Sunday, June 20, 2010

The new urbanism of Midwest City

This is a post about the Midwest City Town Center. I realize that the Town Center is basically a suburban strip mall for the most part, but there is the small slice in the middle of it that is actually well-planned. Because well-planned retail spaces are such a rare commodity in the OKC metro, I will focus exclusively on that and ignore the vast expanses of the unacceptable that comprise this development.

Oh, and let me address the location. MWC? Yeah, I wouldn't have thought MWC had the potential for this nice of a project either. But actually the location really is a huge selling point, right in front of the main visitor's gate to Tinker AFB, I-40 goes through an open depression between the Town Center and Tinker, and there is another layer of traffic being carried along SE 29th Street, which is a very busy arterial through the Mid-Del area. The traffic counts have to be similar to Memorial/Penn or I-35 through Moore, which I believe is over 100,000 cars a day.

The Town Center consists for the most part of storefronts built up to the sidewalk along Mid-America Boulevard. In the median of Mid-America Blvd is a landscaped median with walking trails, reminiscent in some ways of a real boulevard.

In my opinion, this has the potential to become a great space as it matures over time. The lawn is smallish, but broad enough that it can play host to events. MWC really could try to pull of something like a summer blues festival in the green, or a community chili cook-off, or whatever kind of event would be most embraced by the residents of Midwest City (55,000 of them in the 2000 census, and 2010 will reflect some decent growth in Eastern Oklahoma County). As a suburban bedroom community of OKC and Tinker AFB, I imagine it would be similar to community events that exist in Moore or other bedroom communities.

One of the things that makes this a real, legitimate town center that to some extent is capable of standing on its own from the mess of Wal-Mart/JC Penney's/Lowe's/restaurant pad sites is that Mid-America Blvd is a real street. It has prominent egress and ingress at 29th Street and goes through the development and connects to the neighborhood behind it, where it opens up and splits--in the middle of it is MWC City Hall and other city buildings. The neighborhood behind it is largely old and run-down, but it shows that there are interesting urban redevelopment opportunities for bad areas. You could ostensibly drive through the connection between the neighborhood behind the Town Center and SE 29th without even realizing the presence of an enormous strip mall until you get into SE 29th. Because I forgot to snap a pic myself, here's a Google streetview image of the approach on Mid-America Blvd coming from the neighborhood north of the Town Center:

In order to actually achieve the effect of the lifestyle center portion dominating the interior of the Town Center, the storefronts leading up to Mid-America Blvd approaching from other streets resemble sort of a lead-up to the lifestyle center. On one side the shops come right up to the sidewalk of the street, whereas on another side it opens up to the sea of parking that is intended for one of the big box retailers like JC Penney's and others. Because it is a step down, there is not nearly the effect of the "Main Street" going through the development--but it provides continuity that keeps the influence of the parking lots away from the "Main Street."

And lastly, an important part of why this is a successfully masterplanned development is that the architecture of certain buildings stands out. It has the intention of being a charming hodge podge of storefronts that work together in a linear pattern. The spots that stick out the most have been given particular attention. Surprisingly, the lifestyle-oriented tenants of the "Main Street" like Panera or Starbucks don't occupy any of these keystone storefronts.

Obviously the rest of the Town Center just completely cancels out anything positive along Mid-America Blvd, but it's so far out in front ahead of the competition among other supersized retail centers in the metro (like Westgate Marketplace, 19th Street in Moore, Memorial/Penn, etc). This is a shining example of redevelopment, as well--other older, lower or middle income suburbs of OKC such as Del City, Bethany, Warr Acres, Britton (technically OKC now), The Village, and others should be paying close attention to this. Not only has MWC transformed an area that was once blighted, they've also vastly improved its reputation and image, set its tax coffers flush with new sales revenues, and positioned itself to be more competitive in economic development. Even suburbs that are larger, growing faster, and more prosperous such as Edmond, Yukon, Moore, Norman--even these cities should be looking at the MWC Town Center as an example in my opinion, not just the Del Citys and Bethanys.

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