Tuesday, August 10, 2010
A City of Neighborhoods
I wanted to do an in-depth look at the overall inner city, which for all intents and purposes, means the north side, so here it is. The inner north side is where OKC is at its best--where OKC has the potential to step it up a notch and evolve into a city of neighborhoods; a city for people; a city with an emphasis on sustainable, healthy lifestyles. If we strengthen the inner north side we can make the most sizable dent in all of OKC's sprawl symptons--traffic, pollution, obesity, brain drain, and the pandemic of low-density places not worth caring about long-term. Ask yourself how anything being built in Moore, just to name a suburb, creates any kind of lasting legacy that is worth maintaining 100 years from now. For the answer, look no further than Crossroads Mall. Then look at the inner north side, which has a legacy that consists of beautiful landmark churches, beautiful grandiose neighborhoods, tree-lined boulevards (sometimes), great old theatre buildings, lively nightlife strips, a plethora of arts and cultural assets, and much more. We have to refocus the bulk of our civic attention on this part of town, where our urban treasures are located. It's time to restore those urban treasures and capitalize on the potential laying in the inner north side.
To assess where these neighborhoods are and how to improve this part of town, I've done a number of assessments. Essentially there are three things that we need to focus on: Corridors, neighborhoods, and landmarks. In terms of corridors, the goal is to identify which corridors strategically connect different neighborhoods. An obvious example is 23rd Street, which borders a lot of the prominent neighborhoods--despite that the Paseo is the only neighborhood bordering it that has prominent placemarking signs. The goal with neighborhoods is to identify which neighborhoods need help, which to promote, which to designate as preservation areas, which to encourage infill and new construction, and so on. The goal with landmarks should be to identify what corridors and neighborhoods are densest in terms of architectural heritage, to identify where the potential exists to tie-in with architectural landmarks, and also to identify important pieces of our architectural heritage that are in need of rehabilitation. An example of this is the Skirvin Hotel, which the city realized was important and got proactive in pursuing its rehabilitation, and look at it today. An example of a landmark that I identified that could use some help is the abandoned May Theatre at 16th and May--an old historic theater similar to the Tower or Plaza that lays abandoned. Despite being surrounded by markedly improved neighborhoods, the May Avenue corridor has remained nothing too special. That should change, and identifying landmarks such as the May Theatre is a good way for the city to actively pursue that.
IMPORTANCE OF PLACEMARKING
The importance of placemarking is that if people do not know what neighborhood they are in, they won't care what neighborhood they're in. They won't even be curious about it. Oklahoma City's neighborhoods are extremely lacking in demarcation, which impairs the inner north side's sense of identity. In city's that are neighborhood-strong, you see a lot more focus put on the identity of the neighborhoods. In OKC, it's not uncommon to see a brick entrance to a neighborhood or to see street banners within the neighborhood, but other cities go a lot further--and these placemarking elements are notably absent from the main corridors--Classen, Western, 23rd, Penn, May, 36th, etc. In Tulsa you will see a colorful neighborhood logo stuck right underneath the street signs along any major corridor. These create a strong awareness of the neighborhoods you're passing by. In St. Louis, the main corridors through the city are literally a celebration of the neighborhoods you're cutting through. It's not at all uncommon to see large stone archways, wrought-iron gates, and other awesome neighborhood entrance markers.
Not to bring up an extremely controversial issue, but I can't think of a more appropriate comparison--conservative lawmakers are pushing for legislation requiring pregnant women to at least name their child before they get an abortion, the thinking being that naming the little human being growing inside of you will endear it toward you. I know that was a horrible thing to bring up, but I think it demonstrates the power a name can have. For a while, OCU also had their PR campaign promoting their small student body as a place where "you're a name, not a number." When you name something, or make others aware of something's name, it has more value and meaning. I'd imagine that Heritage Hills is a lot more interesting to someone now that it's history and identity has been brought to the forefront of its physical appearance, and it's not just a cluster of homes most people can't afford, but it becomes a part of the city's history and the city's identity and something that everyone can feel like they have a vested interest in, therefor everyone will want the best for Heritage Hills.
