Do new OKC skyscrapers have to go downtown? A Parisian possibility

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Steve Lackmeyer has a story in today's Oklahoman about the dilemma facing Oklahoma City as surface parking downtown is being replaced with new development.

Now, [Stage Center] is set to be torn down to make way for a tower rising at least 20 stories into the skyline. And if one is to consider carefully the comments made Thursday by Mayor Mick Cornett, this won't be the last demolition sought to make way for a new tower....

The old home of Carpenter Square theater on the southwest corner of Main and Hudson features a beautiful colored mosaic tile facade. Originally the home of Bishop's Department Store decades ago, one can dream up the restoration of the building's jewel box glass storefront displays where the plywood now stands.

That building, a vintage mid-rise "auto hotel" garage and other early to mid-20th century buildings on the block may be next on the list of buildings to be torn down to make way for yet another tower.

Oklahoma City, which recoiled after the Urban Renewal demolition spree in the 1970s, has had relatively few downtown preservation battles since the MAPS-fueled revival began in 1993.

Empty land, scars remaining from unfulfilled dreams of the earlier Urban Renewal era, was plentiful 20 years ago. But that surplus of land has been depleted thanks to hundreds of millions of dollars invested downtown this past decade.

The skyline wants to grow. Oklahoma City must now decide what older buildings must go to accommodate that demand.

It's a nice problem to have, for land to be more valuable to develop than to use as surface parking, but Oklahoma City should think carefully before sacrificing more of he remnant of its early 20th century downtown urban fabric to make way for new steel and glass erections.

Some points to consider:

The pre-World War II buildings that may be sacrificed for new skyscrapers were built to pedestrian scale. Even pre-war high-rises tended to be built with a retail-friendly first floor. (Even the Empire State Building, tallest in the world when it was built, has ground floor retail.) New skyscrapers tend to be monotonous, with first floors that are undifferentiated from the rest of the building on the exterior and little more than elevator lobbies on the inside. At the very least, design guidelines could require a retail-friendly, pedestrian-friendly ground floor in new buildings.

Skyscrapers will increase downtown employment, which will increase demand for parking, which could lead to the sacrifice of still more low-rise, pre-war buildings for surface parking. Tulsa saw this happen in our 1970s building boom. Combined with and enabled by urban renewal, it turned our downtown from a mixture of uses into little more than an office park, dead after dark. The daytime employees will want places to eat lunch, but they won't be around to keep retailers open in the evening, and the skyscrapers and their attendant parking will eliminate older buildings that could house uses to generate 24/7 activity. While skyscrapers may draw new residents into the center city, plenty of those new downtown workers are quite happy with their single-family suburban homes, and they'll want a place to park. Planners should do the math for proposed new skyscrapers: Number of new workers minus number of workers likely to live within walking distance (or to commute via mass transit) equals the number of parking spaces that should be required to be incorporated into the building.

There's a real danger of replacing diverse building stock with the equivalent of a monoculture, which is as vulnerable to disease and disaster in the built environment as it is in the natural environment. Development is somewhat at the mercy of investment fads. If everyone sees office space as a good investment, they're going to build, build, build until office space is overbuilt, driving out buildings suitable for other uses in the process.

Historic preservation played a key role in Oklahoma City's urban revival. MAPS investments had impact because they were placed in and near areas like Bricktown, Civic Plaza, and West Main that had been untouched by urban renewal, and, in the case of Bricktown, already had pioneer investors working to redevelop them.

In the 1980s, Oklahoma City, perhaps in reaction to the orgy of demolition in the previous two decades, adopted urban design guidelines, neighborhood conservation districts, and historic preservation districts for both commercial and residential areas. When the boom began in the 1990s, many protections were already in place, and others were added, no doubt with less friction because precedents for such protections had already been set. Then-Mayor Kirk Humphreys told a Tulsa Now tour group in 2002 that design guidelines were the city's way of protecting the taxpayers' massive investment in downtown. Tulsa's developers and their allies have blocked adoption of similar measures here.

In the comments to Lackmeyer's story, I pointed to Paris for a way to give the skyscraper builders some room to play while protecting the remaining diversity and history of the downtown core.

Paris made the decision to protect its historic core from high-rise redevelopment. Skyscraper development was diverted to an industrial area called La Défense, about three miles west of the Arc de Triomphe, along the same axis that connects that monument to the Louvre via the Champs Elysée. The official website for La Défense describes the area before the transformation:

Apart from its strategic location on the historical axis extending from the Champs-Elysées, there was little indication that the La Défense Roundabout would one day be home to the future business district. Dilapidated houses and small factories for the engineering and automotive industries were bordered by shantytowns and the occasional farm.

The name of the place comes from an 1883 monument at the center of that roundabout, commemorating the defense of Paris during the 1870 Franco-Prussian War. The area was identified as a location for new urban development in 1931, and major construction (delayed by depression and war) began in 1958 with CNIT, a large exhibition center, followed by several waves of high-rise development.


La D&efense, looking east along Paris's historic axis toward the Arc de Triomphe

The 400-acre district now accommodates 38 million square feet of office space, 150,000 employees, 20,000 residents, and 2.3 million sq. ft. of retail (including continental Europe's largest mall, at 1.3 million sq. ft.). Beginning in 1970, it was connected to the rest of Paris by express rapid transit (RER line A) and since 1992 also by Métro Line 1. (Note that even in urban, densely developed Paris, this district still experiences a daily influx of at least 130,000 commuters and can only house about 13% of its workers.)

