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Designer takes walk into Oklahoma City's future

Designer takes walk into Oklahoma City's future



Amongst downtown residents and new urbanists, Jeff Speck has quickly become something akin to a rock star. When he spoke recently at the Skirvin Hilton, the crowd overflowed into the hallway just to hear his thoughts on how to make downtown Oklahoma City a more vibrant place to work, live and play — and to do all that walking, above ground, place to place.

Speck is considered a pioneer in "new urbanism,” and was director of town planning at Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co, the firm that designed new urbanist communities including Seaside, Fla., and Kentlands, Md.

He later served as director of design at the National Endowment for the Arts and co-authored "Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream.”

Mayor Mick Cornett began talks with Speck during several visits to Washington, D.C. Cornett then led the council to hire Speck to provide a study on making downtown more walkable. Speck’s report challenges several initiatives under way. Supporters and critics alike agree that if Speck’s recommendations are implemented, they could dramatically alter downtown development for several years to follow.

Here’s a look at his position and a few of the responses to some of Speck’s suggestions:

Background: Downtown housing construction has gained momentum in recent years popping up in Deep Deuce, the Maywood Park area, the Central Business District and MidTown. But momentum has slowed following the economic crash in September. Several developers interviewed say creating a critical mass of housing in the Deep Deuce/Bricktown/Maywood Park area is essential for continuing downtown's revival.

Jeff Speck's observations: “Housing is the urban use that is most under-represented downtown. If the city wants to increase downtown walking in a meaningful way, it must direct resources towards the provision of this housing, so that the private market finds it profitable to do so. A remarkably large number of Oklahoma City suburbanites are very likely to relocate downtown if they can do so in a way that makes sense economically. The recent growth in Deep Deuce and Maywood Park manifests this appetite, as does the success of loft projects on Broadway. But any experienced developer will confirm that it simply takes more time and money to reinvest in existing neighborhoods than it does to create new subdivisions on the urban fringe, so cities that wish to invite more residents downtown must be willing to dedicate some of their own time and money towards this goal.”

His recommendations: Remove or reduce any zoning impediments to housing provision. Create an expedited process for housing developers. Donate underused public land to housing developers that meet certain criteria. Create a public office that writes grants and otherwise coordinates fundraising from other public and nonprofit sources.

Ron Bradshaw, Maywood Park developer: “It does take more money to invest in old neighborhoods versus new ones. I think the city is doing a good job in reducing zoning impediments. The city manager and mayor would like to have an ombudsman to expedite the process but with the budget right now, there is no money. I've been at this for five years; I've got 20 acres, 20 brownstones and 55 lofts. And until I get all those sold, I'm not starting any more. If we go into Core to Shore, build a park and get housing started there, it's a danger to what we're doing. I do worry about us losing focus on what we having going on now.”

Core to Shore
Background: Oklahoma City initially fought plans by the Oklahoma Department of Transportation to relocate Interstate 40 several blocks south of downtown. They agreed to the project when Secretary of Transportation Neal McCaleb promised the state and federal government would replace the current alignment with a grand boulevard. City leaders envisioned the boulevard as a way to kick off development of several hundred acres of blighted land between the Oklahoma River and downtown and in 2006 Mayor Mick Cornett kicked off a series of planning sessions dubbed “Core to Shore.” To date the city has spent about $6 million buying properties to make way for a large central park Cornett proposes to be the center of Core to Shore. Plans call for the park to be surrounded by a new convention center, retail, housing and offices. Transportation officials, however, have been vague about when the boulevard will be built. The project is not funded and is not yet on the agency's eight-year funding plan.

Jeff Speck's observations: “The Core to Shore plan is a top-notch long-range plan for the expansion of the city. There is little in it that could be improved in terms of encouraging walkability. But, as a long-range plan, it is looking 20 to 50 years into the future, and shows how to absorb a large amount of growth once the downtown is complete. Like Daniel Burnham's famous ‘make no small plans' Plan of Chicago, this sort of document is necessary if a city is to grow in a healthy way. But, having a good plan for future expansion can also present a danger, if excitement for its development reallocates resources that would be better concentrated on the existing downtown. As will be argued in greater detail ahead, the center of Oklahoma City has yet to achieve critical mass from a walkability perspective, and public and private resources need to be further concentrated in key bocks if a tipping point is to be achieved.”

His recommendation: “Not a penny be spent” on Core to Shore implementation until downtown achieves greater development and a critical mass.

Mayor Mick Cornett: “The timetable for Core to Shore is presenting itself as the I-40 relocation takes place. If the time frame stays as it is, the interstate in 2012 and the boulevard in 2014, the public elements of Core to Shore are pretty much laid out. I don't know that there is discretion in the timetable — we're working on ODOT's timetable. To me the boulevard has a distinct timetable that can't be altered ... the boulevard is the most important element of Core to Shore. The boulevard will become the address and allow for downtown retail to get a signature foothold. The park needs to open up at the time of the boulevard. Ideally, I'd like to see the park and boulevard open at the same time in 2014. I think this will be a catalyst for downtown momentum.”

New Greater Oklahoma City Chamber Headquarters
Background: The Greater Oklahoma City Chamber in June, 2008 planned to build an $18 million, four-story headquarters at NW 4 and E.K. Gaylord. The project was put on hold after the stock prices began declining in September. Plans were approved by the Downtown Design Review Committee despite concerns by local design and planning professionals that the project was too suburban and that the chamber's efforts to change the intersection should have been given more consideration by city engineers.

