Sunday, August 28, 2011

The truth about the "Chamber junta"

I want to start revving up my reaction against the convention center site location again. I have a feeling the location debate was blown wide open by the council standing firm against a $30 million budget increase for the project. Obviously it won't affect anything. Anything that anyone, or however MANY people say, even if they are echoed by a councilman sitting on the horseshoe--won't have any chance in effecting a change in course on this convention center.

Explaining this absolutely ridiculous CC subcommittee, who do they think they are?
A lot of attention around the rogue MAPS 3 Convention Center Subcommittee, that so-called "Chamber junta" as they have been aptly labeled by all of the alternative media, has focused on the role of Larry Nichols. Nichols is a local civic warrior who is pushing relentless for what he sees as OKC's best interest, and his influence and power is surging. As he minimized his day-to-day role in running Devon to focus more on his civic ambitions, he has taken the bull by the horns when it comes to this city (I think a very apropos analogy), and I suppose one could say that the arrival of his influence in the last year or so has been felt with the subtlety of a steer mounting a comely heifer. Every conspiracy theorist in town is wanting to blame anything that smells fishy on him, and every respectable leader in town is too afraid to even set the record straight because they don't want to mis-speak when it comes to Nichols. But Nichols is not a corrupt overlord, and I like to believe his interests are mostly above-board. There, I said it, sue me.

This whole "let's lynch Larry Nichols" thing has been a distraction from what I think is the real problem with this "Chamber junta." There are a lot of hotel owners and operators and assorted interests aligned with them that are on this subcommittee. I mean existing hotels, like the Skirvin, Colcord, Renaissance, Courtyard, Sheraton, and so on. The hotel operators that have the most local influence are immediately around the Cox Center, not by virtue of their Broadway or Robinson address, but by virtue of their working relationship with the CVB. The CVB wants to maintain those relationships, for right or for wrong, in spite of what we obviously know that these hotels are amazingly inadequate for handling the convention needs of a "Tier 2" city. We need to start from scratch because a scattering of around 800 rooms over 4-5 separate hotels is a joke and is not going to impress anyone.

In fact, we were going to locate this thing across from the current I-40, and the proximity concern raised by planners had nothing to do with THESE hotels but rather to Bricktown. We have known, mostly all along, that we will have to start over on the hotel front. But we also didn't think we would have to start over on the entertainment and restaurant front, we expected to keep using Bricktown for that, and we also knew that would be a lot harder to recreate in Core2Shore than the hotels would be.

Basically our hotel picture is a small scattering of rooms around the Cox, and probably an equally sized (albeit getting larger with the aLoft) cluster of rooms around Bricktown. Why is ONE of these clusters, particularly the one that is going to be smaller soon, more important to stay close to than the other? Ask that question. The answer is that this has everything to do with these hotels exerting local influence on the convention and hospitality industry, which is running this convention center subcommittee. Obviously, these hotels are at capacity with their current monopoly on the hotel market. More hotels means they will take a hit and may-gasp-only be fairly profitable. (Let's not understate the booming state of the downtown hotels, which are all benefiting from increasing demand and abnormally low supply for a city our size) These guys aren't going to go out of business by bringing in more hotels or starting over with the convention-front, but they won't enjoy being booked solid anymore.

And I've been told by a past president of the Bricktown Association in person that they feel helpless in advancing their cause for anything against these bigger interests because they already have the Ballpark and the Canal. They wish they could pick up "that damn ballpark" and move it to Core2Shore if it's the reason their concerns don't get heard. It may seem insane to outsiders to say that Bricktown interests are being trumped by hotel operators, but it's just the truth that I see.

Can urbanism stand on its own as an agenda?
The interesting thing about OKC's activist circles is that all of the progressives have traditionally been tied to the economic development agenda for the sake of survival. Without the economic development agenda or dare I say "momentum," there is no push for a progressive agenda either. The Chamber can at least make token progress on the issues that progressives care about.

I want to pose a big question. Can a progressive agenda for urbanism and sustainability stand on its own, and take on competing factions on its own? I see MAPS 3 as resembling a bond between progressives and juntas, both attracting voter support from different ends, and I see the last few months as this show of bait-and-switch. Progressive votes were baited with certain items, and then the switch came when the convention center nobody wanted became the new priority, at the expense of other projects. Did progressives really get a bad deal? The streetcar and park might not even be happening without the convention center. We know that voters overwhelmingly took sides with the progressive items and did not like that convention center at all, but--do we have anything else resembling real proof that a progressive agenda can stand on its own and not depend on whoring itself out to the convention center interests?

This past marriage of convenience of progressive issues and the chamber junta makes for odd bed fellows indeed.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Tom Elmore responds

In hindsight I had a somewhat negative tone in a previous post regarding Tom Elmore, the fervent rail advocate himself. I've met Tom and chatted with him on the City Hall steps a few years ago, and he seemed like a nice guy, and his vision is admirable although I personally support the consensus of the MAPS3 subcommittee and its advocates, but again, that's just my personal opinion. I didn't want to slight Tom at all--I saw where he left a comment defending himself, so in the interest of fairness I thought I'd post it up here.

