Top 10 things that worked and did not work in 2011 (aside from timely blog posts)…
What better way to remember 2011 than examining what worked, and what didn’t work at all (that Top 10 will be coming later). At the same time we will be offering insights on what we should continue to go with for 2012, and at the same time recommending changes to make for an even better 2012. For downtown at least, it will be hard to top 2011, realistically-speaking. Oh, it was the best of worlds, and it was also the worst of worlds (yet not as often) as the excessive waste of tremendous resources is even more frustrating than not even having those resources or possibilities to begin with. This is our chance OKC, we have to capitalize!
This post is also dedicated to Frederick Law Olmsted, the world's greatest landscape architect of all time, or if you will, a "park-itect." Olmsted was the architect of NYC's Central Park, not to mention Yellowstone National Park, and hundreds of other landmarks. There were (or still are) a number in Buffalo, NY even, He was also the architect of one Boston's key links in the "Emerald Necklace" (the string of iconic parks that define Boston) which would later bear his name as Olmsted Park. It is impossible to talk about America's best parks without a discussion that begins and ends with the architect who was also a firm abolitionist, opposed to the very slave labor that states and cities used to build the parks he would design. Just as OKC today is a mixture of good and bad, here lies the crux of good urban design more often than not: It can come from the best of times, and it can come from the worst of times. But either way, it is true to form and true to heart. Nothing is more American than a good, well-designed city.
Top 10 Things That Worked
1. Construction workers, thousands of them, on the Devon, Chesapeake, and SandRidge campuses (campii?) definitely worked. They all worked overtime, around-the-clock, in fact. As the big 2 energy companies in OKC continued to expand, so did the scope of construction, and the pace. Devon Tower shot up like a weed to tower over the skyline, and Chesapeake’s retail development along Classen quickly became one of the city’s premier shopping developments. Chesapeake’s new office buildings east of Classen will break from the Georgian dormer-style buildings that the first 15 or so CHK buildings resemble. They will be ultra-modern and much, much larger in footprint as well. Could a tower be in the works? Devon-related construction may continue longer than any of us expect as credible rumors are surfacing that developer Nicholas Preftakes, who has bought up much of the Arts District, is working in concert with Devon to spur some development around the new Devon World Headquarters. A mixed-use response to CHK, perhaps? The SandRidge buildings also came down as work continued inside the old KMG tower.
2. NW 9th Street, still somewhat in its infancy, continued to work up a storm in 2011. Steve Mason, and we have to believe at this point that the district has worked up a good amount of synergy revolving around other players now (particularly the Flaming Lips), stayed true to what made 9th Street first blast onto the stage in 2008: Retaining and restoring battered, blighted warehouses, garages, and shacks—turning them into showcases of the eclectic and imposing monuments to the unimposing. In 2007, when Mason began his development push, 9th Street consisted of vacant land, an abandoned warehouse, a garage with cool old cars in it (Mel’s), an abandoned garage, and some wooden shacks further down the street. By simply repairing what was already there, today you have the Flaming Lips’ “The Womb,” S&B Burger Joint, The Iguana, Shop Good, Pachinko Parlor, and that’s just on 9th—on Broadway, Mason has added more retail along with what has become one of OKC’s most popular coffee shops, Coffee Slingers. Don’t look now, but NW 9th and NW 16th have quickly become the epicenter of LOCAL retail. What if the NW 9th approach was replicated say, in Core2Shore? Just saying…
3. Chesapeake worked wonders to bring top-flight retailers to OKC in 2011. They even offered an incentive out of their own pockets (without even asking for a TIF, which would have been controversial) for Whole Foods to open shop. Whole Foods, which went with a relatively small store footprint, was not expecting the OKC store to be a huge success. It was bigger than a huge success and now Whole Foods is reportedly eyeing locations for metro store #2. You really have to question that anti-Oklahoma bias down there in Austin if the Whole Foods corporate people had no idea that OKC would be a big success, but luckily now it appears they’re over that. Chesapeake also brought in another metro-first retailer in Anthropology, with undoubtedly more to come, including all of the local retailers that they lined their Classen Curve development with. It stands to reason that Whole Foods isn’t the only one receiving some kind of incentives from CHK—and it’s evident that CHK has big things up their sleeves, or else there is no way they would be going to the lengths they’ve gone to so far on this project. It just doesn’t make sense to hire Rand Elliott and pay off tenants for disparate parts of basically just a strip mall and a grocery store (yeeah—very nice ones, I admit). Rumors include housing being built between WF and NW 63rd and redevelopment of the old Nichols Hills Plaza, and the CHK Real Estate Binge goes much further than those properties, too. They're also behind an interesting LEED-certified "modern micro community" on NW 56th. I guess there goes the old Meadowbrook Acres 'hood...
