Tulsa History: July 2005 Archives

Not so Safeway

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The Safeway/Homeland/ALPS store on the southwest corner of 15th and Lewis has been reduced to a pile of rubble. Redevelopment of that site was tricky -- the lot has two different zones, and the line between the two went right through the middle of the building. It was a strange site design, putting the store in the middle, facing Lewis, with two parking lots, one to the north and one to the south. I guess the lot wasn't wide enough east to west to be able to place the store facing north.

I haven't heard what, if anything, is slated to be built in its place. Whatever it is, it needs to be confined to the existing footprint, without expansion into the neighboring residential area, the Gillette Historic District, which has Historic Preservation (HP) overlay zoning. The quarter-section between 15th and 21st, Utica and Lewis, is already hard-pressed by the expansion of St. John Medical Center.

It would be nice to see a pedestrian-friendly commercial development
take that spot -- a site plan that helps to define that corner by putting the building close to the street, and that provides good, walkable connections to the adjoining neighborhood. A developer might produce such a plan on his own. Even if you don't care for the building on the southwest corner of 21st & Utica, or the Stillwater National Bank building, or the new Arvest Bank building, you have to acknowledge that the developers took a more urban approach to the placement of the buildings than has been typical. It would be better, though, if we made urban, pedestrian-friendly site plans the standard in midtown, as Oklahoma City has done with its older commercial districts. Just as HP zoning protects the investments of homeowners who restore historic homes, an urban conservation district can protect the investments of commercial property owners who try to preserve the urban feel of an older commercial district.

Over at his Lost Tulsa blog, Tom Baddley has posted a great set of photos of Bartlett Square and the Main Mall, prior to their removal over the last few years. (Be sure to notice the photos of the Tulsa Whirled's Main Street facade, a classic example of mid-century Albanian Bunker architecture. They thoughtfully included gun emplacements in the design, which I guess they thought would be useful if the newspaper ever found itself under assault from peasants with pitchforks.)

I thought I'd try to set the Mall in the context of downtown Tulsa's decline, and the various remedies that actually made matters worse.

In the late '70s, Tulsa pedestrianized Main Street from 3rd to 6th and Fifth Street from Boston to Boulder, and made 5th from Boulder to Denver a narrow one-lane, one-way street. As usual, just about the time other cities figured out that pedestrian malls didn't work well in the US, Tulsa joined the soon-to-be-passé fad. The idea was to link the two superblock urban renewal developments -- the Civic Center where 5th Street dead-ended at Denver and the Williams Center where Main Street now dead-ended at 3rd Street. The intersection, 5th and Main, became a large water feature, and it was dedicated in memory of U. S. Sen. Dewey Bartlett as Bartlett Square.

Starting in the late '50s with the new County Courthouse, the Civic Center replaced a tree-shaded neighborhood of apartment buildings, retail, and light industrial -- a typical inner-ring neighborhood -- with a desolate, treeless plaza. Particularly controversial was the decision to close 5th Street, which merchants once marketed as "Tulsa's Fifth Avenue." The original plans for the Civic Center featured a round arena, slightly bigger than a city block, which would have required a curve in 5th. When convention facilities were added to the Assembly Center, so that it covered two blocks, 5th Street was to have tunnelled under, but that idea was abandoned over the protests of 5th Street merchants, who feared the loss of business when their drive-by traffic was diverted to 6th and 4th.

The second big superblock was created by blocking off Main Street and Boston Avenue between 3rd and the Frisco tracks. The historic Hotel Tulsa was demolished, along with Tulsa's original commercial district, an area that might have become a quaint, restored district like Denver's Lower Downtown. Instead, it was cleared to make way for the Williams Center: a new hotel, the Performing Arts Center, the Bank of Oklahoma Tower, and the Williams Center Forum, an indoor mall between 1st and 2nd at Main. Main Street, which once linked north of the tracks to south of the tracks, Cain's Ballroom to Boulder Park, once the city's principal commercial street, was cloven in twain.

In order to have a successful pedestrian mall, you have to have pedestrians, so it works best if you pedestrianize areas where there are already a lot of people walking out of necessity. In theory, linking the governmental center to the new "mixed-use development" should have worked well, but the Mall and the superblocks made parking and driving downtown even more inconvenient for people who didn't have to be downtown. Workers might use the Mall, but mostly just during lunch hour. The years following the Mall's completion saw an increased use of telecommunications in business, reducing the need for people to leave their offices during the work day. The Forum was very inconveniently located down a steep flight of stairs a block away from the Main Mall, and ultimately even that path would be blocked when the Williams Center hotel was allowed to expand to the west, into the old Main Street right-of-way.

There was a time when there was a critical mass of workers downtown -- around 70,000 during the last oil boom in the late Seventies. The Mall was popular enough that Tulsa's second UHF station, KGCT 41, tried to build its identity around the Mall. The studios were in the Lerner Shops building, just off of Bartlett Square, and KRMG's John Erling hosted a midday show live from the Mall. (I did a month-long internship at KGCT in May 1981.)

