The Field of Dreams mentality

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Urban Tulsa Weekly writer G. K. Hizer has had it with hyper-optimistic predictions of what the new arena will do for downtown Tulsa:

Ground breaking is finally scheduled for later this month, and the spin doctors have been working overtime to remind everyone what a great thing we’ve got coming. Details of our urban savior center are finally being released, and I’d have to say that I’m thoroughly under-impressed.

Hizer points out that the arena might get one conference basketball tournament a year. The rest of the year the arena will host minor league hockey, minor league basketball, and minor league arena football, none of which have been packing people in.

But we'll be getting all the big concerts, right?

Now, as a music fan, I at least wanted to believe the arena would attract some major acts to town. When the details finally came out, what did we get? End-stage seating for 14,000. Not that there are very many acts actually touring arenas these days, but you do realize that those that do are looking for 18,000 seat capacity and up, right?

When Tulsa's arena does start hosting concerts, we'll be competing with Oklahoma City's Ford Center for tour dates. Hizer says the Ford Center has only hosted 15 concerts so far this year, and only four over the summer.

Hizer isn't happy about the selection of a starchitect either:

Instead of an arena designed to complement the classic architecture of downtown Tulsa’s more valuable skyline pieces like the Mayo and Atlas buildings, we’ve got to have something bold – something artistic.

What we get is a sweeping piece of art that sticks out like a sore thumb. This arena would fit in better on the south side of town, to go with ORU’s Jetson’s-style “futuristic” look.

I have to agree with him, and at this point I have to eat a bit of crow. When the selection of Cesar Pelli was announced, I was pleased, because it was a break with the pattern of giving contracts to major donors to the "vote yes" campaign. Tulsa architect Gary Sparks was a $10,000 contributor, the highest-level of donor to be passed over for Vision 2025 work. His pay-in-hopes-of-play notwithstanding, based on his past efforts, I think Sparks would have produced a design more in keeping with Tulsa's architectural heritage.

I had hoped that starchitect Pelli would have been held in check by the some of the members of the oversight committee who understand New Urbanism and the importance of building in a pedestrian-friendly way. Did anyone tell Mr. Pelli, "We're sorry, sir, but that just isn't the sort of thing we were hoping for"? Did anyone ask him to make provision for retail space along the street frontage? Did anyone say we'd like the building to add to our downtown collection of art deco masterpieces? Perhaps the oversight committee was too awed by Pelli's starpower to dare suggest that he should subordinate his personal vision to the vision of Tulsa's citizens.

Back to G. K. Hizer: As a contrast to the grandiose plans that are supposed to turn our city around, he calls attention to the Living Arts of Tulsa Center, which is one of many groups working to make Tulsa a more interesting place. By itself, it may not have much of an impact, but entrepreneurs and small arts organizations can have a big cumulative impact.

He hints at the contrast articulated by Roberta Brandes Gratz in Cities Back from the Edge: New Life for Downtown: Project Planning vs. Urban Husbandry. Project Planning is popular with politicians. It's flashy, it's big, it's expensive, and a big project usually involves imitating something that seems successful in another city, without understanding the factors that made it successful there.

Urban Husbandry requires not so much money, but more patience and care, and there aren't as many ribbon-cutting opportunities. It involves identifying and nurturing small positive developments and slowly rebuilding the intricate connections between buildings and streets and people which create a vital, interesting urban place. You can read the intro to Gratz's book online, and you should, if you're interested in revitalizing downtown Tulsa.

(You can also read Gratz's speech to the Congress for New Urbanism, which is a kind of synopsis of her book, in PDF format.)


bitweever said:

Gratz's book seems to hit the nail right on the head (Ha! Urban development! Nail!). There seems to be a huge difference between what works for a city, and what makes a politician look good.

As always, Michael, spectacular coverage.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on August 20, 2005 10:41 PM.

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