Howdy. Tom Elmore here (see above). Despite my appreciation for the good words (the part about "knowing my stuff"), I'd question your conclusion that "even the most ardent train enthusiasts" in OKC have "distanced themselves" from Tom Elmore (me) -- as, according to "the state's largest newspaper" Tom Elmore IS the most ardent, etc., etc. (Well, actually the description its editorial writers employed was "rail zealot" -- which is not only shorter, but would likely buy roughly the same cup of coffee...) Further, for the record, it was actually two hard-headed Normanites who persuaded the Norman Council to consider a resolution asking then-Governor Henry to appoint an independent committee to revisit ODOT's disastrous plan for the destruction of the OKC Union Station rail plant. Unfortunately, this resolution failed by one vote, apparently via some of the same influence that arguably sent Oklahoma-derived transit funding to Utah in the late 1990s.

I have a Tulsa counterpart now

Came across a new blog that tracks Tulsa urban development. I've promoted a Tulsa counterpart before and then been disappointed when they end up a flash in the pan, so I wish Kyle, the blogger of Come on Tulsa, the best of luck--and a lot of energy and gusto!

This reminds me, I myself have a few Tulsa construction update pics that I took recently... just more pics that I'm backed up with!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

I'm argued out

For the last few weeks, things have been slow on here just because I have a lot of pics I took around town, construction progress related for the most part, and now I just can't even find the energy lately to get them off my phone and onto this blog. I am just all argued out. There is not much left after 3 years of advocating for urbanism in OKC.

Now I look around and I see what it's mostly come to. The Stage Center, one of Oklahoma's very few pieces of "starchitecture," is probably at the end, and the council is moving forward with this idiotic location for the convention center, and so on. You just can't win. These people look at the Stage Center and do not see architecture, but rather prime real estate that is worth a lot of money. They see the Myriad Gardens and the new planned MAPS 3 park and think dividing these with a convention center is a good idea. That last one is especially moronic.

Idiots. People are IDIOTS. And I have nothing else to say right now, I'm truly just at a loss. But not for long...just give me a week to take a deep breath.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Sept 6 @ 6.30: Be there or be a square (621 of them)

Dr. Shadid is doing another town hall, and for those who haven't heard of the Good Doctor's town halls, people actually show up, and they get stuff done. There will be one on September 6th at 6:30, at OCU, that could go down in history quite possibly. I myself am trying to move up a Fall Break vacation when I would have been in OKC so that I can be in attendance, but I need a department clearance since I'd have to make up a lot of studio hours, so it seems unlikely.

The problem is that Dr. Shadid can actually shake things up and represent everyone in the city who yearns for urbanism, only as long as they make their voice heard. If people stay quiet, just mumble their complaints to themselves, and expect things to change on their own, nothing will ever happen and Dr. Shadid won't have the actual citizens backing him up that he needs in order to make a real difference. So as it stands, the least I can do is get the word out and try and get as many other people there as possible. On facebook, evidently 110 are "attending," however many that actually ends up being. The reason the venue is TBA, as I understand it, is because they can easily move this into the Bass Center if it turns out to be hundreds.

I told Dr. Shadid that he should have named the thing "Dr. Shadid's OKC Sprawl Clinic" just out of whimsy, but as it stands, he has a great name for the event already. Sprawl: OKC's Unique 621 Sq.Mi. Permutation. The premise being that all big cities have sprawl, however, OKC takes it to the N'th degree. This we know is true.

The facebook link:

Stockholm Syndrome

Questor on OKC Talk asked for more Stockholm pictures, so here they are. Now with captions!

Bustling Drottninggatan street in Central Stockholm, a pedestrian shopping mall

A typical side street in Gamla Stan (Old Town)

Inside the Sveriges Riksdag (Swedish Parliament)

Standing in front of the Nobel Institute in Gamla Stan (Old Town)

Busy Hornsgatan street in Sodermalm

Gotgatan street in Sodermalm

Overlooking Gamla Stan (Old Town) from Sodermalm

Skeppsbron Street in Gamla Stan (Old Town)

The view from the top

For those who don't know, the rooftop deck above Rawhide is a work of art. Jeff Bezdek was showing it to me the other week and it was just as cool as I had always heard it was. Talking to Steve Mason about it later, evidently he was actually inspired in part by the High Line in NY. Steve romanticized how cool it would be if something like that could be accomplished with the old Crosstown, an idea I've heard echoed by Sid Burgess and a few others.

The really cool thing about what Steve has done is that he wasn't answering a need, per se, as far as I know. He just thought it was cool, he was inspired, and he wanted to create such a space. As the head of Cardinal Engineering, there probably weren't too many bids for urban rooftop green spaces on the market, so he brought the concept to OKC himself. The interesting thing is that he is now much more likely to get to work on another such project now that he's brought the concept to OKC, kind of like how Boldt uses their Broadway Extension headquarters as a design showcase. Anyone else interested in a rooftop deck like this? Here's a cool website about rooftop gardens, with a few examples of "greening the urban jungle."

