Downtown's naysayers?

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I wish the Tulsa Whirled's editorial writers would do some mind-stretching exercises before they sit down at the keyboard. Or maybe they could go out and encounter people with differing points of view. For example, Sunday's offering, Mike Jones, who generally seems to be one of the more reasonable editorialists, but he's got his assumptions about things and they will not be shaken:

The naysayers simply don't give up. Anonymous calls to the editor and signed letters to the editor are rolling in again about the dangers and hopelessness of downtown Tulsa. Maybe it's the unveiling of the new arena project that rekindled their attention.

The best bet is that most, if not all, of this current batch of writers and callers (most likely the same ones as the last round) are people who were against the Vision 2025 project from the outset. No one expected them to change their minds. Closed minds are often difficult to change.

There are several problems here, the biggest being the assumption that everyone who opposed Vision 2025 (and It's Tulsa's Time and the Tulsa Project before that) has a disdain for downtown. That may be true of some, but it isn't true of me.

One of the things that motivated me to oppose the 1997 Tulsa Project and to run for office, first in 1998 and again in 2002, was seeing that Tulsa was progressively destroying the few urban places that still existed, through a combination of demolition, pedestrian-unfriendly redevelopment, and misguided efforts to "revitalize" in ways that destroyed what urban character still remained.

In fact, my biggest cause for opposition to the 1997 Tulsa Project was that it was billed as the salvation of downtown, but would accomplish nothing of the sort, and in fact would make matters worse, by demolishing more of downtown's urban fabric, closing off streets, and pushing out the businesses and residents who have been trying to make a go of it downtown against all odds. Here is an article I wrote that was published in Urban Tulsa back in 1997. And here's what I wrote about the arena and downtown revitalization in 2000 during the "It's Tulsa's Time" campaign.

I wrote this back in 2003 in response to a Tulsa Whirled editorial whining that the arena was in danger of being excluded from the Vision process:

For those of us who want to see downtown Tulsa become a vital, bustling urban place once again, the problem is that most of downtown Tulsa's streets are devoid of human life apart from brief bursts around starting and quitting time. The question to ask is, "How do we re-create Downtown as an exciting place to be, as it once was?" The strategic answer is to get people living downtown once again, and to make visiting downtown a pleasant and inviting experience. To get to that goal, you look for positive trends and opportunities and find ways to encourage and facilitate those trends -- fan the sparks into a flame. It is an incremental approach employing a variety of tactics. Roberta Brandes Gratz calls it "Urban Husbandry" because it's like tending a garden -- you work with the uniqueness of the material you have on hand and help it to flourish. (Read the intro to her book Cities Back from the Edge: New Life for Downtown to get a better feel for this concept. Better yet, buy and read the whole book!)

In the end, there were some funds in Proposition 4 that could be used in the spirit of Urban Husbandry. (Whether they will be applied in a way that will make a real difference remains to be seen. Although Prop 4 had some good projects, none were urgent enough to warrant a tax increase; they should have been put on the Capital Improvements Plan and evaluated as part of bond issue or third penny renewal.)

Most of what needs to be done to make downtown appealing again involves the basics -- a visible police presence to act as a deterrent against crime and an assurance to downtown visitors and residents alike, improvements to lighting and sidewalks, fixing and, where possible, reopening streets to auto traffic. (When will the Boulder Ave overpass be reopened? How else do you plan to get pedestrians from the arena to the Brady Village entertainment district? Do you want them to go through the spooky Denver underpass past the bail bonds shops?)

Mike Jones goes on to say that downtown is no more dangerous than 71st & Memorial or 41st & Yale. That may be so, but at those other locations, people feel insulated from danger because they are in their cars. In a real downtown, you're going to be on foot as you go from place to place. If the arena is going to spark new restaurants and clubs downtown, people will have to feel safe and comfortable walking from the arena to the Blue Dome and Brady Village districts. Once an arena patron is in his car, downtown has lost the advantage of proximity -- a myriad of restaurants and clubs are at his disposal, all within a 20 minute drive.

Who are the real downtown naysayers? Mike Jones' own newspaper is working to make it harder for people to feel comfortable walking downtown. By turning one building into a parking lot and another into a windowless air conditioning plant, the Tulsa Whirled is turning more of downtown into a pedestrian-unfriendly zone. Residences and retail establishments provide "eyes on the street" -- that means that as you walk along, you know that there are other people who will notice if anything bad happens. If you feel threatened and need to escape a worrying situation (or maybe just a sudden rainstorm), you look for an open business to duck into -- a parking lot and an air conditioning plant don't provide that kind of shelter. The Whirled's demolition decision also reveals that they don't really believe that downtown has a bright future, otherwise they'd seek to hold on to these buildings for future redevelopment.

I've heard complaints from a number of downtown boosters that the Whirled has sensationalized its coverage of downtown crimes and violence while downplaying similar events elsewhere in the city, thus feeding an already negative image of downtown. Who's the naysayer?

Good things are happening downtown, thanks to folks like Michael Sager and his work in the Blue Dome District, and if the Whirled would quit looking to the arena to be downtown's salvation when it finally opens in 2008, perhaps they would start backing the kinds of improvements that will make the greatest positive difference to downtown right now.

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As Tulsa wrestles with trying to lure people downtown, Michael Bates explains what it takes: Most of what needs to be done to make downtown appealing again involves the basics... Read More

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on October 11, 2004 1:04 AM.

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