Look Back, Look Forward: Taking Stock in Central Oklahoma
The Oklahoma City Metro Area Is In The Midst Of A Development Boom. New, Exciting Projects Are Popping Up All Over And Helping Create A Diverse, Thriving Metropolis. But Keeping The State’s Legacy Alive Is Also Important, As Evidenced By The Many Projects Growing From Efforts To Revitalize The City’s Historical Aspects. Here Are Some Of The Area’s Most Noteworthy Past And Future Developments Over The Past Few Years, As Well As A Look At Some That Haven’t Quite Made It To The Finish Line.
The Myriad Gardens Blossom Anew
The beauties of nature have been on display downtown for decades … but the design that gave the Myriad Botanical Gardens a feeling of insulation from the bustle of the city center also made it easily overlooked and needlessly difficult to enter. In 2010, the sprawling botanical gardens and urban park underwent a multi-million dollar renovation project (with a financial boost from Devon Energy) that helped make the area more accessible and user-friendly. Water features, a band shell, two restaurant spaces and a more open, inviting design have increased its presence and made it a more vibrant element in the redeveloping downtown, without losing a bit of its beauty. The gardens’ iconic Crystal Bridge Tropical Conservatory also saw refurbishment including improvements to its more than 3,000 acrylic panels.
Organic Growth for the Food Market
Like many of the metro area’s most successful development projects, the arrival of Whole Foods had been rumored for years. The natural and organic foods supermarket officially made the announcement in 2010 that it would open a 35,000-square-foot store along N. Western between North Classen and N.W. 63rd to anchor the next phase of development at the upscale Classen Curve shopping center. One year later, the doors opened for customers to buy locally grown and organic products – and it’s still packed most of the time.
Devon’s Towering Achievement
Rising 50 stories into the air, the Devon Tower has changed the skyline for Oklahoma City. In a landscape that includes many buildings of similar heights and looks, the Devon Tower stands out for its sheer size – and proudly holds the record as the tallest building now in Oklahoma.
Construction started in 2009 and moved at a dizzying pace: a new floor was added about every eight days. That speed enabled Devon Energy to move its more than 2,000 employees into the tower a mere three years after construction started. Today the ground floor is open to visitors; stop in for a tour.
Improvement Is a Two-Way Street
In an effort to boost safety, improve traffic flow and provide easier access to downtown businesses, five downtown streets were rerouted from one-way to two-way beginning in 2008. Four additional one-ways were converted in 2010 as a part of Project 180.
Public Works Director Dennis Clowers said at the start of the rerouting that Oklahoma City was one of hundreds of cities across the country making the switch in downtown areas. “Revitalization is the biggest reason for the trend,” Clowers said. “This conversion will benefit motorists, pedestrians, businesses and visitors.”
Norman’s Art and Community Power
This community arts initiative kicked off in the spring of 2013 to help showcase the arts and artists in Norman and demonstrate art’s positive role in the community. In April of the following year, StART Norman transformed a block of Main Street for 48 hours through changes in traffic and pedestrian patterns and the inclusion of pop-up retail locations, additional cafes and live music and art. A site-specific art exhibition turned a vacant lumberyard into an exhibition that highlighted local history and new beginnings, and Norman arts organizations were showcased. The money for the initiative came from an increase in the city’s transient guest room tax.
“StART Norman was itself a one-time project,” says Erinn Gavaghan, executive director of the Norman Arts Council. “But our hope is that we have inspired discussion, creativity and desire to create a more livable, inviting community in our Downtown Arts District. We would love for another group to try similar, grassroots-type projects that continue the development and desirability of Norman.”
Gloom to Boom in the Plaza District
Today a hub of funky stores, popular restaurants and bars and quirky sites, the area now known as the Plaza District has come a long way in its 100-year history. The stretch of N.W. 16th Street between Blackwelder and Indiana Avenues first became a commercial section in the 1920s due to its proximity to the end of a trolley line. The Plaza Theatre was added in the 1930s, giving the area its new name. But a few decades later, the neighborhood quickly faded and became less viable for commercial ventures due to rising crime rates. Since 1997, the nonprofit Plaza District Association has been working on revitalization, cleaning up the run-down areas, luring new businesses and hosting events including a monthly art walk and an annual festival that draws large, festive crowds.