Oklahoma City could choose to do something similar: Encourage new skyscraper development in an underused area without historic significance near downtown and link it to the core by transit. To my outsider's eye, the industrial area along Reno between Western and Penn, west of downtown, and along Reno between I-235 and I-35, east of downtown, both look like good possibilities for this sort of place. Oklahoma City could improve on Paris's example by ensuring that such a skyscraper district is pedestrian-friendly and has a cohesive urban fabric, not a mere collection of isolated starchitect sculptures.


Habitats for Humans: A Skyscraper Is Not a Sculpture: An essay contrasting the way earlier skyscrapers were designed to fit into the urban context and newer skyscrapers are designed as standalone monuments to their architects. The essayist points to New York's early 20th century rules for skyscrapers as the antidote:

We inherited some pretty wonderful skyscrapers from the years before previous global economic disasters: the Metropolitan Life Building (1909) The Empire State Building (1931), The Chrysler Building (1930). These older towers left an incredible urban legacy and it is easy to agrue that they represent the perfection of the urban skyscraper. They are successful at every scale: from a distance they are soaring and beautiful landmarks, global icons of the city and symbols of success and possibility. As part of a street their bases widened to fill their blocks, responding to the height and rhythms of neighbouring buildings, creating a real urban density. Up close, their frontages are richly detailed and animated by shops and entrances, just like those of any generous and lively urban building....

The majority of recent towers are very different and their form follows from a very different function: To be seductive CGI sculptures in promotional material, to distance occupants from the 'dangers' of the city, and to compete with other tall neighbours. The city context of many skyscrapers has become irrelevant with the consequence that new skyscrapers, as opposed to being a crescendo of urbanity, are now actively destructive to their urban contexts.

Skyscrapers are no longer designed to contribute to the creation of the great human habitat - the city....

On a recent trip to Madrid I visited the Cuatro Torres development. This was the city's prime new office district consisting of four, starchitect designed towers in vast open spaces. The city stopped at the edge of the development; human activity died away, street life disappeared, the wind whipped up and the towers loomed large as in the architect's dream. If we are trusting architects and developers to build our cities then we should expect more like this.

The answer to this problem is to once again consider the skyscraper as part of its urban context; the habitat of the person on foot.

We need to insist that the form of new skyscrapers follow an additional urban function: to enliven the city at every scale, particularly the one that is currently ignored - the scale of the person walking on the street. The Architect's vanity, and developer ignorance that demands that their sculptural artwork should be realised, uncompromised by such restriction, must be challenged....

Our skyscraper designers could do worse than look again at the rules that led to some of the best urban skyscrapers ever built - The 1916 New York Zoning Resolution. It aimed to ensure that these great urban crescendos were as generous as possible to the pedestrian environment below, and the city as a whole.

Looking at the successful results, a series of rules of thumb can be distilled: At ground level, a more urban result is achieved when the tower's base fills its plot. Here, vibrant, streets are more likely when sides of this of the base animate their surroundings with shop units or entrances to apartments above. The height of this section should create a good enclosure of the street without creating a dark chasm. Above this level the building steps back to the tower - this prevents downdraughts and allows light to the street. The tower element will generally rise above, creating a dramatic form on the skyline (complementing rather than clashing with neighbours). Simple.

The 1920 Robelin map of Paris shows La Défense as a mere suburban roundabout.

La Défense official website (English version)

Jillian Haswell's brief history of La Défense, with photos and a description of new development planned for the near future.

La Défense: From Axial Hierarchy to Field Condition, a 2011 essay by Nick Roberts of Woodbury University on the urban design history of the district. The abstract:

Paris La Défense, the largest dedicated business center in Europe, originated in utopian schemes of the early 20th century, and developed rapidly in the immediate post-war years. As corporate structures and the needs of office design shifted, however, the monumentality and utopian formalism of the 1950's master plan failed to accommodate the needs of capital. As the project developed in the 1970's, it shifted into an open and flexible field condition supported by intense networks of transportation, energy and information.

Using the writings of Shadrach Woods and Alison Smithson as references, the essay discusses the shift in design thinking that took place in the late 1960's, as the project evolved from a Beaux-Arts inspired sculptural composition to the open and flexible infrastructure that has allowed La Défense to continue its steady growth despite the recent economic downturn.

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Graychin said:

In 21st Century America, tall buildings don't have much to do with economic efficiency - if they ever did. They have more to do with CEO's sitting around together comparing the heights of their skyscrapers...

Both Tulsa and Oklahoma City share the same livability problem: both towns grew up in the age of the automobile. Both towns are fairly hostile to pedestrians. Just try doing your shopping or going out to eat in either place without getting into your car.

So it's a shame for OKC to demolish what are left of its pedestrian-friendly structures downtown. Good thing they didn't put up a skyscraper in Bricktown, eh? And Tulsans should be thankful that no one cared about "re-developing" those crummy warehouses north of the tracks from downtown. Today, that's the Brady District.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on July 28, 2013 10:25 PM.

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