Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The problem with an overwise excellent SandRidge proposal

I appreciate the term that Steve brought up in an archived post about SandRidge's plans, "Streetwall." A streetwall is something that SandRidge is going to break up for the purpose of a pretty plaza on the west side of their campus. To non technical lovers of urbanism, a "streetwall" is better known as a skyscraper canyon (excellent examples of which are Park Ave especially, Robinson, and Main), but it doesn't have to be buildings of fleeting height. It can be a row of any buildings that go together that line a street.

A streetwall is usually the result of successful planning, and this is what usually defines the public realm in downtown areas. By having the buildings all frame the street with a uniform distance between the building and the curb, public space is defined by the streetwall. When you break up the streetwall or you just don't have that continuity you don't have as well-defined of a public space. Definition is good, especially for space.

This is a good streetwall. It's not healthy, but it has the potential to be. The block in the immediate foreground of this picture is owned by SandRidge, and it lines up well with the block in the background and beyond creating a well-defined public realm. Imagine the possibilities of these buildings were renovated, with street-level retail (a very real possibility), and the streets were brought back to life with an enhanced streetscape (which is going to happen, Robinson I believe is in the first phase of Project 180).

We brought Jeff Speck in, an accomplished planner, and he told us some truths about our downtown and our current way of thinking. Were we laughing at him? Is there someone in our community that thinks they know more than him? If not, then why did we bring him in, and now why are we racing to shirk his recommendations on as many different and unique counts as possible? It literally never ends: no we want the ridiculously wide downtown boulevard, let's line our downtown streets with a million bollards to make them "safe" for everything but the eye, let's break up every streetwall we have an go full-throttle on replacing buildings with open plazas, and so on, it never ends.

Now SandRidge Energy, as a part of their sweeping campus redevelopment plans, intends to invest at least $100 million into several construction projects proposed to spruce up the corporate campus. I think that's fantastic and I congratulate SandRidge on wanting to go so far to bring their campus back to life. The north side of downtown really needs it, where urban renewal-ravaged blocks at the convergence of the CBD, Automobile Alley, and MidTown, lie completely dead and underutilized. The lack of vitality in this part of downtown is what detaches MidTown from everything else, makes A-Alley merely a linear stretch down North Broadway rather than a neighborhood, and reinforces that a large part of downtown still doesn't feel like it's been touched too much by MAPS progress. The area around the SandRidge campus truly is..dead.

What SandRidge is doing/plans to do: Currently they're finishing up an overhaul of the main skyscraper, which was in desperate need of a renovation when they bought the former Kerr McGee Tower from Houston-based Anadarko Energy. It felt like taking a space ride through the 1970s when you walked through the revolving front entrance. Today it's been modernized, and they're finishing up the top floors as I type away on my laptop. Now they're shifting their focus to the campus surrounding the tower, which for something that contributed so much to the current state of north downtown that I boldly described as dead, actually represents a lot of potential, in my opinion. As dead as the area is, it has a lot of potential to be a cool area, and it will get there. This part of downtown, in my opinion, doesn't represent nearly the preservation challenges that some more difficult buildings might, with the obvious exception of the historic India Temple which nobody seems willing to invest the time and energy in bringing back to life (despite being a former state capital). And so we have the SandRidge proposal, 1970s urban renewal all over again: tear some buildings down, put something more modern in its place.

That's a quick fix. That's not a sustainable solution. That's not "future-proof." That's not good planning. Then we get into the material of what they're replacing with the buildings that they want to tear down, which is where we run into more problems, or just one really big problem in particular: the old KerMac Building.

The old KerMac Building, the historic gray and beige brick mid rise building pictured at the end of the SandRidge block, should not be torn down..especially for an open plaza. This building can be given a facelift and brought back to life, it can house offices, OR loft apartments on its upper floors, and retail on the street floor. In fact it was part of a redevelopment project that failed, despite developers being ready to proceed, due to the KMG/Anadarko merger. Now Anthony McDermid, principal of TAP Architecture and former preservationist behind that very redevelopment project, is a member on the Downtown Design Review committee -- the very committee that will eventually have to approve these plans. He knows KerMac can be saved. We all know that KerMac can be saved.

The only building on the SandRidge campus that may or may not truly be beyond saving is the old India Temple. Despite that it is possible to remove an EIFS facade and uncover the incredibly ornate and beautiful facade underneath, it has to go. Because regardless the facade would be "damaged." Here's a lost concept: You restore the facade. Why can't it be built back? It doesn't have to be the original as-is facade from the 100 year old building, and there are modern remedies to the problem. In Europe these kinds of renovation projects take decades, but they have no qualms with having artisans painstakingly build back old decrepit facades that are worth saving.

In Moscow they are currently in the midst of restoring the grand Bolshoi Theatre, one of the world's largest theatres, and possibly the grandest. Originally built in 1825, this theatre was the site of the premiers of some of Russia's most famous symphonies and operas, a true cultural gem. Here is where Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff performed in the flesh, and if one is a big enough music buff, they could probably imagine the notes reverberating through the hall at the premier of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture or Mazeppa. This is why Russians are going to extraordinary lengths to preserve such an important place, including a painstaking $730 million restoration begun in 2005 that won't be finished until 2013, paid for by a public-private partnership.