“What was once an abandoned and underutilized block of buildings is now a thriving area full of local shops and restaurants,” says David Pettyjohn, executive director of Preservation Oklahoma. “It attracts locals and visitors alike. The area maintains its historic character, which is one of the reasons for its success.”
A Soaring Symbol to Greet Visitors
Resembling the scissor-tailed flycatcher, our official state bird, the SkyDance Bridge is one of the area’s most noticeable attractions to newcomers. The $5.8 million pedestrian bridge, which spans 380 feet in length and reaches heights of 197 feet, evokes pride in Oklahomans traveling Interstate 40 and leaves a lasting, positive impression to visitors traveling through the area, Mayor Mick Cornett says. LED lighting that can be adjusted to fit different holidays and events adds to the bridge’s notoriety.
Automobile Alley’s Historic Drive
The heart of Automobile Alley, Broadway Avenue, has been around as long as the city has. But over the last 125 years, the area has transformed; from homes where some of the city’s earliest pioneers lived to car dealerships, hotels and apartment buildings by the 1910s and ‘20s. Fifty years later the area fell into a period of decline. But all that changed in the ‘90s, when a series of new business ventures led by locally minded individuals changed the landscape, turning Automobile Alley – which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places – into one of the city’s most recognizable districts for dining, shopping and entertainment while still keeping its historic facade intact. Shop Hop is held the third Thursday of every month, giving visitors extra time at night to shop, experience live music and events and mingle with fellow residents.
The Thunder Takes OKC By Storm
The Thunder is so ingrained in our mental landscape that it’s sometimes difficult to remember what it was like before the team came to Oklahoma City. Football-loving Oklahoma transformed into a basketball-obsessed state that takes immense pride in the likes of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka. Downtown Oklahoma City is energized each night there’s a home game, as fans headed to the arena show their team spirit and excitement. And the team’s move from Seattle to our state capital, controversial as it may have been, has come with additional developments and projects – think improvements to Chesapeake Energy Arena and the opening of Durant’s southern-style restaurant KD’s in Bricktown.
OCU Law School Goes Uptown via downtown
Oklahoma City University purchased the former Central High School building at 800 N. Harvey Avenue in December 2012 with plans to move the law school downtown. The gothic façade and limestone bricks have the proper look and feel for the part, and the location is ideal for students to be in the heart of the city’s action. Moving the law school downtown not only gives students an extraordinary learning environment, it gives the metro center a 500-plus person economic boost.
This historic building was once a beloved high school that provided an educational foundation for thousands of future leaders in government, arts, sciences, sports and more; today the magnificent structure is again a place of learning. It is the ideal building and location for the growing and contemporary needs of a dynamic law school. As of this month, Oklahoma City University School
of Law is home.
SIZZLE TO FIZZLE
Though Oklahoma City has seen major growth and development over the past several years, there have also been some projects that have yet to pan out. Here’s an update on where some of those stand.
Coming Attraction (Hopefully)
First opened in July 1937, the 30,000-square-foot Tower Theatre holds the distinction of hosting the longest-running movie in the state’s history with the 82-week run of “The Sound of Music” in 1965. It has also hosted performances by blues guitarist Bo Diddley and comedian Tommy Chong during its time as a live entertainment venue. But the theater, despite its spectacularly renovated marquee out front, has been closed for several years, and its reopening has remained elusive even as the Uptown 23rd District is in the midst of a revitalization.
But there is hope. Local businessmen Marty and Mike Dillon, who bought the theater in 2006 and helped oversee repair and improvement efforts, announced that they have sold the property to a trio of developers who are expected to start construction on the theater in early 2015.
A Cultural Collaboration Derailed?
