Sunday, February 21, 2010

OCURA: What a stellar track record

Gotta love gub'ment interference in downtown development, Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority (OCURA) especially, the folks who brought you Lower Bricktown, Bass Pro, The Hill at Bricktown, Overholser Green, and countless other downtown success stories. Pat yourself on the back, OCURA, because if not for you and your contributions toward expediting quality private development, OKC would still be a vibrant downtown. Wait, I meant a dead downtown.

So in this post we'll examine OCURA's stellar track record in advancing "quality" urban development in OKC.

I think we can all appreciate the corrupt bidding process in which we ended up with Bass Pro, over other potentially more urban projects that had been pitched. The good news is that Bass Pro is virtually the extent of retail in Bricktown, and the rest of downtown. It also added something Bricktown was in desperate need of: surface parking. So all in all, a win-win. Plus the adjacent Lower Bricktown development was absolutely fool-proof. Even though The Centennial is the only remotely urban component of Lower Bricktown, even it is loosing retail tenants. (LiT went out of business.) LB's other clothing retailer, Firefly Clothing, also closed recently. So one bright spot for Lower Bricktown, the fact that it did at least have leasing, is now just one of many sore spots for the much-maligned project. Add to the fact that LB has never been finished, and likely won't ever be finished until the Crosstown comes tumbling down and replaced by an at-grade boulevard behind Lower Bricktown. As it happens, developers Stonegate Hogan were given a TIMELINE on the project, and the TIMELINE has since lapsed. Will OCURA ever close on the remaining canal-front land and take it back, and try and get some other developers to bid on it? Nah, never. This is not about good development, the City of OKC, protecting a public investment like the canal, or ANYTHING like that. This is about the good ol' boy system and pushing the interests of the developer, Stonegate Hogan.

One of the few bright spots, if you're one of them out-of-touch urban advocates, is the Deep Deuce Apartments--but even Deep Deuce has one glaring downfall: it was NEVER completed, and won't EVER be completed as planned. So it's another example of where a developer proposes one thing, gets the bid, then does the ole switcharoo or doesn't even come close to finishing the development that they said they would do. Never mind the fact that the reason they were given the bid was to do the development they proposed, and nothing else. Integrity is not an important factor here, because OCURA doesn't actually care about "urban renewal."

Funny thing about the Overholser Green project is that I actually defended OCURA here. I supported the Overholser Green project because it was a good project, and at the time, I didn't realize how it was financially unfeasible. The high-end nature of the project, especially the condominium aspect. In contract to Marva Ellard's competing proposal, a mixed-use project with rental residential and financing in place. Well it's obvious that OCURA couldn't have picked that project, because it actually had a relatively good chance of success. That would just completely throw OCURA's track record all out of whack. Now where we are is (3/4 years or so after the bid was awarded) Chuck Wiggin has stalled on the project. In fact he scaled it way down so that it was a much less significant project, and he still couldn't get it off. So basically after he was awarded the contract, he pulled the old switcharoo as so many of them do, and instead of pulling the contract AS OCURA SHOULD HAVE DONE, OCURA approved it again because they already awarded the contract. At that point and thereafter Wiggin could have done whatever the hell he wants, or doesn't want; he could have put a 7/11 on that land for all OCURA cared. The story more or less has been marked by what he doesn't want to do, and that is develop the land which has absolutely sat there and won't be developed any time soon. Thanks to everyone's favorite gub'ment agency.

No downtown project exemplifies "FAILURE" like The Hill does, and that's bragging rights nobody can even come close to. This is the kind of project that OCURA really hangs its hat on, the bread and butter of what OCURA is all about as a corrupt government agency. I guess first you gotta begin with the corrupt bidding process, against two other more financially feasible projects, including a great mixed-use proposal from Anthony McDermid. Within the last 12 hours before the bid was awarded, Bill Canfield and Marva Ellard (developers of The Hill) notify OCURA that they're dropping their request for a TIF district as a part of the development. OCURA was legally required to notify McDermid and others of the change in the competing proposal, but failed to do so because it was late at night. McDermid later said that had he been notified, he also would have dropped his request for the TIF--but never got such a notice. Now that The Hill is what we're stuck with, as it's already under construction, it's become even more of a quagmire. The suburban design of the over-priced units have scared away any potential buyers, so the project has sold only 2 or 3 units, total. Without selling ANY units, Canfield couldn't pay contractors, so they stopped construction and probably hold liens on the project. The project can't even be closed on and reclaimed by OCURA at this point, because the few dozen townhomes that were built (out of 160 or so proposed) use up ALL of the street frontage that this project has. The only way thing that could be put on that site now is a big box retailer that needs highway visibility more than frontage (like BASS PRO, hint hint), or a commuter parking lot. That's it.