4. OKC Talk worked (and likely prevented many people from working) in 2011. I understand the skeptics here, probably largely driven out of nervousness. OKC Talk has had a spotty past, to tell the truth, and in my opinion it used to be best to avoid. It was just typical of an online forum where sad people can hide behind anonymity and engage in flame wars, thus filling that void in their personal lives and taking it out on others without the time or patience to put up. It was a bit much to keep up with when I barely have the personal time to do right by this blog. However, OKC Talk’s Pete Brzycki has changed all that since he bought the site (for a large sum, reportedly) and maintained it to the highest level. Pete’s stewardship has turned OKC Talk, of all things, into a true force to be reckoned with in OKC politics. OKC Talk is the haven for mavens of OKC’s development and neighborhood news. Skeptical? Believe it. Big-time developers, like Bricktown’s Jim Pitman, big-time local journalists like the Oklahoman’s Steve Lackmeyer, and big-time local volunteers and activists such as most of the M3 Streetcar Subcommittee, are all not just posters on the site, but major contributors for the most part. No doubt there exists innumerable others, and we know that the site is daily reading for all of OKC’s leaders. Comments and trends that begin to resonate on this site take hold out there in the real world, in the community meetings and committee proceedings that define downtown affairs. OKC Talk has emerged as a force not just to be reckoned with, but also a force with tremendous staying power. That is in no small part due to a passionate OKC expat for whom stewardship (and funding) of this tremendous online resource is a way to give back to his hometown. Just as OKC Talk, with millions of page hits (I don’t know, maybe daily??) has made a true impact (mostly as an ultimate democratization force), OKC owes Pete a true thank-you.
5. Downtown restaurants worked, as well. Downtown, and its many districts that form this part of the city, virtually became a huge restaurant district in 2011. Every district is now anchored by a restaurant that is either very popular, or has the potential to be. Perhaps one of the biggest restaurant openings was that of the new Hideaway Pizza on North Broadway in Automobile Alley. Another new restaurant, Joey’s Pizza (relocated from Classen), anchors the old Film Row district. NW 9th is anchored by Iguana, Mid-town is anchored by McNellie’s (still the biggest restaurant up there), Deep Deuce is anchored by the Deep Deuce Bar & Grill, and so on. More restaurants even opened up in Bricktown, including some chains like Texadelphia. Can all these restaurants be sustained, after there were already a great many going into last year, no doubt. There has never been a restaurant demand study done, so we will really begin to test that demand, I think. One positive will be a huge number of “rooftops” coming onto the market downtown, which will inject downtown with a local customer base for a change.
6. Ed Shadid definitely politicked in 2011. I was at first concerned by Ed’s rhetoric when he initially popped onto the scene during his campaign. After it became clear that Ed would be a true supporter of quality of life, there was a rally to get him elected over a well-proved economic development cartel called “OKC Momentum.” Ed handed them a landmark defeat and then continued to make splashes by taking on deals that sounded bad, and he embarrassed City Hall by shining light on decisions that made very little sense. He even accomplished a major civil rights landmark as he got sexual orientation added to the city’s non-discrimination policy. Still, anytime you embarrass high-ups in this city, there’s a chance of being counter-productive. The jury is out on the real progress Ed has made, but he has performed admirably in the role of Downtown Don Quixote, if you ask the Oklahoman at least.
7. TIF deals worked pretty well in 2011, except when they didn’t (in the case of Bomasada). The Alliance for Economic Development, led by former assistant City Manager Cathy O’Connor, was successful in leveraging major downtown developments with TIF deals to ensure fruition AND to ensure quality standards in development. In fact, all of the recipients of these TIFs have proven their commitment to the utmost building standards. Gary Brooks, who won the OCURA bid for the former Mercy Hospital site, later on announced (long after winning the bid) that the project would be the first LEED-certified mixed-use project in the state. Richard McKown (LEVEL developer) and Ron Bradshaw (Maywood Park developer) both pledged to use real stucco, instead of EIFS, with two enormous mixed-use developments that will go a long ways toward filling in Deep Deuce, along with an ultra-sleek Aloft Hotel being developed by hotelier and local architect Jim Thompson. Now the ultimate test to see just what kind of a miracle a Cathy O’Connor TIF deal can do will be to see what happens with the Judy Hatfield’s Carnegie project (pictured).
