Monday, July 13, 2009

Canals Galore

It's funny how every time someone from another city visits the Bricktown Canal, the first thing they usually think of is, "Oh, this is just like a smaller version of San Antonio!" It's ironic how the Bricktown Canal is so easily traced to the success of the San Antonio Riverwalk when in fact there are a LOT of cities that have canals running through their downtowns. In fact, the canal is probably one of the most underrated urban features in the typical American downtown. The thing that makes OKC and San Antonio stand out is that in these cities the canal is overrated rather than underrated.

I believe wholeheartedly that there are two things you can judge a city based on: 1, the goodness of the people (which is subjective); and 2, how well it takes care of public rights-of-way (which isn't subjective). A public ROW isn't just limited to a street..the problem with streets is that there is vehicular traffic in the middle which poses certain dangers to the pedestrians milling about. Some of the best public ROWs in the nation don't even allow vehicular traffic, these can range from pedestrian malls, to canal/riverwalks.

San Antonio, Texas
Of course I didn't mean to insult the San Antonio Riverwalk by saying it's overrated. Perhaps I should just say that it gets the acclaim that it definitely deserves. The Riverwalk is without a doubt one of the most amazing urban environments in the United States. Without a doubt it sets the standard (one that likely will never be met by cities attempting to replicate this), and in some ways, even functions better in providing access than most streets. It functions as one of the most scenic urban pedestrian malls in the entire world.

Chattanooga, Tennessee
Chattanooga is definitely not one of those cities people think of often when looking to dole out praise for urban planning, but I think it deserves some praise for the riverwalk along the scenic Chattahoochie River, which does a great job of providing an attractive setting for relaxing and taking in a beautiful day. The art museum fronting the riverbanks also helps anchor it into the urban fabric. The only downside is that it lacks shops, restaurants, housing, and offices. Without having mixed-use development along the river it falls short of being the kind of thing you can build a neighborhood around, for lack of a better buzzword.

Cleveland, Ohio
Cleveland rocks, and for those who have been kind enough to put up with my postings for a long time, y'all know that I'm a huge fan of Cleveland. Maybe the fact that it's "that city most people love to hate" just fuels my interest and likening of this Rust Belt jewel. The Cuyahoga River winds its way through the heart of Cleveland and is worked into the urban fabric in many ways. The river is used for recreation, and you often see motorboats splashing around with the skyline in the background, additionally several plazas, including for the Rock & Roll HOF open to the Cuyahoga ROW. There is mixed-use development, and several neighborhoods including the popular Flats area are built around the river so it definitely comes through where Chattanooga falls short. Kudos for the landmark bridges that add a sort of postcard element. The only criticism I can make is that it is still pretty sketchy in some areas, and not continuously gentrified. Turns out you can't take the Cleveland out of Cleveland.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin
It's hard to not also love the Milwaukee River riverwalk. I don't know nearly as much about this jewel of an urban space, but I can tell that it is a great asset for downtown Milwaukee. Probably one of the most underrated riverwalks in the nation, the Milwaukee River cuts through the heart of downtown Milwaukee. It's a safe, photogenic, pleasant, and highly-frequented public ROW that draws people to its storefronts and and so on. It proves to commonly-held notion that people are naturally attracted to water, whether it be great fountains, riverwalks, lakefronts, sandy beaches, etc.

Washington, District of Columbia
When I went to DC for the first time and saw the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal and Towpath, I thought what a wasted opportunity for an urban asset. As I got more familiar with it one summer that I lived in Georgetown, I began to fall in love with this bucolic ROW. As a neighborhood asset it provides something that glamorous Georgetown needs if someone has spent an entire day in the nest of designer shops, trendy restaurants, and urbane nightlife--old fashioned R&R (rest and relaxation). The towpath could not be any better at providing tranquility and peacefulness as it cuts through a maze of density, at times, only half a block from the maddening crowds of M Street or Wisconsin Avenue.

