Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Bricktown says "stay tuned"

See headline.. "Bricktown says 'stay tuned.'" Question: When isn't Bricktown saying, "stay tuned"? The answer is never. There has always been a collective murmur coming from the general direction of Bricktown telling us that all of Bricktown's woes and inadequacies will soon be solved by the next influx of development.

So why haven't all of Bricktown's woes been solved by now? The answer is that a lot of the development proposed fails to come to fruition, a lot of new businesses are owned by entrepreneurs who aren't prepared for Bricktown, and there may be larger overriding concerns that supersede quick fixes. It always seems like these very impressive developments are constantly cropping up from developers with strong, solid track records, so it's a real head scratcher how so few of these developments have gotten off on the right foot. It's almost as if Bricktown is the place where strong track records go to die.

For those who haven't figured out yet, this is going to be a somewhat bitter post. Why? Because over a year after the fact, I'm still really disappointed that the Cotton Exchange never happened. To me there is no reason this project shouldn't have gone through, but it couldn't get financing..banks wanted nearly every unit preleased before it could begin (unrealistic in downtown development). Developer Gary Cotton had sold off other Bricktown assets to have more capital to put into this project, and also hired the sales manager from The Centennial development, hoping to get a few names off of The Centennial's wait list (that project filled up with dozens of people missing out on units). Had this project gone through, it would have given the canal some new energy. It would have anchored the canal with residential as well as some viable retail, and closed in some of the undefined space in the area of Mickey Mantle and Reno (where buildings do a poor job of defining the public realm). If this project had gone through it very well could have solved some of Bricktown's woes.

Another project would have helped do wonders for adding density in Lower Bricktown. Stonegate Hogan's proposed Centerpoint Market, or "Building 8," was a go two years ago and then never broke ground. Rendering signs went up on the site, and they may even still be there, but one thing seems certain -- this project is going nowhere. Bummer, because it would have added a significant amount of retail along the canal (35,000 sf). I also wonder why this project never got off the ground, with Stonegate Hogan (the primary developers of Lower Bricktown) behind it. Are they also having trouble getting projects off in this economy? Retail projects (as opposed to CONDO projects)? Weird..

A new hotel around Main and Oklahoma would have been nice too.. especially if it had around 100 rooms, promised to preserve the facade of the existing historic structure, and would have adhered to good urban design. Such a hotel would have been the Holiday Inn Express proposed for Bricktown, that I also happened to mention in the last post..

Then there was the Bricktown Village, proposed by local rich dude, Bob Funk (also owner of the RedHawks and several local businesses). Bricktown Village would have had..are you ready..a massive $250 million mixed-use development with 400 residential units, 100,000 sf of prime retail, a 150-room upscale hotel, a 1,900 space garage, and more.. basically a Lower Bricktown that actually follows principles of urbanism. Imagine that? Then out of all of the incredibly exciting and disappointing ways this project could have died, it had to be the City putting the kibosh on it. Why? Mayor Mick did not want to sell the land backing up to the Bricktown Ballpark to Bob Funk, many estimate it's all about bitter tensions between Bob Funk and the business establishment of the city. So they snuffed him, and Bricktown missed out on this, or at least another exciting "crash and burn" case of a project that couldn't get financing..

Another interesting project, a renovation of a small historic building along Main Street..adding some interesting architectural features. I like it. It features a metal roof, but I don't think it's done to be cheap, I actually kind of like the contrast it poses between new and old and how it's used attractively. Dunno what happened with this one either to put it so behind schedule, I just know it's only just now..possibly starting.

There are more dashed plans from the last round of development, but those are the most prominent ones. Now, that's not to say that the last round of development didn't bring a lot to Bricktown: Candy Factory office renovation, Banjo Museum, a McDonald's that's actually urban, ACM School of Rock, renovation at 222 East Main, Hampton Inn, Stanley Systems renovation on Main, and new businesses here and there, along with some that we lost. And I won't go into failed Bricktown proposals before the most recent wave of development, including the heartbreaking failure of The Factory and going way back to Neil Horton's original vision for Lower Bricktown, but I digress. What did end up coming to fruition from the last round of proposals isn't bad at all, especially the Hampton Inn. One thing that's important to note however: the canal has lost a lot of steam. There are now more vacant spaces along the canal, businesses there doing less business, less people in general on the canal. Bricktown is growing, but the canal is losing some of its luster at this point.

On OKC Talk I brought up the age-old suggestion that Bricktown should consider a public parking solution, and I was met with the typical swarm of posters telling me that there is no parking problem in Bricktown or anywhere downtown. The problem with that is that I agree with that line of thinking, however most of OKC doesn't, and believe me, you don't have to sell the idea of shopping and dining downtown to me. It's the rest that you have to pitch the idea to, and they believe that there is a parking problem in Bricktown, so for all intents and purposes, there IS a parking problem in Bricktown. And I don't blame them -- when it's $5 to park in the old part of Bricktown (never pay, just park at Lower Bricktown and walk 2 blocks, you'll live) and $10-15 if there is an event going on at the Ford, Cox, or Bricktown Ballpark. The fact that a lot of people are still operating profitable surface parking lot enterprises gives off the impression that parking is tight.

Here's two downtowns with free public parking: Wichita's Old Town and Sundance Square in Ft Worth. Bricktown has a total of 5 retail tenants (count em: Red Dirt, The Store, Painted Door, Firefly, and candy shop). Wichita's Old Town is a similar area with 28 retail tenants, total. Is it not insulting that Wichita has so much more shopping in their historic districts--they're half our size, not as economically robust, and much lamer in every way. Sundance Square kicks our butt too with 17 retail tenants, including Barnes & Noble, as well as a more urban AMC Theatres and dozens and dozens of restaurants, including a P.F. Chang's on Throckmorton Street. What is different here? They have free public parking. Wichita's is free all day, Ft Worth's is free after 5 (the solution I would recommend). Who knows, maybe they didn't even have a parking problem before, they just wanted to make the parking problem even more convenient for FW residents that are supposed to be enjoying Sundance Square.

But Bricktown doesn't say it needs public parking. Instead, Bricktown says the next round of development will solve its problems. One Bricktown retailer who posts at OKC Talk as Urbanized, had this to say about the development in Bricktown:
I don't think many of the people on here grousing about empty space have paid much attention to all of the places recently renovated in Bricktown, projects currently underway, and of course can't know about several of the game-changing deals working down here.

The comment came as a response to my suggestions to cure some of Bricktown's ailments, so essentially it's the same answer we've gotten all along: more development is what will eventually solve Bricktown's woes. Steve Lackmeyer later corroborated Urbanized's suggestion, and I would never once doubt in the first place that at any given time there are some very exciting things being talked about for Bricktown. I'm just very skeptical about how much of this will actually end up sticking. I think in order to get a good idea on what might be to come, I can offer some educated guesses, of course sheer speculation, but nonetheless I think I have a pretty good gut feeling about some projects myself, too. Jim Cowan made a post over on Steve's blog also alluding to future developments.
I think many of you will be excited to see some developments along the Canal in the first 6 months of 2010.
Restaurants, Retail, and a couple of other surprises are coming….and long overdue!

Despite being just as vague, he sort of corroborates the same thing Urbanized said. We anticipate more retail and restaurants trickling in as smaller projects, but as Urbanized put it there will be some game-changing proposals that come out soon, or as Cowan called them, surprises that are long overdue.

