and sticking it in the middle of Oklahoma as a spectator phenomena that is unique. Exists nowhere else. Shifting gears, you know what could make this even better? Reminding people that they are A, in a city; and B, in Oklahoma City. That means speerheading urban redevelopment projects (Core to Shore), and the completion of a new state-of-the-art museum across I-35 (the American Indian Cultural Center).

Capitalizing on all of the momentum in downtown and along the Oklahoma River is the daring initiative to redevelop the 600 or so acres in between the current I-40 route and the Oklahoma River. By reallocating I-40, at a whopping cost exceeding $600 million, there will be much more room to move around and develop south of the downtown core. To push for the "right development" the city is prepared to use Maps III to invest $100 million in a new downtown central park modeled after Chicago's Millennium Park, a new $250-300 million convention center, and a "landmark boulevard" to replace the current I-40 that would be something like an OKC version of the Champs d'Elysees in Paris. The result--an expected windfall of thousands upon thousands of residential units, hundreds of new shops and restaurants, and additional office towers. In essence..a new downtown. The mixed-use development doesn't stop there.

In fact the first mixed-used project to be proposed south of I-40 is Grant Humphreys' Downtown Airpark redevelopment, which is actually just outside the C2S impact zone. Located on the south bank of the Oklahoma River, at the Western Avenue bridge, this mixed-use project includes several mid-rise buildings that frame waterfront amenities like open greenbelt, an inlet lined with boat docks, a boardwalk, river trails, and a famous lit-up ferris wheel. Behind the mid-rises is a mixed-use village of shops, apartments, and townhomes. To me, this is a perfect first example of how a large-scale development can set the tone for future development, with its own river amenities, a unique aquatically-oriented urban community, and a site layout that comes right up to the river and frames it with as many different uses as possible--you've got recreation, shopping, dining, and living all within feet of the river.

Another project that makes really cool use of its site on the river is the American Indian Cultural Center. The 300 acre site donated by the City of OKC will have a state-of-the-art Smithsonian-affiliated museum, several prominent promontories that will have excellent views of the AICC, the river, and the rest of OKC, a 200-room tribal resort hotel on the riverfront with a conference center attached, and a 150-room "full service motor hotel" (I guess kind of like a Holliday Inn?). The meticulously landscaped grounds will include 3 separate Oklahoma ecosystems..prairie, woodlands, and wetlands.

These guys have (unfortunately) ran into multiple funding snags (their private fundraising must really suck, and what about all of those windfall profits the Indians are making from their beautiful shiny new casinos?) but it looks like they'll receive some State funding, and maybe even some Maps III funding if they can get their hands on it..and they'll be completing this project (originally scheduled to open in 2006) eventually. It's probably a good news that as I type, they're finally beginning to plant grass along all sides of the crescent-shaped mound that is the centerpiece of the project. Despite their incompetence during the fundraising and construction phase, it will be a very cool attraction to have come to OKC. This will really add a lot of diversity along the river and bookend a huge list of new attractions, and maybe even landmarks, along the Oklahoma River.

As all of these exciting things culminate, and OKC undoubtedly becomes a "Big League City," one must ask..where does this leave us? I think that there are some obvious question marks that are left open when it comes to the river and all of these plans. The first one, is how is someone supposed to get from one stop to another? I seriously doubt that the Devon Discovery watertaxis are going to work in getting someone from a restaurant at the airpark redevelopment site, down to Stockyards City, or over to the AICC, and then back to see a regatta at Boathouse Row. There is going to be a reevaluation of the street grid in that area. First, there will need to be a street that links the AICC, goes over I-35, and links potential Maps III Boathouse-related stuff on the south bank of the river. Then the bridges needed by reevaluted. Something that is more iconic is needed, even if it's just installing LED lights such as with the Byers Avenue bridge. Perhaps a streetcar system might be a good investment just for the river, or include it in a city-wide light rail system that goes outside of just downtown, but these are ideas for further down the road.

Then there is the obvious. The river is becoming naturally hazardous. It's not a natural river, so it isn't able to drain off pollution such as animal fecal material. This makes it a bad, bad, bad idea to have swimmers in the river, such as with Triathlon events (that made national news..eeek). Maybe the whole treeless river lined with granite and completely unnatural thing isn't working out after all. Either this river can never be used for Triathlon events, or someone will need to plant some trees, swap the granite for some tallgrass, catgrass, mossy stuff, weeds, and whatever else you would normally find along a natural riverbed.

