Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The failures mount: An angry rant

Revisionist history in OKC is an amazing thing. MAPS 1 was controversial and universally reviled until the first MAPS project, the Ballpark, opened. The public opinion shifted dramatically, and despite nearly $100 million in budget overruns and nearly cancelling the Ford Center construction altogether, the project went down in history as an unchallenged success. Now cities across Oklahoma, the U.S., and even the world have copied from OKC's remarkable success. And yes, that's true.

But revisionist history isn't just limited to the Norick and Humphreys eras. It has become the lead story of the Cornett city hall. Noticing a theme? Perhaps this has less to do with the leadership in the mayor's office, and more to do with leadership in a more permanent, more powerful office in this city. But I didn't say that.

Under Cornett's supposed "watch" (keep in mind, we are NOT a "strong-mayor" city government) there have been more failures than any other period in recent OKC history. We have swept them all under the rug (it's getting very crowded under that there rug) and overlooked them because of a few key unrelated successes, namely, Devon Tower and the NBA.

What does City Hall have to do with either of these projects? To be frank, City Hall can't manufacture the kind of luck that we struck to get those deals done, no matter how much Mayor Mick may walk on water in some people's eyes. There was a devastating hurricane on the Gulf Coast. OKC beat out Louisville, Kentucky to become the new temporary home of the Hornets. Loud City was born as OKC residents supported that team and took them to new unprecedented heights under the abnormal circumstances.

Then, oil stocks hit the roof as the recession caused a world of economic hurt in other cities. Devon, one of the city's main energy mainstays, happened to be spread across 4-5 office buildings downtown, and it didn't take a genius to tell that a new tower would be built, either in OKC, or elsewhere. We owe Larry Nichols for that one, not Jim Couch, not Mick Cornett. There's another politican taking credit for the success of the energy industry that buoyed an economy that was otherwise sagging...Vladimir Putin in Russia. I know neither Couch nor Cornett want to take a page out of that political book, so for all intents and purposes, let's go ahead and move Devon Tower out of their legacy.

That's not to say that the general notion of a successful real estate market is not in some part do to savvy policies in City Hall. One factor that took a huge dent out of downtown office vacancy was the city's efforts to push hotel and residential conversion of abandoned buildings, which practically did a two-fer with each conversion. However, what little amount of OKC's success should truly be attributed to City Hall is easily outpaced by the rapidly-mounting failures of this City Hall.

Project 180 has gone down as one of the biggest jokes in recent history, which is such a shame because it started out so well. Lately City Hall has been engaged against the public on this issue, insisting some "secret contract" exists with Devon that it all has to be rushed ASAP, insisting that the media is reporting inaccuracies, and insisting on an unpopular scheme to redesign Bicentennial Park. Or Civic Center Park, whatever it is called now.

I personally believe that Bicentennial Park needs work and needs to be redesigned into a landmark open space, yet I am with the countless other citizens and leaders who want something different than what has been proposed. I agree with Grant Humphreys in his assertion that we need to study what we got right with the Myriad, and consider how this park differs in design (particularly the heavy parking presence around the park periphery).

When it comes to P180, it's not just Bicentennial. The project was running about double over-budget, and the most important streets ended up being cut out. Hudson will not be converted to two-way, as it will unfortunately have to remain one-way until more studies can be done according to the City (translation: never). It's not just P180. Steve Lackmeyer recently noted the city's policy of "confuse and delay." Essentially, City Hall has a loooooooong history of preventing projects that they don't like, but would rather not publicly oppose, by simply burying it with study after study while this city continues to sprawl to the Kansas state line. The status quo is highly beneficial to more than a few folks, after all.

And let's be real, who really wants to turn OKC into the "Portland of the Plains?" After one puts the peace pipe down, they must realize that one is little more than a pipe dream of a few overly optimistic individuals who spend too much time downtown (as if there could ever be such a thing!). It was said by councilman Ed Shadid that P180 should be redubbed P90, a mere 90 degree right turn instead of the complete U-turn originally hoped-for with downtown streetscapes. So much has been cut out, including E.K. Gaylord (arguably more desperately needing streetscape improvement), Hudson, parts of Walker, the Broadway/E.K. Gaylord cluster----, and so on and so forth. Basically the more important and vital a street, the likelier it has been cut from the scope P90. Perhaps more like P45 at this point.

It goes beyond P90 as well. MAPS 3 has been a failure of public planning to date, as the original voter mandate has been scrapped in place of the interests of the Chamber junta that is running the show. The streetcar has been moved down. The convention center and fairgrounds has been moved up. Very quickly the election rhetoric of quality of life gave way to the post-passage rhetoric of economic development, not to mention flawed rhetoric that quality of life couldn't possibly correlate to economic development, and even more flawed rhetoric that the 18-to-1 infill impact of streetcar doesn't qualify as economic development. Could anyone really be surprised? This is Oklahoma City. This is going to stay Oklahoma City. If MAPS3 ends up being proportionally over-budget compared to P"180" and MAPS1, then it becomes evident that the streetcar was moved to the rear of the project order so that it can be scrapped, and NOT the convention center that nobody wanted.

Will OKC pass a "Let's finish MAPS3 right" addition for the streetcar? No, because City Hall will make sure that it never sees the light of day. The Planning Department would be power-drunk over their ability to kill the one thing that has the potential to dramatically revolutionize patterns of development that would threaten to radiate outward across OKC. God forbid, it could actually become "Portland on the Plains," and then at City Hall, and more specifically in the 420 building where Planning is officed, there would be heads on the chopping block. The interests of suburban developers would be betrayed and somebody would have to pay, starting with Planning, which has traditionally savored its role as the Stewards of Status Quo in this metropolitan area. Garner Stoll, anybody??

Trust me, I'm absolutely on the edge of my seat to see what kind of ground-shattering ideas come out of "Plan OKC," and I particularly can't wait to hear their proposals for implementation. But I'm not holding my breath.

I have not been posting for a while because I've been busy with school, working on my professional career, and sleeping. But not too busy to pay attention to everything happening in OKC, including rumors that friends pass along, and including the inside scoop which isn't at all hard to glean. Truthfully, if you just follow the developments and the news that comes out of downtown for a few years, you do start to read between the lines. This is a good ole boy town, not an above-board city.

So, for those keeping score. P180. MAPS3. BNSF "quiet zone" (that one cost us a major $40 million development, just because the city doesn't believe people north of NE 4th deserve peace and quiet). Bricktown suburban design. Core2Shore. Downtown historic preservation. Our walkability (last among major cities). "Put this city on a diet," a Taco Bell ad campaign.

When was the last time that we had a sales tax-funded initiative that didn't have to be cut? Not MAPS1. Not MAPS for Kids. Not the NBA tax. Not Project 180. I am terrified to think about what kind of future awaits MAPS3, and I'm not confident that quality of life improvements will make the inevitable cut.

It's been called the butchering of the steer. I think it should be called what it is, the butchering of public trust.

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