Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Thursday means History, Streetwall, and Corporate Campus


March 18th will be the showdown at City Hall over whether SandRidge can turn OKC history into rubble and debris as a part of their newfangled makeover of the SandRidge corporate campus.

So before I make my last post before the vote, let's examine this concept..corporate campus. I think that first we have to identify the nature of SandRidge's project. Is it fair to label it as a corporate campus, and if not, what else could it be? I would argue that if it's not a corporate campus, it should be a dynamic and urban-friendly addition to downtown.

A few more questions are, if the project falls under the category of corporate campus, is that good for downtown? What are the ramifications of that?

Here's a better question, is it fair to look at this in the context of what the ideal development of this site would entail (comparatively opposed to the proposal at hand), or should we be bending over backwards just happy as a peach that someone was willing to occupy KMG Tower immediately after it was vacated?

Needless to say, this will be an objective post. For the most part.

This is an ideal corporate campus. It is that of Chesapeake Energy, who has gobbled up land around NW 63rd and Western Ave to build the corporate campus of Aubrey McClendon's dreams. AMC, the only OKC resident on Forbes' list of billionaires, is quoted in the Gazette saying, "I want to turn 63rd and Western into the second major focal point of this community." The Chesapeake campus continues to grow by leaps and bounds as the company expands, and currently they employ 3,500 people at their OKC headquarters that currently has just under 1 million square feet. The funny thing is that the plan keeps changing and evolving, in the masterplan shown here you see "Chopt Square" or the older, uglier office buildings at the heart of the campus--as I posted earlier, those were recently demolished for a recreational green for CHK employees. The plan has also grown to include a large mixed-use village component across Western. In the mind of AMC, his corporate campus would be completely constructed now if it weren't for the pesky recession (talk about a man with vision).

But at the end of the day, the Chesapeake Energy development is a corporate campus. That is to say the epitome of "dead after 5," and it could just as well go around any major intersection in the metro, whether it be NW 63rd, the NW Expwy, Memorial Rd, May Ave, Edmond, Hefner Rd, Broadway Extn, I-240, SW 119th, Norman, or..well you get the point. You can do a corporate campus anywhere, it's a development genre that is more suited to a suburban corridor than it is a downtown, so therefor it is in essence a type of suburban development.

The strategy behind it is to have a fabulous setting to showcase a corporation's image that dominates the entire environment it is projected onto. Downtowns boost their corporate image in the form of a skyline, and that is it (for the successful downtowns at least), whereas with a corporate campus you can have wide, rangy plazas, useless green spaces, and other elements that act like a picture frame around your corporate headquarters. All of these plaza and landscaping elements don't get in the way of pedestrians or any street life or functional purpose, because it's a corporate campus, and it's functional purpose IS to make the corporation look mighty.

There is nothing wrong with corporate campuses, and the really nifty ones like Chesapeake are planning to add the detached urban village across the street from the corporate confines. They just aren't suitable for a downtown environment in most successful downtowns.

On the other hand, the whole "dead after 5" problem that people talk about with our downtown stems from the fact that from the 60s until recently, the goal was apparently to turn downtown into one large corporate campus. I would actually suggest, aside from the point I'm getting at, that today downtown has degenerated into an executive fantasy land, where on the west side of the tracks you've got the wonderful suburban office park, and on the east side of the tracks you've got the wonderful upscale gated community--all it lacks is the gate with a sign that says, "Maywood Park." And Lower Bricktown, of course, is the suburban strip mall de jour.

Obviously we in OKC are not serious about building a downtown that is designed for people, diversity, density, and PEOPLE! If we were, then we'd be boosting downtown's density, not tearing down buildings. We would be attempting to attract residential development at all different price points, and not doing everything we can to prevent development at reasonable price points (OCURA!!). And most importantly, if we were serious of course about this whole urban thang, our focus would be on the street, and framing the street--not on corporate office towers, and framing them.