So much progress has been made out of such an unlikely venture. OKC isn't much different than it was 10 years ago even though its economy is much better, but in the next 10 years, OKC might come out of this a much more cosmopolitan and prominent "Big League City" that people all over respect. This has afforded civic leaders an opportunity to develop a world-class city that is similar, but different than the opportunity that each preceding generation has had. Everything has led up to this. The first generation built and designed a fantastic city, that was basically brilliant. The second generation had bold plans to add a futuristic touch to the center city and ended up screwing everything up. Those wounds have healed after a lot of hard work in the last 15 years, and it's time to forge on! We should head history's lessons, but strive to be unique at the same time. I think that this is what we've done. As long as the LOCAL economy doesn't tank on us, I think OKC is jet-set to become a world-class city. All of the potential is here, that is for sure. At the least, if someone can consider Denver, St. Louis, or Indianapolis world-class, they will be able to consider the OKC of the future just the same.

Critical thoughts on COTPA's leadership of the Maps III transit initiative


Everywhere I turn on the web, from Steve's blog, Blair Humphrey's blog, OkMet, OKC Talk, and everywhere else, I can't help but notice the consensus that a downtown transit system has been replaced by anything and everything else. For the last two years the mayor has been campaigning for light rail, using the issue as the centerpiece of his civic initiative to make OKC more pedestrian-friendly, even lamenting the issue of streets built for cars, not people. I always thought he was spot on, and many of us had thought he had been turned into a rail advocate.

Undoubtedly I think we were wrong.. it seems that Mayor Mick is a pragmatic politician after all. When the public current seemed to favor light rail above any other potential initiative, we saw the mayor talk about how badly OKC needs something different for its transit system. Now that the business community has gotten serious about the convention center and the river, there's a lot of suspicion that transit has been relegated to the bottom of the food chain.

In many ways, it has been. Mayor Mick and the Chamber folks didn't necessarily put together a list that pushed transit towards the bottom of priorities. Instead what they did, whether as an intentional slight or not, was put COTPA in charge of the initiative. This means that the same people who have been running every transit proposal into the ground for the last two decades are now inflicting their usual incompetence on another great idea.

Two decades ago when city leaders embarked to put together Maps I, Ron Norrick initially wanted the proposition to include a downtown fixed transit system (I'm not sure if it was streetcar or light rail, but I think light rail, if I remember right). I was probably in 1st grade in Galveston, TX back when Maps I was passed, but from what I've heard and read, it was a combination of bad project management and former Congressman Ernest Istook's hidden agenda that killed the idea of light rail in OKC during the 1990s. Just think..if someone had been a better project manager, or had Ernest Istook not been taking money from the Oklahoma highway lobby..OKC would have had light rail before many of the cities that are now light years ahead of us. Like Dallas. They've ran the city bus system into the ground. If you disagree, try to make sense of their website for routes and schedules, etc. They've wreaked havoc on the downtown streetscape with their unsightly public garages that have ruined the look and feel of much of downtown. Essentially, where there is failure in downtown OKC, COTPA has usually been right behind it.

Many other blogs have been reporting that COTPA's transit initiative has been underwhelming city leaders, at best. This at the same time as fabulous presentations on Mike Knopp's proposal for more Oklahoma River investment, the business community wholly behind the convention center proposal, the Bricktown community behind an extension of the canal, and the bio community behind the idea of a new bio research facility in the medical district. Everyone has proved without a doubt that their project is worthy of Maps III funding except COTPA. They've officially ran out of ideas, ran out of steam, ran the downtown streetcar intitiative into the ground, and now they need to be ran out of town.

COTPA needs to be replaced with something else. A temporary solution is for the City to recognize Jeff Bezdek's Modern Transit Project group as the leadership behind the transit issue. It seems like a no-brainer. This group has passion, is personally invested in the issue (as downtown residents), they have new blood and new ideas, and they have done an excellent job of marketing what they are all about. Nobody can say they have no idea what they're proposing. They've clearly defined their project as STREETCAR, not LIGHT RAIL. They've done research and proposed a cost, they've proposed a route, and they've also done a brilliant job of integrating the streetcar project with other sustainability goals, by proposing that locally-harvested wind power be used to power the system. They've defined environmental benefits, sustainable benefits, health benefits, transit benefits, and urban benefits. They've also defined benefits from a regional competition standpoint, by comparing OKC to every other NBA city. Almost all of which have fixed rail systems.

If this private group were given the chance to make presentations alongside Knopp and the convention center boosters, they would knock the socks off of attendees, and we would see a downtown streetcar system be a virtual guarantee as a part of Maps III. If we continue to let the "know-how" at COTPA dictate the transit initiative, we will end up with no fixed transit system, and merely some token bus upgrades. It is better in the short-term, and the long-term, if slowly COTPA's responsibilities get moved over to other more captivating entities and COTPA is phased out.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

"Staycation" Pt. 1..the Southside Sears

With the economy tanking (supposedly), I heard a rumor from a distant cousin that many of us are opting for a summer "staycation." A "staycation" is doing something cool and staying home, as opposed to doing the classy thing and spending money to travel somewhere else to do something cool. The really cool thing is that a "staycation" can include things that you didn't even realize qualified as a "staycation." For instance.. a vacation would be going to visit this really cool rocky sea shore in the picture..BUT a "staycation" is even cooler; instead of spending thousands of dollars to travel and all that, you can just look at this picture with computer icons on it and close your eyes and pretend to be there! Now isn't that way cooler?

