Devon spire

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Oklahoma City bloggers are agog at the unveiling of Devon Energy's plans to build the state's tallest building. Steve Lackmeyer, who blogs about downtown OKC development for the Oklahoman, has been covering the story extensively. Some of the land in question is owned by the city's urban renewal authority, which voted yesterday to approve the plan. The tower will be 54 stories, 925 feet tall, the 21st tallest building in America. At the moment the state's two tallest buildings are in Tulsa -- the Bank of Oklahoma Tower at 667 feet and the central tower of Cityplex (née City of Faith) at 649 feet.

Over at TulsaNow's public forum, some participants are feeling tower envy, wishing for some deep-pockets oil company to build some new skyscrapers in downtown, but we have to recall that Oklahoma City took a pass, for the most part, on the building frenzy of the late '70s, early '80s oil boom. While OKC's tallest building is of that era, the next tallest is from the '30s. From the late '60s to the early '80s, Tulsa built five new skyscrapers: Fourth National Bank (now Bank of America), Cities Service Building (now 110 W. 7th), 1st National Bank (now First Plaza), the BOk Tower, and the Mid-Continent Tower -- the addition that stands beside and is cantilevered over the original Cosden Building at 4th and Boston.

There are rumors of even more tall towers in Oklahoma City, and some OKCers are giddy at the thought of "filling the gaps in the skyline."

The thing about filling those gaps is that the new skyscrapers have to touch the ground at some point, and how these towers meet the street is what matters most to downtown's vitality. It may look beautiful from five miles away, it may have a great view from the top story, but how does it look to someone walking by on the street?

David Sucher is fond of saying, "Site plan trumps architecture."

Putting it yet another way, what happens more than 30 or so feet off the sidewalk is of only secondary importance.

The important thing it to create an urban, walkable space at sidewalk level by following Sucher's simple Three Rules -- build to the sidewalk, make the building front "permeable" with doors and windows you can see through (no blank walls or mirrored glass, and, preferably, with spaces that are open to the public along the street, such as storefronts), and put the parking behind the building.

It took a while to find a site plan of the Devon building; Doug Loudenback has it. The building will be on an existing 2-by-2 superblock, just north of another 2-by-2 superblock where Myriad Gardens is located. A public park will occupy the southwest corner of the site. A six-story building will be connected to the tower by a rotunda. There will be retail in the six-story section, but it's unclear if it will be accessible along the exterior of the building. Only a small portion of the six-story section will front the street; the tower itself will be surrounded by a moat.

Somewhere I saw it mentioned that this building will anchor Harvey St. as a north-south axis which will ultimately connect the downtown core to the North Canadian River's shore. In fact, Harvey will remain closed through this superblock, a missed opportunity to correct a planning mistake from the past. Like the Williams Center in Tulsa, it will act more as an obstacle than a link.

Some things I wrote elsewhere about Devon's plans:

On TulsaNow's public forum, I had this initial reaction:

I don't care about how far this thing sticks up as much as I care how it meets the street. I haven't seen pictures yet, but the descriptions indicate some sort of plaza and moat. A work of high art rather than a working part of a walkable urban streetscape. Bleh.

We got our allotment of skyscrapers in the '70s and early '80s. Oklahoma City built a few towers during that period, but none as tall as Tulsa's.

Tulsa would be far better off to fill all our parking lots with four-story buildings -- storefronts on street level, offices on the second level, apartments on the third and fourth floors -- than to build even one new skyscraper.

Tulsa's skyscraper boom may have satisfied some corporate egos, but it hastened the conversion of downtown from a real downtown to an office park. Buildings that used to house people and small retail were cleared away for the towers and for the parking that the towers required.

In response to a comment that you can build towers and pay attention to the street at the same time, I wrote:

Yes, you can, and it was done all the time before WWII -- e.g., the Empire State Building has street-level retail -- but I'm hard-pressed to think of an example from the last 40 years of a skyscraper that conforms to the Three Rules for generating urban places....

No one else could think of one either. It sort of goes against the starchitect code of honor -- you have to put a plaza around your masterpiece, create some distance between the street and the building so people are able to see more of it and admire it. Plazas -- unless they are surrounded on all sides by some sort of wall to create a kind of room -- don't work well. They are rarely done the right way in America. They may look nice as you drive by at 30 mph, but name me one plaza in Oklahoma where people choose to linger.

I posted this comment on an entry at Steve Lackmeyer's blog about the possibility of other towers in downtown OKC.

What happens at street level is far more important to the long-term health of downtown than how tall the buildings are. Go ahead and build a skyscraper, but make sure you don't clear out block after block of three and four story buildings to make room for the parking. Make sure the ground floor relates well to the street, with human scale elements, like street-fronting retail space.

Tulsa's 1970s skyscraper binge hastened downtown's conversion from a traditional mixed-use downtown to a 9-to-5 office park. We're only now starting to recover, with the renovation of the handful of old low rise buildings that weren't razed for the sake of parking.