Indianapolis, Indiana
The Indy Canal Walk elicits interesting critiques and praises, some that I think could closely mirror the Bricktown Canal. In some places, it is a very well done public space. In some places, it does a great job of tying in civic facilities such as museums and parks to development. In other places however, the development is too branded and heavy facades detract from the environment. It is the same problem posed by Toby's and Residence Inn on the Lower Canal. The branded architecture utilizes heavy facades that overwhelm you with corporate image and impede on civic image. In the grand scheme of things in Downtown Indy, it does not feel like the canal is a major factor when you're on the ground there. It isn't like the San Antonio Riverwalk, but rather it's a secondary asset almost; Downtown Indy is more impacted by other factors, and I think it could be an even better built environment were it more impacted by the Indy Canal Walk. That said, I'd say its pros by far outweigh its cons, and that all of its criticism from the architecture world is sometimes not well-deserved.

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
OKC's Bricktown Canal is interesting for me to write about because I don't think I can do so impartially. From an outsider's perspective, I think it's gotten unanimously raving reviews mostly for the fact that it takes people by such surprise to see a lush, urban oasis in the heart of Oklahoma's state capital city. The main problem with the Bricktown Canal is that it is not finished, despite that it may appear so. There are buildings that are still in need of repair and the are even plenty of abandoned canal-level storefronts. Dirt bags even cover up one building's canal-level real estate, and how pathetic is that, for such a beloved public asset. A problem of the Bricktown Canal is that the walkways beside each embankment are too narrow to create the desired effect. Another problem is that it is too divided between the "Upper Canal" and the "Lower Canal" with the divide being Reno Avenue.

What's so fascinating for me to try and comprehend, and that I want to impress, is that the Upper Canal has definitely lost momentum at the expense of the Lower Canal, which used to be attacked, criticized, and blasphemed in every imaginable way. Ever since Randy Hogan finished leasing up the Centennial on the Canal, adding a vital mixed-use anchor to the Lower Canal, activity picked up immensely on the ROW and where people used to cry "suburban design!" is an indisputably urban (and attractive) built environment. The Bricktown Canal still has a lot of work to be done, and a lot of work that is about to begin at least on the Upper Canal (where it's most needed to restore the balance), and it's important that continuing to grow the environment along the canal remain in the public dialogue, and not forgotten or put on the backburner by some other project that OKC would rather just move on to.

The whole reason I decided to take a look at other cities' canals and comparing them to the Bricktown Canal is to determine if the proposed canal extension is the right thing. The present Canal is a significant environment. The proposed extension in my opinion would be an insignificant environment, and that's not acceptable. There are better ways to create a significant environment along the proposed route of the extension than with a canal, and that's the bottom line. Every other canal I examined--significant environment. Do this, and the Bricktown Canal's stock falls immensely and it no longer holds a candle to some of these, which I would argue it definitely does right now.

Besides I would even doubt that the Bricktown Association's proposed extension is not at all feasible. Have it cross the grand boulevard and run it under the tracks at the same time, run it alongside the boulevard where the levels would likely be all screwed up, then have it cross the grand boulevard again like an L at an intersection, run it through a mixed-use development, and then cross Reno and empty into the Myriad Gardens' lake. The only thing out of all of that that's remotely feasible IMO is probably running it through the mixed-use development, crossing Reno, and emptying into the Myriad Gardens' lake. the first 3/4th of this route is not possible without plunking down major $ on screwing up the levels, which wouldn't be remotely attractive to pedestrians anyway. It wouldn't connect to anything, and it would be bordered on one side by vehicular traffic and a big-block structure (and probably a few blank walls of said structure) on the other side. Idiotic idea.

I have a better idea. Stay tuned for that. Back to other cities' riverwalks. I just want to close with one thing to say: it's an honor for OKC to be included in the likes of DC, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Cleveland, San Antonio, and even Chattanooga (when you consider that you're comparing the attractiveness of ROWs, don't underestimate a city nestled in the heart of the Appalachians!). We're talking about world-class environments here, for the most part, and at the least, we're talking about cities that have done a stellar job with their public spaces, and by no means is it limited to just these cities as there are tons of other cities with great canals/riverwalks. I won't even list them because there are so many.

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