Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Change isn't usually that simple: The repatterning of Oklahoma City's Downtown Streetscape

One of Oklahoma City's infrastructure projects is a streetcar route serving the downtown.  Photo: Doug Hoke, Daily Oklahoman.

The Congress for the New Urban's conference next year is in Oklahoma City, and in advance of this, the CNU's newsletter is running stories about various aspects of OKC's urbanism.

The most recent story, very good, is about how the city was sparked to act after a national survey said the Oklahoma City isn't particularly walkable and they used the construction of a new skyscraper as the fulcrum to drive through improvements to 50 blocks of Downtown ("How downtown Oklahoma City did a 180"). Also see "Oklahoma City showed how to transition to two-way streets downtown," Palm Beach Post.

It's a great accomplishment, no doubt.  

But I don't think it's an easy example that advocates in other cities can export to try to bring about similar changes in their own communities.  

In planning I joke about "Why can't we be like Portland?" when a citizen comes up to you at a meeting, talks/harangues about something in particular, and then at the end laments that our community isn't like Portland, Oregon.

But what they don't realize is that "Portland" isn't what they think it is, that the great initiatives that they've undertaken are the result of decades of hard, thoughtful, and visionary decision making that accretes -- it builds on and extends previous decisions and programs in a manner where the total is greater than the sum of the parts.

There are six cities in the US that consistently do multiple pretty amazing initiatives when it comes to urbanism:

Transformational Projects Action Planning.  But basically, they've adopted an approach that I now call "Transformational Projects Action Planning," that I wrote about first in terms of European cities like Bilbao, Dublin's Temple Bar district, Helsinki, and Liverpool, along with the German revitalization initiatives organized around the International Building Exposition (IBA) and the International Garden Festival.

Social urbanism is a comparable approach.  Another example of this kind of approach is "social urbanism" in Medellin, Colombia:

Other places do great things too.  Maybe New York City could be included.  They did a lot of amazing things under Mayor Bloomberg, and Mayor De Blasio left most of the initiatives in place and operating, but I wouldn't say the city has furthered the vision.

And there are smaller city examples too, some I've written about like Spokane, Greenville, South Carolina, Greensboro, North Carolina, Holland, Michigan, Edmonton and the arts.  Charlie often points out initiatives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Etc.

Plus, the city that helped to trigger the idea of TPAS is Toronto.  See "(Big Hairy) Projects Action Plan(s) as an element of Comprehensive/Master Plans," 2017.

Each has a back story that undergirds their jump from ordinary to extraordinary.  None are perfect.  Some are more visionary than others.  And the cities may have other problems like anarchism in Portland and terrible homelessness issues in San Francisco and Seattle.

The six components of a successful broad ranging revitalization program.  In writing about the various efforts, I concluded that successful revitalization programs, especially in those cities that were working to overturn serious disadvantages, were comprised of these elements:
  • A commitment to the development and production of a broad, comprehensive, visionary, and detailed revitalization plan/s (Bilbao, Hamburg, Liverpool);
  • the creation of innovative and successful implementation organizations, with representatives from the public sector and private firms, to carry out the program.  Typically, the organizations have some distance from the local government so that the plan and program aren't subject to the vicissitudes of changing political administrations, parties and representatives (Bilbao, Hamburg, Liverpool, Helsinki);
  • strong accountability mechanisms that ensure that the critical distance provided by semi-independent implementation organizations isn't taken advantage of in terms of deleterious actions (for example Dublin's Temple Bar Cultural Trust was amazingly successful but over time became somewhat disconnected from local government and spent money somewhat injudiciously, even though they generated their own revenues--this came to a head during the economic downturn and the organization was widely criticized; in response the City Council decided to fold the TBCT and incorporate it into the city government structure, which may have negative ramifications for continued program effectiveness as its revenues get siphoned off and political priorities of elected officials shift elsewhere);
  • funding to realize the plan, usually a combination of local, regional, state, and national sources, and in Europe, "structural adjustment" and other programmatic funding from the European Regional Development Fund and related programs is also available (Hamburg, as a city-state, has extra-normal access to funds beyond what may normally be available to the average city);
  • integrated branding and marketing programs to support the realization of the plan (Hamburg, Vienna, Liverpool, Bilbao, Dublin);
  • flexibility and a willingness to take advantage of serendipitous events and opportunities and integrate new projects into the overall planning and implementation framework (examples include Bilbao's "acquisition" of a branch of the Guggenheim Museum and the creation of a light rail system to complement its new subway system, Liverpool City Council's agreement with a developer to create the Liverpool One mixed use retail, office, and residential development in parallel to the regeneration plan and the hosting of the Capital of Culture program in 2008, and how multifaceted arts centers were developed in otherwise vacated properties rented out cheaply by their owners in Dublin, Helsinki, and Marseille).
Oklahoma City: Metropolitan Area Projects as an example of Transformational Projects Action Planning
.  As discussed in the book Next American City by former mayor Mick Corbett, the city developed a recurring program of visionary public investment--they've since undertaken four different cycles--after initially being rejected by United Airlines in 1987, as the location for a large maintenance facility, which the city worked hard to land.

