Monday, December 28, 2009

Building demolition rampant

It seems like with downtown revived, we're back to seeing building demolitions becoming commonplace. I don't even think anyone is beginning to notice some of these anymore. Some draw attention, others like the Community Foundation teardown, sort of fly under the radar. I think that demolitions are commonplace in downtowns that have activity, and while they're usually a bad idea, it still counts as activity. The problem with that is that revived downtowns can still make mistakes. Urban renewal was a poor response to changing times made by a downtown that was still active, but that's an easy call to make in hindsight.

It's harder to call a bad decision on time, and it's not clear-cut..I wouldn't mislead anyone to believe that everyone who studies planning is against demolitions 100% of the time. Bob Blackburn, head of the Oklahoma Historical Society and one of the foremost OKC history experts, said himself that preservation "is not saving every single building." It's about saving the ones that need to be saved. There is still always room for cities to evolve, but it has to be done smartly. Some of the demos are troubling, some are a step in the right direction in my opinion.

I know that the Community Foundation and SandRidge are probably the ones most people are aware of, especially if they read this blog, but I want to start with a proposal from 2 or 3 years ago. I don't know where the old proposal is to put in a Holiday Inn Express on the north end of Bricktown, across Main Street from the Bricktown Mercantile building..but I know that work has not begun and the old Steffen's ice creamery is still standing. That's good news, although the plan wasn't too shabby.

The Bricktown community came out against the idea of tearing down this excellent building with lots of potential at first blush, and the developers agreed to save the front facade and incorporate it into the Holiday Inn Express they had planned. I'm sad to see the project fall off the radar as there's no way to tell if the site's next owner will agree to save the front facade. Unfortunately it seems that the old Steffen's creamery has sustained major structural damage and the building can't just be saved and renovated, but even in instances like this, it's still possible to tear down the building and preserve the facade to be incorporated into a new building. So when someone tells you a great building can't be saved, eau contraire.

An urban renewal arm, the newly-created "10th Street Medical Corridor District," is demolishing an asbestos-filled building that no one will miss at the corner of 10th and Harvey. The building, the plain 1-story vacant Red Cross building, is one site that private developers didn't even want to touch due to the asbestos abatement issues. It is however a key site on the heart of the 10th Street corridor that the city is trying to spur development along, and with the public taking on the building, the site will be prime for a private developer to come along and develop something on it. The Planning Department has been in talks with MidTown developers and the demolition on this site represents a consensus on what the city can do to help move MidTown forward. The rendering isn't an actual development, but it is a rendering that the Planning Department drew up to illustrate to prospective developers what needs to go on the site. I can't agree more.

The above two are examples of how sometimes demolishing an old building can be prudent. I can't say enough how I am not one of these people who believe in clinging to every single old building, but I do get pretty irate when I see the wanton destruction of greatness. Many of these old buildings are greatness. The detail city pioneers added to structures is unparalleled to the detail you see on buildings today, and the fact that a structure is still standing a hundred years later has to say something. City code permits demolition, but it has to be done delicately, and you should be getting approval from the public.. City code also requires that development come up to the sidewalk, which is why the Planning Department recommended denial of the Chamber proposal.

So typically a demolition is fine if two things prove true: the development that replaces it comes right up to the sidewalk, and the building being demolished be insignificant enough to not be missed. A building like the old Braniff Building is very significant, a building like the 1-story white brick Red Cross building is not significant.

As I wrote in "The problem with an otherwise excellent SandRidge proposal," significant historic buildings should not be demolished no matter how good the proposed replacement is. Buildings that are so significant that they actually help define space along a main corridor of downtown such as Robinson, should especially not be demolished. Buildings that show great potential for adaptive reuse should also especially not be demolished. SandRidge sits on top of some historic buildings that truly could be assets to downtown. So what do they do? Like a typical energy corporation, they want to demolish and build over.