8. OKC Momentum worked hard in 2011 (but others worked harder). For better or for worse, there was an anonymous cartel of elite interests here in OKC (or perhaps Nichols Hills, rather) that attempted to buy Ward 2. The problem was that Ward 2 could not be bought because this ward is the best-organized, most-active, and boldest ward in the entire city. Ward 2 has a history of electing trendsetters and visionaries. Patience Latting, OKC’s first and only female mayor, cut her teeth politically in Ward 2. Many excellent statewide leaders (like Bob Anthony) got their start (well, politically at least) with some modest community organizing in Ward 2. Gazette Published Bill Bleakly wrote an admirable piece about the legacy of this tremendous ward, in which he mentions the names of many people you’ve either forgotten about or never heard of to begin with, but the point is that Ward 2 always sends somebody significant to the Horseshoe. The outgoing councilor, Sam Bowman, was a helluva councilman. Talk about a true civic dignitary and a class act. OKC Momentum through hundreds of thousands of dollars, not to mention primetime ad spots on local news, and still couldn’t win the hearts and souls of Ward 2. Dr. Shadid’s huge landslide victory, despite losing fundraising and spending by a landslide, didn’t just reaffirm Ward 2’s values. But it was earth-shattering for OKC because we’ve never had a council election like that before, and the good guy won. “Momentum” used to be a harmless cliché used ad nauseum around OKC, now it is a punch line and perhaps even a dirty word, which is also profound for two big reasons: Firstly, it was time to get a new word anyway, and secondly, good people are going to stand up to bulldozing anything and everything just for progress. No more progress for progress’ sake. Frederick Law Olmsted, the finest park-itect the world has ever known, once said: “The possession of arbitrary power has always, the world over, tended irresistibly to destroy humane sensibility, magnanimity, and truth.” That’s the way anonymous elite interests prefer to carry out the business of the people when the people, especially of Ward 2, clearly have other things in mind.
9. Quality of life improvements (including the Myriad Gardens) didn’t just work in 2011, they kicked ass. Project 180 is in deep trouble right now, they underestimated their expenses, overestimated tax revenue from Devon Tower (which was built for much, much cheaper than expected), and over-leveraged themselves on a bond deal with Devon (rather than waiting for the TIF money to accrue over time). But never mind that fiasco. I don’t care how angry you are about the cost overruns, even if we were $100 million over budget just on the Myriad Gardens alone, it would have been worth it. For me, the chance to get out and walk around and enjoy this park was elation beyond what I would have expected in my wildest dreams for 2011—you can’t help but feel like you are in Boston or Portland. This is a park for humans. It’s a beautiful park. It’s also a park that is clearly planned to make a visual impact. The old Myriad Gardens just weren’t that way. To put it in terms that everyone will understand, the trees weren’t lined up well, the paths made no sense, there was no visual definition that played off of anything. Myriad Gardens 2.0 would make Frederick Law Olmsted proud indeed. It will soon be the pride of Oklahoma when the Festival of the Arts rolls around this Spring, and 500,000+ people are instantly blown away. It doesn’t stop there. Actual (dedicated) bike lanes have been spotted on some downtown streets; I myself nearly had a heart attack when I first saw this. Also don’t forget the Oklahoma River, as Boathouse Row continued to finish impressive projects, break ground on other previously announced ones, and continue to roll out other impressive proposals (such as a new children’s building, that has been removed from their website since I last saw it??). We still have the MAPS3 Central Park and other features yet to come! Could it be that a city that lacked a single decent park could become a city chock-full of quality urban greenspaces? This in and of itself is all the difference in the world, and I believe the difference will manifest itself shortly not just with new development, but with tangible quality of life improvements. You can NEVER have too many good parks, especially when you used to have none, truthfully.
10. SkyDance Bridge worked in 2011, even if only for the last two weeks of the year. I was skeptical of this one. It looked like we were in for another wasteful and disappointing project. ODOT goofed and then demanded that the alignment be altered, negating what would have been an axis leading straight to the Devon atrium, and then cost overruns meant that a suspension bridge (where the scissor tail feature served a structural purpose) had to become a simple truss bridge, the cheaper option, rendering the scissor tail to look like a goofy cosmetic addition in depictions. Sometimes however, you can’t always judge a project by bad architectural renderings. In real life, this project is stunning, and perhaps the truss bridge feature is even an improvement. It has undoubtedly added more jagged edges as a defining element of this bridge, accentuating the “feathers” of the scissor tail piece. By the way, the entire bridge was lit-up with shifting LED lights on the very last evening of 2011, and it was truly breathtaking. It was mesmerizing even from as far away as the I-35 bridge. Can you imagine that very view in a year (to an out of-towner) with the new OKC skyline in full view, that bridge lit up, the bridges with their LED light panels, Boathouse Row finished, those boathouses lit-up impressively, and more trees planted along that river? I’m. Having. Trouble. Seeing. Straight. So. Excited. For. The. Future. Of this.
By the way, isn't Will Hider an incredible photographer? You can also thank OKC Talk for his talent being discovered.