The unfinished American Indian Cultural Center and Museum sits near the intersections of Interstates 35 and 40, prompting many travelers to wonder about the hulking, oversized mound and white circular structure. The multi-million dollar museum was proposed years ago to honor Oklahoma’s unique Native American history and draw tourists interested in learning about the state’s 39 tribes in one central location. But years of legislative wrangling over funding has left the project unfinished – and costing more money the longer it sits empty.
More than $90 million has already been invested into the $170 million project, leaving $80 million necessary for its completion. If museum officials raised $40 million in private funding, Gov. Mary Fallin promised a matching $40 million investment to complete the project. But Republican lawmakers have repeatedly balked at providing the funding, most recently during the 2014 legislative term. So the sprawling campus featuring a symbolic promontory mound continues to sit idle, and museum officials remain unsure of when – or if – it will be completed.
Stage Center is gone. The demise of this modernist building also known as Mummers Theatre had been years in the making. Built by John Johansen, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, the Brutalist-style structure’s avant-garde design was said to be based on an electrical circuit system. The completion of the building capped a decade-long effort to establish a professional theater company in Oklahoma, according to David Pettyjohn, executive director of the nonprofit group Preservation Oklahoma, which had included the structure on its list of endangered historic buildings.
The destruction of the building had been discussed for some time following flooding and the high costs of maintaining it. Supporters, however, fought to keep the historically significant building around, arguing that the Downtown Design Review Committee had violated city ordinances requiring that historic preservation efforts be thoroughly vetted before demolition. But it didn’t work, and razing was completed in fall 2014 to make way for the new OGE Energy Corporation headquarters.
“Stage Center was a downtown landmark with international architectural significance that played an important role in the cultural history of Oklahoma City,” Pettyjohn says. “Of course we are disappointed that the structure has been demolished, but we are gratified to have played a role in raising awareness of the importance of this iconic structure, and the guidelines that were put in place to protect it.”
UP AND COMING
Adrenaline junkies, get ready. From a whitewater rafting and kayaking center to a famous 90-foot-tall Ferris wheel, some of the area’s newest projects and developments will test the stamina, bravery and nerves of residents and visitors alike. Here are some of our favorite in-the-works projects.
Ride the Waves in the Middle of Oklahoma
A new $45.2 million state-of-the-art whitewater rafting and kayaking center is planned to open in spring 2016 in the Boathouse District in Oklahoma City. The Riversport Rapids facility will be geared toward both families looking for a unique way to spend time together and hardcore athletes looking for their next training ground. Group rafting, whitewater kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding are just some of the activities that are expected to be offered.
Big Wheel Keep on Turnin’
Back in 2008, Grant Humphreys, the son of former Oklahoma City mayor Kirk Humphreys, did what many Americans have done at one point in their lives: he bought an item on eBay. Only Humphreys’ item wasn’t a toaster, book or vacuum. It was an amusement park ride, and a famous one at that.
Once the Pacific Wheel at the famed Santa Monica Pier, the attraction has been featured in a bunch of movies and TV shows, including “Iron Man.” The 90-foot-tall Ferris wheel is currently undergoing refurbishing and upgrades in Wichita, and will feature more than 160,000 energy-efficient LED lights that will be illuminated depending on the season. Humphreys purchased the noteworthy ride for $132,400.
With 20 gondolas holding a maximum of six adults each, the Ferris wheel will be able to accommodate up to 800 riders per hour when placed in its new home on the south bank of the Oklahoma River sometime in 2015.
Big Dreams for a Downtown Park
The Core-to-Shore project is a plan to redevelop 750 acres of land between downtown Oklahoma City and the banks of the Oklahoma River with a park, pedestrian-friendly boulevard, business development and convention center and hotel. Mayor Mick Cornett proposed a seven-year, nine-month, one-cent sales tax to help fund the plans; in 2009, voters passed the sales tax measure, known as MAPS 3, to support the 40-acre park, a new convention center to attract more conferences and conventions and a transit system in the city’s downtown area.