Wednesday, February 17, 2010

It's baaaaaack...

Urban renewal. It's back, and it's in full force. Examine the "main" blunders that OKC made during urban renewal:

-Reconfiguration of the city grid. By removing several streets, making way for superblocks (city blocks that are made up of combined blocks, such as the Cox Center site), and filling them up with single structures we accomplished one thing: We cut off flow from the north side of downtown to the south side of downtown, and as a result, the south side withered away. We cut out large swaths of city and replaced it with dull superblock structures like a convention center, an arena, etc.. and what's even worse, we put them all together. If they were spread around, the edge of the Myriad Gardens would have vitality, the convention center wouldn't be so bad, the Ford Center would be surrounded by retail and restaurants, etc.

-Demolition of existing urban fabric. Here's a shocking concept to most people: A dense city is something that happens naturally, believe it or not. So at the end of the day, after all of these crappy incentives and urban renewal projects, what have we really accomplished? You get more of a downtown that's suited for events and special occasions than for any kind of lifestyle at all, and that's detrimental. Now the incentives are needed because it was unnatural forces that killed most downtowns in the first place (i.e., government subsidizing freeways, roads, cars, white school districts, etc). But when you remove that urban fabric, not only do you remove something that was built specifically for a city to grow into it, but you've severely diminished your ability to bounce back economically.

-Wiping out the architectural and cultural jewels of our city. What's probably the #1 thing that downtown used to be full of that no longer exists in any comparable form or fashion? MOVIES. Vaudeville. Film houses. The only performing arts that exists in downtown anymore are that at the Civic Center Music Hall, which has become a major league performing arts center. The Stage Center hosts a theatrical production once in a blue moon, too, but that's it. There were literally dozens of cultural jewels we have lost. We also lost a lot of our downtown's architectural significance. The result, once you lose all of those things that add intrinsic value to the built environment, is an environment that is not worth caring about to most people.

-Loss of defined space. Believe it or not, well-defined space is another absolutely essential aspect of city development. When people think of the great cities they don't think of one building, but usually it's a street lined with special buildings that build off each other. When people think of these great cities they think of entire environments, not isolated buildings. Defined space, such as a street lined with uniform buildings, also creates natural safety. There is clear definition of the space intended for pedestrians, and you see pedestrians and news stands and more there; there is clear definition of the space intended for cars, and you see cars and bicycles there. When you lose definition you get a downtown environment that behaves more like a stretch of the Northwest Expressway, where there is space for cars, and then the buildings randomly placed, and that's it. You also lose the natural ability to navigate a downtown without a map, which would be possible with a downtown grid that makes SENSE. Today's downtown resembles a space rover trekking through Mars, past unnatural developments like the Century Center and the parking garages along E.K. Gaylord, one-way streets, blocked off streets, streets that dead-end such as Broadway and Harvey and every other street, and so on. It's a nightmare to get around Downtown OKC if you aren't from there!! It just doesn't make sense, there is no defined space, it has not been allowed to develop naturally, and we still don't get that.

-Loss of traditional community uses. Believe it or not the traditional community use of a downtown is not 95% office. Downtowns of olden days were dominated by retail, the thing that is most absent from downtown today! They also had abundant residential units, civic amenities, recreational space, and then there was also a lot of offices. It used to be the beating heart of the city. When we took out the retail districts of downtown, and expected it to relocate to new space that was yet-to-be-built (the planned "Downtown Galleria") we were expecting something unnatural and heavily subsidized to work just as well as the naturally-developing retail district had for decades. That didn't cut it. The result from that blunder was that downtown lost all personal relevance and for a small handful of people that have lived in OKC for a long time, they're still skeptical of going downtown after 5.

So I have gone over some reasons why, specifically, urban renewal was bad. However it obviously doesn't take a rocket scientist or complex explanations for the average pedestrian to tell that urban renewal is bad, all you have to do is experience Downtown OKC today for yourself and you can tell it was not good.

Well looks like we're at it again! And because we have not learned from our own history, we are absolutely doomed to keep repeating the mistakes over and over. Let's go over the main blunders I outlined above, again..

-Reconfiguration of the city grid? Yup, we're definitely at it again. Just look at Core to Shore, particularly the enormous cluster of superblocks beginning at the Cox Center and Myriad Gardens and going all the way down to the new Crosstown. That is a TON of wasted frontage that could be taken up instead by cafes, townhomes, retail storefronts, and other delightful things a downtown SHOULD have. And if the vitality of a city is in the movement of life from one block to another, what is this? There are no blocks here. The Myriad Gardens is an underutilized park surrounded by no significant development that takes advantage of the park front real estate. Likewise, the new Core to Shore park is doomed to the exact same fate, minimized to the point of serving as nothing more than a pretty front yard for the convention center. Instead, why don't we immerse the convention center in the city and surround it on all sides by neighborhoods? It would seem to me that would ensure the success of the park more than anything else!

