Cities: August 2008 Archives

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.

Some recent finds worth telling you about:

Here are two fairly new "news around town" blogs devoted to Tulsa: Tulsa Loop and This Tulsa.

This Tulsa has a very cool logo (featuring the BOK Tower, the Mid-Continent Tower, and University Club Tower), and they encourage readers to submit links of local interest. (If you've missed Beef Baloney, the site has a video with Matt Zaller interviewing Bill Hader and talking about growing up in Tulsa.)

TulsaLoop aspires to be "Your Tulsa City Guide," offering a calendar of events, a list of attractions, and news about happenings around town.

I noticed Kick the Anthill when the blog weighed in on the CAIR-OK EEOC complaint against the Woodland Hills Abercrombie Kids store. The three bloggers cover a wide range of topics:

We're a small group of ants that got tired of getting kicked, so we decided to kick back. We're mad about movies, conservative politics and our Christian faith. Safe to say we're just mad in general. We also like to yak about Oklahoma (which, seemingly coincidentally, is just one gigantic anthill itself) and other completely random things. Thanks for joining us.

I've already been following Terra Extraneus, but I just noticed that blogger Terry Hull has a separate, personal blog, with entries that link to things I need to read, like this one about someone who makes more than $100,000 a year blogging, and this entry linking to Writer's Digest's 101 Best Websites for Writers.

I've come across a number of blogs devoted to real estate and development in Oklahoma: The Journal Record has a blog called Oklahoma per Square Foot, covering the commercial real estate industry in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Oklahoma City homebuilder Jeff Click writes Modern Land Run.

Blair Humphreys dreams about Oklahoma City's future on his blog imagiNATIVEamerica. Right now he's in living car-free in Boston, where he's studying planning and urban design. Here's a great post, illustrated with photos and maps, about what makes for pedestrian friendliness.

Nick Roberts is a fellow right-winger and urban advocate who has just started blogging at A Downtown ontheRange. He lives in Calgary, but considers Oklahoma City his adopted hometown:

Obviously OKC is a very special place to me, and I'd rather not be away from it at this point in my life, but I promise I will come back home better positioned to leave the kind of impressions that I would want to on my adopted hometown. Whether I settle down in OKC, or Galveston where I was born, remains up in the air, but the only thing certain at this point is that I am hardly finished with OKC. I want this blog to have the same kind of impact that Doug Dawg, Steve's OKC Central, and other blogs have had, in informing readers about the life of urban OKC, and perhaps Tulsa, too! And I will be making comparisons to beautiful Calgary whenever possible, just for the purpose of expanding you guys' horizons.

A couple of other bloggers are in Oklahoma but a long way from where they grew up:

Sarah, Brit Gal in the USA, moved here from the UK after falling for an Oklahoma man she met in an online backgammon room. Her blog helps you expand your transatlantic vocabulary with a "Brit Word of the Day" -- Wednesday's word was bollard.

Stuart Campbell, the Dusty Traveler, is from New Zealand, and he's been photographing scenic spots around Oklahoma, including the Wichita Mountains, Red Rock Canyon, Turner Falls, Maysville, and Natural Falls. He finds it a challenge to capture the grandeur of the Great Plains:

Big mountains are dramatic. A big lake is peaceful. A big city is bustling. The plains are just BIG. There is a lot of space with nothing going on and it is hard to capture nothing and make it look spectacular.

Some secrets I am discovering; color- go early or late but the middle part of the day dilute the color. The sky- watch what is happening above as the clouds are fascinating in themselves and can add to a wide open space. Find things to put in the picture -- whether it be natural or man made it can add character to a scene.

But capture it he does. Click that link and have a look at our photogenic home state.

I found many of these new blogs via the BlogOklahoma web ring -- a list of nearly 900 Oklahoma-based blogs, with brief descriptions for each. To give you an idea of how Oklahoma's blogosphere has exploded, BatesLine joined in March 2004 as blog number 39. The latest addition to the web ring -- yesterday -- is called I Don't Think I'm a Grown Up Yet -- number 861. And it's not an exhaustive list: The oldest Oklahoma-based blog of all isn't a member of BlogOklahoma (which is akin to Switzerland not joining the United Nations -- when you're Switzerland, you don't need to join the UN to prove yourself as a peace-loving nation-state).

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This page is a archive of entries in the Cities category from August 2008.

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