On a side note (as a joke), perhaps we can motivate some of these neighborhoods to get their act together and start meeting city code by placing signs at all the entrances that say "You're now leaving OKC, and now entering the 3rd World Country known as Classen-Ten-Penndjibouti."
Here I have outlined most of the main corridors through the north side and just given them a good or bad status in terms of streetscape quality. Here, the streetscape qualities refer to the quality of the actual street infrastructure and are made irrespectively of the urban fabric quality. So for example, you see that just about the entire duration of Walker is actually a negative presence--despite that it mostly goes through great neighborhoods, especially Heritage Hills. I've always thought that something should be done to improve Walker and capitalize on it, especially because of what a historical backbone of OKC that street is, from north to south. I believe that the lanes in Walker are wide enough that you should be able to install a small landscaped median, bike lanes, or landscaping in the sidewalks--without requiring more land acquisition--this would create a real treasure of an outdoors environment going through Heritage Hills, and would create a huge asset to encourage further investment in J. Park, The Paseo, and Central Park (the latter of which could really use it).
One thing I did was also identify the more important corridors with broader lines, whereas the side roads have thinner lines. Notice that Western is hardly meeting anything near its potential. Notice the far south terminus of Classen Blvd which I marked green to indicate that between Sheridan and Reno Classen goes through an interesting plaza that hardly anyone with a permanent address ever sees, but could provide an interesting example of how to fix the rest of Classen. Point is that Classen is a scar on downtown that it can ill afford, because of its importance in framing the western side of downtown and providing that entry point from the NW. Most of 23rd is negative except for the Uptown area, and I guess maybe the area by Shepherd Mall, but I might have been too generous there since I know from first-hand experience how lacking it is from a pedestrian standpoint. May and most of Penn are also negative impression corridors, although there is a nice median in Penn once you go south of 16th towards what I actually believe to be Burger Heaven.
On the bright side, NW 10th makes a great impression, and will be a real asset once the Tenth Street Peace Park gets underway, if ever. I would say it's already affected some positive change on the north side of the Metro Park neighborhood, which actually has a great existing housing stock (albeit at least 90% of properties still severely rundown). The city had a HUGE win with the Plaza District steetscape. I normally hate bolding and capitalizing sentences, but let me just say this: I wouldn't have had the foresight to want to save 16th and anything south of 16th..clearly this area is a priority for the city and the city has had incredible success here. Had it not been for the community rising up and making a place for themselves in terms of revitalization, I would have been writing this post and limiting it to areas east of Classen. I think the city also has a winner, in the long-term, with the Asian District streetscape, although it's not going to turn the area around as suddenly as the Plaza District streetscape worked. And lastly, I'll point to the Shartel/18th bend streetscape through Mesta Park as a prime example of what can be done through a very constricting space. You don't need to do a lot of land acquisition in order to make way for sparkling new streetscape project. The result is what I think is possibly the most gentrified stretch of road in ALL of Inner OKC (Shartel/18th in Mesta Park).
Then I'd like to move your attention to actual corridor health assessments, made irrespectively of the streetscape quality, but rather the quality of the building stock along these corridors. This is similar to the last graphic I made, I just spent a little more time on it--there are three different levels of importance (example: 23rd east of Classen is the highest importance) and the darkest green = good, brown is mediocre, red is reserved for corridors that are actually really bad.
23rd for the most part, in terms of corridor health, is alright.. it would be about a 3/4 rating if I were doing it that way, for the most part. 23rd could be really nice though, and it is a long ways from that. Classen is really pretty decent, too, once you get north of 16th. Classen/Western on the western edge of downtown are just really, really bad--but what's interesting is that Western between 10th and where it merges with Classen at 13th, a full 3 blocks, is actually emerging as a sort of colony of SoSA (across the Classen Blvd ocean). I think there's 3 art galleries here, and a few more contemporary residences hidden from site on the west side of the street. What's sad is how Classen resembles just one of those classic automobile gifts from the early days of urban renewal. It makes no sense to have it and Western side-by-side, so close together, especially when they mostly go through blight and brownfield (term for industrial/urban wasteland). Urban renewal was not all bad in terms of Classen, considering the decent building stock that exists north of NW 30th, lots of great examples of interesting Mid-Century architecture. Setbacks aren't too bad, and the Classen corridor is largely a positive presence in spite of the bad neighborhoods behind it (Helm Farm).