TRACKBACK: Steve Lackmeyer responds with a post called "Blank Walls," which mentions urban critic William Whyte's observations of Oklahoma City in the early 1980s. Whyte's ideas influenced pioneering Bricktown developer Neal Horton. Quoting Whyte from a 1983 article in Time:

"The Blank Wall is on its way to becoming the dominant feature of many United States downtowns," Whyte complained. "Without the windows or adornment to relieve their monotony, the walls are built of concrete, brick, granite, metal veneer, opaque glass and mirrors ... designed out of fear - fear of the untidy hustle and bustle of city streets and undesirables - the walls spread fear."...

"By eliminating the hospitable jumble of shop fronts, restaurant entrances and newsstands, the walls deaden the very city the buildings claim to revitalize."

(This appears to be the Time story: "Drawing a Blank Downtown" by Wolf von Eckhardt, which quotes Whyte and mentions a collection of his photographs illustrating the problem.)

Steve has photos of Leadership Square and the Pioneer Telephone building, which illustrate the point about blank walls, and there is a thoughtful discussion underway in the comment section.

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» Blank Walls from OKC Central

The model and renderings for the new Devon Energy tower drew rave reviews this week. But Tulsa blogger Michael Bates wonders how it will tie into life on the street. Sad, but true, when Devon Energy announced plans to build a skyscraper that will not ... Read More

9 Comments

Jack said:

You make some good points. One wonders what the street life and vacancy rates downtown would be today if Tulsans hadn't valued height as much as they did in the 70s and 80s (ended abruptly by the oil bust at the abbreviated top floor of the ONEOK building).

The trend these days is to set an upper limit on building height and focus more on the quality of the experience on the street. D.C. has limited building height forever, to protect views of monuments, but other cities are also opting out of the race for the tallest building.

See "There's a reason those buildings aren't 100 stories"
http://www.bizjournals.com/portland/stories/2000/01/17/focus3.html

Jeff Shaw Author Profile Page said:

Tall buildings in this state are mostly just self-confidence boosters for the citizenry. I'm reminded of a tall building at 81st and Lewis in Tulsa.

That too, is a completely useless building, with no retail/services support. You must have a car to visit that building. (No sidewalks around that building, and even if there were, you would have to trudge through a massive black asphalt parking lot to get to it.) On it's own, it fails.

On an efficiency of space basis tall buildings work well - just like the cubicle - for management of employees. But if its useless to everyone on the street, it may as well be a surface parking lot.

If the employees have to get in their car drive across town to go to their doctor's appointment, or to the mall for that last minute gift, or down the street for lunch - places that should be built into buildings like these - why don't you just build a office park campus block in the subburbs?

Jamison said:

Rather off-topic, but Michael: did you realize that BatesLine is one of the "Suggested Conservative Blogs" on JohnMcCain.com?

Cool! Thanks for letting me know, but I wasn't able to find it on the site, Jamison.

Jack, that's an interesting link. This was a useful reminder at the end of that article:

"And don't expect much height competition with these buildings in the near future, Harrison said. Following the restructuring of the banking industry in the wake of the Savings and Loan debacle of the late 1980s, loans made to developers require a percentage of buildings to be pre-leased or sold prior to construction. And that translates to more pragmatic building ambitions."

Among the last tall towers built in Oklahoma City -- Penn Square Bank.

CGHill Author Profile Page said:

Except that there never actually was a Penn Square Bank Tower; when the bank failed in 1982, it was still sitting in the parking lot of the mall. A tower got built a couple of years later four blocks down the road, though.

You might be thinking of 50 Penn Place, across the street, home of Sooner Federal Savings and Loan, which also failed.

Charles, I think Michael is actually correct about Penn Square Bank Tower. It's what we now know as Valliance Tower, which ironically is the temporary digs right now for SandRidge Energy. Construction of the $35 million tower started in 1982 and was to be the new home Penn Square Bank, which as you note, never left the shopping center. The developer, by the way, was Ron Burks, who also was the last person to try to revive the fortunes of the Skirvin Hotel before it closed in 1988. The tower was finished in 1983 and was taken over by Citizens Bank, which also later met its demise and was taken over by Liberty Bank, which was taken over by BankOne, which was taken over by Chase.... (do I really need to continue on this?)

I think, however, it's a bit foolish for anyone to compare Devon Energy to the companies that existed in the early 1980s.

CGHill Author Profile Page said:

I stand sort-of-corrected, though any interest PSB might have had in the building was surely appropriated by FDIC - and anyway, it wasn't completed until late 1983 or early 1984. (I actually temped in that building for awhile, though I can't remember for whom.)

And so far as I know, Valliance Bank may have put its name on the signage, but officially it's still simply The Tower. (As always, corrections are welcomed.)

Well now Charles, I guess I stand corrected too. Shame we can't just nitpick at Mr. Bates since it is his blog.
;)

CGHill Author Profile Page said:

And we haven't made even the slightest dent in his original point, which is that whatever the value of the tower to the skyline, its value to citizens at street level is rather unclear so far.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on August 21, 2008 10:15 PM.

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