Saturday, January 29, 2011

Q&A with Chris Holliday: Coffee Talk

For those who don't know, there's a new coffee shop opening downtown. Elemental Coffee is located in the 800 block of N. Hudson in a former mechanic shop. It's actually a really cool concept. One of the proprietors, Chris Holliday, is a real coffee guru who knows his stuff. I like the blocky white look of the outside, and I understand the interior will have an interesting ambiance. Architect of Record is none other than Hans Butzer, so you know it will be very sharp.

Here's the Q&A:

1) I understand that coffee is not your day job..As a coffee buff, what was it about coffee that got you involved in trying to fill the void of it here in OKC?
I'm a natural born foodie. My life seems to revolve around eating and I really like to push my taste experiences in different directions. Coffee is both enigmatic and elegant and while we grow up knowing there is a difference between all the grocery store bags, we never really learn what makes coffees different and we are really shielded from the range of coffee's flavors. I started experimenting and researching and it simply became my hobby.

2) I read in an article that you buy 1 coffee out of every 90 that you and your business partners test--so it seems safe to say you're pretty selective and brew very high-quality coffee. What can people expect in terms of pricing?
Our retail prices range from $12.50 to $32.00 for a 12 ounce bag. This is pretty average in specialty coffee. We will probably start to offer more higher end coffees but we will introduce them slowly. Our drinks will be priced based on the coffee we use for brewing but generally inline with other specialty coffee companies.

3) My personal philosophy on coffee is that it's all about the environment, the price of a cup of coffee includes the coffee shop that you are enjoying. What type of environment for the coffee shop will you be creating?
Elemental will be a coffee and conversation place. We aim to present a sophisticated ambiance with an approachable atmosphere. There will be no doubt that we are dedicated in our approach to coffee but we also hope to make everyone feel welcomed regardless of whether they share our sentiment. Educating people about coffee can't be forced. But even the most dispassionate consumer can distinguish between horrifically prepared grocery store robusta and freshly roasted arabica that makes a clean and balanced lovingly crafted by-the-cup brew.

4) Until the coffee shop fully opens in April, how do you view the operation until then?
It will basically be a construction zone with a garage door in the alley on the South side that will be open in the early mornings as a stand up coffee bar.

5) What made you settle on Hudson Avenue, rather than some of the more notable activity hubs throughout the downtown region?
2/3's of the Elemental owners live in the Heritage Hills/Mesta Park area. MidTown is a proven and growing part of OKC.

6) What will be made of the warehouse you currently utilize on West Main? I know this is kind of off-topic and that Main is an industrial area, but how do you feel about the potential of the West Main Historic District (particularly between Western and Indiana)?
Our current location will go up for rent as soon as we vacate it. I think that part of town is still a few years away from becoming a fully utilized activity center.

7) What are some of the current local businesses that serve up Elemental Coffee?
Cuppies and Joe, Beatnix, Cafe Evoke, Forward Foods, The Wedge, Deep Fork, La Baguette and a whole host of other great shops.

8) Have you settled on a name yet for the coffee shop?
We are going to simply call it Elemental Coffee.

9) Downtown has seen some hit and misses when it comes to coffee shops. Obviously Coffee Slingers has been a success, whereas the Buzz has had landlord issues, which eventually led to the demise of Uncommon Grounds, and then BrewHaHa was just unsuccessful sadly, and so on. How do you view the opportunity for the coffee business in downtown?
I think quality served up with passion will always be successful. We have thousands of great customers all over the metro area and this is a testament for the thirst that exists in this region to be served quality products. We are going to push the quality envelop to the edge and see where it takes us.

10) One notable thing about OKC's inner city is a relative lack of Starbucks infiltration. At the surface that's always a good thing, but perhaps a stronger presence would raise coffee awareness in the city? Why are there so few good coffee shops in this city? Is that good for business?
Until recently there hasn't really been what I would call a "good" coffee shop. My assessment is that cafe operators have bought into the concept of competing with the large chain coffee shops and be content to clean up their leftovers. I believe that this short sells the consumer in this area and leaves a huge gap for those willing to deliver truly great coffees.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Comment on J. Park post..

I meant to respond to this earlier, but my own life has been insanely busy of late. A comment on last week's Jefferson Park post read:

"If want to see the derelict properties just take that pleasent walk down Robinson and look to the east side of the street. Better yet go down 24th towards Walker to enjoy the abondon lots and section 8housing. I am not saying the neighborhood does not have potential but I would not call it the model for what OKC should be doing."