Jeff Speck's observations: “In the traditional, walking city, buildings take rectangular or other nondescript shapes in order to give shape to the spaces they surround — the streets and squares. In the modernist city of the automobile, buildings stand apart as sculptural objects. Rather than shaping the spaces around them, they proudly declare their own shapes. As a result, the space between them — the public realm — becomes residual and poorly formed. There is a place for sculptural object buildings, but it is not in the city, except well above street level where the upper stories of a tower can cut back from the lot edges without eroding the street edge. The Stage Center is one example of an object building in Oklahoma City. The proposed Chamber of Commerce building is another.”

His recommendation: Speck suggests the chamber building does not encourage walking and that its car drop-off area endangers pedestrians. He also notes the parking lots facing NW 3 and NW 4 make the links between downtown residential areas and the central business district less inviting than they are now to pedestrians. Speck recommends a possible redesign that would have parking surrounded by a U-shaped building. He also suggests following a plan first suggested by Blair Humphreys and Hans Butzer that would reconnect NE 3 and Robert S Kerr Avenue, straighten Broadway, and have E.K. Gaylord dead-end at NE 3. He also urges the city to narrow E.K. Gaylord and add curbside parking along both sides of the street.

Roy Williams, chamber president: “With regard to the streets, we have not advocated what should be done with it. We recognize that it is six lanes and not pedestrian oriented. We would like to see it more pedestrian oriented. We don't know from a technical standpoint how it should be. If there should be street parking, so be it. With regard to the building, you can move the building up to the street. But then you have all that space behind it and beside it. Then you don't have frontage on NW 4 and you've abandoned it. It's a two and one-half acre site. It will never be developed corner to corner to corner with buildings. We wanted to create some green space where people can gather and it can be used for multiple uses.”

New Downtown Boulevard
Background: Plans developed in conjunction with Oklahoma City Beautiful and Core to Shore planning committees call for six lanes of through traffic plus left-hand two lanes with parking on both sides of the street. Actual streetscaping enhancements have yet to be finalized.

Jeff Speck's observations: “The reconstruction of Interstate 40 five blocks south presents an opportunity to replace its trajectory with a new boulevard that forms a beautiful edge to the heart of downtown and a park-like center for future high-value growth. A great deal of energy and ambition has gone into the design of this new thoroughfare, but its current plan unfortunately does not achieve the City's stated objectives.”

His recommendation: Narrow the boulevard and create a wide park area in the median similar to Commonwealth Avenue in Boston.

Anthony McDermid, boulevard design consultant since 1999: “The boulevard is part of the I-40 relocation and as such it has to meet certain engineered parameters for moving traffic — and that is all linked with funding for the boulevard ... it had to under the environmental impact the statement carry a certain amount of traffic. As the boulevard evolved out of the Core to Shore steering committee process, many, many things were weighed ... including the option of a wide median. It was the decision of the steering committee that the big median idea would create a space that couldn't be used and had no practical use. The idea of going with no median — a Champs-Elysees — you have the cars moving next to each other in opposite directions. The conventional wisdom is that when you have cars moving next to each other in opposite directions, it has a calming effect. If you have a split road, the cars speed up.”
Downtown Streets
Background: Over the past 30 years downtown's street grid was rebuilt with one-way streets, wide avenues and highway lane widths. The Oklahoma City Council asked staff to pursue conversion of some one-way streets to two-way traffic in 1999, but work was delayed by several years and wasn't started until Dennis Clowers took over as Public Works Director in 2005. Even then, some street reconstruction projects, most notably the streetscaping of Walker Avenue between Robert S. Kerr Avenue and NW 6, retained one-way traffic. Major one-way traffic arteries downtown include Walker, Hudson and Robinson Avenues. On Robinson Avenue, travelers encounter one-way signs between Sheridan and NW 6, two-way signs from NW 6 to NW 13, and one-way signs again between NW 13 and NW 18. Early on, Speck was critical of downtown's street widths and remaining one-way grid. He singled out the five-lane wide, one-way Hudson Avenue for some of his harshest criticism.

Jeff Speck's observations: “This network of many large streets has the capacity to handle much more traffic than is currently present, and therefore encourages speeding and unnecessarily endangers pedestrians ... any urban lane width in excess of 10' encourages speeds that can increase risk to pedestrians. Many streets in downtown Oklahoma City contain lanes that are 12' wide or more, and drivers can be observed approaching highway speeds when using them. Drivers tend to speed on multiple-lane one-way streets because there is less friction from opposing traffic, and because of the temptation to jockey from lane to lane. Whichever lane you are in, the other seems faster. In contrast, when two-way traffic makes passing impossible, the driver is less likely to slip into the ‘road racer' frame of mind.

On-street parking provides a barrier of steel between the roadway and the sidewalk that is necessary if pedestrians are to feel fully at ease while walking. It also causes drivers to slow down out of concern for possible conflicts with cars parking or pulling out. On-street parking also provides much-needed life to city streets, which are occupied in large part by people walking to and from cars that have been parked a short distance from their destinations ... the lack of on-street parking capacity has contributed to the proliferation of unattractive surface parking lots.”

His recommendations: Make all one-way streets two ways, including the recently rebuilt section of Walker Avenue. Narrow NW 4 in Deep Deuce and allow for parallel parking on both sides of the street. Eliminate center turn lanes on Reno and Sheridan and add parallel parking on one side of each street. Add angled parking on one or both sides of Broadway.

Public Works Director Dennis Clowers: “You can't have high traffic volume on your streets and expect people to walk, as well. Engineers have historically tried to get as much traffic through the system as possible. I think Walker where it's one way will be revisited. We've still got to have ways to get people in and out of downtown after events, but we could do this with better planning. I can see Sheridan and Reno going from five to three or four lanes each.”

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