Design Ingenuity: Parks for the people

Design Ingenuity is a series highlighting teachable examples of urban design. The first Design Ingenuity post highlighted US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, a transit-oriented stadium project. This is the second post in the series, detailing OKC’s major push to renovate as many inner city parks as possible. The goal of Design Ingenuity is to understand the difference that good design makes in the lives of city residents.

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Tulsa’s $350 million new Gathering Place project is forcing OKC to up its ante with parks

Oklahoma City’s parks are a major opportunity for improvement. I have a tendency to belabor the point in trying to frame matters optimistically, but the reality is that parks are a core area in which OKC falls short. Not only do they not fully meet the needs of human-scale communities, but they also fail to attract residents who often drive to Tulsa or a state park for recreation. Driving over an hour for a park seems odd – but people do legitimately go up to Tulsa for the River Parks, Swan Lake, Woodward Park and the Tulsa Rose Garden, etc. Tulsa will be especially competitive for outdoor recreation enthusiasts once its new $350 million “Gathering Place” park (pictured above) is complete.

People like nice things. Parks and transit, really the two core areas where OKC lags behind, are both two of the most noticeable components of cities. OKC’s parks, besides the incomparable Myriad Gardens, have a ways to go. That said, OKC is aggressively addressing both transit and parks, and in some instances killing two birds with the same stone (trails and bike lanes accomplish both parks and transit).

On parks alone, OKC has 11 distinct initiatives currently underway. These 11 projects will collectively transform OKC’s public realm and get its residents outdoors. Great parks are finally well within reach for OKC. Of course, the plan behind all of this is the 2013 OKC Parks Masterplan. At the conclusion of this effort, OKC will go from trailing to leading other cities.

Myriad Botanical Gardens and Project 180

Project 180, begun in 2010 and scheduled to commence in 2014, but still underway and running behind schedule – is an aspirational $141 million facelift of downtown OKC’s public spaces, including the Myriad Gardens. The Myriad Gardens were designed by I.M. Pei and hadn’t been updated since, while surrounding streetscapes were similarly outdated. Funding was generated through a TIF district just on the $750 million Devon Tower, which didn’t need the TIF, but instead wanted updates to surroundings. P180 included bike lanes, street furniture, lighting, landscaping, and public art throughout the 180 acres of downtown.

The figurative result of Project 180 is a complete “180” turn in activating downtown’s outdoor spaces with people. The specific legacy though is increased attendance at the Myriad Gardens and a well-designed template that OKC is now applying to other streets, including in Film Row and Core2Shore.

“Central Park”

Just to recap: Most casual observers to planning and design are aware of OKC’s new MAPS 3-funded “Central Park” (it’s yet-to-be-named, and I’m pushing for Ellison Park or Ellison Green after the hometown literary great). $132 million total. The 40-acre north park (north of the new I-40 Crosstown Expwy) is scheduled to open in 2018, while the 30-acre south park is scheduled to open in 2021. The north park is a highly-programmed, emphatically-designed urban park, whereas the south park is a more-passive, heavily-landscaped link to the Oklahoma River. OKC Talk has detailed plans here. South Park is pictured below:

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Park architects, Hargreaves Associates, have also designed Chicago’s Millennium Park, Houston’s Discovery Green, Seattle’s South Union Lake Park, and Birmingham’s Railroad Park. Hargreaves has also given OKC a park template, based on this Central Park design, that OKC is applying to outdated parks across the city.

Military Park

This park was originally scheduled to be renovated along with Classen Boulevard’s Asian District streetscape, more than ten years ago. That didn’t happen at the time. At last, the 1.8 acre underutilized site at NW 25th and Classen Blvd is set for an ambitious makeover that will hopefully revitalize this stretch of Classen and the greater OCU area. The space has been named “Military Park” for nearly 100 years, and incidentally has become one of the nation’s most concentrated Vietnamese communities. As such, the park will feature a Vietnam War memorial along with several tributes to what Vietnam means as a homeland.

Woodson Park

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This large park, originally one of the corners of Grand Boulevard, was sliced in half by a freeway and then disinvested for decades. This project refreshes the western half of the park, which had been really disinvested and cut off from the surrounding neighborhood. $5.2 million from the 2007 General Obligation Bond.

McKinley Park

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Not a total park renovation, but a flashy new coat of paint no less for the rec center at McKinley Park, in the Classen-Ten-Penn neighborhood. As CTP has become a community development focus neighborhood, the goal here would be to generate creative synergies before the Strong Neighborhoods Initiative moves on to another neighborhood. This image is just from the call for artist submissions.