We got LUCKY with this project. Here's another one where a developer (Mike Henderson) gets awarded a bid, based on a great proposal with snazzy architectural elevations..then he pulls the old switcharoo and we get Plainville. This project in no way resembles the high-design development that was anticipated during the bidding process. But the bright side is this: the project actually is URBAN, it's not necessarily UGLY, and it works. It also has 300 or so upscale rental units, and that's GREAT for downtown. OCURA accidentally stumbled upon a success here..but they should have held Henderson to his original design proposal, especially considering he got TIF funding for this. That's a public investment that OCURA should have been looking out for.

I could go on. The funny thing, as you read through the annals of downtown history and come across a chapter on Sycamore Square, is how we have literally repeated the Sycamore Square fiasco over and over and over and over in the last 5 years. Yes, it's true that downtown development has been booming, very successfully, in the last 5 years. There is a HUGE exception to that however, and that is any time OCURA is involved. OCURA stands for Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority, but I would seriously question, based on their track record, what the hell their problem is. I think here is a great example of where a government agency with a long acronym no longer comes even close to representing what its acronym stands for. So next time someone asks, "What does OCURA stand for?" The answer of course must be, "OCURA stands for O-C-U-R-A," not anything relating to urban or downtown or the community or anything like that.

Sadly, I think I could raise some very critical questions of Downtown Design Review these days, as well.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Wow, it's a big world..

Guess what city this is. Hint: Quickly becoming Europe's "urban boom" city. And by the way, this isn't even this city's "downtown" -- but even though none of its tallest scrapers are in this pic, it probably is the densest "skyline" developing in this World City.

Wouldn't it be cool to just backpack around Europe for a few months?

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.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Cityshot XXXVIII

Hudson Avenue in the Arts District, across from the Devon Tower construction site. Downtown developer Nicholas Preftakes bought up this whole block.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

First wave of MidTown Renaissance residential..finished!

Here's a story that just came up last week. For those who don't know, Bob Howard and Mickey Clagg have finished with their first round of residential properties in their MidTown Renaissance portfolio. For some background info, their MidTown Renaissance projects is a series of 30+ buildings in the Midtown area (bounded by NW 13th/NW 6th and Classen/Broadway)..the first wave of restaurants and retail was opened 2-3 years ago, with the restaurant row around the new Walker Circle. This includes Irma's, McNellie's, new bakery, Midtown Y, 1492 Latin Fusion, Midtown Deli, a new Italian restaurant being developed, and many other great places.

Now, 2-3 years later, and after the portfolio has switched hands, the first wave of residential is finished, but it's nowhere near where we all expected. While it's true that lots of preliminary renovation work has been done on some of the more prominent buildings, like the Traveler's Life Bldg, the Osler Bldg, the Heritage Bldg (redubbed 1212 Walker), Pat's Lounge (redubbed The Packard), and others. But the first three residential renovations, totaling 16 units total, are up by Francis and NW 12th (north of St. Anthony = NoSA maybe?, i.e. "SoSA").

909 NW 12th, 905 NW 12th, and 1217 N Francis, to be exact. These are the links to the information I'm getting for this post..

1217 Francis

3 story - 2 units on each story (6 units), each unit 800-850 sf, 1 bed/1 bath, and starting at $950.

909 NW 12th

2 story - 4 units on each story (8 units), each unit 800-870 sf, 1 bed/1 bath, starting at $950.

905 NW 12th

2 story - 1 unit on each story (2 units), each unit 1250 sf, 2 bed/2 bath/2 living room (or study), and going for around $1500.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Back in OKC..

Had to come back to OKC for an important occasion, as much as it breaks my heart to be missing out on the Canadian Olympics. My 88 year old great-grandfather, who I was really close with, passed away last Monday. He was a true leader on the south side of OKC, where he lived his entire life. Also a true history archive..whether it be WWII history, south side history, Masonic history, or automotive history. And a great man.

Me and my father went to have coffee Coffee Slingers on Broadway. I saw Steve Mason busily walking back and forth. Also saw Andrew Rice and, I think, Skirvin G.M. John Williams there..they were going over what appeared to be building documents, and not Skirvin building documents. My dad says he overheard Rice saying, "So should we keep this quiet?" but I suspect that was just imagined by his right-wing mind (as we know, Rice is as liberal as they come).