This should be stopped at all costs. If it goes through then we will lose even more of north downtown. I know for a fact that these buildings can be redeveloped and that there are downtowners willing to do it. McDermid and his team of developers were in fact ready to proceed with redeveloping this very building when the Kerr McGee fiasco happened and the building slipped through their hands..McDermid even sued to regain the building (KMG and McDermid did have an agreement that I guess Anadarko Energy wasn't required to uphold, despite that usually when you acquire a company you still have to honor its agreements) because he was so dead-set on restoring it. Why not a second try?

Then on 10th Street is another frustrating demolition. Where there was a perfectly good historic, red-brick building, no asbestos problems, no structural problems..the OKC Community Foundation acquires it and demolishes it. The building wasn't particularly significant, so I would be fine with this if the replacement was an improvement. The replacement: Surface parking for the Community Foundation. Completely unnecessary. Rumor has it other MidTown buildings are at risk of becoming parking lots as parking might get tighter as developments underway fill in with retail tenants. The Community Foundation can't even demonstrate a need for overflow parking to my knowledge, but I could be wrong on that.

I think that the Community Foundation demolition illustrates that we need a discussion on parking, or else we'll lose more and more buildings to the fate of surface lots as large historic districts like MidTown, Automobile Alley, and Bricktown continue to move forward. Wichita has public parking garages for their Old Town district. While some have said that Wichita's free parking has led to more crime than in Bricktown (Bricktown lots are monitored, whereas free parking lots aren't)--there is so much more retail in Wichita's Old Town, of all places, than in Bricktown, a regional destination. Not to mention that Wichita is half the size of OKC and isn't growing as fast as we are, so obviously free parking has helped Old Town and bad parking has hurt Bricktown. But if we're going to stand to lose more buildings and gain more unmonitored surface parking lots anyway, what does the city have to lose by finding a parking solution for downtown?

The answer is nothing, it just has to be done delicately. There are parking garages in the area that are completely empty after 5, like the one of 5th Street behind the YMCA. Why can't developers and businesses reach an agreement with that garage, and other garages, to use their parking after 5? Why couldn't the city try and get involved with this?--after all, the city code does regulate parking requirements for developments in the suburbs, and the city does have the goal to avoid surface parking lots in downtown. With that in mind, why shouldn't the city get involved and buy a parking garage to find a solution for parking in Bricktown or MidTown.

If parking is no longer downtown's leading capitalist enterprise, you will see a LOT less buildings demo'd for surface parking and you'll see the added bonus of the existing surface parking in Bricktown getting developed a lot faster. The only problem is that you'd be dealing with COTPA and that inept organization and it would show initiative from the city beyond the MAPS fund. I don't know..isn't it against the rules to use the general fund on downtown? I thought "general fund" was city code speech for "suburban-only fund." So obviously that won't work.

Look at all of these holes to be filled in MidTown--it makes absolutely no sense to create more. And keep in mind that MidTown is one of our more "in-tact" historic wasn't completely gutted like the Core to Shore area or Deep Deuce. MidTown still has so many great historic buildings that have a lot of life left in 'em.


Erin said...

Enjoyed your article as someone who works in one of MidTown's historic buildings - the Gaylord-Pickens Museum. Our president, of both the Museum and the 82-year-old Oklahoma Heritage Association, is actually Shannon Rich Nance. Dr. Blackburn, head of the Oklahoma History Center and Oklahoma Historical Society, has certainly been a tremendous source of insight and wisdom for us and countless other organizations.

Walker, Downtown Ranger said...

Hi Erin. I'm sorry, I have a horrible habit of getting those two Heritage Association and the History Center..OHA/OHC..

I am glad that I wasn't too far off, and certainly no one would be insulted if Dr. Blackburn were incorrectly presumed to be with their organization. Thanks for setting me straight, so I could set it straight!

Mark said...

Ft. Worth's Sundance Square has free parking after 5 pm and on weekends, which I've always thought a good idea for bringing folks into an area/

Walker, Downtown Ranger said...

Right. That would be my proposal. Parking still be an enterprise during the day, but as an incentive, make parking free after 5..

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