What they promised if we opened the Main Mall to traffic


(Don't forget this morning's protest! 9 a.m., 4th & Boulder.)

The Tulsa Whirled's plan to demolish the old Froug's Department Store at 3rd & Main, to replace it with heating and cooling equipment for the rest of the Whirled's complex, is a slap in the face of Tulsa's taxpayers, who were told that reopening the Main Mall was necessary to encourage new residential and retail development. The Whirled endorsed the plan to reopen Main to traffic as a way to revitalize downtown. Reopening 3rd to 4th cost $1.3 million. Reopening 4th to 6th will cost about $4 million.

This entry is not going to include a lot of analysis. I want to provide a history of the effort to revitalize this part of downtown, particularly what the Whirled, public officials, and civic leaders had to say about it.

Back in the mid-'70s, Tulsa followed the lead of a lot of other cities in closing off what was once our main shopping streets to traffic. It was a mistake, and it choked off what business there had been on Main Street. Shortly after we completed our mall, other cities began to remove theirs. In some notable cases, like Chicago's State Street, reopening to traffic led to restoration of buildings along the street and businesses moving into once vacant buildings.

In 1996, the City included, in that year's third-penny tax package, $1.1 million to "update and repair" the Main Mall, according to a January 10, 1996, story in the Whirled. In all that package was to include $13 million in funding for downtown improvements.

By October 27, 1996, the plans had changed and the final amount for downtown improvements was $8.5 million. Here's how Whirled editorial writer Janet Pearson described the plan in that day's edition:

Main Mall will get a face lift too, though not a radical one. Main Street would be reopened between Third and Fourth streets, but the pedestrian mall would remain in place between Fourth and Sixth streets. Barriers, berms and other structures that give the appearance of being hiding places will be removed and landscaping changed to make the mall a more open, lighter and more inviting place. Bartlett Square would not be changed.

In 1998, Downtown Tulsa Unlimited formed a committee and worked with a consultant to look at options for reconfiguring the Mall. The committee chose an option that would open the rest of Main Street to traffic.

In a June 24, 1998, editorial, the Whirled said:

The plan to revamp Main Mall is an important part of the revitalization effort. Plans call for opening Main Street to two-way traffic by creating a narrow street with wide sidewalks. A new fountain and sitting area would be created at Fourth and Main streets. Most one-way streets would be converted to two-way, with the exception of those that directly serve expressways.

The concept is good. Along with the other projects already under way, the new mall will speed the rejuvenation of what still is the city's most valuable neighborhood: Downtown.

In a letter to the Whirled published July 19, 1998, local preservation activist Marty Newman urged removal of the Main Mall for the sake of promoting the reuse of Tulsa's historic buildings:

Thanks to the vision of the early oil men, Tulsans are blessed with an unequaled collection of significant structures. Art deco enthusiasts from around the world travel to Tulsa to marvel at our city's high-rise sculptures. Downtown buildings are easily Tulsa's most important asset and represent the largest concentration of financial investment in the city. They are our best hope for future marketing and economic opportunities.

However, all of this is threatened if these beautiful structures are not economically viable. Underused and empty buildings will eventually be torn down and replaced with parking lots. We don't want Tulsa's vital core to become a wasteland of parking like that which now covers the southern sections of our downtown. The economic attractiveness of the heart of downtown must be enhanced.

And that means the pedestrian mall must be removed. Study the rent rolls or walk the streets and the truth becomes evident: The closer a property is to Fifth and Main the harder it is to lease. The pedestrian mall must be removed or our downtown will remain economically paralyzed.

DTU's plan is an excellent opportunity to rectify our current problems while improving pedestrian amenities and allowing for the automotive access necessary to allow business to thrive.

We must not let downtown continue to be mauled by the mall.

The August 2, 1998, Whirled had a guest opinion from architect Leisa McNulty, who was on the DTU committee. She defended the decision to open Main fully to vehicular access. There wasn't room to leave the existing fountain in place and create any sort of traffic flow to serve the adjoining businesses, who said the Mall was a detriment. McNulty said that Tulsa had a choice:

We can either restore the Main Street Pedestrian Mall, or we can restore the historic buildings that enclose it. Whether or not we believe that reopening the street to vehicular traffic is the solution to attracting new businesses doesn't really matter. Property owners are not willing to invest millions to rehabilitate these old buildings if they are not visible and accessible by car. Other cities that have opened their downtown pedestrian malls to traffic have been successful; owners have restored historic properties, national retail stores are leasing downtown space, and developers have built new structures on vacant lots. Tulsa can support the DTU plan with hopes of initiating this kind of revitalization downtown; or we can invest more money to improve a pedestrian mall that has contributed to its decline.

McNulty went on to urge the adoption of design guidelines for the properties abutting the reconfigured Main Street: "Design guidelines should maintain street frontages and cornice lines, establish storefront and signage criteria." The intent was that the removal of the Mall was to encourage reuse of existing buildings and the construction of new buildings with a consistent look, particularly with the presence of storefronts all along Main.

Opposition arose to the plan, but proponents pointed to successes elsewhere. Whirled editorial writer Janet Pearson said this, in a December 20, 1998, column:

DTU proposes to add limited, two-lane vehicular traffic to the now-closed section of the mall between Third and Sixth streets. To address concerns of mall-fronting businesses, DTU plans to close the traffic lanes, using temporary barriers, between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. weekdays. That plan could be modified with experience. A few parking spaces would be added here and there, a step planners and designers say has a big psychological impact even if it does little to address parking needs (which are easily met through existing surface lots and parking structures). The addition of even a few parking spaces changes people's perceptions about an area, leading them to view it as more open and inviting....