-Demolition of existing urban fabric? Yeah, we've got tons of that, too! As I wrote the other month in "The problem with an otherwise excellent SandRidge proposal," and in "Building demolition rampant," and countless other posts from before the recent SandRidge proposal, there is a very disturbing trend of tearing down buildings that has come up over the last 5 years. It started with the Brewers who weaseled a demolition proposal through downtown design review mechanisms without anyone ever getting notice of it. Then one day people on their way to work noticed that there was no longer a building standing on East Sheridan, across from the new Hampton Inn. People scratched their heads and wondered, "Wow, how did that happen?" The bottom line is that downtown design review mechanisms have lost any of their effectiveness. The Brewers and others are getting everything from demolition proposals to inflatable dragons in, against "the rules," without ever getting approval from the design review mechanisms intended to prevent that very thing. Sometimes it's because the person filing the permit at City Hall doesn't realize that a signature is missing, other times it's sheer corruption, other times it's sheer incompetence, but most of the time it's a lethal combination of all three things. Today we are witnessing an era in downtown OKC where demolition is championed as "substantial development." How did we get this low?

-Wiping out the architectural and cultural jewels of our city? Yessir, we've got plenty of that going on as well. Just look at the grand historic KerMac building, a solid building with developers clamoring to renovate it into apartments, with unique architectural detail. It's going to be replaced with a windswept plaza, similar to what already exists all the way around the periphery of the SandRidge Tower. We're also looking at buildings disappearing from Bricktown and MidTown and Automobile Alley. We're also fixing to tear down the India Temple, a building covered by a hideous bland EIFS facade, underneath which is a beautifully detailed and intricate structure. In fact the India Temple was also once home to the State Government during the period after the State Government fled Guthrie and was waiting on the new Capitol Building to be built. That's something we're about to recklessly tear down.

-Loss of defined space? Oh yeah. This is perhaps the most troubling aspect of the "New Urban Renewal" that OKC has set out on, particularly with tearing down one of the last remaining streetwalls in Oklahoma. Out with the old, in with the new, as they say. Downtowns used to be lined uniformly with complimentary buildings. Now all Tulsa has left is Boston Avenue and Main Street. Tulsa's Boston Avenue is by far Oklahoma's greatest street, lined with complimentary highly detailed high-rises as it is, bounded on one end by Oklahoma's tallest skyscraper (for now) and on the other by one of the world's tallest cathedrals, the towering Art-Deco symbol of Tulsa (The Boston Avenue Methodist Church), you could literally drop the unknowing off on Boston Avenue and convince them they are in New York City. OKC really only has three such streetwalls remaining from its once-great downtown: Park Avenue, Harvey Avenue, and Robinson Avenue. Broadway would count too, if its buildings weren't all surrounded by plazas. It is however Robinson Avenue, the least-intact corridor that still resembles some kind of streetwall, that is most endanger due to its proximity to energy giant SandRidge.

Which of these do you like better? Which of the below pictures shows a more defined, urban space? Yeah, tearing down the KerMac bldg will be GREAT for making SandRidge Tower perfectly visible all across downtown--but is that a good thing? Should we be able to look from one block and see straight through to other blocks, and should we HAVE to look at SandRidge Tower everywhere we go in downtown? Those are things worth considering. That's what this is about, is tearing down parts of downtown to make their building more visible. At what cost to the rest of us is that worth it?

-Loss of traditional community uses? Well, you be the judge of that. For what it's worth, we still haven't hardly gotten any meaningful retail going on anywhere in downtown. And all the restaurants are in MidTown or Bricktown. So I would have to say that not only have traditional community uses failed to materialize throughout this "renaissance" of downtown, but in the end we are actually getting ourselves further and further from that ever being realized downtown.

So after all, let me be the first to welcome you to the year 1975. Our mayor is Mick Cornett, our cause is Core to Shore, this message was brought to you by SandRidge Energy, and everywhere else it is the year 2010.


Anonymous said...

Excellent Post! It seems OKC continues to take two steps forward and one step back. They use the Houston example for a park next to a convention center as their goal. They don't see parks with history like Central Park as as a great example for a park and a NYC as a city that developed organically with housing surrounding the park.


Walker, Downtown Ranger said...

The Houston park is, interestingly enough, bordering a convention center on one side. A very underutilized side where space is poorly defined..

The opposite side where the city meets the park, there has been a TON of high-rise development spurred.

OKC Herbivore said...

nicely done again. the thing that seems most frightening is the block-superblock creation. it simply isnt human scale, it is still built for cars/conventions. and then on the 80% of the time when convention crowds arent there, who will be using that space? locals-who want more day to day services than a few high end restaurants.

also great was the look into high-rise corridors. one can stand at Robinson and Park and feel well-hemmed by street life, and then go one block in any direction and it's gone.

but the block sizing is such a key element in developing real street life-all these mega-blocks are going to continue to stymie that.

Walker, Downtown Ranger said...

Thanks Herbivore. You always have great feedback.

The #1 thing I would want someone to come away with after reading is that the building forms that line a corridor are beyond vital to creating urban life. With a properly sized grid and defined space you'd be amazed at how a city naturally develops. Take those organic elements away and it all goes to crap.