Another example: I went to the Warren Theatre off I-35 in Moore to see Star Trek for the 14th time (hey, I hadn't seen it yet in Oklahoma!) and much to my regurgitation, since I'd been gone they added this cheesy "Voice of the Theatre" character who says corny things and reminds you that the economy has tanked before telling you you're on a really cool "staycation." According to the "staycationers," you can have way more fun staying home as opposed to snorkeling in Bora Bora.

So I realize, a "staycation" really can include practically anything, especially something mundane like going to your neighborhod cinema. So I had an idea to do a series of incredibly super fricken awesome "staycations." To pull this off, I actually went on these aforementioned "staycations." The first one I went on was a trip to the land of SW 44th and Western.. the Southside Sears!!

First of all, I would just like to mention what a magical experience coming to this Sears in particular has been. What else could you call the forces that have kept this Sears in business for 50 years? It will never close its doors, no matter what. In fact, the only thing more depressing than the parking lot of this Sears is probably Crossroads Mall, another wonderful Southside landmark. I counted 12 cars in the parking lot when I came..7 of which were dark green 1994 Buick Regals with bumper stickers about their grandchildren.

I decided I needed an excuse to be in there. I would pretend to be looking for their Ralph Lauren section, since I was wearing a Ralph Lauren shirt that day (they didn't have any Ralph Lauren, but the guy told me they had something called "American Living" that was "just like" Ralph Lauren..right, cuz anyone can make polo shirts and stuff to golf in). I walked in the front door and saw that they had a greeter, who probably drove one of those dark green Buick Regals. Turns out grandpa was a light sleeper, because he was woken up by the sliding door. I said to him, "Not much of a crowd you guys have got here!" Grandpa replied, "What did you expect when you're late! Our normal business hours should be 5 am to 9 am! Humbug!" I had officially been greeted to the Southside Sears.

I walked around a little, trying to find a section that was targeted toward the 20-25 year old age group. I found it, but I realized it wasn't really targeted toward my age group..but more targeted towards elderly grandparents buying something for my age group. I found a few racks of argyle pattern shirts, Wrangler jeans, tube socks, and snowflake pattern sweaters (in the summer). It dawned on me that I was probably standing in the very spot that all of the awful Christmas presents my grandparents always got me were purchased. It was a very special feeling.

I thought of my grandparents, and suddenly realized my dad was also getting to be that age. As a retired police sgt from the Lawton Police Force (probably the only police dept in the state that actually has crime), he definitely looks his age, plus twenty years. I decided it might be funny to get him a pair of tube socks from the Southside Sears. After picking a pair that was a weird bright-dark shade of green (so that it would match none of his shoes or pants), I went to the checkout station..where I waited for 5 minutes for an elderly woman to come ring me up. She told me I was buying a lovely pair of tube socks, and that I reminded her of her grandson. His name is Jacob..and he goes to Oklahoma Baptist University. She offered me a piece of hard candy. Believe it or not, Werther's Original is some prrrrretty good caramel.

So now we've experienced something magical, met someone interesting, learned something about family history, and tasted some delicious local cuisine of this land called Southside Sears. What more could you want in a "staycation" I thought, as I walked out to my rebelliously cool yellow SUV and drove off before I could feel any weirder.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

120 degrees and 400% humidity

Well it's pretty much a shock to my system to be back in Oklahoma, especially during the summer, especially after recovering from Calgary's brutal winter. God is probably looking down on me laughing his ass off right now. I envy whoever is from Calgary that goes to school at OU (they're probably not studying architecture) because they get to spend the winter in Norman, and the summer in Calgary. That's a good balance. This however, is a balance..but a really, really bad one.

Now that I am 100% back in town and all set up, hopefully it will be a lot easier for me to update this blog, be more active both in kind and online when it comes to OKC's urban transformation, and all of that good stuff..before I go back for my 4th year of arch school. In the past, whenever I wasn't on the U of C campus I had to use my pda phone to stay connected to the Internet and blogs..but now it won't feel like I'm writing the World's Longest Text Message each time I comment on a blog, write a blog entry, etc. I already feel liberated from my mouse-sized qwerty keypad!

There are so many issues to tackle. There are so many improvements to take stock of and celebrate. And there is so much planning and striving that remains to be done that no time can be wasted.

I don't really know what to tag this blog entry under, so I'll give it a tag I have no idea about..anecdotal whimsy. It makes perfect sense..I have no idea what anecdotal whimsy is, and I have no idea what to tag this it's a match made in Heaven.