The India Temple is our Bolshoi, despite that it is a much smaller scale project. We should restore this once-great landmark, and if the private market won't naturally do it, the State Government should do it, or solicit donors in a way similarly to how the Capitol Dome was finished. Few people may know, but this building was our State Capitol between 1913 and 1917 when the state seal was sneaked out of Guthrie in the cover of the night and moved to Oklahoma City. This is where the state seal was while the current Capitol was in the planning and construction phases. Now ask yourselves this: Are we really going to tear down a former State Capitol? I don't blame SandRidge if they do, it would be a high-commitment project no doubt. Moscow didn't make one corporation renovate the Bolshoi, instead the community took it on. I believe that the OKC community needs to be given the chance to take on restoring the India Temple, which played an important role in Oklahoma City becoming the State Capitol, the single-most important economic development move that Oklahoma City has ever made.

So, the two facets of this project I have a major disagreement with are the demolition of the KerMac Building, the original headquarters of Kerr McGee that could easily be salvaged and renovated into anything really, and the old India Temple, which as unrecognizable as it may be from its glory days, is a building with an endearing legacy that calls for it to be saved. If the India Temple, even with its original facade, did not have the legacy it carries with it, I would have no problem in letting it go. Restoring the India Temple and taking off the urban renewal mask is only worth it in my opinion because of its legacy as the first State Capitol in OKC. We can not tear this building down because it would be negating the existential question of post urban renewal downtown: are we ready to learn from the mistakes of urban renewal? If we restore this building, reclaim its heritage, reclaim our historic downtown's heritage, we have made a complete 180. If we tear this building down, we are saying we have no learned from the mistakes of urban renewal, and we are going to go down in history, in the year 2010, as a continuance of the 1970s assault on our downtown and all of the progress we have made with MAPS and everything else is for naught! Think about it.

After having derailed these plans as much as I have, I really do like the rest of SandRidge's proposal, which I recognize as a huge investment in bringing vitality back to this part of downtown. Making the mistakes I argued against above would only serve to cancel out the good intent of this project, and the positive impact that the other projects would indeed have on downtown. They are: demolishing the high-rise parking garage and replacing it with a multi-story building with restaurants and retail and a fitness center, auditorium, and rooftop basketball courts above. The new building would open up to a new park, that will be contiguous when SandRidge and Chesapeake combine efforts to renovate Couch Park and Kerr Park, connect the two, and close Couch Drive to vehicular traffic. The only vehicular traffic that ever utilizes that stretch of road anyway are utility vehicles and creepy stalker vans. I'm not sure what SandRidge will do with the site that the old YWCA, but it doesn't really matter..the YWCA, like the high-rise parking garage, is a brutally ugly structure that can go. Neither serve any real functional purpose and are pretty devoid of any life. If they would just execute the former Braniff Towers redevelopment plan that McDermid had in the works, they would tear the YWCA down and build a more modern garage with street retail, and put apartments in the Braniff Tower and KerMac Building and leave it at that.

The simple laundry list of steps we need to follow to resurrect this part of downtown are as follows:
1. Resurrect the old Braniff Towers proposal, see if McDermid is willing to take it on again, or SandRidge can just handle it by themselves if they're going to be doing development on their campus anyway.
2. Restore the India Temple as a landmark structure for OKC's history.
3. Do something about the Broadway/E.K. Gaylord intersection.
4. Have the Chamber chose a more urban site plan. The configuration they went with was actually not even their first choice, but it was reached after they concluded the Broadway/Gaylord intersection was a lost cause.
5. Go through with the Project 180 streetscape projects, which will hurt at first, but make a world of difference to the street level.
6. Hope that The Carnegie project (renovation of the old downtown library) which was supposed to have begun a long time ago, does indeed get done one of these days.

The north end of downtown is long gone, but it can be easily brought back. It has the advantage of being attached to much more vibrant neighborhoods and a corporate tenant with big pockets that is willing to help fund some improvements. This part of downtown will be back to life within the next 5 minutes as long as these improvements don't backfire and other plans go through as planned. Let's see to it. Tomorrow morning at 9.30 am in the Council Chambers, the Downtown Design Review Committee is meeting. They aren't going to be considering this proposal, but it will still be a good opportunity to get to speak and make the urbanist perspective on this project known. It is a good project, but certain aspects of it have the potential to do more harm than good. The demolitions of the KerMac and India Temple buildings needs to be opposed. The matter will likely be before the DDR in January or February, but I won't be here then..I will be at tomorrow morning's meeting though. If anyone wants to join me, that would be cool, if not, I hope you can make it in Jan or Feb.


Shane said...

Did you go to the meeting? How did that go?

OK Dude said...

How did the meeting go? I wanted to go but was up unitl 3AM working on a final project.

I will definitely try to make it to Sandridge's unveiling

Walker, Downtown Ranger said...

Yeah I went. After about 20 seconds into speaking about the importance of reversing urban renewal mistakes and pointing out that there's a large community consensus against 21st century urban renewal .. I got cut off because apparently you're not allowed to talk to the Downtown Design Review committee about any non-agenda item.

I think that some NTMers were also prevented from speaking about MAPS at a City Council meeting recently for trying to bring up something that wasn't on the agenda.