So, I decided to do a photo tour of the aforementioned areas. Now, I forgot to check out 24th, but I already know it has some renovated apartment buildings and abandoned lots (so the above comment is half right), and there may be one or two Section 8 buildings too, but I'm not sure on that. I do know it has a few renovated upscale apartment buildings though.

Robinson really is a pleasant walk. It has a great median, with great trees, and once the median ends on the north side of Goodholm Park, it's still a pretty decent road with a good sidewalk and lots of trees. The apartment that line both sides of Robinson south of the park are called Brentwood Terrace, and you can actually tour some of their units here. But be warned: The walls are freshly painted, rooms are well-decorated, and the flooring is other words they are a perfect example of Jefferson Park blight.

Goodholm Park really is the center of the neighborhood, especially with the way it is oriented around it. Here is the view of Robinson looking east from the park. I am a fan of these great old apartment buildings and rowhouses that line the east side of Robinson continuously all the way from 23rd to 36th. I'd hardly call them eyesores. Some aren't in great condition, some are meticulously renovated upscale properties, some are in between. The whole wall of them needs to be preserved and owners will continue to bring them up.

Is J. Park really a model for neighborhood redevelopment in OKC? I think that answer is undoubtedly yes. 200% yes. The simple reality is that J. Park is obviously not as nice and meticulous as Mesta Park and Heritage Hills. But the majority of OKC does not look like Heritage Hills. The majority of OKC, particularly historic parts of OKC, looks more like J. Park, or to put it in context, like J. Park did in the 80s and 90s when it had one of the highest crime rates in the entire city. How far it has come and the things it has done, which any neighborhood could do, in my opinion do make it the model neighborhood, more so than Mesta Park. That's not to say Mesta hasn't come a long ways from the 80s when most of its grand homes were foreclosed on, but Mesta is very elite and J. Park is clearly not elite, but still becoming a great neighborhood.

The JPNA and others doing a lot of good work in J. Park are doing a lot of things right. They pursued the beautification of Goodholm Park, new neighborhood signage, new construction that perfectly, matches historic period design, preservation of structurally sound historic bungalows, and the renovation of apartment buildings. It is no secret that a lot of OKC neighborhood have smaller bungalows and a few apartment buildings instead of stately mansions. JP turned that into a strength, and not a weakness.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A true neighborhood asset in J. Park

Dear OKC Parks & Recreation,

I cannot rave enough about the tennis courts in Goodholm Park, they are a true neighborhood asset. There is nothing like decent neighborhood tennis courts to bring people out of their houses. Actually, I can't rave enough about all of Goodholm Park in general. It is one of the city's best parks. It is urban, surrounded by a dense neighborhood, it has a very well-defined (and somewhat irregular and interesting) space. The orientation of the neighborhood all around it is perfect (cute bungalows across the street to the west and north, great rowhouses across Robinson to the east). It has a great walking trail that goes all along the perimeter, you always see people jogging or taking a stroll. Great playground that is always well-used. The field also gets well-used by people walking dogs. It's just a great space, an example of what we don't have enough of.

The name is a little confusing. When you say Goodholm Park in the Jefferson Park neighborhood most people are kind of lost, so perhaps it should just be Jefferson Park, which would make sense to me. But if the city should take any action, IT SHOULD BE TO CREATE MORE SPACES LIKE THIS!!!!!!! There are too many underutilized and neglected parks just like this. Restoring those, putting in nice things like the well-maintained tennis courts, playground, and walking trail..would not only be a boon to the community, but it would inject these neighborhoods with life and vitality. I assure you that the condition of Goodholm Park has a lot to do with the boom in renovations the J. Park area has seen.

Lastly, tennis courts. Tennis courts in OKC are absolutely pathetic, and I say this as someone who really enjoys playing tennis. I took the above picture last week when we had a period of really amazing weather. Sometimes we get that in the winter, and when it happens, it really draws the people out of their houses. You'll notice there are a lot of individual courts here, all of which are being used. Actually Goodholm Park has the best backboards in the entire city in my opinion, which is important because you don't always have someone you can play with, and you can occasionally meet new people if you share the backboards, which I always end up doing.

Every time I visit these tennis courts, I find myself overwhelmed with a sense of community. The J. Park kids actually seem to have a hierarchy that's developed around the tennis courts, and I've observed that they have a system where grown-ups go there and teach the kids how to play tennis. The residents around there take care of the courts and keep skateboarders off of them. Actually I've never seen a skateboard on those courts, ever. Nothing against skateboarders, in fact, I think the city should add another skatepark since the one on South Robinson was a hit.

