Thursday, September 23, 2010

Mayor Mick's a Keeper..for now

Very interesting article in the NY Times about the surge of mayoral recalls sweeping across the nation. For evidence of this close to OKC, just look at the never-ending mayor controversies in Stillwater and Tulsa. What we're seeing here in many cases is citizens loosing the ability to be rational, which does not bode well for local elected officials who are closest to the angry, irrational masses. Case in point: Daniel Varela, mayor of Livingston, Cali. was recalled and replaced by a landslide for instigating the town's first water rate increase in decades to pay for updates to water pipes that spew brownish, smelly water. Another case in point: Dayne Walling, mayor of Flint, Mi. was nearly recalled just for balancing his municipal budget amidst a fiscal shortfall much steeper than what we faced here in Oklahoma, obviously.

There has never been this many recalls in the history of the country, either. They're everywhere, other big cities that have faced them in the last months are Akron, Chattanooga, Portlant (Ore), KCMO, Toledo, and many others. More have them coming up.

Here in OKC, things are getting testy as well. We just need to stay calm and rational, which we've been good at for the last few years. Hold the politicians heels to the fire, which we've been doing. Our community, and particularly anyone who could have a recall petition against them, can ill afford shenanigans right now over the convention center site, OG+E, MAPS, and other potentially divisive issues.

Do I think progress would be stalled by a political scandal? No, I hardly doubt that. They have those all over the world, yet somehow people in Stillwater, Tulsa, Portland, Chicago, Dallas..and other cities that have had their share of recent political scandals all seem to make great municipal progress in their own ways. I just think it would be better if we avoided that. What OKC is doing requires stronger public approval than what a lot of these other cities are doing to achieve the same result, to revitalize the central city.

I think Mick Cornett has exhibited pure class about 80% of the time, and that's as good as it gets for any high-profile mayors. Even if we don't always agree with him we can appreciate his principle and appreciate his efforts to better the community. I would just say thank GOD that we don't have one of these "conservative principle" mayors who are irrationally unwilling to budge on political principles..i.e., the MAPS tax was supported by most all political moderates in OKC. I would say that today if there were a recall ballot with Cornett's name on it, I would do what I could to help defeat it. We're better with him leading and representing our city, and he's done a great job, so far.

Friday, September 17, 2010


I originally came out as a huge proponent of Overholser Green. I argued that it was more appropriate for the location, given that the original proposal had a historic motif that fit in well with other nearby large upscale apartment buildings on the far north edge of Mid-town, such as the Seiber and the Aberdeen, among others. I thought it was urban enough that it was also appropriate for what we're trying to create in Mid-town. I also liked that it appealed to this imaginary pool of hundreds of people out there looking for million-dollar condos downtown.

I thought such a pool of people existed..why? Because that's what OCURA said, that's what DT OKC Inc. said, that's what the Chamber said, and that's what tons of other people who knew their stuff were all saying. It made sense: In order to maximize demand at every single price point we would have to work our way down, first focus on the most upscale stuff and keep out anything under $1,500/mo because that may turn away some of this prospective demand. In hindsight it sounded so great and I was so convinced by this line of thinking that I am shocked I was not advocating for downtown to be surrounded by gated entrances and ramp up efforts to keep creative types out. After all, they bring undesirable elements, and we were truly pursuing downtown development while at the same time using an economic model not at all unsimilar to Edmond real estate. Marva Ellard was obviously right all along, well before the establishment realized it, and that's to her credit..unfortunately we'll just have to wait a while till we see her next project, hopefully.

I have obviously since changed my mind. In fact I wouldn't have if I hadn't seen the mistake of all these condos selling for almost a million dollars. I wouldn't have fallen for it in the first place had I understood basic economics, but luckily, some modicum of economic understanding does come hand in hand with learning about urban planning, architecture, and sustainability--the things I CAN talk about. You start from the ground up, always, everyone knows that, and downtown was a NEW and untested residential market for the most part.

How do we apply this knowledge to public policy? Simple, bid selection. When it comes to the big downtown projects I really believe that OCURA has never engaged in a corrupt deal. They've engaged in TONS of bad, knuckle-headed deals though. Their incompetence, perhaps unfamiliarity with their own rules, and general lackluster due diligence sure screwed Anthony McDermid as well as the people of OKC who drive past a mud field backing up to I-235 every day. It's simple though, they have always preferred $$$ condos in selecting bids, because that's what we thought we needed. And to this day, they are still operating like that due to how slow they are to catch on. Even DT OKC Inc. under its new leadership has caught on and is about to release a new housing survey that will give us some more realistic advice on how best to grow downtown. I hate surveys and I think they're a waste of time, but if it truly shows what we already know, hopefully that will be the evidence that OCURA needs to slowly reshift its strategy over the next few years. Evidently they are still grasping on to the faulty economics preached in the earlier half of this decade.

