Cities: November 2006 Archives

The following comment, by Tom Gulihur of CalCoast Realty, was posted on a much earlier entry, Will the Real New Urbanism Please Stand Up? Gulihur is a California-based real estate broker and financier with a fascinating resumé and deep Oklahoma roots.

This essay wasn't likely to get much readership in the comments of an old entry, so I'm posting it here. I think you'll find it as thought-provoking and well-written as I did.

I come from land rush era Oklahoman stock on both sides of the family and I lived in Oklahoma until I was ten years old, when my family moved to LA, like true Okies. Parents and grandparents are OU alums and paternal grandparents are OSU alums. I love Oklahoma in a nostalgic way, but I understand why many people outside of Oklahoma blanche at the corny Wal-Mart mentality there (and the rest of the South and Midwest).

But some real estate development business is bringing me back to OK. There's a downtown revitalization occurring in Tulsa and I'm involved in a project there. I've been reading gobs of information on Tulsa and urban renewal there and want to explain a fundamental challenge that Tulsans need to overcome. I've seen San Diego's urban renewal and have studied New Urbanism enough to understand how this has to work. First, the public has to buy-in to most of the concepts of New Urbanism or the whole thing will flop. Here is a quick version of what it requires:

  • Create dense and intense development at the urban core using form based zoning code. That means don't classify building by use, but rather by their shape. Encourage mixed-use buildings but not only retail-office-residential; enable all mixed uses similar to the early 1920’s in America (it should basically look like Disney’s Main Street USA).
  • Create a pedestrian-friendly environment. Expand public transit to de-emphasize the use of the car. Of course this is difficult in an economy that is based on big oil and Detroit steel (now Japanese and German steel too).
  • Design an attractive public realm. Plant corridors of street trees, install traffic-calming devices, open corridors of greenbelts with paths and walkways to enable pedestrian and bicyclist activity, build 'vest-pocket parks'. Honor public institutions through architecture and placement. A well designed public realm, whether it’s a residential neighborhood (think of Georgetown, in Washington, D.C.), a public square, a village green, a park or a retail shopping street, they should all encourage people to want to ‘hang out’, ‘hang around’ or walk through it and walk to it. All this hanging out and walking around has a second major benefit to society besides the individual’s personal enjoyment of the experience, is that CRIME IS REDUCED where there are a lot of citizens with their eyes open. Democratic values are also strengthened when the public realm is strong.
  • Build using environmentally sustainable techniques. Use all active and passive solar technologies available and use recycled or recyclable building materials.
  • Mix housing types in random and close proximity. Don't just build high-rise condos that all cost from $300k to $500k because that fosters elitist classicism. This is the biggest challenge facing New Urbanists everywhere because of the conventional way residential projects are financed according to target market segments that naturally form socio-economic groups that lead to isolation of other groups. A truly democratic and vibrant culture occurs when a CEO and a janitor can live as compatible neighbors, although that's an extreme example.

It's important for the public to learn more about New Urbanism, which is also called Traditional Neighborhood Development (TND), Transit Oriented Development (TOD), Smart Growth, or other similar concepts. The American leader in this concept is Andres Duany and his wife Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. Their architecture and urban planning firm is at and at (The Congress for the New Urbanism). Better yet, read Duany's entertaining book, SUBURBAN NATION, THE RISE OF SPRAWL AND THE DECLINE OF THE AMERICAN DREAM. Then you will ‘get’ New Urbanism.

Some conservatives see a political subcurrent to it and there really is an environmental concern and inclusionary aspect to it. But hey, the icecaps seem to be melting from global warming aren't they? Ten years ago you could argue against that assertion but it's different now. The inclusionary aspect of democratic society is an important part of New Urbanism that doesn't necessarily disagree with a conservative agenda, unless it includes environmental abuse.

In my experience, residential development always leads retail development because retail business owners cannot follow the ludicrous mantra of 'build it and they will come'. Retail will die on the vine if there it is not surrounded by a sea of 'rooftops', meaning the rooftops of consumers. So there's always a lag of retail development behind residential development. And the biggest complaint of the first wave of downtown dwellers when a city starts a downtown renaissance is that there is no convenient or good grocery store downtown. And there are the homeless, who often represent a security problem for wealthy urbanites.