The reality is that OKC is the fattest city in America. Fattest, not phattest. It's been that way 3 out of the last 4 years, actually. The city has all these nifty PR campaigns to encourage people to lose weight, and there's even a City of OKC official diet program. Sponsored by Taco Bell.

Obviously we aren't serious about having a healthy city, because there is no other ostensible conclusion. We don't invest in parks. Most of OKC's parks are pretty pathetic. If they do have tennis courts, which is an extreme rarity, they are likely crumbling and then if they have backboards, another rarity, they're probably rotting wooden pieces of crap. Furthermore, we don't have sidewalks. We still aren't adding sidewalks, and don't even tell me about $10M in Maps3 for sidewalks, that's a joke. Walkability in OKC is a laughing stock. I see people get ran over all the time in the denser parts of S. OKC. I even myself come close to running people over, and I feel really guilty about that, but here's the reality: There's NO PLACE for people in OKC. Streetcar will help revolutionize the pedestrian experience downtown, and that's great, but I am not talking about downtown..I'm talking about the other 90% of our city.

Sidewalks. Neighborhood parks. Tennis courts. Skateparks. Trees. Walking trails. Not phony PR campaign diets sponsored by Taco Bell that the city needs to just terminate (before doing more damage by deluding people into thinking fast food is a "diet"). This is quality of life I'm talking about. QoL is NOT just how long you have to sit in traffic, how easy it is for you to get symphony tickets, or how attractive your community is. There are things in your environment that will directly affect your physical health, period. This city's residents are the most morbidly obese in the nation, so what does that tell you about QoL?

Furthermore, why do people even live in OKC? Oklahoma City city limits that is. In most cases, the reason someone might live in Dallas rather than Lewisville is directly because of QoL. Access to amenities, schools, jobs, and healthy lifestyle choices. Dallas is obviously tops in the Metroplex for that because it is the central city. Quality of life is the business of central cities. If you live in Gallatin, TN, you're not going to have tennis courts nearby more than likely, because you made the decision to live in a white bread cookie cutter suburb of Nashville. If you lived closer in, you'd probably have every QoL amenity you could think of, including tennis courts within walking distance. This is what we've come to expect in every central city of America.

So what is the difference between living in OKC proper and Moore or Yukon? As it is there is none whatsoever, aside from distance to downtown, and if that were vital, Del City would be a top-tier suburb.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Upheaval in local grocery options

It looks like with Whole Foods coming to town, there is an upheaval underway already with the local grocery scene. Consider the number of local organic grocers within 1 mile of where Whole Foods ended up breaking ground. It looks like some of them may want to move downtown after all (especially after Crescent Market has been adamantly opposed to moving downtown for years until suddenly). And so now what we're seeing is downtown finally appearing as a viable retail alternative to the Chesapeake long as your niche is going to be cannibalized by Whole Foods. And to be clear, this isn't saying Crescent Market, Forward Foods, or any other gourmet and organic grocers to name a few couldn't compete with Whole Foods which is often actually a benefit to the local gourmet and organic grocery options. Local options typically compete quite well against Whole Foods and Whole Foods brings more attention to the whole idea of gourmet and organic grocery shopping in cities it goes to. My belief is that Whole Foods may have gotten an agreement with Chesapeake that they'll raise the rent on Crescent Market and encourage them to leave the area, which is exactly what they're doing.

Crescent Market appears to be looking at areas with good access to Mesta Park and Heritage Hills, wanting to stay true to its base demographic. This means looking around Walker and around Broadway. Automobile Alley appears to be getting serious consideration, but the problem with A-Alley I see is that the current Crescent Market is well over 20,000 sf. Even if they utilize a more efficient floorplan I still don't see them downsizing their operations, meaning they'll need at least 10,000 sf on a ground floor in a well-renovated building, which may be hard to come by. Two other gourmet grocers that I won't name are also looking at downtown very seriously, and I understand there is a very strong possibility that the LEVEL Urban Apartments at 2nd/Walnut will sign a lease with an existing locally-known grocer that might not necessarily relocate a store but open a new one. Or it might relocate the store.

Is it possible that Chesapeake-area retailers moving downtown could stem the tide of movement further north? For the last 2-3 years it seems like the only option for retailers leaving 50 Penn Place or others coming to town was to go into the Classen Curve development, whereas they all could have very easily and successfully gone downtown. Full Circle, looking right at's time to move downtown and get out of your building. Can anyone else imagine Crescent Market, other grocers, Full Circle, Hideaway, Shop Good, Rawhide, and others all in the same neighborhood? That would go many miles toward establishing the critical mass needed in terms of downtown retail to turn the tide and get the ball rolling.