Bringing it back to Overholser Green, Chuck Wiggin is still trying to get this project off, despite that Overholser Green isn't even close to resembling what was originally approved. Even without any new news on the matter, the fact that the project is already up for its second (or third, I forget) timeline extension tells you that the project is dead and it is time to move on. There is nothing going to happen here. Give Wiggin another extension and he still can't guarantee that anything will happen, and his only response/excuse is to explain why we're in a recession--this despite that his units in the Mayo 420 project in Downtown Tulsa are selling just fine. What this is about is pride and giving too many chances to Wiggin just because he has already invested $200,000 personally into this project. I understand that, and it is important to take care of important development figures because we very much want Wiggin to continue to be involved in downtown development and he's done several great projects in the past. Sour grapes over this benefits nobody, but it could even be to Wiggin's benefit that his contract be yanked by OCURA and he be forced to move on as well, before he plunks down even more change into a project that is still doomed.

Sometimes there's nothing wrong with a site, just after reformatting a project over and over, it's just time to throw the towel in and take a step back and remove yourself from the situation. The old Mercy Hospital site is a great site, but it needs a fresh set of eyes to look it over. Enter Dick Tanenbaum, stage right. Tanenbaum, who has pulled off a ton of incredibly successful downtown apartment buildings (and learned his lesson with the unsuccessful condo conversion of the Montgomery), wants to build 250 apartment units, moderately priced, with mixed-use retail on site. And he says he can get it off the ground by early next year, in fact, he already has conceptual drawings that he can show interested parties. Ladies and gents, we have a winner.

When Wiggin claims that he should be granted an extension that he still may not be able to make any progress by even if he once again completely revamps the project to some unknown format that would be more economically feasible, which could be anything and OCURA would likely not insist on due diligence with that, and on the other hand Dick Tanenbaum can show you exactly what he wants to build and says he can get it off early next year--how can you not move on from Overholser Green? I think that nobody wins by looking at this as a Wiggin v. Tanenbaum issue. Nobody wins by looking at this as an Overholser Green v. Whatever, or even Overholser Green v. Mercy Park, issue.

The two most important points that win the argument at the end of the day in my opinion, and have been sorely overlooked are:

1. This site is holding up progress elsewhere along Walker Avenue, and it is time to get a move on and finally get something going on here. The businesses along Walker Ave, such as Midtown Deli, Irma's, etc are surviving just on the lunch crowd and have only been staying open in hopes that the residential population around there will grow and be able to support dinner hours in the future. Banta would have developed the Osler and 1212 long ago had the Mercy Hospital site been redeveloped sooner, and now that those properties are in the hands of Bob Howard and Mickey Clagg, I see no reason for them to move on those properties until redevelopment commences on that site as well. I do however see every reason for them to prioritize those projects next ASAP once someone, anyone, breaks ground on the site further up Walker. That is the project that is holding a lot of the Walker Ave projects behind.

2. Even if Wiggin does revamp his project and get it off the ground, we have no say in that if he's given a contract extension, and that's not right. Developers should be awarded bids based on the project that they will build, and it is not right for developers to present a concept just to get the competitive bid and then completely reformat the project, even if they have a good excuse. The reason Wiggin got the bid was because OCURA liked his project the best, and that should be an obligation to build THAT project. OCURA should yank his bid just for deviating from the original plan, alone. OCURA should definitely not renew his contract just so that he can deviate even further from the original plan and not even present anything new to give us an idea of WHAT he's going to build, other than promise that he is working on it. OCURA should also grow some gonads, because this is how they've always operated from the start of time.

(This post is under review and will change from time to time, and I will add pictures later, so check back.)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Real infill coming soon

I think that phrase best explains the state of downtown development at the moment, which is actually significantly improved from last year when we were just losing major projects despite any anticipated boost from Devon Tower. Today we are better off in terms of knowing exactly what we've lost, how to come back from it, and the difference is we've come a long ways lately in gaining infill momentum. None of this is new news because you all have already seen it in the news and on the other blogs, just haven't gotten my take it due to my inactivity on here lately.