Retailers and other businesses likely would be drawn to it as well, the experience of other cities suggests.

One of the best examples is Chicago's State Street, a historic retail center turned into a mall in the late 1970s. The State Street mall proved not only uninviting to pedestrians, but downright bleak. After extensive planning, the mall was removed and traffic reintroduced in 1996 via narrowed roadways.

Attractive landscaping, including streetlights manufactured by the same company that made the original 1920s-era lights, was added. And business took note: Retail space has increased 8 percent since 1990, and vacancy rates are down from 6.4 percent to 1.8 percent. Other cities report similar experiences after scrapping their malls and bringing back traffic: In Battle Creek, Mich., vacancy rates dropped from a whopping 75 percent to zero, and property values rose from $5 per square foot

Tulsa's downtown, like those in these other cities, is in need of an economic shot in the arm. Norton reports that 30 percent of the first-floor space between Third and Sixth streets is vacant; at least 60 percent of the upper floors is idle.

In an unsigned editorial -- the official position of the newspaper -- on February 3, 1999, the Whirled editorial board wrote regarding the controversy:

A compromise of sorts has been reached in the controversy over what to do about reopening the downtown pedestrian mall, known as Main Mall, to traffic. The downtown area can use some revitalization, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that reopening the mall to limited traffic could have some salutary effects. Other cities have done so with surprising benefits.

On July 2, 2000, as work was set to begin on reopening Main between 3rd & 4th -- next to the now-doomed Froug's building -- Janet Pearson explained why downtown pedestrian malls seemed to work for a while, but ultimately failed, and why reopening the malls to traffic makes sense:

It became obvious downtowns would no longer compete with the big suburban shopping malls. But we now know that downtowns can still attract people by drawing on the strengths that always attracted people -- the unique personality of a downtown.

To do that requires focusing on the very things that define a downtown. One of those is traffic.

It turns out there's something about traffic and congestion that we humans actually like. Slow-moving traffic along narrow streets in a commercial district gives the feeling of a bustling, active, healthy place. (Think of places like Fisherman's Wharf, Mission Street, Bourbon Street, even Brookside and Cherry Street right here in Tulsa.) Avenues without traffic just don't seem right to the urban dweller.

Traffic also is extremely important to businesses. Visibility from the street and easy access from the street are now known to be critically important to just about all types of business. We need look no further than the heart of our own downtown for proof.

Recent surveys show high occupancy rates at the corner of Fifth and Boston Avenue, open to traffic from all directions. Occupancy at that intersection ranges as high as 100 percent at ground level to 83 percent on upper levels. In contrast, occupancy rates at Fifth and Main, closed to traffic, are in the 40-60 percent range. "Visibility and access are the overriding issues," says Jim Norton, director of Downtown Tulsa Unlimited. ...

All things considered, the data support Tulsa converting its mall. A large number of cities -- Eugene, Ore.; Lake Charles, La.; Providence, R.I.; Battle Creek, Mi.; Poughkeepsie, N.Y.; Oak Park, Ill.; Spartanburg, S.C.; Springfield, Ill.; Knoxville, Tenn., and others -- experienced increases in downtown occupancy rates and growing sales since converting pedestrian malls back to traffic.

Of course, altering three blocks of downtown Tulsa won't "save" downtown. Fixing up this section of town is an important component of revitalizing downtown, but it's not the only one. Converting one-way streets back to two-way streets, adding new amenities and public projects like an arena and improved Convention Center, bringing residential development back downtown and various other steps will be needed. But we've made a good start.

In 2001, there was a lot of debate over whether to fund the reopening of Main from 4th to 6th in the 2001 third-penny sales tax package. The debate came right after three of the few remaining commercial buildings on Main Street, just north of 6th, were demolished by Arvest Bank for yet another surface parking lot. While I supported the idea of "demalling" Main, when I spoke before the City Council, I urged them to require adjoining property owners to adopt covenants that would prohibit demolition for parking and would require each building that had street-level retail space to maintain that capability and new buildings to include street-level retail space. In a way, by keeping vehicles out of that zone for 20 years, we had inadvertently protected the adjacent buildings from being torn down for parking -- no access to cars, no way to get there to park. With the Mall gone, there would be nothing to protect the buildings from being taken for parking, notwithstanding the intention that Mall removal should promote reuse and redevelopment of the buildings. We needed to be sure that building owners who were seeking reopening of Main would honor their commitments.

No such legally binding commitments were sought by the City, but the argument was made repeatedly that if we removed the Mall, adjacent property owners would be willing to invest in renovation of buildings that might otherwise be torn down.

The Whirled owns this department store building that could be retail once again. It owns a nine story office building that could be residential. Shawnee is is redoing an old downtown hotel as senior housing. Many other Oklahoma cities have done the same thing -- Altus, Miami, and McAlester, for example. If you owned prime property downtown and believed a boom was on its way, wouldn't you try to hold on to the property, maybe fix it up for potential buyers or tenants?

Does the Whirled believe what it's been writing about downtown revitalization? Does the Whirled truly believe that all this public investment -- over $200 million -- will bring about revitalization of downtown? Apparently not, despite all the they told us during the Vision 2025 campaign.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on July 21, 2004 12:25 AM.

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