On a sadder note, it appears that this Friday is the last day for Market C on NW 23rd. A great Uptown 23rd tenant for a long time, that added a lot to the really interesting and diverse mix that has blossomed there, it is a shame that it is going away. It will be replaced with more space for Cheever's catering.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Somebody hurry up and fix the buses..

..before Pete White kills the streetcar. For those who saw the news tonight (a day late), streetcar is once again coming under fire after voters already approved the measure. The veteran City Councilor, known for his sharp criticisms of certain things, absolutely hates the streetcar project and has made no bones about it. He's not anti-transit, he's coming from the viewpoint that city buses are more important and that he wants the money to go to bus service.

I've been relatively quiet on this since it happened yesterday, waiting for other people to go first. I didn't want to be first because I spoke at the meeting yesterday and was in the room when Pete was being slightly disrespectful to Jeff Bezdek, a key figure behind the scenes for streetcar. I actually think Pete has the right idea, he's just going about it the wrong way. Very few people who support the streetcar don't support bus service, and the two are not at odds with eachother..they both have vital functions in any possible plan to revamp transit all over the city. It's just that he's playing a no-sum game. I'd like to opine in response to him, and I have just a few main points.

Facts that Pete White is ignoring
And when I say this I don't mean "Councilor White is the enemy." I just think he doesn't get the streetcar, or the realities of what the MAPS funding can do. I don't disagree with anything he actually says, because I can acknowledge that bus and streetcar are separate things. The idea is that you've got to divide and conquer, and come at transit from many different angles. We can't serve such a huge area as OKC without using a variety of different modes. I do agree with Mayor Mick's position that Mr. White and Mr. Bezdek are both right.

1. He's ignoring the entire idea of bus v. streetcar. He doesn't seem to understand how multiple modes of transit can work together and are needed to complete each other. He also doesn't understand WHY streetcar is better for downtown.

2. He's shown that he's out of touch with downtown. He doesn't regard it as a viable, important place--he regards it as city hall and Bricktown and that's it. He wants to talk about "normal people" who are waiting at the unsheltered bus stops at 74th and Santa Fe. To this I say: In 5 years there is no question that downtown will have more density and vibrancy than anywhere else in OKC, and it will not even be close, so there is no question where this streetcar has to go...downtown. There are even quite a few "normal people" living downtown who would use transit if they could.

3. He is not actually being proactive in presenting a solution for buses, he just wants to attack something that doesn't address buses because it doesn't address buses. I don't understand why he is playing this no-sum game.

4. He has not thought through the long-term costs of maintaining a MAPS transit system. Over 10 years you'll probably spend the same on a bus route that you will on a streetcar route, the difference being that one has enormous capital expenses and the other comes with enormous operating expenses. MAPS is a temporary tax and can not be a viable funding source for long-term transit operation, and furthermore, it is supposed to be spent on capital improvements and not operating. That at the very least IS in the MAPS 3 resolution, so they are at least legally bound there, I believe (or hope, admittedly).

5. Voters didn't approve a bus system. They approved what they voted for, which was downtown streetcar, nothing more, and nothing less. Furthermore, streetcar was the only big-ticket item that voters actually liked a lot. So to that extent, you could said the issue carried the ballot, because obviously sidewalks or senior centers that make up 10% of the overall money did not carry the measure unless voters are really really stupid.

6. He also doesn't understand what will happen as a consequence of streetcar. In fact the idea is so foreign to him that he blows it off and thinks a bus route would have the same effect.

What do we do now?
This does sort of change things. At this point, you have to start counting votes if you want to see transit actually happen. Unless you can find a compromise, it's very possible that Pete White could end up being a vital swing vote on the council, and we know what would happen then. Skip Kelly isn't going to be a reliable vote unless he feels his whole district is being served, despite that Deep Deuce and Bricktown are part of his district. Sam Bowman is going to want to see the system be bigger-picture than just downtown. Could he be placated with seeing a 10-year plan that includes expansion, or will he want to see the bigger picture represented in the first phase, and is that even possible? I understand other councilors have certain concerns and conditions of support, but I don't want to speculate on anything that hasn't been made public.