Think of Devon Tower, first and foremost. Hardly infill, when trying to analyze and assess the tower's impact on downtown, it will be equal or greater to the Ford Center or the Brick. I'm not even sure if we have a public works project downtown yet that is on that level. Maybe more on level of if Jerryworld were in downtown OKC, just call it Larryworld instead. What I can't impress enough is the importance of infill projects because they form the base of an urban environment. You can do without the major projects, you can't do without infill--right now we really do lack infill compared to the major projects in the works right now. To illustrate this problem, just think of the Deep Deuce area which is riddled with vacant lots with the downtown skyline towering overhead. It leaves an awkward impression of an urban desert (I don't know how else to say it). We have and without more infill will continue to have streets surrounded by mudpits and dried up dusty fields in the middle of our downtown, and clearly despite how wonderful that skyline is, the street-level is lacking.

There is a real need for a skyline, as it is a city's visual representation and I do believe it is important for a city's urban environment to form this representative image of that city. There is also a real need for facilities like convention centers and stadiums, because there aren't many other ways to pack that many people downtown at once--that traffic generated is much needed. However neglecting the infill projects, which are your less sexy, more practical, smaller buildings that form the surrounding neighborhoods--that's neglecting your meat and potatoes. OKC truly has a starved urban landscape if you look at it that way.

The reason I bring up Deep Deuce's vacant lots is to transition into what we've gained. Deep Deuce development is continuing to evolve continuously. Since the sky was falling downtown (last year), construction has picked back up at The Hill. Evidently they are just finishing up on the units on 3rd backing up to I-235, but they've also cleaned up the rest of the construction site which had weeds growing up everywhere. They will wait for the units to sell before starting on others, and amazingly, they have sold several more. I still think it's the worst bang for your buck downtown, but I sincerely wish them the best of luck for the sake of Deep Deuce, and hope that anyone looking for suburbia in downtown check them out.

Obviously the new Aloft Hotel, which I've already posted on a few times, will be major. It will compete directly with the Hampton Inn for business travelers looking for a very urban, chic hotel that they can use their corporate account on (which is where chains are good to have). The Aloft Hotel will have an advantage in competing for these travelers just because the brand image is more in line with this specific location, as opposed to the Hampton Inn which usually aren't that chic. The design is obviously going to be stunning and will create some real linkage between Deep Deuce and Bricktown.

The best project that's come onto the radar of late is a joint effort by Wade Scaramucci and Richard McKown, of Ideal Homes--an entire block bounded by Walnut, 2nd, 3rd, and Oklahoma--that will soon become 227 units with parking in the middle of the block and street level retail lining wide sidewalks. I think that the design could be anything and the product could be anything, there are just two things that are key here: This project, just like the Aloft, is financed and ready to break ground on an expedited construction schedule; and also, the project takes the last full vacant block in the Maywood Park area and turns it into the stuff cities are made of. Surrounding this contemporary apartment development on all sides will be the old Walnut Avenue Baptist Church, the Maywood Park Lofts, Maywood Park Brownstones, and the Aloft Hotel.

Deep Deuce's urban fabric resembles a horse shoe of development going around the edges that is finally being filled in, and it will be a continuous urban neighborhood from the BNSF tracks all the way to 235.

Elsewhere in Deep Deuce, Sage is also once again reinventing itself with the addition of a jazz club--returning the Deep Deuce neighborhood to its roots as a jazz hotbed. Good downtown development is not a lot of shiny new-urbanist projects sparsely scattered throughout greater downtown. When you create synergy from projects that relate to each other, bound each other, and create atmosphere is when you have good downtown development. Such as the perspective looking down 2nd Street at the new Maywood Park apartments and then the lofts fitting snugly with an equal setback, with the skyline rising over. That's the infill we need, focused where it most makes a difference right now.

And to bring it back in terms of Devon Tower, at what point with all of these major projects, do you have enough infill that there is balance? It may not even be possible. There are several billions of major projects in the works at the moment. Something like Scaramucci and McKown's apartment complex creates as much street-level density as Devon Tower despite being a miniscule fraction of the cost, possibly $10-15 million at the most probably, compared to $750 million. Maybe we don't deserve Devon Tower and perhaps it is "too enormous" a project for OKC, but we sure will take it and be glad to have it, but it does make you wonder what the right proportional amount of infill is that it should trigger?