Sunday, June 6, 2010

In the year 2010..

This post looks at goals for Downtown in 2010 that were made by the OKC Planning Department back in 2003. I think here you will see some pretty damning evidence of why downtown infill has lagged behind what was expected. (And as I always explain, a humongous earth-shattering project like Devon Tower doesn't count as "infill.")

The report that this is based off of is not the Downtown Housing Study (which suggests a certain amount of infill should be finished by now), nor the Fixed Guideway Study (which determined OKC needed to have downtown streetcar established by a date that has long since passed), and so on. I am also not going off of planning masterplans for neighborhoods such as MidTown or the Oklahoma Health Center that are a long ways from fruition. I am simply using a plan that I think we've all forgotten about, the Downtown OKC Strategic Action Plan (click me).

The plan also outlines different areas of downtown and makes recommendations specific to the district, and also makes projections of where the district could be by 2010. I will just run through these projections and grade the city based on how we've done, per this 2003 standard.

Arts District (Pg 29): "The existing amenities located in this sub-district provide a substantial foundation on which to build future similar uses, thereby solidifying the urban cultural experience. Additionally, if properly developed this sub-district is a logical location for high-end owner occupied residential uses and related support services." Translation: More cultural institutions and perhaps some high-end residential.
Grade: A-. Since 2003 we've seen The Legacy come to fruition and provide 300 units of upscale residential units, and despite being criticized for its bland design, I view it as a brilliant urban form because of how functional it is, and it brings the street level retail to downtown. This is one of downtown's only true mixed-use developments. We've also seen the new OKCMOA, a blossoming of arts at the Civic Center, the new library open, and more. A new sculpture is set to go up in front of City Hall, too.

Automobile Alley (Pg 29): "The sub-district provides tremendous potential to connect the Business District to the historic neighborhoods north of downtown. If revitalization continues in a proper way, Automobile Alley may become a significant and vital district within the central city." Translation: More surrounding neighborhood tie-in and return to its original function as the key entry point for downtown. They were also expecting A-Alley to become something big. There was also a separate study that identified 10th and Broadway as sort of a "keystone" to the continuation of downtown's renaissance.
Grade: C. Automobile Alley largely lacks the mixed-uses we had hoped it would develop, and that the building stock's nature naturally lends itself to. To this day it is dominated by office uses and basically just serves as an extension of downtown. Not to be all harsh, there is some fantastic new energy that came about toward the end of the decade in properties that Steve Mason was involved in, and he is continuing to do cool things, including the planned opening of a new high-end furniture store, Rawhide. There were two potential deals for housing that I believe fell through, one being for lofts over the bank on the east side of Broadway, and another for "The Chandelier" which got bought by MidTown Redevelopment (or "Renaissance") and has been slow for progress since. There is still a lot of work remaining to bring the district to "vital area" status, let alone to bring a buzz of mixed-uses to fruition.

Bricktown (Pg 30): "Potential for growth opportunities and a demand for specialized attractions in Bricktown are great and there is no reason to believe this trend will not continue in the years to come." Translation: Focus on bringing in more on entertainment and tourism uses, which have been successful in Bricktown.
Grade: A+. Again, this is judging it empirically and only on the tenet of whether or not it has accomplished this goal set forth in 2003, and it certainly has. It has continued to capitalize on being an entertainment district with huge events like the Thunder Fan Fest (which was huge, hosted by Baby Bash, and other artists, maybe a thousand or more fans). Sporting events have been huge, as well. This has been where Bricktown has helped put OKC on the map. Gained more restaurants and nightlife, as well as the American Banjo Museum, and the possibility of a new toy museum coming. By my own expectations, and the common knowledge that Bricktown NEEDS housing and retail uses as well, I think we can agree that the grade I assessed is a bit generous.

