Plaza Un-sweet

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Pat Fox responds to a lament about the demise of the Civic Center:

From an urban design perspective, Tulsa's Civic [Center] Plaza is a typical example of late 50's/60's thinking on public architecture. Government center in Boston is another example that is almost universally derided as an urban planning and urban design disaster. Far from providing a democratic, pedestrian friendly gathering place, these plazas actually discourage free assembly.

From the brutalist architecture of the convention center, to the tilt up aggregate walls of the police and municipal courts building, the civic plaza is a most unappealing place to sit, walk, or be. The library and the Francis Campbell Council building are it's most redeeming features, but the library is long outdated for functions of a modern library. City hall's public entrance is not on civic plaza as you'd expect, but below "ground" level in a dark, musty garage. The sloped sides of the planters prevent any resting or sitting, the fountain is empty because it leaks, and the county courthouse has so much mold in it, one of the judges who presides there considered filing suit recently. By the way, a large portion of our "paper" county records are kept in the basement of that building. If the Belvedere flooded because of the water get the point.

I know firsthand that Boston's Government Center is a planning disaster, one of the least inviting public places in the world. The ultimate test of a public place is not whether there are people there in the architect's concept sketches, but whether people (normal people) want to linger there.

The concept of a six-block Tulsa Civic Center was an enormous mistake. Closing 5th Street to traffic only compounded the error. And when you realize that it replaced a tree-lined mixed-use area with three-story apartment buildings -- well, planners back then didn't appreciate the role that nearby residential areas played in the health of a central business district.

I recently photographed most of the articles in the Tulsa Civic Center vertical file at the Central Library and posted the photos on Flickr. The file contains news clippings mainly from the 1950s about the selection of the area (in 1952), what was there before the civic center, the area's appraisal and acquisition, the failure of bond issues to build the city's facilities, early concepts, including a 14,000 seat arena and a new facility for the Gilcrease collection, an explanation for the decision to deviate from the original award-winning plan, a protest from downtown merchants over the closing of 5th Street, complaints from patrons of the arts about the decision to defer construction of a new performance space, and, finally, a brochure from 1969 showing the new City Hall and Police Courts building.


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Paul Uttinger said:

I agree that the idea of a super-block Civic Center, at least at that particular location downtown, was an enormous mistake. And to make matters worse, the super-block has become even more gigantic with the closing of Fourth between Guthrie and Frisco, and of Guthrie between Third and Sixth. So the original six-block concept has grown into the ten-block reality of anti-urban development we have today.

The Civic Center plan prepared by Robert Lawton Jones in the mid-'50s would have been superior to what was built. In that particular plan, Fifth Street was to have been open to traffic between Denver and Houston, running below the plaza level for access to the parking garages. The site was to have been eight blocks overall, but with Fifth flowing through the middle, in effect the Civic Center would have been a couple of four-block sites connected above Fifth by the plaza and below Fifth by a lower parking garage. The final report is interesting to read because it's so thoughtful. There is a rationale for the closing of streets, for the Modern appearance of the proposed civic buildings (the newly completed courthouse being the only existing building that was to have been spared from demolition), and for the placement of the various facilities to maximize the efficiency of the parking garages.

Separating pedestrians from vehicular traffic was one of the goals behind the super-block concept. Unfortunately, the attempt to achieve this goal has resulted in the confusing parking garages we have today. In this part of the country, most drivers can easily understand a grid of streets defining an array of relatively small blocks of land. Drivers understand how to park at the sides of such streets, especially if there are clearly marked spaces with associated parking meters. Surface parking lots are also readily understood by many drivers if the method of payment, if required, is clearly indicated. But surface parking lots are usually hideous, and they don't belong in an urban core.

I've attended a couple of the Comprehensive Plan update sessions, and Tulsans who know better continue to complain about the "lack" of parking downtown. We know there's no scarcity of downtown parking, but there is confusion about where available parking is and how to use it. Underground garages are often the least understandable places to park because drivers can't see them. If and when a driver finds an entrance into an underground garage and actually finds a parking space, there is the problem of locating a stair or elevator leading out of the garage.

Tulsa ought to seriously explore the potential of curbside parking on public streets downtown. 45 degree angled parking yields about 23 spaces on a typical downtown block face along a north-south avenue and approximately 20 spaces on typical block face(with alley access) along an east-west street. These figures don't account for drop-off lanes, curb cuts for service drives, and access to fire hydrants. But curbside parking, if carefully planned, could provide a significantly larger proportion of parking downtown. A standard block of Tulsa's original townsite is too small for a few large building types, but most buildings at the Civic Center could fit on a 140 foot by 300 foot half block or on a 300 foot square full block. Tulsa lost hundreds of potential curbside parking spaces by closing one block of Fourth, two blocks of Elwood, two blocks of Frisco, three blocks of Guthrie, and four blocks of Fifth to assemble the land for the present-day Civic Center site. That's a shame, especially considering the $16 million of deferred maintenance for the structured garages. Curbside parking is much less expensive to construct and much, much, much less expensive to maintain than underground parking garages.

Patrick Fox said:

It will be interesting to see if there is a public process as that unfortunate piece of our downtown is redesigned.

You are exactly right about the importance of scaled residental in downtown...see my Gunboat Park project, which attempts to reintroduce that element into downtown.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on June 26, 2007 2:27 PM.

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