So was it something other than building documents? Quite possibly. Who knows, but they were up to something. My hopeful guess? Maybe John Williams has something interesting in mind for the future of the Skirvin, that would require historic tax rebates or something, or perhaps a different project altogether?

Also saw Steve Mason there, who caught my eye as he waved at me. Mason is an awesome guy whose a real "can-do" kind of person. He sees a vision for 9th and Broadway and went and achieved it, and he's not done yet--and he won't be slowed down by non-local indicators. Mason is also a big believe in casual Fridays at the office, I believe, but he was dressed up today.

So here's some more idle speculation, because this post is indeed in need of more, (hopeful speculation, as it's really true that I very much wish the best for 9th and Broadway): What if Steve missed out on casual Friday because he had a big deal go down today, signed a prospective tenant or met with a bank or something, for a project on the south side of 9th? That would be great. Remember, he was hoping to add another restaurant and a traditional furniture store (as opposed to the interior design shop). What if there was also a residential component? Not that I have ANY inkling of an idear.

Also as two final items, just wanted to suggest that posting will probably get even more intermittent--I was already incredibly swamped with school work, now after having to leave for a few days for the funeral, that's gotten worse. Also, I don't want to fuel any speculation with this or gossip, that's not my intent..I was just noticing that some "big players" in OKC were most definitely at it again today.

And isn't it great that we have these places in OKC where city leaders constantly converge? I don't know if Coffee Slingers has become such a place, such as Nonna's or the Art Museum's Tuesdays on the roof, but today it certainly seemed like it. Definitely a sign of a city that is developing well.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Why architecture is important

I don't want to come off as smug and overly self-appreciative, I know a lot of architects come off that way to a lot of people. The only recorded architect who was actually a "god" was Imhotep, who the Egyptians made a "god" for his design of the Egyptian pyramids..this despite what many architects undoubtedly think of themselves.

But this is the reality: architecture is of utmost importance, and it is by all means, a matter of life and death. The proof: The 7.0 magnitude earthquake in Haiti, where the death toll is now reported to be up to 180,000, and will likely exceed 200,000--making it the deadliest "instant disaster" in modern Western history.

So how is it that a 7.0 magnitude quake in Haiti can cause over 15,000 times the casualties that a 9.6 magnitude quake outside of Anchorage can cause (1964)? The answer is architecture. The same as the how the deadliest earthquake in history, the 1556 Shaanxi, China earthquake, which killed over 860,000 people. In Shaanxi, a region with landforms nearly identical to the Upper Missouri River area (Loess Hills in Iowa/Nebraska), the inhabitants live in dugouts (and still do today) carved into the side of incredibly fertile hills. The loess hills don't have rigid bedrock inside of them providing structure, so when an earthquake hit it, the hills basically turned into jello, along with the people living in them. The same will happen if an earthquake hit it today.

In Haiti, a country that surprisingly actually does have building codes, the problem was enforcement of building codes--to the point that it made enforcement of Downtown OKC urban design guidelines look pretty solid. The result in Haiti was everybody living in shacks with absolutely no support columns. Sometimes a family would build a shack, and then build a shack on top (a sort of rudimentary "loft" if you will) because they could get rent for it, and then another shack on top of that if it would bring in rent, and so on. And Haiti is a known earthquake zone as well.

In Alaska there are building codes that are actually enforced, and the result when an earthquake hits, is very few casualties (comparatively). Charleston was hit by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake which leveled the city, and today there is subsiding earthquake threat along the South Carolina coast, believe it or not (not nearly as imminent as the Memphis area though, a disaster waiting to happen). The result is that the city of Charleston has building codes that are very, very similar to those of San Francisco--in fact that's why you see so few tall buildings in a city of 644,000 people (metro).

So yes, architecture is important. And yes, it is a matter of life and death. It is also a matter of commercial output, as we know environment is a major factor in productivity. It's also a matter of security and crime deterrence, as we know that good architecture can reduce the chance of a crime occurring..and ample lighting at night should of course be a no-brainer. I could go on and on, listing everything impacted by architecture. There are 3 things that make up architecture: Firmitas (form, or structural support), Utilitas (utility, or how a building will be useful), and Venustas (an architect's attempt to create a pleasing building). All three of these aspects are integral and in my opinion, you can't do without. Without Firmitas, you have a situation like Haiti or Shaanxi. Without Utilitas, you have buildings that are either inefficient or have a short lifespan. Without Venustas, you have an environment people won't rationally care about.