The then mayor kept badgering United Airlines to tell them why OKC wasn't picked.  Eventually they revealed that they sent a bunch of executives to OKC for the weekend, and they came back saying "we'd never want to live here, there's nothing attractive about the city."

From that point, it took them five years to come up with the idea of MAP/Metropolitan Area Projects, an infrastructure program funded by sales tax, monitored by a citizen oversight committee, with a detailed list of projects that had to be completed within a certain time period, focused on making substantive physical improvements to the community all focused on improving quality of life, such as an arena used to land an NBA basketball team, improvements to the Oklahoma River, the Bricktown Canal, and the city's waterfronts, refurbishment of every school in the Oklahoma City School District, a streetcar, etc.

They are in the final stages of MAP's fourth cycle (MAP4), and through this program, cycles, and projects, they've built a track record of "doing" -and accomplishing big projects.  

The Downtown Streetscape project as an example of serendipity.  Oklahoma City has created a program that incorporates what I call the "six components of a successful broad ranging revitalization program."

And the Downtown streetscape project is likely just one example of the sixth characteristic, the element of serendipity, the ability to do other visionary things in a complementary way, incorporating such projects into the existing planning framework.  

From the CNU article:
Oklahoma City, which ranked dead last in Prevention Magazine’s 2008 assessment of sizable American cities for walkability, soon after commissioned a report on how to improve conditions for pedestrians downtown. An initial analysis by Speck & Associates found that Oklahoma City’s streets were wide enough to handle two to three times the volume of traffic they carried. Downtown streets were largely one-way speedways, and Speck’s plan showed that the city could better use the space to support pedestrians, bicyclists, businesses, and urban life.
The city launched Project 180, an effort to rebuild all 50 blocks of streets in their downtown core, funded by tax-increment financing from a major skyscraper development. The name came from a $180 million investment in the 180-acre core area, generating a 180-degree turn in how downtown was conceived. “By right-sizing streets to meet real demand, we were able to calm traffic, double the amount of on-street parking, add a ton of trees and great a robust cycling network. Ten years later this is the project that I am most proud of,” Speck said to a meeting of the US Conference of Mayors. At the same time, the plan converted one-way streets to two-way, rebuilt three parks and most underground utilities, and installed new architecturally designed fixtures and street furniture.
The tax increment financing district financing mechanism is separate from the MAP program and financing system, but fully complementary.

Devon Energy Building, Oklahoma City.  Photo by Holly Baumann photography.

The "Transformational Projects Action Planning" approach makes multiple big projects possible.  I don't think Oklahoma City would have done this project if it would have been their first urban design project and on such a scale, had they not already laid the ground work for "transformational projects action planning" and the undertaking of big infrastructure projects.

The bad assessment they received on walkability was 16 years after the city passed the referendum to fund MAP, and 21 years after they were rejected by United Airlines.  

In the intervening years, taking the rejection by United Airlines as a community-wide call to action, they had implemented a large  number of projects already.  And some, like making the Oklahoma River a national destination for water sports like kayaking ("Revival of a River Alters a City’s Course in Sports," New York Times); "Oklahoma River's success has Oklahoma City bubbling with enthusiasm, pride" and "Development on the Oklahoma River continues with whitewater center," Daily Oklahoman), were serendipitous, not planned as part of MAP, but they developed as a consequence of MAP.


With the Downtown streetscape program, they had the catalyst of a new large construction project downtown to leverage.

People saw the results of community investment in infrastructure, urban design, and quality of life, so even though they are a car-dominated community, improving the Downtown streetscape made sense.

Trying to get a community to undertake a project of this nature and scale is almost impossible when doing it on a one-off basis.

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At 8:10 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

I was trolling you a bit on car parking in L'Enfant city.

Basically taking the Madrid proposals and turning it into a DC plan. Congestion charge on all non-electric, eliminate street parking and move on micro-mobility.

I'd say you need a history element here. LA and the owens valley / colorado river. NYC unification and Robert Moses. Chicago lifting itself up by 12 feet.

One of the tensions between the Jane Jacobs (which is the neoliberal approach -- let the invisible hand work its way to density) and the Moses approach.

And yes what you are saying here is a problem I have with best practice consultancy everywhere. People just want to copy what the leaders are doing w/o understanding the process that got them there.

And in the end that is a culture move. You see that in Arlington --the pushback against Zimmerman was that he moved from the heavy consultative process that was the Arlington way. Likewise Fenty was a pushback against Williams and the pay to play model that has been DC since home rule.

Takes year to build that respect in and very easy to piss it away.

At 10:03 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

WRT Fenty, I disagree. Fenty was still all about pay to play, he just wanted more control over the process (eg dissolving the two semi independent redevelopment agencies and absorbing them into the Deputy Mayor's office), and to benefit a different group of people. Fenty, born and bred, wanted younger and different people to benefit.