Well we know of some of the retail planned. We know that Sammy's Pizza is coming back to Bricktown, being resurrected by descendants of the original owner. It will be in the Hunzicker Building right along the Canal, on the Canal-level. There will be more retail and restaurants coming, too. Brent and Brett Brewer have been renovating the Hunzicker Building on spec, which is different from how renovations are typically done in Bricktown where owners like to line up a prospective tenant before ever beginning work (build-to-suit). Spec construction is also what's known as taking the bull by the horns and making something happen, something that other Bricktown property owners should be inspired by. Yeah right, nevermind it's just the Brewers..I'm sure we'll wake up one day and be scratching our heads at how they usurped design guidelines yet again..

We also know that the Bricktown fire station is finally going to be built, just 10 years after the bond election that paid for it. The arch firm selected to do the design kept submitting woefully inadequate preliminary work, and in my opinion, the design that they're going with is still a disgrace, but you almost just want to pass it just to move on from it and get it through after 10 years of this firm submitting crappy work on the project. I just don't think LWPB has much experience in designing new construction that fits in with a historic district, but I could be wrong, and it could just be a bad rendering. But the rendering we have shows a building with an inappropriate setback, a plain facade, and no evidence of $3 million being put into it. Maybe we need a slogan, "Don't Edmond my Downtown" (a spin off of Norman's unofficial slogan)? Here Steve gives an account of the design process for the project that provides insight into how this project was just so poorly designed to the point that Bricktown Urban Design just got tired of dealing with it and passed it through.

A much more interesting proposal that will likely surface in more detail soon is the "Bricktown Gateway" project that will involve the entire block between Reno and the canal, Oklahoma Ave and the BNSF tracks. The historic buildings along the south side of the Upper Canal (Zio's) are all going to be renovated, with a handful of new retail/restaurant spots, as well as 8 lofts on the upper level and office space for Harding & Shelton (a small oil and gas company). The plans also call for renovating the old Rock Island Building at the corner of Reno and Oklahoma--lofts and retail, to my knowledge.

Where things get more interesting is with Phase 2 of the Bricktown Gateway project. The gray structures only illustrate massing studies on the maximum size of development that the site can take and how it may interact with the space, but I would definitely say some pretty major infill development is proposed.

Oh, and looks like another Bricktown owner finally found a replacement tenant for Uncommon Grounds. That site sat unprofitably for 2 years after Gary Berlin raised the lease of the popular former Bricktown coffee shop (hope everyone likes Starbucks) too high for them to afford. The new business that can afford the $1300/mo rent, CoCo Flow, is a chocolate confectionary shop relocating from N. Western Avenue.

Another possible sleeping giant of a proposal is The Steel Yard, which Bob Meinders has been behind..albeit moving very, very slowly on (for years). Demolition is moving forward on the buildings on the east end of Bricktown, which means development could begin sometime early next year. Will we hear an announcement on that soon? Possibly. This could be a very exciting development, especially if there were to be a residential component added into the mix.

The rest, if anything, is pure speculation..

I can tell you that Randy Hogan has long-term plans to build out the west end of Lower Bricktown, between The Centennial and the BNSF tracks. The back portion of which site includes the U-Haul building, which is basically an ugly metal facade covering up a historic brick warehouse. The warehouse could be restored and renovated as lofts, with more development in front. To my knowledge, the site may or may not include a canal extension in the future..

Of course before Hogan develops anything, he might consider the project he still hasn't finished--Building 8, or Centerpoint Market. Could this building be back on in the near future? I doubt it.. I doubt Hogan moving forward because they seem more interested in Jenks right now, which they're also unable to move forward on at the moment.

It would of course also be nice to see some of these hotel proposals come back. If people in the know are hinting at big things to come, perhaps this is one of them. There was the Holiday Inn Express, a possible boutique hotel on the upper floors of the Mercantile Building, and the Candlewood Suites proposed against I-235.

Who knows what the future holds for Bricktown. I think that at some point you're going to start seeing spin off from bigger projects. Obviously we haven't seen it yet. But at some point soon I think that we'll start seeing the effect of MAPS 3 passing. MAPS 3 is, in a way, the entire city backing up the private revitalization of OKC, so it's passage has to add to downtown's appeal as well as add confidence in the future of downtown. I think that at some point you're also going to see Devon Tower adding intrinsic speculative appeal to downtown in general, especially including Bricktown. But only time will tell the tale.

I think this is just one of those open-ended things for now. What do you readers want to see in Bricktown? Whole Foods? Urban Outfitters? etc etc.. so basically more retail, probably. The old adage is that retail follows rooftops, so if downtown can amass more residential, that will easily help attract more retail to downtown. Retail is also easier development to get financing for than residential, esp for-sale residential.

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.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Cityshot XXVII

Here's a pic I took like a year ago, but it's one of my favorite old ones..and I think it's appropriate. This is Main Street in downtown.

Planning lessons from a blizzard..

Interesting video. The basic concept is that whenever there is a blizzard, even in places that are used to snow such as New York and Minnesota, the roads shut down. As we've seen in OKC, no major city really has the resources to instantly plow and sand every single street, even the major ones. I have relatives to the north of Omaha who have told me their streets haven't been plowed because there is too much snow and plow trucks have gotten damaged trying to get around, with their plow down. There's not a solution for clearing roads after a blizzard, but people still have that natural desire to want to get out of the house, even when weather's bad. In OKC it seems very restrictive when the TV stations are in DEFCON 1 mode and telling people not to leave their houses for days at a time, because there is NO other way to get around in OKC besides cars.

In NYC, which is actually a very walkable city when you remove the throngs of cars from the roads, the roads become littered with pedestrians getting around with more space. There is almost a peace of mind in NYC, as shown in the video, when cars are taken off the streets for the most part. Tons of people are playing out in the streets, families are safely getting some R&R outdoors, and life is great in the Five Boroughs. Pedestrians just naturally fill in the space that cars aren't taking up.

The video also brings up what a ridiculous amount of space is given to cars, even in the middle of cities. Not talking about Memorial Road, this is talking about streets like Park Avenue or Sheridan surrounded by dense environments. Do lanes really need to be "extra-wide" everywhere you go? No doubt that making all city streets accessible to large utility trucks and other trucks has compromised the environment for everything that's not a large truck. When it snows you can clearly see how wide the paths of cars are--and it's not that wide. The tracks that cars have formed from driving over the snow take up, what, half the width of the lane?

Anyone who's familiar with Tulsa knows how skinny roads are in that city. And yeah, you do kind of have to slow down in Tulsa when you're driving an SUV and the lanes are skinny, and there are pedestrians on the side, and for some reason everyone in a city known for skinny roads drives these Hummers and Land Rovers like a bat out of hell. So while you do have to slow down and drive more carefully, it is a better environment for pedestrians. So think -- do lanes really need to be as wide as they are? Do intersections need to be as wide as they are?

The wider the intersection, the harder it is to cross. A viable option that some cities have done is narrow the intersection, which psychologically affects drivers to drive slower, and extend the sidewalk. In OKC we call those "bump-outs" but I think in the video he just calls them sidewalk extensions, which is basically what they are. Think of crossing an intersection like jumping over a cliff (or imagine the street as being made of hot lava), and the bump-outs shorten the distance of lava you have to "jump" over. The shorter the pedestrian has to cross the intersection, the safer it is. Also another added benefit of bump-outs is that they help clearly define the space designated for pedestrian crossing much better than paint lines can. Damn jaywalkers!!

Just some interesting thoughts..

Frank Gehry says urban planning is dead in the U.S.

Heated words in an interview with architect Frank Gehry (don't call him a starchitect, that really gets him going) in a British newspaper, The Independent. One of my personal favorite architects (not necessarily a starchitect as bad as some of the others) had these words to say about his career in the U.S.
"We are architects ... We serve customers!" he barks. "I can't just decide myself what's being built. Someone decides what they want, then I work for them. Look, I went to city planning school at Harvard and I discovered that you never got to change a fucking thing or do anything. Urban planning is dead in the US."