Central Business District (Pg 30): Streets and thoroughfares in the Business District are predominately automobile-oriented. They, along with the underground pedestrian system, presently discourage a pedestrian-friendly character and hinder the ability to create physical or visual connections along the subdistrict’s sidewalks and streets. While office leasing activity remains slow, it is not unreasonable to expect a market will emerge for conventional office space." Translation: It needs to become more pedestrian friendly, and the market will slowly improve for office space.
Grade: A+. Since this study was completed in 2003, downtown's vacancy rate has plummeted from 34% (perhaps the highest of any major U.S. downtown) to 24%. A large part of this was as a result of residential and hotel conversions. Part of it was truly due to drastic improvement in the demand for office space. It is also here where OKC deserves major props for Devon, and yes, perhaps SandRidge (yes, I just gave SandRidge props). I tend to think walkability is also about to make drastic improvements as Project 180 will in short order redesign every downtown street and bring everything up to 2010 standards. I'd be more than happy to assess an A++++ if they would just plant grass over E.K. Gaylord or subdivide it back into plots and let OCURA take bids from developers.

Deep Deuce (Pg 31): "Also contained in the sub-district are a number of large surface parking lots and underutilized sites ideal for varied, significant development opportunities, such as infill housing." Translation: Infill development, doesn't specify price range.
Grade: B-. I am going to go out on a limb and read more into the statement than might be there at first glance. It doesn't specify price points for such infill development and we know that was an extremely heavily weighed consideration on OCURA's part in picking developers to negotiate with. That was also a major contributory factor to why development has been slower than hoped and why one, such as The Hill, was an outright failure. To the city's credit, this doesn't say the district should be finished by 2010, just that infill should be underway, and it certainly IS (or was). There are rumors emerging of an intriguing land deal with the former Maywood Park properties that could put infill development back on track in a big way, details emerging later this year. Looking at Deep Deuce from I-235 shows incredible amounts of infill and progress, looking at it from the BNSF tracks only slightly dampens my enthusiasm, despite all of the derailed development proposals we've seen (Maywood Hall, The Leslie, completion of the breathtaking Brownstones, Grant Humphreys' awesome Flatiron project, The Triangle, an addition to Momentum Market, and more).

The Flatiron (Pg 31): "Because of its proximity between the Business District and the Research Park, potential is high for the development of mixed uses that address specific development needs required to attract creative industries, businesses and workers." Sounds pretty boilerplate, but we'll roll with it. Translation: Mixed-use development, particularly capitalizing on the PHF Research Park.
Grade: F. Nothing has happened in this area since 2003 except for Momentum Market and the Untitled Art Space gallery (Rand's office was pre-2003 I think). The "Beacon of Hope" landmark project a beam of light that could be seen from outer space was a failure to do something landmark, but we may revisit that assessment and realize it as a more significant piece in the future once there is more definition of space to draw from between The Flatiron and PHF. PHF had a land development deal in the works but gave up the option to develop the site in favor of the Humphreys' project which won't go up anytime soon.

I-40 Expansion Area (Pg 32): "Development opportunities, such as infill housing, are great. A thorough Master Plan for this area will help guide development for the southern edge of downtown, thereby serving as a connection between downtown and the emerging near-south neighborhoods of Capitol Hill and South Oklahoma City." Translation: Potential for infill housing is huge. The action outlined is to create a masterplan.
Grade: A+. You could say they have created a masterplan. They have also created a new numero uno priority and calling, whether you agree with it or not.

Midtown (Pg 32): "Yet, MidTown has tremendous potential, if properly revitalized, to connect the Business District to the well established historic residential neighborhoods, located just north of MidTown." Translation: Seek out new infill development and mixed-uses that fade from office to residential as you go north.
Grade: B. Midtown is progressing. Historic renovations are underway, although it will be interesting to see if anything is finished between now and 2012 due to the deferment of tax credits for revitalizing historic properties, but nonetheless stuff will get done by then or shortly after. A lot has already been done. Many of the city's most popular restaurants are in this area of town. Residential has been finished, albeit only along Shartel. When Banta exited there was someone there to pick up where he left off. There is an interesting plan for using 2007 GO Bond Issue money for new traffic circles and a diagonal Classen Drive extension that also makes a stronger connection to the downtown core and creates some interesting triangle-site infill opportunities. More on that in an upcoming post. They saved Saint Anthony's Hospital, which was the main concern in 2003 (although not expressly stated in the study), thus the relatively positive ranking despite not a whole lot of change outside of the NW corner of MidTown.