There are a few examples where a great streetscape and great corridor health do not go hand-in-hand. The exceptions to the rules are all instances where either the streetscape is too new to be making a difference (10th Street) or where a strip has just been historically thriving, even in spite of urban renewal remedies to the inner city--such as Western Avenue. And as for this map, sorry to say, but you do kinda have to squint to be able to differentiate between the olive green and the brown. The brown (example: 16th from Penn-May) is to denote mediocre but not necessarily awful, and the olive green is to denote something that is starting to ripen and meet it's potential (portions of 16th on each side of the Plaza). Also notice that Western Ave is the darkest green on the entire map, the only other stretches that are that exact forest green shade are the Plaza District and the Shartel-18th bend through Mesta Park. If you want to see a street that resembles a perfect set of stairs from good to bad, check out Penn from NW 23rd to NW 10th--which, interestingly enough, goes contrary to the streetscape ratings I gave Penn in the previous map.
This is the exact same map as above, just turned 90 degrees to the right. I did this on accident, but on a whim decided to keep it because I think it actually helps people understand circulation patterns through the inner north side a little better. OKC is a very augmented city, with all of its little parts very detached from each other--I like how this different orientation shows the inner north side beside downtown and not really attached to it. Here you see what a vital corridor NW 23rd Street is, serving as this part of town's Main Street. The historic neighborhoods north, erm I mean west, of Penn are also not as old as those east of Classen Blvd, so I like how it shows them being "uptown" of Heritage Hills. When this city was being built around the turn of the century, the city's first developers and founders such as Anton Classen and (forget first name) Putnam did not build out in every direction. They started with one linear corridor, which typically had a streetcar route in the middle of it, and went all the way north and then moved a little to the west and started another corridor going north out of downtown. This is how "streetcar suburbs" (most American inner cities to this day) evolved.
Ah yes, the neighborhood quality assessment. The Planning Department actually did their own version of this exact concept for the entire city back in 2000, but I have no idea where the locate it--each neighborhood was rated from 1-4. At any rate, it's time for a new one especially in regards to the inner north side where conditions have overwhelmingly improved in the last 10 years. I would even not be surprised if the mean average for the whole area has gone from 2 to 3.5 (their assessments were somewhat more generous than mine in 2000 terms, if such a thing is possible given how generous I think I was as someone who is more than willing to give an urban neighborhood the benefit of the doubt). There are actually 4 different shades of green, two shades of yellow, and two shades of red..so you could say they're rated from 1-8. So in case some of the shades are hard to differentiate, I'll go ahead and announce each rating (pretend we're at a neighborhood awards assembly, which apparently actually exists).