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Hideaway opening

Don't forget, the new Hideaway is opening on Automobile Alley today (8th and Broadway) and ALL of their sales from today (not just profits) will be donated to Eugene Fields Elementary, a nearby OCPS school.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The game of downtown retail

I did a very, very bad thing. I sent an email many months ago to Alison Oshel, who is the wonderful Director of Community Redevelopment at the Greater OKC Chamber and did not read that she got back with me until just now. This is an especially egregious accident on my part, considering that I wrote a pretty negative appraisal of the job she is doing. She responded, basically informing me of what she does, as if she needs to. I then apologized and asked her if I could ask a few questions, which I'd put up as an "interview" on here. It probably looks like I ignored her and disrespected her, but sometimes you lose track of emails, and I feel very bad about this.

But here is the interview, and you can compare/contrast this with a rather negative post that I wrote back in 2009.

Q: How does the Chamber, or you specifically, go about recruiting retail for OKC?
A: We provide market research and site analysis. The research is assembled into marketing materials that are disseminated to our area brokers and developers for use in their recruitment efforts. We provide site analysis as needed and we update our market research continually. I have attached some samples of the marketing materials we compiled this year.

Q: What are some specific examples of this process at work?
A: We target retailers not yet in our market and meet with them. We have met with Whole Foods, COSTCO, REI, California Pizza Kitchen, Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, Paper Source, Free People and at least a dozen others and most have indicated an initial interest in our market after we were able to demonstrate to them that OKC is a large market with high disposable income. Several of these prospects have been here for multiple site visits and at least two have requested site analyses for locations that they have zeroed in on. I believe we will see 1 or 2 of those listed above in our market within 18-24 months. We have NOT met with Nordstrom’s because they notoriously expect a giant public incentive (I heard in one case $40 million!) to come to any new market.

Q: What kind of efforts are made at conventions and on the road to meet with retailers?
A: We lease space at the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) convention and build a booth with meeting rooms and a reception area. We offer our meeting rooms and brochure racks to any OKC broker or developer to use during the convention. This is the largest outlay of cash from our retail program but, in the good years, more than 55,000 retailers and developers attend this convention so it is a must for anyone trying to promote retail. Because space at the show is expensive, some of our area brokers/developers are extremely appreciative of having the ability to host their meetings in our space. This is not a trade show—it is a place to have meetings and to make deals. Both Jane Jenkins and Jim Cowan were our guests at this convention this past April.

Q: Every area of the metro, except downtown, was recently in store for a lifestyle center (most of these are now stalled)--how does downtown compete, and what is the plan for making downtown stand on its own as a feasible retail market?
A: We target national retail developers who have downtown development experience. We have met with a number of these firms to talk with them about and invite them to consider developing in Core to Shore. There are opportunities which exist in Core to Shore for concentrated retail which do not exist anywhere else in downtown. We have hosted site visits for a number of national developers. I am hosting a group from Atlanta today and tomorrow, in fact.

It’s not, by any stretch, an easy game and the fruits of our efforts which began in 2007 are just now starting to yield results. Whole Foods, and other retailers like them, already had their 2010 store openings announced when we first met with them in 2007—so if we don’t get a Whole Foods in 2010, it shouldn’t surprise anyone. But if we do get a Whole Foods in 2010, I believe the Chamber’s retail program can claim some credit. The Chamber lays the groundwork with our marketing materials and research to help “make the sale” but we must have good retail shopping centers to offer retail prospects so our development and brokerage community is tasked with “closing the deal”. So, I guess I’m saying it takes a village and, thankfully, we do all seem to be working in concert.

Lastly, retail is the hardest type of real estate development to get financed right now so as much as you may not like hearing it, the national economy has slowed or stopped much of the progress that was being made. A number of the developments that you mentioned are back to the drawing board, changing their mix of retail, housing, office and hotel space in order to get their projects financed. I am hopeful that the strong will survive and we will see some quality developments when the cloud lifts.

/end response

I think that is very interesting, and extremely true, that you can have the best retail development task force in the world, and if you don't have any decent developments for retailers to lease space in, you won't get the retailers. I think since this email, some of those retail development goals HAVE been met with success. We now have Whole Foods, Anthropologie, and an outlet mall--major kudos to Ms. Oshel.

I think the answer to this dilemma is obvious. We need more space, and if downtown had desirable retail space, Oshel, Jane Jenkins, and others, would work hard to get it filled with great tenants. But all of these very-capable professionals can't make banks loosen financing, and can't make developers come up with resources to put into a project featuring downtown retail. And it won't happen until there is a large, desirable, contiguous development for retail to go in--one storefront here and there won't do it, these prestigious retailers like to locate together.

OKC Business newspaper agrees, as the subtitle on an article from yesterday reads: "Despite interest from national high-end retailers, until a suitable lifestyle center is built, they won’t come"