So that's where we have come since 2003, just by narrowing the scope to judging only those things we had identified as goals in 2003. Obviously goals change and new, bigger goals emerge. Landing the NBA was not a goal we had on our radar in 2003. Nor was an 850 ft tall skyscraper. Nor was a MAPS 3. Nor was a complete Myriad Gardens renovation. Nor was the Boathouse Row stuff. Nor was making anything of the former Film Row area. And I could go on and on and on all day long. But obviously we have not done badly as defined by our neighborhood objectives.

There was a different set of objectives laid out, however. Because they recognized that infill development would not just magically happen on its own, they laid out a comprehensive short and medium term plan of action that was to be completed by 2010 that would ensure infill development go forward and be feasible.

"By 2010, downtown Oklahoma City is a vibrant and active urban place, a 24-hour destination for entertainment, arts and culture, an active and profitable center of business, with a variety of urban housing."

WRONG. So despite doing so well, for the most part, on achieving the neighborhood objectives, how did the city make so little progress on fundamentally changing the level of activity and availability of urban housing in downtown? The answer: Perhaps the second set of objectives is just as important if not more so, which commands a detailed look at how we have met those, as follows:

By the specifics (Pg 36): By 2010 downtown needs to have 2,000 new housing units, needs to go from 700 to 2,250 hotel rooms, development strategies for each neighborhood, support activities that continue urban growth, translate urban growth into economic development for the city, and so on.
Grade: D. Didn't meet the projected goals for housing or hotel rooms, although we would have had every proposed project made it to fruition. We got around 500 residential units to actually happen, a far cry from 2,250, or the near 3,000 that had actually been proposed between 2003 and the end of the decade.

So what more can we do to make developers more successful (basically do their job for them)? And yes, the city does sometimes need to do what developers should do already, just because we need them to be successful for downtown to be successful, as hard as it may be to make some of these people successful.

Short term goals (Pg 37):
Develop and publish list of incentive programs and how to access them, pursue amendments to current TIF legislation to optimize their effectiveness, undertake all necessary steps to facilitate development of housing and hotel rooms.
Grade: C-B, depending on your definition of "undertake all necessary steps to facilitate development."

Medium term goals (Pg 37): Designate "Development Coordinator" in DOKC to facilitate development process, develop masterplans with design guidelines, streamline development process to reduce processing time, to be continued.
Grade: B-. No masterplan exists to my knowledge for Bricktown, the Arts District, downtown core, Deep Deuce, or other districts that aren't MidTown, Oklahoma Health Center, or Core to Shore. There are numerous positions that exist to coordinate development with both DOKC and the Chamber.

More medium term goals (Pg 37): Facilitate long-term expansion of PHF, seek major source of funding to augment existing development incentives, facilitate small scale infill development, develop long-term plan for use of all OCURA plan, to be continued.
Grade: F. PHF doesn't need to be facilitated, they own all that land and aren't yet finished (meaning they are behind their build-out timeline, but that's okay). No major source of funding has been found to augment development incentives despite the brilliant example of city-provided loans up the turnpike. No comprehensive plan exists for OCURA properties and in fact, it is not even common knowledge which land is OCURA-owned and which land is under a timeline from OCURA. There needs to be some better comprehensive effort put forth when it comes to OCURA. This was a brilliant idea.

More medium term goals (Pg 37): Talk to OU about downtown student housing, develop a comprehensive plan with downtown churches and their potential development and housing, develop specific retail and residential masterplans, promote partial adaptive reuse options for chronically vacant properties.
Grade: D+. Starting with the good news, the city gets major major props for its role in dealing with the once-chronically abandoned property known as the Skirvin Hotel. That's about it, otherwise they'd get an F-. There have been no talks with OU, despite their massive medical campus adjacent to downtown. There have been no talks with the other schools that are becoming heavily involved in downtown, either..OCU and UCO. UCO especially has massive potential with their Bricktown School of Rock. There has been no effort to plan for investment from churches located just north of the CBD mostly along Robinson. This could be beneficial to bringing new life back to Robinson, an impressively dead corridor, which could be rebranded as church central. Hey, all potential land uses are essential to a downtown, especially churches. Why not a downtown branch or something like that?