BEST OF THE BEST
These are your name-brand neighborhoods, most of which are on the National Register of Historic Places in their entirety. The lone exceptions on that are Linwood Place and Edgemere Heights. These neighborhoods, with the exception of Mesta Park, mostly feature large homes on large lots that dwarf those in the nearby neighborhoods. Mesta Park features large homes on much smaller lots (in comparison to those across Walker), giving it a very dense feel. It has strong building/lot proportionality. In no particular order:
These are your other neighborhoods that typically come highly recommended to anyone looking to move closer to downtown. Some of them just recently turned the corner (like the Paseo) thanks in part to a huge wave of investment right before the financial collapse, others have been gentrified for a while (like Shepherd) and just happen to have smaller, less grandiose homes than you'd find on 19th Street in Linwood Place. And just to rationalize one of them, there is no such "Helm Historic District"--it was considered part of the highly run-down Helm Farm neighborhood by the OCPD crime reports..I just need to do some more looking into it because this area feels like a very separate neighborhood, particularly where there's been a lot of well-organized preservation and restoration along NW 38th. In no particular order:
Helm Historic District
These are your neighborhoods that may be turning the corner still, but certainly are good neighborhoods, that are mostly tidy. Some, such as Douglas Park, are actually great neighborhoods that are just limited by the building stock being mostly smaller homes that will be difficult to fetch much more than $100,000, where I expect more homes to be valued at. And I think I might have underrated Denniston Park. Any trends you may notice with the names is totally unintentional. In no particular order:
NOT BAD NEIGBORHOODS
These hoods could do a lot of improving. I just didn't want to put them on my list of bad neighborhoods, mostly because they do have clusters of restored homes or newer homes. West Main Street actually has some huge potential, and is still an active business/industrial corridor, with well-maintained warehouses. In no particular order:
West Main Historic District
SOMEWHAT ROUGH HOODS
These are your neighborhoods that I'm not gonna cherry coat, they have a lot of work ahead of them. These neighborhoods are salvageable and have huge potential, they just have so much work to be done right now. And yes, I specifically put the OCU campus on a list of rough hoods, because their campus is terrible. They have some beautiful buildings, they have zero landscaping, and they clearly do not understand the concept of what a campus is. I have seen high school campuses that feel more college campus-like. They need to work on creating a campus feel or they will forever stay on my list of rough hoods. Of course, it doesn't help that the surrounding Epworth neighborhood is also very rough. Central Park is also a neighborhood that needs to be city-action targeted..apparently the city doesn't even maintain its own medians in Shartel. In no particular order:
Putnam Heights West
I think that these are the neighborhoods that represent the best candidates for new infill housing. They need the SoSA treatment. The main thing separating these neighborhoods from the "somewhat rough hoods" is that the building stock is going to limit its ability to improve much. It is largely somewhat disposable, and you all know what a brickhugger I tend to be. Classen-Ten-Penn is alright around most of its boundaries (Western, Penn, 16th), but the further south you go, the rougher it is--that's where the Flaming Lips reside. In the Aurora neighborhood there have already been a number of tear-downs, and I think I saw two new contemporary residences on a short drive through. If preservation everywhere else is enforced, it may actually be feasible to reposition these neighborhoods as the appropriate catchment areas for wide-scale redevelopment through tear-downs, and new infill housing. In this sense it is in the best interest of Classen-Ten-Penn to not allow any new construction in neighborhoods not named Classen-Ten-Penn, if that logic makes sense. Every neighborhood in this part of town has the potential to serve a purpose, and this is by far the best outlook for these neighborhoods. Hopefully someday they may resemble the Rice Military area of Houston. In no particular order:
Don't be fooled by Westlawn Gardens' pretty name. I wouldn't even recommend driving through these areas. Metro Park actually does have some potential, great building stock, maybe a small number of houses that look like they have been restored, others that have great potential, maybe one or two new infill houses. It's not as dangerous as the others but I'm sure that after dark it's still pretty bad. I imagine that the 10th Street improvements will help out over the longterm. The others are just industrial blight areas for the most part with dilapidated shacks mixed in for good measure. These areas will not even be a candidate for redevelopment because the city intends to relocate homeless services to this area. The new "WestTown" homeless shelter is currently u/c on Virginia, in Rock Island.
STRENGTHENING NEIGHBORHOOD CONNECTIONS
The neighborhoods forming a linear progression north from downtown form a "Central Corridor"--mostly the oldest neighborhoods in the city. These neighborhoods are connected in my mind, and there lays the potential to create stronger connections and through that, further gentrification of some neighborhoods that aren't yet where Mesta Park is. This happens through improvements to Shartel and Walker in particular, and strengthening crossings at 23rd and 36th. Perhaps even adding pedestrian crossings, like the mid-block light proposed in front of the Tower Theater on 23rd.