Pardon his French. But there is certainly an argument to be made that urban planning is dead in the U.S., it would seem. There is also an argument to be made that it is not, it's just places like Tyson's Corner (who would have EVER thought Tyson's could be saved??). What about OKC? Is urban planning dead or alive as ever here in OKC?

Or rather, is it like Gehry work for clients. City planners in OKC work for a client, the people of OKC. The people of OKC get pissed off if you expect them to ride public transportation, build their houses less than a half-acre apart, sit through one cycle of lights at a major intersection, or have to drive more than 5 minutes for a shopping center. For another good read, if you haven't already read it, read this post on Steve's blog about former Planning Director Garner Stoll, who was ousted for being too aggressive with streetscaping the whole inner city. Stoll focused on pedestrian-friendly strips of small, independent businesses that had urban communities built up around them. Stoll was an active threat to the sprawling ways of OKC developers.

Is current Planning Director, Russell Claus, a threat to the sprawling ways of OKC developers? Time will tell. His background is certainly interesting. He's been with the OKC Planning Department since 1996, named director in 2008. Before that he headed up the Urban Redevelopment Division and he was initially brought to OKC to head up the Murrah Revitalization Program. He also worked for a nature conservatory in New York, and interestingly, Claus grew up and went to college in Brisbane, Australia (before his masters at MIT). So there's no doubt he has an interesting, fresh perspective. He's the kind of guy I would love to get to sit down with over a cup of coffee and just have a chat with..about downtown, OKC, addresses with 5 digits, streets that begin with "200," and Frank Gehry..

About this

I've noticed lately we've picked up a few new readers, and that's awesome. Some of the new readers I'm aware of are urbanites from other cities who are admiring OKC's urban progress, a small handful of downtown's developers that I have written about, as well as urbanites living in OKC. Not to mention my mother.

I just wanted to take the time and sort of explain my blog to anyone who's just now reading it, and hopefully it'll become one of your more frequent reads. I really want to thank the handful of long-time readers, such as some of my fellow OKC bloggers, and off the top of my head guys like Steve, OK Guy, and mwheatley, and others who frequently well as those who don't! I've seen my posts featured in other urban blogs, as well as The Oklahoman, and other sources, which is awesome. I'm also extremely thankful to the people who have emailed me snapshots while I was away from OKC, like TAP's "YES" window display.

What this blog is about is the urban community. When I first began this, I had the occasional foray into national politics, suburban matters, state politics, as well as other the first months of this blog I was intent on covering Tulsa to maintain a statewide focus, but now Tulsa is only used as a measuring stick to gauge how far OKC's come. The focus of this blog, pure and simple, is the growth in Central OKC. It's not so much about downtown development as it is about "community building" -- anyone can develop a block, but there are very few people who can do so and add inherent character and value to the city. I firmly believe that if every development was sparkly and shiny and "cool-looking," downtown would be a failure. It takes special touches, people who go the extra mile to preserve boarded up buildings, pedestrian-friendly focal points, and other things that certainly aren't covered in "Downtown Development 101." In this city it's easy to build something not worth caring about and failing (The Hill), but it's also possible to build something that people will fight to preserve years from now, and in this city you WILL be successful by doing so.

In the 60s we did ourselves a great disservice when we instituted urban renewal. The mentality was one that still tends to prevail today, "We must keep up with what other cities are doing!!" Plain and simple, trends change, fads go away, when it's all said and done the only proven method of building cities we have figured out to date is to focus on the pedestrian on the street. Don't make the pedestrian on the street, the people who are "experiencing" and taking in the city, feel irrelevant. First OKC was built for people, then we tore it all down and rebuilt it for the car. We are at a point where we need to go back and rebuild OKC for people, not cars.

The men who pushed for urban renewal were visionaries who cared for their city, who wanted to make a positive change. The lesson: If we don't think all of this through, thoroughly, we stand to make painful errors with even the best of intentions. All of the players involved in downtown's progress have, undoubtedly, the best of intentions (most of them at least). My goal is to put every downtown development on the hot seat, carefully scrutinize the merits and weigh the pros and cons. With that it is my hope that progress can no longer be two steps forward and one step backward all the time, but rather two steps forward and not looking backwards all the time.

Someone may wonder why someone, especially from suburban Cleveland County, may spend so much time carrying on about downtown development. The reason is simple: I've only found two causes worth caring about, and both have to do with building communities: urban design and economic development. As it stands these are two things that OKC in particular could use a LOT of, and to be fair, it certainly is getting its fair share (esp compared to other cities). I just hope to pitch in and do what I can to make a difference. This blog is how I decided to make a difference, similarly to how blogging made a difference in people's lives in the movie Julie and Julia, I hope that the time and effort I put into advocating for urban design can truly make a difference in the growth of OKC. Perhaps some day I can even take a more prominent role in the discussions that go on.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Brookside - Tulsa

Was up in Tulsa recently and took some pictures of their Brookside area one morning. Brookside is very similar to Western Avenue -- just much more developed. Probably 10 years ahead of Western Avenue. Anyway, here's the pics.

Brookside, a stretch of South Peoria roughly between 31st and 51st, is home to a TON of local retailers and restaurants, as well as stuff like Starbucks and the state's only Whole Foods Market. Brookside features local alternatives to those as well, such as the Shades of Brown coffeeshop, and even a local alternative to Whole Foods--like the Brookside Farmer's Market (Utica Square has Petty's Fine Foods and Cherry Street is more coffee shop terrain than Brookside). If you're ever in Tulsa, definitely be sure to eat at The Brook -- an American bar & grill inside a historic cinema that's been converted. You can read more on Brookside on the district's official website.

What would it take to get Western Avenue to develop more -- to the point that there are more storefronts that come right up to the sidewalk, more of a "main street" feel, and more residential infill to the side of the main drag.

I just wanted to bring one of the comments on this post to the forefront. From Max:

There is an upcoming streetscaping plan with sidewalks, etc. That might move it more in that direction and kickstart some development.

I think I would like to see more development guidelines in the area. The vast majority of Western (36th-I44) is simply zoned C-3, which is like interstate highway commercial...anything goes. There are zero extra planning guidelines beyond that. It results in things like the IBC bank building, etc.

This stretch of Western is ripe for it though. There are plenty of parking lots that could be redeveloped. There is enough parking behind Musashi's and Wills to cover most nights, and more of these offstreet communal parking areas which encourage walking through the district and checking out different businesses are essential. IMO, Western needs to remain a pedestrian oriented area like similar districts in most cities. Anything keeping it from those ends (namely Western facing parking lots) is a bad thing.

I think a master plan and codifying it is a start. I personally consider Western Avenue a treasure in this city that is worth the inconvenience of zoning changes, to ensure it retains its character.

Merry Christmas Oklahoma!

Just wanted to say Merry Christmas to everyone in Oklahoma and elsewhere reading this blog. Wherever you are, I hope you have a good group of family that you can be with to get the most out of this Holiday Season. If you aren't with your family hopefully you have something that is a "family" to you, and I think it's fair to say Happy Hanukkah to our Jewish friends, although it's kind of late for that. Wouldn't it be kind of cool to have a Menorah or Star of David pattern in one of downtown's skyscrapers along with the crosses? That's just what I always thought at least.

One of the things that I always thought was interesting about Christmas is the stereotypes of "who Christmas is for" that we've reinforced in popular culture, being for your average "all-American" families where the family goes to church and all eats around a big table together. Personally, I didn't do any of that this year. Mass was canceled and my mom said her neighborhood was blocked by snow drifts. And we all know about the commercialization of Christmas, that has been going strong for a hundred years, so I guess that could imply that Christmas is for those who have disposable income, as well.