But if Tulsa wants to be the next SOHO or downtown Vancouver, or Portland, or San Diego then it needs to loosen up the archaic liquor laws, IMHO. You need to get a Trader Joe's in downtown for sure, and TJ's needs to be able to sell its selection of wines and beers, which is probably only about 10% of their business, but a crucial 10%. So you guys need to dump the blue laws and welcome to the 21st century. Get out of the Wal-Mart fundamentalist attitude, open your minds and live and let live.

Tulsa has always enjoyed a more cosmopolitan flair than larger Oklahoma City (from where my family hails), although some people on the left and right coasts would snort at the words 'cosmopolitan' and 'Oklahoma' in the same sentence. What Oklahoma has all over the snobbier coastal societies is a warm friendliness that says 'you're OK!', to borrow a partial phrase from Transactional Analysis and Rogers and Hammerstein.

Good luck Okies! I'm rooting for you. But you'll need to loosen your liquor laws and learn about New Urbanism before real progress can move forward.

A couple of comments: (1) Of course I'm curious to know which downtown Tulsa project Gulihur is involved with, and pleased to know someone familiar with these concepts is involved in a downtown project. (2) There's a reference in his comment to financing, and Gulihur is involved in the financial end of real estate. One of the obstacles to building mixed-use or traditional neighborhood developments is that the money people don't understand it and don't have comparables to guide their lending decisions. (The Next American City had an in-depth article on the topic, "Why Building Smart Is So Hard," in the inaugural issue.) I'd be interested in Mr. Gulihur expanding on that issue from his experience.

Once upon a time, there was a famous architect of Asian descent who produced a plan that radically altered the center of a major Oklahoma city.

No, not Bing Thom and Tulsa, but I. M. Pei, whose plan to redevelop Oklahoma City resulted in the demolition of most of its original commercial district and the creation of the Myriad Gardens, the Myriad Convention Center, and that Habitrail-like thing just west of Myriad Gardens.

Via Doug Loudenback, we learn of a new book that puts Pei's plan in the context of fifty years of history of downtown Oklahoma City's decline and renaissance.

According to the book's blog, OKC, Second Time Around: A Renaissance Story, by Steve Lackmeyer and Jack Money, "chronicles a 50-year period in which hundreds of buildings were demolished in downtown OKC, the demise of Urban Renewal, early development of Bricktown, and downtown's recent resurgence."

Loudenback, an online chronicler of Oklahoma City history, gives the book five stars plus an infinite number of plusses, for providing both beautiful pictures and informative text covering the history of downtown OKC in detail, both positive and negative. I was especially interested in Loudenback's description of the chapter on Neal Horton, an early advocate for Bricktown, whose pleas for city investment in basic infrastructure fell on deaf ears, and who didn't live to see his visions come to pass.

I plan to pick up a copy of this book when I'm next in Oklahoma City. The same kind of book needs to be written about Tulsa.

I found this item on the Fort Worth Architecture forum, on a topic about the Trinity River Vision, a project that involves Bing Thom of The Channels fame. This item has nothing to do with the project specifically, but it says so many things so well that I'm going to quote it in full. It's by Kip Wright, and it's in response to someone who wants Fort Worth to be a city of towers, just like Dallas. If this applies to Fort Worth, it applies even more so to Tulsa. (I've added emphasis in a few places.)

O.K., Jonny, at the risk of sounding anti-progress or, at worst, a sentimental old geezer, I'm gonna tell you a story about a little boy. (This is also for some others of you out there who yearn for the tall, glass towers of Dallas.)

This little boy grew up in Atlanta, Ga., and he was VERY proud of his town: The Big Peach, Capital of the Empire State of the South, Hotlanta, site of one of the most decisive battles of the War Between the States, home to "Gone with the Wind." And home to the 2nd Six Flags! The sports teams sucked, but he is, to this day a big Falcon-Braves fan. He loved Atlanta for what it was, but he wanted MORE!

When National Geographic did a cover story about his town, ca. 1976, he was very excited. He dreamed of his city getting REALLY BIG with tall glass towers -- a mecca to which many would come, from far and near.