As you can see here, a connection between downtown and Fair Park are inhibited by the blight, homeless services, and dangerous neighborhoods in the way of such a path. In the future you may hear this area considered for redevelopment and westward downtown expansion. This would seem like a crap shoot at best, although I know the points will be raised in the future because they have been raised in the past. I have read in one of Lackmeyer's books that city leaders used to envision downtown stretching from Lincoln to Penn, hence why we have the bizarre Linwood Blvd. I think Linwood Blvd has opportunities that may even be worth revitalizing. I think Main Street has even more. I think though that the idea of redevelopment in these areas is preposterous because of everything else we're trying to redevelop. A huge amount of our city's demand will have to be spent on Core2Shore. It won't take a lot to keep the momentum going in the inner north side neighborhoods, but it will take up some of it--hopefully here you can divert some suburban demand though. I also think that Deep Deuce, MidTown, Arts District, Bricktown, Lincoln Blvd--all these existing areas of downtown are so far from being finished. Can it all be done in the next 30 years? Maybe, maybe not. But you can go ahead and write off the idea of downtown stretching as far west as Penn--not until our urban population balloons to at least Dallas-proportions. I do think thought that this due-west corridor between downtown and Fair Park represents a great opportunity to try and push any and all undesirable elements that way. That can be a helpful thing, and in that way, Rock Island and Westlawn Gardens can also serve an important purpose.
16th and most importantly 23rd Street resemble the most important corridors for circulation between neighborhoods in this part of town. 16th is obviously slower and residential in nature and should reflect that, whereas 23rd Street is a former Route 66 alignment. I'm not saying it should service the north side as an auto-centric highway, but it is the main business drag. There are weaker neighborhoods up the center stripe of the inner north side, bookended by the May Ave and Walker Ave clusters--strengthening E/W connections can bridge that divide and spread the forces of gentrification around.
Classen/Western Ave and NW 23rd Street are clearly the two main corridors that connect the inner north side to the beyond. Not only are these corridors important to the overall health of the area because they bring people in from the suburbs or downtown, but they also resemble really important areas to make an impression on people, to say that you are in the inner north side. Unfortunately, that's kind of a week name "inner north side" to use to promote strong branding, but I'll address that as a last point. What I want to stress are the importance that when ice storms hit, these routes are clear. The city should also consider branding for the entire part of town and not just the particular sub district you're presently in when you're along Classen or NW 23rd. Classen and Western, being only two blocks apart from each other, are a combined "system" in my opinion, all the way from I-44 down to I-40.
I also think rebranding the entire part of town, and coming up with a name for it, will be important to furthering these goals. Here are some examples of well-branded inner cities.
Houston's gentrified inner city is known as the Inner Loop. St. Louis refers to a collection of strong neighborhoods in a line west out of downtown as the "Central Corridor." And everybody who reads this blog is probably very well aware of Midtown Tulsa.
So what do we call the inner north side of OKC? Some possibilities..
Uptown--Uptown could collectively refer to the whole inner north side because it is up from downtown. Uptown 23rd Street isn't very well branded, and could just re-identify itself as the Uptown Main Street (similar to Capitol Hill/big part of town v. Capitol Hill Main Street/Commerce Street). Or the Tower District, or something else. It would also work well, logically, with the natural progression of Downtown, then Midtown, then Uptown. In Tulsa, Downtown is the furthest "up" from Midtown, and "Uptown" is in between the two--none of which makes any sense unless you just accept it.
The Heights--the north side is somewhat hilly, and it could help combat the reputation of OKC as being flat as a pancake, which is actually not necessarily true. There is also Crown Heights, Putnam Heights, Putnam Heights West, and Edgemere Heights. The "Heights" is a recurring trend in some neighborhoods, and could provide a unique title for the area other than the usual "uptown" or "midtown."
Flaming Lips City--because Flaming Lips Alley is already taken.
If anyone has any other good suggestions, I'll include them in a poll I intend to do on the matter later. And now, without any further ado, I am finally retiring to bed after working on these maps for days and spending 5 hours tonight putting it all together.