At the polls for the primary against Gray, it seemed like the anger at Fenty was palpable, because they had been on the outs for the past four years.

2. WRT parking, I see your point. And I know DDOT has mentioned a congestion charge in plans. GGW I think is all in, etc.

I'm okay with raising the RPP price significantly, but I am not down with a congestion charge.

Not because I don't think such should exist. But because I don't think DC's center city position is so dominant within the region that it can "force" people to pay a congestion charge and they won't decide to conduct their business elsewhere.

I don't know Madrid, but London (the core) and Stockholm are so dominant within their metropolitan areas that business can't easily or won't move.

When McAuliffe was governor, one of the reasons he wanted to toll I-66 was to be able to recruit businesses located in DC--"if you relocate to Virginia your employees won't have to drive on I-66 to get to work."

I think Alexandria, Crystal City (oops, National Landing), Rosslyn-Ballston, Bethesda, the I-270 corridor and potentially Silver Spring (pretty weak for business currently) could all make a good play for DC-based businesses.

I was re-reading my maglev piece from January, and I feel even more strongly that DC needs to really focus on strengthening the CBD, especially post covid (e.g., the experience you recounted about your firm going virtual permanently).

I think a congestion charge would not do that.

Now Manhattan, I've been thinking that covid's impact on the city means that they'll significantly delay implementing a congestion charge there, because the core has been significantly impacted and it's difficult to project how long it will take to come back

At 10:13 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

"Culture." My lack of systematic exposure to anthropology and sociology is showing. I prefer to think about this as systems, but it's both, because building and maintaining the process is all about culture and identity.

About the values you're working to effectuate in policy and practice.

Eg, one important thing in OKC is that, maybe because they're all Republicans, it's not important for the successor mayor to come up with their own programs and junk the programs of predecessors.

Granted, the MAP process is independent of mayoral control sort of, in that there is a business plan for each cycle, that is created in advance of the vote to renew the sales tax, and that plan is the basis for vote.

I didn't realize that Chris Zimmerman was "anti consultation". I guess it's all about the grass being greener. To me, even if he was much less about it, it was way more than DC. But that's not relevant to the experience of Arlingtonians.

Is that why the streetcar was so contentious?

Not being on the ground there, is the coming of Amazon helping Wilson Boulevard, which because of the Silver Line, that core of Arlington has been on the decline?

I am in a message discussion with a friend, and included a lament about how DC elected officials aren't particularly committed to sustainable mobility. The thing that always impressed me about Chris Zimmerman wasn't merely his commitment to transit. It was that he brought all his colleagues along in terms of understanding the importance of transit (and sustainable mobility) to Arlington to the point that hearing any one of the Councilmembers speak, they were all incredibly articulate on transit, from Walter Tejada to Jay Fisette, etc.

By contrast Suzanne and I were talking, and she said "one thing you made me realize about Muriel Bowser is that her work career was as an administrator and so that's how she sees the world."

One problem with government employees becoming elected officials is that too often they see citizens as customers of the process, not owners or at least theoretically as overseers and participants.

At 10:25 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

One thing that bugs me here in SLC, speaking of engagement, is like "America Speaks" they are big about broad consultation but not about detailed consultation.

I used to have arguments with David Alpert about the word "process." He thought I meant "talking to people" rather than a set of steps and actions that produces an outcome.

SLC has a civic engagement unit, it's very active, there are yard signs and public communications about studies, surveys, etc.

But it's very difficult to submit detailed comments on various things. And you almost never ever get any acknowledgement that you submitted detailed comments.

(It's different for the MPO. If you submit comments, you get acknowledged, including when the next plan iteration is released. And like what DCOP has done a couple times, but not consistently, comments are listed in an appendix with a response.)

Eg not unlike what I did on the Brookland study advisory committee (although any decent planner would have said the same stuff), for a planning process here for the Ballpark area, I laid out a whole program, based on past experiences, but also doing a couple of "site visits."

I don't know what will happen with it, although referencing Utah preservation publications, I did convince them I think, about the need for design guidelines. Too much of the ersatz anywhere modernism for most new construction, although there are exceptions with brick buildings here and there (but not as consistently as exemplary as London).

It's actually very interesting. An example of "build it and they'll come" not working because it was put in the wrong location (for reasons comparable to why David Catania wanted the streetcar to start in Anacostia, to boost a lagging area), and they didn't do any of the planning and urban design measures necessary to make anything happen. (To me, it demonstrates that you should build such facilities downtown, unless you really do all the things necessary to make it work.)

It's probably the first classic new minor league stadium, it opened up just a couple years after Camden Yards. It has an incredible view of the mountains, etc. It has light rail service, but it's bracketed by a heavily industrial area and the major car dealership area, busy arterials, etc.

At 10:27 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

(Looking at the Arlington Board list, speaking of blowback, Takis Karantonis is on the Board because of the junking of the streetcar. I dealt with him a couple times in Columbia Pike stuff. He was the director of the business improvement initiative there.)


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