Feature: A River Runs to It?

Without a doubt, the Bricktown Canal, a mile-long river running through a section just east of downtown Oklahoma City has been one of many catalysts for growth and development in the central business district. Now 10 years after its opening, boosters are worried that the city’s drive to develop a new “Core to Shore” area south of the core will siphon off a decade of progress.
A little history
To say that downtown Oklahoma City has changed since the early 1990s would be an understatement… sort of like saying the Taj Mahal is a really cool building. Much of the city’s recent success can be pinned on its extraordinary track record in raising the public money needed to generate a much-needed urban renaissance.
Most of the major development is attributed to MAPS, or Metropolitan Area Projects, a series of publicly funded capital improvement programs to build and upgrade sports, recreation, entertainment, cultural and convention facilities. MAPS was launched in December 1993, when Oklahoma City voters approved a temporary one-cent sales tax. By the time it expired in 1999, the city had collected $350 million.
The result was a spate of downtown projects, the most visible being the 15,000-seat AT&T Bricktown Ballpark for the local minor league baseball team, the Triple-A affiliate of the Texas Rangers. It was soon followed by the Bricktown Canal, a new downtown library, a rebuilt music hall and a new arena called the Ford Center. In summer 2008, the arena began playing host to the city’s new National Basketball Association team, the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“MAPS has now become this kind of magical word for Oklahoma City,” says Ford Price, managing partner in the real estate firm Price Edwards & Co. “We’ve had three great mayors in a row, and we’ve had great leadership within the city itself. They get it, they are results oriented and they strike the right balance between protecting the taxpayers and getting projects done.” A second five-year MAPS program was initiated in 2003, with monies targeted to improving the city’s public education facilities.
Here and now
Today a third MAPS is on the drawing board, and could be put to a citywide vote later this year. Money raised from the new MAPS initiative will likely target an area south of downtown. City leaders are chomping at the bit to begin development of a 750-acre piece of land stretching from the southern edge of downtown to the Oklahoma River, the so-called “Core to Shore.”
In the next few years, the area will be ripe for redevelopment once the state moves crosstown Interstate-40 – which now bisects the area – to the south. Plans are focusing on a new 1 million sq. ft. convention center and a destination-styled central park, both designed to be a magnet for the area.
But all of that attention has many existing property owners and businesses on edge. How would the Core to Shore development really change what exists today?
Recently Jeff Speck, a city planner and architectural designer who advocates smart urban growth and designs for walkability and sustainability, conducted an extensive study on downtown Oklahoma City. In one section, Speck directly addresses the Core to Shore initiative:
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. It is not self-contradictory to laud the Core to Shore plan while
simultaneously recommending that not a penny be spent on its implementation until the
downtown reaches this minimal condition.
Speck’s thoughts have been sounding through the halls of city government since their May release. And as the canal celebrated its 10th year in business on July 2, two former mayors (whose opinions carry great weight), Ron Norick and Kirk Humphreys, spoke in favor of an extension of the canal south into the Core to Shore. They believe this could be an effective way of integrating the new development into the existing canal network.
Now OKC city leaders have some hard but interesting decisions to make regarding what will take priority for funding under the MAPS 3 plan.
Watch this space for more developments as they happen.
You can download the entire Speck and Associates report as a pdf here or go to his website here.
For more on the Core to Shore project, see our earlier feature here.