Boathouse Row

Boathouse Row now includes the original Chesapeake Boathouse, along with the OCU Devon Boathouse, the UCO Boathouse, the OU Boathouse, SandRidge Adventure Tower, and CHK Finish Line Tower. In addition to these philanthropic-supported projects, MAPS 3 has added $57 million in projects, the largest phase yet. The MAPS 3 improvements include racetrack improvements, grandstands, and the RIVERSPORT Rapids park.

Memorial Park

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Memorial Park, at NW 36th and Classen Blvd, is another park that used to be more historically significant and then faded. While it’s not ideal to tear down homes on 36th for parking for the park, the configuration allows more preservation of the original park, particularly the historic fountain fronting Classen. Very nice project for just $1.9 million, financed by the 2007 General Obligation Bond, completed in 2015.

Red Andrews Park

This park, historically an after-thought in between downtown and no-man’s land, has always been a problem. The Oklahoman couldn’t refrain from mentioning the park’s sordid park along with announcing its redesign. The new design takes parking out of the park, through a shared parking agreement with the new $10 million Valir Clinic across the street. It also lends it a definition of space that it previously never had.

Bicentennial Park

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Civic Center Park or Bicentennial Park, same thing. Not sure which name it’s using right now, but this park encircles OKC’s Art-Deco civic center which includes City Hall, the Civic Center Music Hall (home to the OKC Philharmonic and Broadway shows), and backs to the OCPD HQ. As downtown withered in the 70s and 80s, the park became a dumping grounds for statues and plaques. I think there was a statue of every mayor, which is almost interesting. Rand Elliott, perhaps Oklahoma’s most acclaimed architect, completely overhauled the space in his recent renovation – funded by $3.5 million in Project 180 funds, similar to the Myriad Botanical Garden renovations. It’s a small space, but designed well-enough to feel significant.

In my opinion, as someone who actually opposed this redesign initially, I’m now convinced that Rand’s vision is what this space should have been back in 1930. The walking paths that elegantly fan out toward the edges remind me of the Chrysler Tower crown. I believe that’s called organic (organicist?) Art-Deco. Enhanced sight-lines in between the two similar WPA-style Art-Deco landmarks, as well as enhanced skyline views, also make a big difference. This is an Art-Deco park where such a thing should have always been.

Wheeler District + Park

Wheeler Park is OKC’s most historic park. It was an urban central park, a highly-programmed promenade, and amusement park rolled into one. One particularly damaging flood changed all of that. Then the Army Corps of Engineers came and dammed the Canadian River, and turned the former parkland into an urban prairie. The “river” literally had to be mowed twice a year. Developer and acclaimed designer Blair Humphreys has acquired the Downtown Airpark, across the river from Wheeler, and is planning to revive this neighborhood’s place in OKC. The first step was successful implementation of concert grounds to activate the site, and the second step (currently underway) is reconstruction of the Santa Monica Ferris Wheel on this site (purchased on eBay). It’s worth noting this entire project is privately-funded, though almost surely will involve a public partnership.

American Indian Cultural Center and Gardens (Smithsonian affiliate)

Definitely don’t want to get into this project’s history, but it is moving forward once again! This project, though dogged by delays, cost overruns, and political embroglio, will give OKC a world-class anchor for the south riverfront. It also solidifies the importance of American Indian culture, by placing this new landmark on the most visible, centrally-located site possible. Through an operating agreement with the Chickasaw Nation, the surrounding lands will be commercially developed while retaining the park-like setting. Also noteworthy – Hargreaves Associates once again, on the design (hence why the mounds bear resemblance to the Clinton Presidential Library grounds).

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OKC needs parks. The city that I grew up in during the 90s had the level of park investment you would expect in Dodge City; Tumbleweeds blowing through was the only reliable programming. This was before the parks renaissance that nearly every city is experiencing, before the “back to the city” movement, and before OKC itself had discovered an innovative civic investment mechanism (the MAPS penny sales tax).

The design ingenuity of this endeavor though is its breadth. Rather than just complete a few really good parks, OKC has sought to use those projects to both inform and build capacity for doing more, as well as to build a toolset of templates that the city can plug and play with. This not only reduces design costs, but also administrative costs and process time. This is why almost all cities use a template approach for streets and open spaces – sometimes the templates are bad, but in this case the template OKC has built up to is pretty good in my opinion.

OKC can do this with a continued commitment to parks across the city, and not just concentrated downtown. These projects will rely on long-term commitments, for which the city will rely on partnerships with the surrounding community. Toward that end, it is important that these parks put people first.

Lastly, never bet against a city doing something it has already done before. OKC has had great parks before, and can do it again. It really is all about making a long-term commitment. Behold, Wheeler Park, of yesteryear:

 

Of course, it will help having a vision such as this for making critical connections into the future:

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One thought on “Design Ingenuity: Parks for the people

  1. Pingback: Design Ingenuity: My wknd stay in Canadian public housing | Green Lake Blue City

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