The funny thing about all of that though is that Jesus didn't have a traditional family, and we only know of him eating a big lovely meal around a large table banquet-style once, and that was the Last Dinner. Instead Jesus had a group of close friends and acquaintances who "were his family" so to speak. In a way Christmas is really about society's misfits, our poor and infirm, and even (especially) alternative lifestyle people. No, they certainly don't idolize eating a big lovely meal with their family around a big table, and sure most of them don't even have family in the sense that most of us do, but it would be for shame if Christmas wasn't for them too. Just as Christmas is about Jesus, who we must remember was certainly "alternative lifestyle" by the Romans' standard, hopefully Christmas helps build families today in both the traditional sense and the non-traditional sense.

Anyway, I hope people stay safe, and while it's not as bad as the drama queens on TV have made it out to be, just be sure you have 4WD and make precautions in the unlikely event you do get stuck if you're being careful! And honestly, what good urbanism blog would be complete without the time-honored tradition of bashing Mike Morgan for Christmas fun?

Just as I consider myself a part of a group of OKC bloggers that feed off each other for energy and ideas, I wanted to point out Doug Loudenback's Christmas post. His Christmas pics are excellent (Automobile Alley, Myriad Gardens, Ice Rink, Bricktown, etc) but also I think he has a nice message as well.

P.S. Anyone who really wants to see some impressive Christmas lights, check out the 2100 block of Markwell Avenue in Bethany, where neighbors have gone all out and choreographed a dancing light display to Christmas music they're transmitting on a low-frequency signal at 102.3 fm (you can only get it in 5-block area). Enter from NW 23rd in front of Putnam City West High School, and be prepared to sit in traffic.

A Merry Christmas to all, and to all, a good night.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Cityshot XXVI

Here's a pic I've been meaning to post for a long time. Cattlemen's in Stockyards City.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Convention center search: Fixing the Cox (it can be done!)

I think that even if we get a real home-run convention center before 2020 that no matter what we're still in a position where we have to keep up with the Cox Center as well. Getting rid of the Cox Center after completing a new one is like taking one step forward and two steps backward. We need to analyze the heck out of what a huge mistake the Cox was, and get to a conclusion where we can fix it. And no, demolishing it is not the solution (not that it would hurt in my opinion). There is still hope for making the most out of the Cox.

Remember that the Chamber report on convention center space in OKC recommendation that we're following was adding a certain amount of convention space to the market. That means keeping the Cox, too. And personally I think that this report low-balls the actual need because you'll notice that they just talk about Oklahoma County, which only has 706,617 residents..or comparable to the Omaha or Little Rock MSAs, but I digress. Bottom line on this matter: If we want to get rid of the Cox Center we should be prepared not to invest $280 million in a new center, but more like $500 million, in order to get 300,000 sf of prime exhibition space all brand-new, even when the Cox space is still fresh from a renovation.

Aren't we going to keep the Cox for its arena anyway? Remember that "58 steps" is the only thing keeping the Big 12 Basketball Tournament from being locked up permanently by KC. With the glitz and the glam of the new Sprint Center, their Municipal Auditorium (the site of the women's tourney) is still 13 blocks from the Power & Light District -- not 58 steps (across Reno Ave). Why not just keep up with the exhibition space attached to that arena if we're keeping the arena? Even if you disagree on the value of the Cox's convention space and only see merit to keeping the arena so we can keep getting Big 12 Basketball Tourneys, you must at least see the value in not having a huge facility that's falling apart in the middle of our downtown. We have too much of that right now. Imagine if the Cox suddenly got run-down like the Century Center across the street, what kind of dispersions that would cast on all of downtown. It would be like..gasp..Tulsa.

The problem right off the bat is that the Cox Center should never have been built where it was. Imagine for a second that we never razed the better part of half of our downtown area for the I.M. Pei Plan to Nowhere. What we would have is a Bricktown and MidTown without gaps, and even more urban areas to the south and west of downtown where currently all of the superblocks and blight are. Given that such a cool, urban city needed a convention center, where would you deal with that without disrupting the urban fabric? You could go to the edge of downtown, a strategic site would be between Deep Deuce and the OHC. Or perhaps in the rail yard along East Reno, along the BNSF line, or along the North Canadian River--nothing wrong with riverfront superblocks, because the grid system is going to end anyway. Well we don't have the luxury of talking about those sites. We have to make the best out of the convention center that has lain waste to a former urban neighborhood on the south side of downtown.

I've written in the past about my theory that the Cox/Ford/Myriad cluster of superblocks having done more to kill the C2S task force region than the I-40 Crosstown Expressway ever could have come close to. In fact I think it's highly suspect that a viaduct could be blamed for forming a border in the first place--that's why I-40 was built as a viaduct in the first place, so that the city could continue underneath it. The reality is that we have taken an area where the neighborhood was contiguous with the flow of downtown, and we disrupted that motion. We killed off Broadway. We blocked Harvey. We took life away from Robinson and Hudson. We added another pointless lifeless corridor to the mix, E.K. Gaylord. Today I think E.K. would be rolling the grave at the urban travesty of a street that is named after him, especially when you look at the urban grandeur that was once the young, promising Capitol City of Oklahoma.

To illustrate my point, let's break out the crayons! It's all about "flow" :

We turned ^ that into this..

Consider the First National Bank the epicenter of downtown--consider how the addition of the superblock sites affects flow from the epicenter? From the north, you don't notice it so much. North Downtown's afflictions have nothing to do with I.M. Pei (just Kerr McGee). But from the perspective of the south side of downtown, it's everything. In this sense, yes losing all of that great urban fabric hurt downtown no doubt, BUT what hurt even more was losing the flow from the epicenter to the south end of downtown. We rue the loss of the urban fabric, but I have never heard planners rue the loss of that flow which I believe to be the real culprit of our Core to Shore woes. Flow should be the main thing we are focused on restoring, because we're doing a bang-up job of restoring activity in key nodes of downtown, there just isn't any synergy between these areas. MidTown is bustling, Bricktown is healthy, Automobile Alley is alive, Arts District getting there, we're well on our way to restoring other areas too..we just need to bring it all in and connect it all. Streetcar will go a long ways towards helping us with that, but we still need to reexamine our grid system.

Here's an example of a downtown that still has its grid intact (Downtown Dallas). Looking at the map of DTD, you'll notice that there's adequate connectivity from Downtown into Uptown/Victory/Oak Park and other areas north of the Woodall Rogers Fwy. Yes, Woodall Rogers is still a dividing line but the key thing is that it doesn't disrupt the flow! Look at several of the key streets that cross the underground freeway--Houston, McKinney, Akard, and Pearl. DTD is coming back to life, and Victory, Uptown, and especially the McKinney Avenue streetfront are booming areas. They've had such an incredible amount of urban development that there is actually a glut of residential units on the market there, so essentially, they have the exact opposite problem that we do, and I'd rather be overdeveloped than underdeveloped!

..a downtown that doesn't breathe. The important thing that you'll notice by taking a look at the crayon maps of OKC above is that downtown is dead looong before you reach the Crosstown Expressway. These streets that we killed were once bustling corridors of commerce and city life. Broadway especially, as you can see in the photograph. Just like how a city is made of up neighborhoods, a downtown is made up of corridors like this. When historians wax nostalgic on downtown, they talk about how each echelon of society in OKC had a corridor that was its own: Park Ave was the most well-to-do, reserved for city leaders, lined with ritzy businesses and residences not to mention the offices of city leaders. The streets to the north side of downtown were well-to-do, the further south you got, the grittier it got (the cooler it got). Grand Boulevard was gritty, full of people, crazy, bustling--it was the Times Square of OKC.