In 1978 he watched the historic old Henry Grady Hotel on Peachtree Street emploded. Not only was it cool to watch, it was to replaced by the 79-story Westin Peachtree Center Hotel! WOW! But his grandmother had quite another take. As her eyes filled up with tears, she said "I can't believe they've demolished the Henry Grady!" (And there was nothing wrong with it either!) It had been the site of many important Atlanta events, not to mention the site of proms, when Atlanta had only three or four high schools. She had been upset, too, when, a few years earlier, Atlanta's landmark Terminal Station (with Morrocan influence) had been demolished for a pitifully unremarkable 30-story federal building.

Shortly thereafter, the Loew's Grand, site of the world premiere of "Gone with the Wind" was slightly damaged by arson. It was soon "decided" that it was not salvagable and would have to be replaced by the 53-story world headquarters for Georgia Pacific. Then, like a falling domino, came the demand by Georgia Pacific that the landmark Coca-Cola sign, gigantic and resplendent with red and white neon lights that swirled at varying speeds, would have to go, too. They could not have this "eyesore" across the street from THEIR building! An icon of over 50 years was removed.

The little boy went away to college in the 1980s. It seemed like every time he went home, another old landmark had been eradicated for "progress." The 1890s dairy farm with dwellings and outbuildings, at the intersection of Briarcliff and LaVista, was removed, with over 100 gigantic oaks, for a strip shopping center, as Atlanta sprawled, far and wide. A ca. 1920 brick gas station, with porte cochere, was removed for a parking deck next to Emory University. The list went on and on . . .

In the early 1990s, just before his grandmother passed away, the little boy took his grandmother downtown to see the changes. She mostly just said, "Ooooooh, would you look at that." Her city was almost unrecognizable. And saddest of all, to them, was the replacement of the old S&W Cafeteria and the old Woolworth's (site of many of their lunchtimes) by (guess what?) a 60-story office tower.

The little boy moved away from his beloved home town because he got his wish. Atlanta is now a super big city with lots of gleaming glass towers, 16-lane interstate highways, and umpteen gazillion corporate headquarters. Everyone is now going to Atlanta -- but him. The city is TOO BIG, there are TOO MANY glass towered office complexes, there are TOO MANY Damn Yankees who have moved to that mecca. Development, cars, and pollution now dominate his town.

Now, I suppose I'd live there again . . . if a really good reason to do so appeared. I still have a lot of friends there. I love the big trees and green everywhere.

But there is a disconnect -- many, many of the landmarks that made Atlanta what it was to me are there no longer. It is now something else to me, in many ways. (Not to mention all the Damn Yankees who live there!) It's not Atlanta to me any more.

Old buildings create a continuity between generations, they give a city an identity and a soul.

Atlanta had a hell of a time during the Olympics in deciding on an identity. Its mascot was the blue thing, "Whatizit." How can one have an identity when one scorns the past and tradition? Everything about Atlanta was "looking to the future." But everything we are today is a result of what's happened in the past. This is what makes different parts of America unique, even as we speed on towards a goal of homogeneity.

It is a given that cities are going to change, but how will they do it? Growing with a seriously-planned eye to the past, improving upon what exists? Or wipe-the-slate-clean with cost-effectiveness, highest-and-best-use, biggest-bidder-take-all, and the-bottom-line? Flirt like a whore for the developer's dollar? Sit-up and roll-over like a dog, begging for a bone?

Some of you will smirk at me as a sentimental fool, but it is you whom I pity. With your eyes only on the bank ledger you will miss texture, lines, the patina of age, the walls that can't talk, the structures that connect us with our past.

As I live here in Fort Worth, I connect to it through people and places. People die, but it gives me hope that some of the buildings will live. I hope Fort Worth wakes up before it does more to destroy its legacy. Very few landmarks have even nominal protection in this town.

So, my good Jonny, you want your city to be like Dallas? This little boy says don't wish that on Cowtown (Dallas only WISHES it were "Cowtown," so its football team mascot would make sense!) I think "Cowtown" is good like it is. Sure, progress is good, but at what cost? If you want Dallas or Atlanta, then go there -- I think you'll eventually come home.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Cities category from November 2006.

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