For those not familiar, Tom Ward was a co-founder of Chesapeake Energy with AMC--he left on amicable terms, and now AMC is in lone charge of CHK. However, I would use this as proof to venture that Tom Ward is a suburbs man. He's a corporate campus man. He understands the potential impact that Devon Tower will have in terms of projecting Devon's corporate image on downtown, and he knows he has to keep up in terms of the community relations race (it's not enough to have commercials everywhere there's a Devon commercial, billboards everywhere there's a Devon billboard). And believe me, that 850 ft tall tower will be visible everywhere from Edmond to Norman. From Tom Ward's perspective, he's going to go with the suburban model because that's whats most familiar to him--and the whole Devon thing means that it's time to step it up. Keep in retrospect through all of this that Tom Ward didn't go downtown for reasons that he just always liked downtown..it was financially a real deal for him to move into KMG.

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Or is SandRidge Commons a suitable downtown development? Does it contribute to the livability, or 24/7 vitality of downtown? Does it add life downtown, or just more of the same unfortunate sameness of corporate plazas and useless parks? You be the judge.


"Oh, but this will be different. This will be nice pavement and grass." That's what they always say..

Of course, even if you are convinced of how horrible this development will be for downtown, it is still worth considering that SandRidge still has an argument. I don't think that my argument is 100% infallible, I'm not that big-headed. There are still the arguments of property rights, and whether SandRidge should have to take marching orders from the public. That said, I don't think it's too much to ask for quality developments at least in downtown. Also I think there's something to be said for how thankful we are that SandRidge is growing, here in OKC, and that they took over KMG Tower. Should we be bending over backward and let them lay waste to our downtown since they helped us with KMG Tower?

I think it's pretty obvious that this is about developing a corporate campus. This is about taking the hollowed out area of downtown around the old Kerr McGee campus and expanding it all the way to Robinson Ave, hence how SandRidge has boasted that demolishing the KerMac will "improve the sight lines of the tower." Translation: It will inflict the corporate image of SandRidge Tower, once hidden from sight on Robinson by the streetwall.

Streetwall, which I once again brought up earlier, brings me to my last point. I agree, everyone around here has been talking about streetwall lately, and I'm no different, and it's a tired argument. Except for the point that it's true. Great cities and great downtowns are made up out of well-defined space, and private property that comes together and frames the public realm, and also adds its own flavor to it. That indeed does exclude windswept plazas which contribute nothing, but actually detract in terms of possibility cost, as well as lack of definition for the public realm. What we ought to be doing with all of these plazas is start fashioning them into the surface of the moon (how about a plaza made out of cheese?), because that's about how urban they are.

But Thursday's not about streetwall. It's not about history either, even though yes, we do stand to lose significant parts of OKC History when the India Temple and KerMac are turned to rubble. It's not about urban renewal, either. It's about corporate campus, and a combination of all of those things. On Thursday, Downtown Design Review has the opportunity to say "NO" to tearing down OKC history, urban renewal in the year 2010, removing one of OKC's last streetwalls, preventing historic loft conversions, and last and not least, hollowing out more of downtown for a suburban corporate campus.

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I recently discovered a REALLY COOL set of KerMac interior pics on Steve Lackmeyer's okchistory.com website. Apparently the inside of that old building is just full of old murals and paintings commemorating Kerr McGee's storied history in Oklahoma, afterall, the shabby old KerMac building IS the original headquarters for old KMG. If we have to lose the building that temporarily housed the Oklahoma Legislature for 4 years because the building is beyond saving, that's sad but so be it, but let's at least not lose the old KerMac Building that we know investors would like to convert to historic lofts. Imagine it: Kerr McGee Lofts, or better yet, Oiler Lofts.

If you're interested in a cumulative read, and have lots of time, consider reviewing the long series of posts I've written on the SandRidge demolition proposal:

Save the KerMac!
It's baaaaaaack... (Urban Renewal)
Hard to argue
Building demolition rampant
The problem with an otherwise excellent SandRidge proposal

As well as as these Cityshots:

Cityshot XVII
Cityshot XXXVI