When the office workers went home at the end of the day, the Mall was left to folks with no better place to be. Without enough people living in or near downtown, there was no reason for shops to remain open. Without open shops and auto traffic, there was no natural surveillance -- "eyes on the street" -- and the shady spots that were pleasant places to eat lunch on summer days became places to avoid at night.

(Anyone who was paying attention to what Jane Jacobs was writing as early as 1960 would have predicted this result, but no one was listening to Jane Jacobs.)

Sometime during the Mall years, Downtown Tulsa Unlimited, founded by downtown retailers in the '50s to try to remain competitive with new suburban shopping centers like Utica Square, mutated into an association of office building owners. While there are some sharp staff people at DTU, including DTU president Jim Norton, the folks who call the shots seem to see downtown as an office park -- the "core" between 1st and 6th, Cincinnati and Cheyenne -- surrounded by parking lots for their tenants and other buildings that could be torn down to create even more parking for their tenants.

(Speaking of DTU: They've had a contract with the city to maintain the Main Mall, paid for by an assessment on downtown property. Now that the Main Mall is gone, does the city really need a contract with DTU?)

The pedestrian mall didn't kill downtown retail all by itself, but it mortally wounded what little remained. What really hurt was the depopulation of central Tulsa. Think of a box from Union to the west to Harvard on the east, 21st on the south to Pine on the north -- about 12 square miles. In 1960, the population of that area was about 67,000. That dropped to 50,000 in 1970, 37,000 in 1980, 30,000 in 1990, and increased slightly to about 31,000 in 2000, still less than half the 1960 population. Urban renewal, expressway construction, conversion of land to surface parking to accommodate the new skyscrapers, expansion of institutions like the hospitals and the University of Tulsa, and conversion of residential areas to commercial and industrial uses all contributed to central Tulsa's depopulation. Most of those who remained weren't exactly flush with disposable income. If you don't have rooftops, you won't have retail.

I've got to stop here for now. More about the Mall and its demise tomorrow. Feel free to include your own thoughts, anecdotes, and memories in the comments. Also, feel free to ridicule the Tulsa Whirled's hideous building. (That's it! The building makes me think of the third book in C. S. Lewis's space trilogy: That Hideous Strength.)

TulsaNow announces a meeting tonight:

Tonight, July 12th, is a community meeting addressing concerns about Tulsa building demolitions. The meeting will be held from 5:30pm to 7:30pm at Harwelden Mansion, located at 2210 South Main Street. Julie Miner, with the Mayor’s economic team, has agreed to kick start the evening with a 20 minute presentation on the problems related to why Tulsa buildings are being demolished and on solutions to prevent future events from occurring. As a TulsaNow member or friend, we suspect you may share our concerns about the demolition of some of our history. Please feel free to join us this evening if your schedule permits.

Abandoned Tulsa


In reply to my introduction to the historical photo blog Lost Tulsa, reader Adam Kupetsky writes to let me know of a photo blog focusing on abandoned and soon-to-be-demolished buildings in Tulsa.

The Abandoned Tulsa Project is the work of Alison Zarrow. There are photos of the Tulsa Auto Hotel (a 1920s multilevel garage, which is being demolished by Trinity Episcopal Church for -- you guessed it -- a surface parking lot), Lowell Elementary School on North Peoria, the Camelot Inn, the Drexel Building (where the race riot began), the original Temple Israel synagogue near 14th and Cheyenne, the recently-closed Rose Bowl, and Oral Roberts' first building -- the Abundant Life Building near 16th and Boulder. For most of the buildings there are photos of the interior as well as the exterior.

(The demolition of the Tulsa Auto Hotel appears to be part of an ongoing project to demolish all historic Tulsa buildings prior to the 2008 National Preservation Conference.)

It's great that there are two bloggers trying to document some of the fascinating pieces of Tulsa's built environment while it's still here to be seen.

I should mention, because I haven't for a while, Tulsa TV Memories, where webmaster Mike Ransom collects tidbits of Tulsa's pop culture via the site's guestbook (where you'll find comments from Tulsa broadcast media veterans like Lee Woodward and Carl "Uncle Zeb" Bartholomew), then organizes them by topic.

The more the merrier -- there's plenty of undocumented Tulsa history to go around.

Found: Lost Tulsa


Some time ago, in response to an entry about Bates Elementary School here in Tulsa (now home to Central Assembly of God and Regent Preparatory School), Kevin Walsh, webmaster of the wonderful Forgotten NY, commented, "How about starting a Forgotten Tulsa website?"

I haven't had time to pursue the idea, but I was happy to discover today that another blogger has made a start. Tom Baddley started Lost Tulsa just a couple of weeks ago, and his blog features some of the history and photos of the Northland Shopping Center; a photo of Mayo Meadow Shopping Center's sign; and a photo of the old Safeway at 11th and Denver.

The most recent entry features an animated image of the Sheridan Lanes neon sign -- maybe the best surviving piece of neon art in the city -- and a link to a gallery of interesting signs around Tulsa.

In his first entry, Tom writes, "I hope you find my odd obsession marginally interesting." A lot of us share your odd obsession, and we'll look forward to obsessing along with you. Thanks for taking the initiative.

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Tulsa History category from July 2005.

Tulsa History: June 2005 is the previous archive.

Tulsa History: September 2005 is the next archive.

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