We have to evaluate how badly we want to stick to downtown, and what close-in options there are that be easily worked into a route. A downtown-only streetcar system right now (including "downtown" surrounding neighborhoods) is fool-proof in my opinion because of the geographic size of downtown (a narrow definition still gives you 2 square miles) and you can at least focus really good service on a small 2-sq mi region. It would be successful if the routes make sense. The risk with including some of downtown and some of the inner city is that you're trying to combine two incomplete systems into a complete system and hope that there is strong interaction between activity nodes. That's harder to rely on. Virtually every route I've seen that goes further out from downtown with only 6 track miles looks like a very fragmented beginning to an overall system. It's vital that the first phase be able to function as a complete system on its own because it's success will have an integral role in securing additional funding to expand the system and to do just what Pete White wants to see: offer comprehensive transit for the entire city.

Here are two examples of where we could be headed if political forces insist on the first phase going further than downtown. The top one is an example of a good downtown circulator that could be a phase all on its own, with the expansion routes already determined and just including phase 2 in the system preliminarily. So essentially, just emphasizing the future expansion of the system. The bottom example is if the first phase has to cover more ground, which is the only thing I see Pete White remotely accepting. That whole system is about 7.5 miles, so you could build all of it at once if OKC is able to secure more federal funding, or build all of except just go as far on the Plaza District line until you run out of funds.

I actually like the bottom route. I don't think it is possible to go to the south or northeast sides of the city no matter the political pressure on the streetcar process simply because of the black holes in the city that stand in between downtown and south and northeast parts of the city. You could have an urban vacuum in the middle of your 6-mile route, there has to be interest along the entire way, so that's where it's going to difficult to make a small starter system cover more ground than just downtown, which is still a larger area than we realize.

Step 1: Fix! Step 2: It!

If Pete White wants to play this no-sum game, then good lord, somebody hurry up and fix the damn bus system so we can move on! In order to do so, here's my suggestion: Actually talk about ideas for fixing the bus service. Some good ideas might include:

1. Funding. You have to make a long-term commitment to bus operating costs. There is no way to get around the fact that we simply need to increase the percentage of our annual city budget that goes toward bus service, currently it's not enough. However, it's a LOT more than what Mr. White infers. I have no idea what he's talking about when he goes off on a tangent about "scrounging around" to find $40,000 for bus service. That might be the salary of one bus driver, but I don't even know where he's coming up with that figure. OKC spends millions and millions on crappy bus service, and COTPA it still incredibly underfunded. What OKC needs to do is spend millions and millions more on bus service, and oh by the way, you can't even legally procure that from a temporary sales tax that was passed for capital expenses unless you want to spend $120 million on nothing but new buses and sheltered bus stops. That might be enough to put one out by 134th and Henney.

2. Focus more on the inner city. Ignore areas north of Nichols Hills and south of 240. There is no doubt that it will be politically difficult because there are people with transit needs all over the city, but OKC is not dense enough to justify it. All transit is subsidized, we just have to make sure revamped transit service is the most effective it can be. If it's effective and meaningful, who cares what it costs? There is no question that you have to provide public transit, and just to be clear, I certainly recognize Pete White as one of the prime proponents of that thinking. We just have too large and too sprawled a city to even come close to our goals if we don't narrow down the region that we will provide A+ bus service.

3. We have to re-do the routes. We have to get rid of the spiraling maze of confusion that is OKC's current bus route map and replace it with a grid system. Just have one or more buses follow ONE arterial for its entire length through the A+ service area. That way to get across town, from say N 36th and Walker to S 44th and Penn, just take the Walker bus down to 44th Street, and then take the 44th Street bus over to Penn. Easy.

4. Make the buses cleaner. I definitely don't want to get on a bus when my only experience with the OKC buses is being covered in fumes every time one passes me when I'm on a downtown sidewalk. They also need to introduce the blue florescent on-board lights that cities are switching to, because they prevent your fellow-riders from being able to find their vein.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

North Broadway Lights in A-Alley

Whoever or whatever was the inspiration for the lights along Broadway in Automobile Alley, was pure genius. Not hokie. Not kitschy. Not overdone. Simple, elegant, chic, and impressive. Now in its second year, it was the historic auto dealership buildings themselves that lit up downtown, veiled in bright strands of Christmas lights. When some colors look absolutely hideous individually on some ranch houses, when draped over the entire edifice the effect is really something--I hope they are doing this for a long time, as A-Alley grows in popularity in coming years.

I took a lot of pics, and I'll post more later, but here are just a few of the best that came out pretty good in my opinion. Still trying to figure out how to take decent night pics with a real camera, but I think there are a few decent ones in here: