Friday, December 30, 2011

News on NW 9th?

Was by the Iguana today and noticed that across 9th Street is a sign that S&B Burgers (currently on North May), known for its delicious greasy burgers, is hiring. The sign was directly in front of an old brick building (I think) that I'd previously heard was "perfect for a burger joint."

So I'll put two and two together. Is S&B either moving or opening a new location on NW 9th? If so, that could be a huge success. Already a decent following, plus a really well-suited business model for the 9th Street crowd.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Coffee and snacks @ Nonna's

For all the negativity I may have expressed regarding Avis Scaramucci, which I believe was rightly deserved for the current Bricktown doldrums, I also believe in giving credit where credit is due. Just the other day I had some time to kill, so I and a friend visited the Purple Bar to catch up--I had some coffee and a few delicious orange madelines (hard to describe, but I highly recommend) and took in the incredible view from above Nonna's.

Bricktown may have run out of steam under Avis' watch, but that doesn't mean that the entire Nonna's compound, retail, bar, restaurant, and all (including the heart-warming story of an Italian emigre family from Krebs) is an OKC classic. Avis truly does things right with Nonna's, and perhaps that alone is justification to run the show.

So let me pose a question to readers, and feel free to comment and share your opinion, although I know many of you are lurkers. Is it better to "lead by example" or lead with your votes? One could argue that Scaramucci has been rather lenient on the Bricktown Suburban Design Commission. One could also argue that Nonna's, from an urban design standpoint, is the standard-bearer for Bricktown in terms of development, maybe even restaurant quality (although too many good restaurants for that one to be clear-cut).

So which is more important?

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Crazy prediction for 2012: FNC

Steve Lackmeyer has been covering the heck out of the Yashoua-however-you-spell it indictment. The Village Voice, one of the nation's most respected alternative news outlets (think Gazette, but with history) has named Yash one of NYC's worst slumlords. The head honcho of LA-based Milbank Real Estate, and notorious absentee landlord/slumlord of OKC's once-proud First National Center, is looking at some hard prison time that might be well-deserved just for how he's ruined the Arcade level of the FNC. I'd put him in prison and throw away the key just for that (kidding, slightly). He's not an investor; he's a divestor.

The FNC is one of OKC's most iconic buildings. This property can not afford to go through another cycle of these kinds of owners. Something has to be done if we want to rescue this building.

So here it is, my crazy prediction for 2012 (a few days early nonetheless): A local group of investors, it may or may not include some of the usual suspects and/or "Allied" Alliance "Allies," will form together and make a play for ownership of the FNC. The city will get involved and try hard to put together another Skirvin-type deal, it will be difficult simply because Empowerment Zone resources have been spent already and that pot of money won't be replenished until either the Skirvin is totally paid off or it gets sold to a bigger hotel chain. I think the Skirvin is fine the way it is, but I'm also confident that the City can put together some kind of deal here. It may just be a typical TIF that the Alliance is offering up to anyone, and that could work.

But I believe we are getting closer and closer to a local investment group making a play to save the FNC. That's undoubtedly an optimistic prediction, so who knows, but one can certainly hope. As for what we might see, I have no idea. I have to believe that if it's led by local investors (who aren't the MidtownR people) the redevelopment project will be as unimaginative as possible.

Maybe even all office, considering that's back in demand right now, and these people believe that downtown can thrive as 100% office and that even constitutes "mixed-use." Regardless of whatever it becomes, I just hope to see the FNC saved one day. But the Mercantile Building in Downtown Dallas would serve as a smashing mixed-use (condo and hotel) example, and a very similar situation I believe, as well.

Friday, December 23, 2011

LEVEL update pics

Construction update on LEVEL: Friday, Dec. 23rd, 2011. The stucco was being applied to the south edifice--it's definitely a great touch, and looks even better than in the renderings. This is great news for those who were slightly disconcerted that the stucco might be mistaken in appearance for EIFS. The black-gray brick on the street level has been added to the east side, along Walnut Avenue, and boy is it sharp as well. Think Central Avenue Villas.

Even better is the idea that -shocking- we can take a developer at his word when he says he will design and build a quality project.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Artist ghettos and prolonged dust bowl

Back in town for a few weeks, I took to the streets today and just drove around town, catching up on the progress in certain parts of town--today I caught up on the north side. I always think it's good to step away from a situation or a place and then reexamine it later with fresh eyes. So it was today with these fresh eyes that I've come to two particularly interesting observations.

We often strive to maximize land values out of neighborhoods and districts that make up a city. I think this is a shame, because not only does it sometimes block out intrinsic value and human-focused priorities, but it also eats a hole out of the diversity that usually makes urban cities in the U.S. so awesome. It was a similar obsession with sanitizing the urban environment that leveled most of downtown in the 60s and 70s.

I am always railing about inner north improvements. My stance is that if you polish up OKC's north side, bam--you get South Tulsa or North Dallas (obviously more refined, sophisticated environments). Let's face it, OKC's built environment just isn't very "sophisticated." Today I've come to realize the good in that, however. If you fan out in all directions of NW 30th and Western, you are surrounded by the grungy, gritty things that add real culture and value yet sap sophistication to this city. It's mostly just this little pocket of run-down blocks in the north side, but I've tackled that situation in enormous detail before.

I just think whether it's the Paseo, aside from its iconic Spanish Village main street along Dewey, that offers cheap rent to the truly-quasi "starving artists" of this world, or the nearby Asian District/Military neighborhood that injects OKC with a large dose of diversity, this area contributes just as much to OKC as Nichols Hills or downtown.

Realization #2: We need trees. What are OKC's biggest needs? More density, improving corridor aesthetics, public transit, mixed-use development? No. OKC's biggest needs are trees, trees, and more trees. The dearth of urban canopy in OKC is stunning. Yes, there are some averse conditions, and yes, big beautiful oak forests aren't naturally supposed to be here. I think Denver is one of the best examples of very lush cities that aren't supposed to be lush--it can be done. More so, it needs to be done badly. NeighborWoods is a great program, but it's just not doing enough. So much more needs to be done.

The profound thing is that a lot of these areas that are identified as needing improvement could just be covered up if we had more trees. I realized this as I was on one of those bridges crossing the Oklahoma River--where you see an enormous, wind-swept "riverside" that gradually merges into the very-scenic Great Plains ranch land separating downtown from Capitol Hill. Many cities such as Fort Worth have strange expanses of greenfield like this, however they are always covered with trees, or at least along thoroughfares.

Instead of having to spread out urban development demand to fix this area and many more, why don't some of us plant some trees for crissakes? I'm not even coming at this from a tree-hugger perspective. It would just make OKC look 10000x better. Not to mention feel better when it's 105 degrees and 400% humidity outside, and that translates into real quality of life and walkability improvement. Urban shade is a good thing, not a bad thing!

So there, one positive, and one negative (but a really obvious negative that I don't imagine will tick too many of you off). That recap is just for those of you who complain that I'm 100% negative!

Monday, December 19, 2011


I wasn't really planning on extrapolating on my previous criticism of Avis Scaramucci and her leadership in Bricktown, but after seeing Steve's reference to my blog last week, now I suppose I am compelled to keep it going. Instead of going as far out there to say something wildly critical of Avis, let's just pretend that I did. "There, I said it."

But in all seriousness, maybe Avis is the leader of the Bricktown Association (or emeritus?) and Bricktown Suburban Design Commission because nobody else wants these positions? That would be sad, because here you have a district that is in dire need of leadership. There is such a multitude of issues that they could be addressing, or could have already addressed. But as it stands, Bricktown stays still. For its entire life, the Bricktown Association's response to the Bricktown parking problem has been to promote the rationalization that there isn't really a parking problem. Weak on leadership.

The Suburban Design Commission, which is tasked with maintaining urban design standards for the district, could have taken proactive action on targeting abandoned buildings, attracting new developments, assisting proposed developments, and so on. Instead of proactively making a difference in building a better Bricktown, they have been consistently contributing to the wrong direction for the district. The House of Bedlam vote was just the icing on the cake. Let's talk about building demolitions, giant inflatable dragons, and more.

So, the problem isn't anything personal I have against Avis. It's that I am disappointed that this district has had bad leadership. I don't know what it's like behind the scenes in Bricktown. I don't know if there's a power struggle. I don't know if nobody wants to lead. Maybe everyone is real chummy and pleased with Avis' leadership and sees no problem with the district's stunted progress (I'd put my money on that). Either way, it doesn't matter. What matters are the results. And they just aren't there.

So make a list of Bricktown goals. You won't get to cross very many of them off, and probably not for a while, either (all the while surrounding districts are crossing off goals like they're on sale). Then make a list of Bricktown's known problems. Parking crunch. Too many surface parking lots for pay. Losing density. Slow day-time traffic. Slum lords who sit on buildings waiting for values to rise. Lack of mixed-use. And so on.

All of those problem, except lack of mixed-use (her one development really was as outstanding as it gets, to give credit where credit IS due), Avis Scaramucci has directly (through her business interests) or indirectly (through her votes) contributed to. It turns out that she exemplifies one of them. If she's not a slumlord, then I'm not a blogger.

They have no plans to renovate the Rock Island Plow Building. In fact, as Steve informed us last week, they are boarding up even more windows THIS WEEK as I am typing this out. Furthermore, they have no plans to sell--essentially they make no bones about the fact that they're waiting for "the right time to sell," as they say. This is the ultimate indictment in my opinion.

How important is this building to Bricktown? Well, how important is wood to a woodchuck? Talk about a "Bricktown Gateway" in terms of the entrance on Reno. Furthermore, this is one of the most prominent buildings that OKC Arena crowds see as they're walking between the arena and the accompanying entertainment district that is aggressively promoted to those event crowds. When we have bball tourneys, fanbases will have a HQ bar in Bricktown. And with the planned transit hub, this location is set to become even more high-profile.

Something needs to be done. But it's not going to be done any time soon. Just accept it. What can people do? Well, I hear complaining doesn't hurt. According to my poll, almost 2/3rds of observers disapprove, most vehemently, of the B(s)UDC. This is even after absorbing a flurry of pro-Bricktown votes lately, I assume a small group of people heard about this discussion on the blogs. But what else can you do?

Not a lot. This is because when the bad interests get involved in the decision-making process, effectively preempting urban planning in a district that is little more than a massive public interest (WE built that canal, not Lower Bricktown developers, not Avis Scaramucci, not the Brewers, and NOT Chris Johnson, that is OUR canal god dammit), then the system is rigged. A rigged system is a broken system.

So one thing you can NOT count on is a rigged, broken system producing solutions that will get Bricktown back on track for where it needs to be in terms of its urban development.

New parking sites

For those who haven't heard, COTPA is selling off parking garage after parking garage, which is building up funding parking garages! I have some thoughts on those, first based on comments in the Oklahoman article.

Pete White is excited about the site at NW 10th and Robinson. Jim Couch says that regardless of whether they decide to target the office needs or mixed-use needs, both would be wins as far as downtown parking goes.

Theoretically, Couch is right. However the only problem with that is that this city currently has zero public parking facilities in mixed-use districts. All of this city's parking garages have been in the office core of downtown, which is anything but mixed-use and will remain that way for a while.

The proposed sites are as follows (I went ahead and ranked the sites based on favorability overall, but I admit I haven't really thought a whole lot about ALL of the sites yet):

I think that some of these sites have a lot of strengths. Immediately rising to the top of the list are the two proposed sites that bookend the streetcar system (1 & 2), for strategic purposes. These sites (SW corner of Bricktown and 10th and Robinson), rise above the fray for a multitude of reasons.

Mixed-use: Both of these sites serve mixed-use areas that have a strong need for a parking solution, which I'll talk about more. But I do believe that serving the mixed-use areas, and just developing mixed-use in general, needs to be a higher priority. We have office towers. We have office space. Available office space. Garages that serve office workers. And so on. As far as mixed-use goes, well, it's another situation altogether. We know that this needs to be a priority. We also know that most of the downtown "renaissance" has been spearheaded by adding some mixed-use development.

Parking need: A year ago we did not think there would be any parking need for the office core. Today, it looks like there is a need that exists. But we have known that Bricktown needed a parking solution for a LONG time. That parking crunch could be solved by adding more street parking, like is going to be done along N. Broadway. Speaking of Automobile Alley, we know that there is a strong need for parking around NW 9th, where retail has a foothold downtown. These small businesses and trendy restaurants don't have the resources to deal with parking on their own. However, a block or two away, parking can be easily found. Bricktown obviously has the strongest need.

Transit synergy: It would be vital for a new downtown parking masterplan to take advantage of the new streetcar system, which will serve as a walkability extender (extending the length of "walkable trips" across downtown). So any proposed site that isn't right on the tram route should be thrown away automatically. Furthermore, the Bricktown site happens to be right where there is a proposed garage to serve the OKC Transit Hub, which will be developed out of the old Santa Fe Depot facility. The parking garage would be needed for commuter rail and Amtrak rail, and would be connected via underground tunnels. We would need to talk about how to fund that if that site isn't chosen as the next public parking garage that we now have funds to build.

Contributing to infill: Downtown needs infill. This is another established goal that public actions NEED to be contributing to solving. One of the proposed sites, the one at W. Main and Dewey-to-Shartel, would involve a number of building demolitions on a block with enormous preservation potential. W. Main is another one of those incredible old streetwalls that remain on the edge of downtown's office core. Let's preserve the density we have, and build density where we don't have it, and the CITY shouldn't be doing anything to contradict those goals at the very least. Sites that have the potential to support future development should be given priority as well.

The garages closer to the center fail to do this, although to this end, I would also not write off the site across from City Hall. I think that the Arts District, particularly the Preftakes-owned buildings, could become the next hotspot downtown. This garage could support that and also prevent other building demolitions for parking, which have been rumored from Preftakes for a while. Also as far as future development goes, we know that NW 10th is becoming a vital corridor, so I'd consider that a worthwhile site, and there is also a lot of development left to be done in Bricktown up against the tracks (including a site that Hogan is rumored to be developing soon south of Reno).

Accessibility: Access to the most efficient traffic flow will obviously be another important consideration. One thing I would remind people of is the pending demolition of the Crosstown Expressway land bridge--the replacement at-grade expressway will be right up against the proposed Bricktown garage. You don't get better access to traffic flow in and out of downtown than that. This also has the potential to serve proposed mixed-use sites along the "boulevard," provided that any of these blocks are left untouched once this convention complex gets built. This could be good and bad. If this "boulevard" is an auto highway like planned, a parking garage would just make that even worse. Instead of "Champs d'Elysses" you have essentially..E.K. Gaylord deux. NW 10th, being that emerging vital corridor, is also great from an accessibility standpoint. The other sites mostly involve a great deal of zig-zagging and circling construction sites to get to.

We will just have to watch the Alliance closely (or as close as possible) and see which direction they're thinking about going in. But while Couch is right that theoretically there are many different needs to serve in terms of parking, there aren't just all right answers--it may seem this way when you live your life in a vacuum of power and cronyism like Couch. There are wrong answers and right answers, even if only because we have office and don't have mixed-use. I would say though that it goes beyond that. Downtowns across the nation, no world, have identified the need for as much mixed-use as possible. Mixed-use is potentially going strong 24/7. When your downtown caters to office needs, it rolls up its sidewalks and closes all of its doors at 5. That's what kind of downtown we HAVE.

And here, we start looking at the differences in leadership styles. The more progressive, proactive cities are being led by transformational leaders. A transformational leader is somebody who ignores the status quo and says, "Yeah, that's how things are, but this is how things could be. This is the goal to be working toward." Meanwhile, a caretaker leader just covers their bases and propagates the status quo. These people shy away from visionary ideas. A caretaker leader would prefer to keep doing what we've been doing with parking (obviously with much success - not) whereas a transformational leader would explore the potential for a parking solution to continue turning the land use dilemma around.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Bulldozer-happy morons strike again

This building was targeted by demolition earlier because the convention center super-block was going there. Instead, that convention center super-block got moved to just about the only potentially worse site they could have come up with.

So why is the International Harvesters building still on for demolition? This is yet just another great old building coming down. This city is becoming demo-happy as it was in the 1970s. Deja vu. Anyone who claims to be pro-preservation is just offering up lip service.

I'm just not sure this city is interested in historic preservation, urban design, sustainable development, and quality environments. And the means in which this city throws slings at those things are ridiculously over-funded (convention center) and the means in which they claim to care about those things (streetcar, parks, streetscapes, etc) are ridiculously under-funded by comparison.

This building is in the C2S region. There is also a very good corridor of historic buildings along SW 3rd with great potential. It will also likely be leveled if certain folks have their way. I'm beginning to think C2S is a disastrous undertaking that should have never even begun, not for the bad it looks like it is going to do, and not even for the supposed good we were told would come out of it.

C2S is nothing but an urban planning folly and a sham at that.