We killed downtown when we nullified our north-south running corridors, and let's face it: OKC is a north/south kind of city, you are always going to get to Point B from Point A by going north or south, not east or west. It's funny how the city develops like that over time, but it just does, and you can't fight it. That's why nobody really encounters downtown or any kind of "center city" activity when they cross over into North OKC from South OKC. The break in the system that hurts the most is Broadway, which was the most important street in downtown. Broadway dead-ends in front of the Cox Convention Center, so consider the intersection of Broadway and Sheridan "ground zero" for the urban butcher job.

In my opinion the Cox Center interacts well with the T-intersection of Broadway and Sheridan. It's a decently urban and walkable intersection, and you actually do see a fair share of people walking across the area, interacting with the Renaissance and Sheraton hotels (the Renaissance has a coffee shop, whereas the Sheraton has the better restaurant, so you see some degree of cross-transfer traffic) and the convention center across Sheridan. The entrances to the Cox are positioned with the crosswalks (that we are "supposed" to use LOL). The Sheridan facade is also pretty decent. I am a big fan of imitating historic architecture with contemporary materials, which is what the Cox renovation did. The glass panels and metal slats resemble how you'd see brick, mortar, and stone in a streamline Art Deco building. Overall the Cox gets a B for how it interacts with the Sheridan streetfront, so that's the sole bright spot.

The east and west sides are just huge bare walls, the only thing breaking them up is the entrance to the underground parking on Robinson and some mechanical equipment along E.K. Gaylord. F-. There is however a lot of potential for improving this though: there are some great opportunities for Santa Fe Depot-convention center synergy on the east side, as well as some great opportunities for park-convention synergy on the west side. It's just ridiculous to have an enormous bare expanse fronting those two possible diamonds in the rough.

For future reference, I plan on writing an equally long critical and provocative post in the near future on ripping out E.K. Gaylord. In this post I will talk all about the east side of the Cox, the possibilities for a multi-modal transit hub connecting multiple mass transit interfaces, and what to do about the nightmare that is E.K. Gaylord Boulevard--deadly to cross on foot, depressing to look at, the central artery of a downtown that has been plundered of its soul. So I'm just going to allude to a future post and leave the east side of the Cox alone for now, because that's a whole different can of worms.

If the Cox could be fixed from a planning perspective, imagine the possibilities for more street activity, more businesses, and more density. You could be coming up to OKC from Ft Worth on the Heartland Flyer, and once you walk out of the old Santa Fe Depot the first thing you would see is a real city. You would be surrounded by the hustle and bustle of a real major city, a feeling similar to walking outside the Union Station in cities like Chicago or Philadelphia. The area surrounding Santa Fe Depot will never be as dense and urban as it once was, but we can still make it feel like it is.

I give you the existing floorplan for the Cox Center:

An improved version:

Now keep in mind all of this is coming from someone that knows nothing about convention centers! I don't claim to be an expert on the convention industry. I just know that more has to be done to make the Cox open up to the east and west side. On the west side there appear to be hallways that dead end--take a chunk out of that bare well along Robinson and open those hallways up to the city. There could be an entrance behind meet rooms 9-12 as well as on the SW corner, where you could extend a hallway and open it up to the intersection at Robinson and Reno. Between the two entrances, the remaining blank wall space should be spruced up with art work similar to the Tulsa Convention Center exterior artwork. What I would really like to see is a huge mural depicting the urban fabric that we lost in urban renewal, not as it appears in black and white postcards, but as it would appear in 2010 with vibrant businesses and peppered with modern touches.

There should also be another grand entrance facing the intersection of EKG and Reno. Here is where there is the opportunity for cutting a chunk of the Cox Center out that doesn't look to be vital and using that space for part of an intermodal transit hub. Without getting into the technical details of all that (saving it for a future post), there would be lots of people and lots of different forms of transit. Streetcar. Amtrak. Rubber tire trolleys. Taxis. City buses. Cars. People walking. It could encompass additional structured parking for personal vehicles or utilize the underground parking already beneath the Cox, and from the exterior the hub would be a glass facility that you can see inside and outside of, very open to the outside, and connected to the Santa Fe Depot, as well as perhaps the main entrance of the Ford Center (which is on the NE corner of the Ford along Reno). The key though is that any connections between the depot, the hub, Cox, Ford, and whatever else should be open to the outdoors. It should add to the street life, not be anything separate.

And lastly, on the south side, I believe the best way to add more life to the Reno side would be by extending the Bricktown Canal along Reno. As it is Reno is a 4-lane road, with plenty of additional space between the Ford and the Cox centers--no reason why it couldn't still move traffic east and west if some of the right of way was gobbled up for an urban canal that connected to the Bricktown Canal. This way you're creating a pedestrian mall that connects the restaurants and nightlife of Bricktown to the convention center and area, and you could end it in the Myriad Gardens or at least along the south edge of it. The south side of downtown could be turned into an urban playground by smartly extending the Bricktown opposed to taking it through Core to Shore as the Bricktown Association proposed, and using it to double the impact of the existing superblock fiasco. Any canal extension should be bridged between the Cox and Ford, but the key thing is that the linear corridor along Reno should be reinforced. The way to go would be in avoiding creating "pedestrian highways" from the entrance of the Cox to the entrance of the Ford, and instead to make sure that Reno is the dominant "pedestrian highway" through here. That will go towards bringing more inclusion from the rest of the city and breaking up the superblocks to some extent.

Maybe, just maybe, an idea that can be considered is a Broadway tunnel underneath the Cox and Ford centers. It would be expensive though, and I wouldn't call it a priority. It would be advantageous though to have traffic be able to flow smoothly from C2S straight up Broadway into North OKC. When you talk about creating connections between South OKC and North OKC, and how downtown should play a part in that, the idea of bringing Broadway could symbolize the turnaround of OKC. I wouldn't advocate it though because like said, it may be cost prohibitive to do so, esp considering the underground parking underneath the Cox, and it wouldn't be as easy as these other ideas I've thrown out there.

The ultimate idea has to be that the Cox Center is still a valuable facility. With 1.1 facility, it still has a lot to offer OKC. We have nothing to gain by demolishing it, and everything to gain by improving it. I know that we might not want to, I know that a lot of us were excited to think about a massive mixed-use development on the Cox site when we saw MAPS 3 pass. But keep this in mind: MAPS 3 convention center will only be around 500,000 sf, and 850,000 sf after an expansion. The Cox is 1.1 million sf located deep in the heart of downtown. This is Sheridan and Broadway, ground zero for where things began to go wrong with us from urban renewal. We have the opportunity to converge several different priorities and ideas out there and create real, sustainable future vitality. We want to extend the Canal. We want a transit hub for our streetcar system, and our future commuter system. We should want to do something about the Cox.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Hey, I was featured in the Oklahoman..

Been getting some good press. A reader mentioned to me that I was in the Daily Oklahoman, featured on their Monday Morning Quarterbacks section that highlights interesting blurbs. The other four blurbs are such venerable media institutions as a far right-wing syndicated columnist, the USA Today editorial board, a blog, and a National Review article.

The blurb highlighted my NW 9th Street column.

New lifestyle center at County Line / Memorial Rd?

Sheesh.. way out at County Line Rd off of Memorial is what looks to be a proposed lifestyle center, in the SE bend in the Kilpatrick Turnpike, between the turnpike and County Line Rd (in Canadian County). According to the text of the official application, which was approved by the Planning Commission back in October, it will feature office, retail, AND residential.

The application was filed by a "Rippage Investments LLC" but from what I've heard, Caliber might be behind it. For those who aren't familiar with development around Deer Creek, Caliber has been a very aggressive development firm with several large projects in the Deer Creek area--and I think they might be based in Delaware, though I haven't been able to find anything for them online.

Not sure what to think of these projects. I like lifestyle centers because, as a realist, I understand that sprawl is going to happen regardless and there is nothing we can do to curtail that. But my problem with lifestyle centers is with the type of tenants that they attract, typically the same tenants we're trying to lure to our downtown area--if Edmond or Memorial Road projects lure the retailers we've been after, like Whole Foods, Urban Outfitters, Crate and Barrel, etc..they won't come downtown. That will be it. And from a location perspective, I seriously doubt that Memorial and County Line is a good idea. I don't think I'm alone in considering anything along Memorial and west of Portland way out there, and that includes Mercy Medical Center and Gailardia..

Just to cast a light on the abhorrent growth of sprawl outside of the Kilpatrick Turnpike:

Now you see me..

Now you don't..

You could do this for basically any square mile in the Piedmont, Deer Creek, or Edmond school districts (assuming that every blade of grass in the Putnam City school district has already been developed on). Every ounce of Deer Creek and Edmond will be filled up, and I know you can head west up the NW Expressway all the way out to Piedmont and you will see development underway on tons of sprawl that doesn't yet appear on any street maps.

When we toot our own horn, congratulating ourselves for ending the white flight, thinking that we're making proactive steps to get a handle on our sprawl, nothing could in fact be further from the truth. Our sprawl is getting closer to reaching a critical level with each and every Planning Commission meeting that passes..

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Devon Tower progress

Photos of Devon Tower progress. The parking garage has topped-out on the south side, facade is going in. I've heard that January 1st, work on the actual tower will begin and we'll start the structural frame rise at a rate of 4 floors a week for a while. Then it will slow down as it gets higher and further along.

Convention center search: Incorporating Amtrak

I wanted to revisit Omaha, because I have some new thoughts and stuff I wanted to add. After I did my post I posed a question to the Omaha forum, and after they got over the shock of how dare someone from OKC question their downtown planning, we had a productive discussion on the Qwest Center. The overall feeling about the Qwest in Omaha is positive because of the mistakes they think they avoided.

The originally proposed site of the Qwest Center was in the Old Market portion of DTO, one of the most popular areas of Omaha. The Old Market is afterall, the main destination for anyone in town for a convention. The problem with that would have been the number of historic buildings cleared for such a large project in that area. You definitely don't want to risk breaking up important urban fabric like that. So while Downtown Omaha residents agree that the Qwest could have been incorporated better, they much prefer that over sticking it in the middle of their treasured Old Market area. The site in the picture is the site that was chosen in the end, which Omaha residents believe was a no-brainer in hindsight. They took an old rail yard that was no longer in use and cleared that, putting the convention center there. Before the convention center was developed on the other side of 480, there wasn't really much of anything except Creighton University north of there in the first place.

When I'm being critical of the Qwest Center, keep in mind that I have nothing but praise for Omaha most of the time, and it should just go without saying that the Qwest is a great facility from a convention standpoint. But I'm not a convention planning buff, I'm a city planning buff. It should also go without saying that the $280 million MAPS 3 convention facility OKC is adding to its convention offerings will also be an excellent facility from a standpoint with all of the bells and whistles, and there will be convention specialists out there who are more qualified to make sure of that. Assuming that the Qwest and MAPS 3 CC have one major thing in common -- that both will be state-of-the-art, top notch convention facilities -- let's learn from what few areas they could have improved in and end up with an even better facility. I doubt those areas exist from a convention hosting standpoint, but in the planning realm, there is plenty of room to talk about improvement. So with that said...

The main thing Omaha locals are put off with is the lack of synergy between the Qwest and the Missouri River, but adding connections to a nearby riverfront is much easier to do than replacing lost urban fabric. To them, the elevated portions of 480 aren't a huge barrier (or it's not a psychological barrier to them anyway) and they hope the surface parking can be filled in later. The main thing is that NoDo is not a longstanding urban destination like the Old Market is. The Old Market, unlike anything in OKC, has been a longstanding urban destination.. the difference though is that Omaha has not seen a "simultaneous resurgence" in its downtown neighborhoods. They've seen gradual improvement, but they never saw the neglect and despair we had in the first place.

So to them, the idea that it's possible to completely revitalize a whole district (for quality, not just quantity) from the ground up in about 5-10 years is completely foreign to them. In fact, that's foreign to most other cities, and we don't realize that when we're looking at other cities for inspiration. We just have a very different, more aggressive development philosophy here in OKC..and that's just what we've come to expect because of how far we've had to come with our center city. When other cities look at OKC and like what we've done, that's the main thing they're trying to figure out. It is indeed impressive what you can accomplish when you have extraordinary pent-up demand for downtown and a city that is willing to take the bull by the horns and make some things happen.

Another great example brought to my attention was Lincoln:

Lincoln is currently in the midst of a wave of downtown investment, spearheaded by a high profile public project--the new West Haymarket Arena, which will house Cornhuskers basketball as well as concerts. The Haymarket District, an area adjacent to Downtown Lincoln, is another area that is very similar to the Old Market--an established mixed-use urban neighborhood. Haymarket has a university feel, for being so close to UNL. The $400 million arena project (if I understand correctly), which will have around 15,000 seats, is set to go to voters for approval in May -- to be funded by a 4% hotel tax, 4% car rental tax, and a 2% restaurant tax, as well as other contributions from the state and private sources.

If you're like me, you're wondering how on earth it costs $400 million to build a 15,000 seat college basketball arena in Nebraska when we built the Ford Center downtown to NBA/NHL specs in 2002 at a cost of $89 million (and then threw down another $100 million to justify an NBA team moving from cosmopolitan SEATTLE of all places). According to this article that cites a $350 million cost, that money is for relocating rail lines, buying railroad property, I assume some rehabilitation on the site, moving the Amtrak station, building the arena, rebuilding roads and other infrastructure around it, and building 2 parking garages and 3 surface lots. That seems like a lot of expense to go through just for the purpose of adding an arena to downtown if you ask me, although I suppose it's difficult to criticize when the hidden cost of all of this expansion south of Downtown OKC into C2S is a $700 million Crosstown Expressway relocation project (granted the pricetag was mysteriously under $300 million when ODOT began its Big Dig).

I love the actual site plan though. It's very reminiscent of the Albuquerque plan I talked about earlier, in that it builds WITHIN the existing fabric of the downtown and not by creating its own separate superblock. It's also reminiscent of the Albuquerque plans in how it incorporates an Amtrak facility. I think that's a new trend that we're beginning to see, is a return to putting an emphasis on the neighborhood around the Amtrak station. It's similar to that feeling someone would have when they got off the train in New York or Chicago or Cleveland at the Union Station and walked down those front stops and instantly found themselves in the middle of it all. The beating heart of these cities at that time was Union Station. Maybe it's possible that OKC got off on the wrong foot from the beginning when we put our main freight station (Santa Fe Depot) in the heart of downtown and put the main passenger station (Union Station) further to the south. But I digress, maybe I'm getting to be too good at bitching about planning mistakes when my latest target is the City's forefathers, who did everything right for the most part.

Here is a rendering of how the Haymarket Arena incorporates the Amtrak station:

Adjacent to Lincoln Station would be an outdoor pavilion, under which would go the Amtrak line, surrounded by an open area and mixed-use development. The outdoor pavilion that the line runs under shouldn't be confused with an actual enclosed structure that the line goes through, like the LRT in Denver that goes through their convention center. I've argued against such a station in the convention center but I don't see anything wrong with how Lincoln has incorporated the Amtrak into the neighborhood around the Haymarket Arena. It's outdoors, it's open, it's walkable, it's inviting, and it's urban..those are the things I always like to see.

One last thing about the Lincoln site plan -- notice how the two parking garages are tucked behind the development, right up against the tracks. The Haymarket Arena itself is also right up against a bend in the tracks, too. Instead of putting the superblock structure in the middle of a neighborhood they backed it up to the tracks so that they wouldn't have to worry about incorporating the parking garages, and they would only have to worry about incorporating the arena on two sides. Really they only have to incorporate it on one side because on the right side is actually what appears to be a baseball diamond in other illustrations. A typical sweeping entryway rotunda and some side tenants (similar setup to Coach's and Hideaway Pizza at the Bricktown Ballpark) like with what you see on most new arenas is adequate for the one block of street frontage the Haymarket Arena faces.

So the common theme for the better-planned superblock structures: If you can't come up with a creative, adaptive way to mask the superblock (like Columbus), and incorporate it into the neighborhood, back it up against the tracks. That's what Albuquerque has done, that's what Omaha has done, and that's what Lincoln has done. While I would argue that there is certainly a better way, and it is possible for the superblock to be a positive influence, if you can't do that, then at least put it where the superblock will have no negative impact whatsoever. If it's not doing any harm, then that's at least a start. No harm, no foul.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Cityshot XXV

Automobile Alley Christmas lights..NW 4th & Broadway (most storefronts in A-Alley have added a curtain of Christmas lights, it's very impressive)

Friday, December 18, 2009

Convention center search: Regional cities

Just to show how OKC is indeed falling behind in the convention center arms race, this post will be dedicated to the convention centers located in regional towns that we generally expect to be bigger and better than. This will be your cities like Tulsa and Omaha. Actually the full list of cities is: Tulsa, Wichita, Little Rock, Omaha, Albuquerque, Des Moines, and Shreveport. All of these cities have convention facilities that are better than what OKC can offer with the Cox Convention Center.

When you're looking at this from the standpoint of competition and you're wondering how we can let ourselves fall out of the top 100 US cities for convention business, this is the kind of thing you have to directly look at: How does OKC compare within the region? If not very well, there are problems. The bright side of competing in an evolving region is that competition brings more spotlight. People are getting past the "Don't they still ride horses everywhere in Oklahoma?" stage, but it helps that in the eyes of the convention industry the region is seen as a more competitive area, with emerging convention hubs like Omaha especially, and Little Rock, Wichita, and Tulsa to some extent you could even include NW Arkansas and Springfield.

Rogers, AR. City pop -- 38,829. Metro pop -- 420,876.
Yes, NW Arkansas. And Yes, this is a convention center, not a Target. See this is why I tend to dismiss NW Arkansas as a potential serious contender. I think it obviously has a ton of potential, but the leaders of all the different communities tend to be pretty set on keeping it the way it is -- a ton of different small cities. There is a lot of potential for NW Arkansas to emerge as a rapidly growing, economically prosperous metropolitan region -- but the lack of a clear, dominant city sort of takes the metropolitan out of the metro. Their convention center is no different. Its stats aren't bad though, and that's what OKC has to compete with.

Located in Rogers (which is at the heart of the Fayetteville-Bentonville-Springdale-Rogers-Buena Vista metro area), the John Q. Hammons Center features 125,000 sf, including a 42,000 sf ballroom (largest in Arkansas), and 41 breakout rooms. That gives it an edge over the Cox with the ballroom and in having more breakout rooms. The center has two different attached convention hotels (552 total rooms), another advantage over the Cox.

Obviously the overwhelmingly suburban nature of Rogers is going to hold it back from being a serious competitor with OKC. There is no major airport, no Amtrak access, and it's pretty out of the way unless someone is directly targeting Wal-Mart, headquartered in nearby Bentonville. The good news for Rogers is that a lot of companies ARE directly targeting Wal-Mart. Plus the U of Ark in nearby Fayetteville is also a huge draw. Even Rogers is getting its act together, building a new urbanist center (Pinnacle Hills Promenade) across the street from the Hammons Center. But it still isn't a real metropolitan area.

There is an identical convention center, also named John Q. Hammons Center, located in Springfield.

Wichita, KS. City pop - 344,284. Metro pop - 596,452.
That ugly round, cyan-colored thing is actually their convention center. Instead of calling it the circus, it's dubbed the Century II Center, with a total of 721,000 sf. That includes 198,000 sf of exhibit space and including 27 breakout rooms. It also recently turned 40 years old, making it comparable in that aspect to the Cox Center.

Wichita's convention center, however ugly and outdated, makes up with its new convention hotel -- the attached 303-room Hyatt. Rather amazing is that they actually have a section on the CVB website for "Wichita skeptics" where they try and convert Wichita haters by giving them a shopping trip or Wichita. Kind of hard to believe they would go that far to acknowledge that Wichita kinda sucks, but you'd be surprised I guess.

Little Rock, AR. City pop -- 189,515. Metro pop -- 850,561.
The Statehouse Convention Center in downtown Little Rock is by all means, a smaller facility, though fairly immaculate. Very little information on it actually exists online. The Statehouse has 220,000 sf total, with about 84,000 sf in the contiguous "Governor's Halls." It includes an 18,000 sf ballroom. The ballroom was added in a 1999 renovation project that cost $15.4 million that added a total 120,000 sf. Its attached convention hotel is the Little Rock Peabody (an older hotel), with 418 rooms.

Honestly, Little Rock is a great city. Hard to beat what they've managed to do with horrible demographics. Their downtown has done well, largely a success built on taking a chance with streetcar, which has a stop at the Statehouse Convention Center. The site is surrounded by other hotels within walking distance as well as the well-known River Market neighborhood of Little Rock. Tough to comment on the overall urban planning of the convention center because it's pretty much the most boring convention center I've come across, nothing spectacularly good or bad. I do have a complaint about how the Peabody Hotel doesn't actually face any street, where they have it behind the convention center, along the Arkansas River.

Omaha, NE. City pop -- 436,648. Metro pop -- 837,925.
Omaha's convention center is a home-run in many regards. For $290 million ($216 million from the City), Omaha broke ground on a major convention center in 2001 and finished in 2005, and the 2nd phase was finished in 2006. The Qwest in Omaha has resembled a mixed-bag of successes and failures. Overall the convention center is shiny and new, has had a steady stream of business brought to "the O" as they call it there, and it is regarded as a great facility. It is a success from a convention standpoint, but it is a failure from a planning standpoint, as Downtown Omaha is completely separated from the facility which doesn't really connect to any urban fabric.

Think of the Qwest Center as a new version of the Cox Center. It is virtually the same size, 1.1 million sf -- doesn't feature as much space for meeting rooms, but has double the exhibit space and features a slightly larger basketball arena. Exhibition space amounts to 194,000 sf, meeting space 62,000 sf, and the arena holds 17,560 for a basketball game. The Qwest Arena is the home of Creighton University's venerable basketball program. Similarly to the Big 12 Basketball Tourney, the arena has hosted U.S. Summer Olympics trials in 2008 and will again in 2012--as well as NCAA beginning rounds. The #2 increase in convention industry after OKC is Omaha, so the convention center portion has been well received too. It also has a 450-room Hilton attached. The convention hotel is a bit small, and it looks even smaller (the rooms are tiny from what I've heard), so I'm not sure if they landed the best hotel amenities with their premium convention center. But they still spent $213 million ($290 million including private contributions) and got a 1.1 million sf facility.. considering that construction prices are back to about where they were 5 years ago, why can't we spend $280 million and get a similarly sized facility (that is all exhibition space)? We're talking about 500-600,000 sf for $280 million for MAPS 3, but I digress.

The biggest problem with the Qwest Center is how it interacts with the surrounding downtown area. It doesn't. I-480 separates it from the rest of downtown, and it isn't even connected to any of NoDo (a downtown neighborhood north of 480) due to the huge expanses of surface parking in front of it. The convention center doesn't really take advantage of the Missouri River frontage in the back either, divided by railroad tracks. The riverfront is a very underutilized park with a pavilion, some trails, and a huge parking lot. It is very poorly used space, from a planning perspective, lots of dead space, very little interaction with DT Omaha, or NoDo, or the Mighty Mo. Lots of squandered opportunity to spur infill between NoDo and the riverfront. In OKC, I think we expect to see an infill effect anytime we spend millions on downtown projects. What Omaha has done was design a major project in a way that they could have never expected an infill effect, which just seems like a waste of public resources. Yes, you need a convention facility, but you can also use it to spur development, and Omaha has not killed two birds with one stone in the way that most cities have. This convention center could have just as well gone out by Dodge Rd and I-680 and nobody in downtown would have known the difference.

Tulsa, OK. City pop -- 385,635. Metro pop -- 966,531.
Tulsa doesn't try to do too much with their convention center. Currently receiving a $50 million facelift from Vision 2025, it's a much smaller facility than the Cox Center, but it still has more exhibition space as well as the largest ballroom in the state, at 30,000 sf. The exhibition floor totals 102,600 sf, and when you add the 23 meeting rooms and the 8,900 seat arena, the facility has a total 227,000 sf -- 1/5th the size of the Cox Center -- but the key is that its footprint STILL has more exhibition space.

I mentioned that they've kept it very simple, and that's a good thing. The center really doesn't have a flashy design, it's not LEED-certified, and it doesn't have many of the special features that I can't even think of that some other centers have. They've also kept it simple from a site plan, and really the only special touches on the facade will be some public art (a good, simple idea to spruce up the front facade) and a sweeping glass wall. The Tulsa Convention Center's website actually prominently features pictures of the stunning nearby BOK Center, not the convention center. The TCC is surrounded by mostly large government superblocks on the east west side of downtown in front of the west leg of the IDL (DT Tulsa's loop system). City Hall has been moved to the other side of downtown and the city plans on having developers redevelop the old City Hall site, which will get infill going between the BOK and TCC. Across the street to the west and south there's more opportunities for infill. Connected on the south side is the Doubletree Hotel, at 18 stories and 417 rooms.. a good size convention hotel for a smaller convention center.

The TCC is probably not even the main convention center in Tulsa. The 448,400 sf QuikTrip Center at Expo Square (in Midtown Tulsa) features 354,400 sf of contiguous exhibition space, although it's more of an "expo center" facility than a "convention center" facility. The QT Center is best-known for the historic 8-story tall Golden Driller statue in front of it. The historic Expo Square Pavilion can seat 4,500 for a rodeo, and the brand-new Central Park Hall has about 50,000 sf of convention-suitable exhibition space.

Shreveport, LA. City pop -- 200,145. Metro pop -- 562,910.
Shreveport is another one of those smaller towns with surprisingly competitive convention centers, although it shouldn't be surprising noting that Shreveport and Bossier City are big gambling destinations. Finished in 2006 for a price of $140 million ($100 million if you don't include debt servicing on the bonds used to pay for it), this facility features over 350,000 total sf -- including a 95,000 sf exhibition hall, an 18,000 sf ballroom, and 10 meeting rooms with 1,600 sf each. The attached Shreveport Hilton has 313 rooms, which is a decent convention hotel for a convention-savvy city of 200,000. The site plan is also fairly simple, with no extra special obtrusive plazas or anything, as the center just comes right up to the street. The area around it isn't too obstructed with superblocks, downtown Shreveport is all within unimpeded walking distance and the riverboat casinos are a mere 2 blocks away.

Des Moines, IA. City pop -- 198,682. Metro pop -- 556,230.
The Iowa Events Center is sort of an interesting, all-inclusive public works project. It includes several different arenas, several different convention centers, as well as the primary Wells Fargo Arena with 16,110 seats for a basketball configuration. It includes two convention centers, one with 60,000 sf of exhibition space and 27 meeting rooms on two floors, another with 150,000 contiguous exhibition space and 14 meeting rooms, a 100,000 sf/7,200 seat smaller arena, and 23,700 sf of pre-convention facilities (like lobby space that can be used for stuff, etc). Overall the facility is probably about the size of the Cox Center, though I can't find an official overall size -- and cost $217 million, making it the largest public project in Iowa history. The big arena and the big convention center are divided by 3rd street, and the smaller convention center is one city block to the south.

Judging the site plan and how well it integrates urban is difficult because there are so many different corners, each divided facility on the compound meets the street differently. Overall, it's decent. The only thing there is to complain about is a lot of wasted space for an open-grass area between the Wells Fargo Arena and the Des Moines River. It would be nice to see the surface parking around the Iowa Events Center develop, but it's not nearly as big a deal as with the Qwest Center. The IEC opens right up to Downtown Des Moines and surface parking is hardly a unique phenomenon around downtown Des Moines. There is no convention center hotel, but downtown does feature many hotels, including a Renaissance and an Embassy Suites.

Albuquerque, NM. City pop -- 521,999. Metro pop -- 845,913.
The Albuquerque Convention Center, finished in 1991, is 600,000 sf total, with 167,000 total exhibition sf, 106,000 of which is contiguous. So add it to the list of centers that have more exhibition space than the Cox, too. Also features a 31,000 sf ballroom and a 2,300 seat auditorium. The ACC also features a 395-room Hyatt Regency Hotel on the site, and is currently making plans to add another 450-room hotel as well.

The renovations are a part of an overall downtown revitalization scheme that will add an 11,000 seat arena across the LRT line (yes, Albuquerque has LRT to Santa Fe), that will create sort of an events center complex that spans several blocks around the LRT station, similarly to the Iowa Events Center. It's basically the same as if the Ford and Cox were combined as a facility and just called the "Oklahoma Events Center." I really like the plans that Albuquerque has come up with for doing this, so far. They've broken up the superblock structures with having potpouri infill development on the site and a very pedestrian-friendly site plan. There is literally ZERO wasted space in this plan. By putting the convention center along the LRT line, they've minimized the wasted space because the LRT right-of-way would be wasted space anyway. LRT frontage isn't something that can usually be utilized regardless, it's the same as any railroad line (our streetcar lines will be different and more accessible).

All of these cities have convention centers better-suited to host conventions than we do, and all of them have more convention space than us except Rogers, which even Rogers is giving us a run for our money now. When you don't even rank in the top 100 for convention centers, despite being a Top 30 Major U.S. City, something is wrong. Look directly at the root of the problem -- OKC is being one-upped by all of the smaller regional cities, a majority of them have less than half the metro population that we do (1.3 million). That needs to change.

From case examples that have been provided, I think the three most notable are Tulsa, Albuwhatever (I hate spelling that city's name out), and Omaha. Omaha teaches us to be wary of the bells and whistles and not to overlook simple site plan and access to the key activity areas of downtown. Tulsa teaches us that it's ok to be simple. Albuquerque is the best example of a top-notch convention center that balances great features with practicality and pedestrian access. While adding on to their convention center, they've figured out a way to break up the superblock, by sticking urban infill in different corners. The complex will bridge both sides of their LRT line, so it would be the equivalent of putting our center along the BNSF line, with the BNSF cutting through the heart of it. It's an idea. We've got three proposed sites, between the BNSF and the Central Park, the mill site across from Bricktown, and NE 9th and Oklahoma -- who said we couldn't reach a compromise by giving it great access to both the Central Park and Bricktown by having it cross over the BNSF tracks? Just a thought, inspired by one of our peer case examples.