Those were just development and incentive objectives. There are also marketing and communication objectives. I'm not going to outline all of them, but I will outline the ones that catch my eye..

Marketing objectives (Pg 39): Actively market and promote different downtown districts, coordinate the implementation of walking tours, develop cross-promotional ties with city events, amend existing ordinances to allow more street interaction (vendors, etc), promote downtown at Will Rogers World Airport, consider dedicating a Route 66 Business Route through downtown.
Grade: C-. They have done a really good job with downtown events, especially cross-promotional ones, tying in different themes and causes to downtown. Such as the Flaming Lips' Halloween march, Opening Night, Thunder Fan Fest, Festival of the Arts, St. Patrick's Day Parade, and more. They have not amended the city ordinances to my knowledge. There is no promotion of downtown going on at WRWA, which I know as someone who is at WRWA an awful lot. There are no walking tours of downtown either, which could be a really interesting proposition. Hell, I would even volunteer to lead them during the summer. Route 66 Business Route through downtown? Is it even possible, would it help, is it a good idea? Who knows.

Planning and design objectives (Pg 41-42): Determine prime locations for housing and take whatever steps necessary to ensure private development there, ensure quality design input in all public projects, develop design improvements for key streets linking downtown sub-districts, pursue discussions with Myriad Gardens Foundation about redesigning a portion of the park for higher pedestrian interaction, develop design improvements to major entry portals to downtown from highways, develop a streamlined prescriptive zoning for downtown, develop a masterplan for downtown streetscapes, coordinate with ODOT a plan for the ODOT easement that runs through Deep Deuce, narrow streets and add curb extensions to favor pedestrians, draft a list of endangered historic properties and define steps for rehabilitation, encourage/require landscaping for vacant lots.
Grade: C. No requirement for vacant lot landscaping downtown despite a requirement for green space in actual development proposals. ODOT has done nothing to beautify the gaping I-235 easement. There has been no public coordination on the housing front, hence our little progress there. No progress made on the awesome suggestion to improve downtown entry portals from highways (what out of state visitors will see). There is no list of endangered historic properties, and if there was, anything SandRidge owns would top the list. They did however get most of downtown rezoned for mixed-uses, which will greatly streamline the development process. Major props again for Project 180 and Myriad Gardens redesign.

Recruitment and retention goals (Pg 44): Develop inventory of all downtown property, consider outsourcing of parking meter enforcement to ensure "customer friendly" parking experience, develop plan for marketing downtown to developers, consider reorganization of COTPA and reassessment of responsibility for downtown parking garages, improve trolley route service, consider new tenant incubators to grow downtown tenants, aggressively facilitate reuse of historic structures.
Grade: F+. There is an inventory of all downtown property that exists. There is a plan for marketing downtown to developers that they always follow. Parking meter enforcement is way too overzealous, and putting a police station in the middle of Bricktown was the worst idea ever. Privatize, privatize, privatize. Anything to soften parking meter enforcement, OR alternatively develop a voucher program for downtown tenants which is utilized in other cities. Obviously they aren't aggressively facilitating the reuse of historic structures. The trolleys are awful and should just stop running. COTPA has gotten a lot better, but until recently, they were acting like a public entity in serious need of redefinition. Last but not least, they seriously need to build some public office space and/or public retail space to serve as downtown tenant incubators. This is a great potential idea they should follow up on. Follow the example of the new Red Dirt Marketplace in Bricktown.

I think we need to go back and accomplish all of these things, and I believe these will go a looooong ways towards getting Downtown back on track to where it needs to be in terms of mixed-use offerings and 24-hour activity. All of these recommendation of the Planning Department made in this study are completely spot-on. We only accomplished 20% of these goals, and time is up. It is for this reason that we have seen the addition of downtown housing in the hundreds, and not the thousands. It is possible that Devon Tower coming onto the market freeing up all of the space Devon currently occupies could actually be a detriment as well if we don't start pursuing these goals laid out back in 2003 that we have since apparently ignored. We may also have possibly not lost out on the Big 12 basketball tourney had we been able to provide better downtown hotel offerings. Just something to think about..

1 comment:

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