Larry Nichols can show a visitor just about everything that’s right — and wrong — at the Myriad Gardens.
But unlike others who have yearned to make improvements at the downtown attraction, Nichols is helping launch a $35 million fulfillment of a public wish list that will add a restaurant, cafe, kiosks for renting model boats and bicycles, a children’s play area, an ice skating rink and what he hopes will become an iconic amphitheater and grand lawn.
The chief executive officer of Devon Energy admits his interest in the gardens, with its iconic Crystal Bridge Botanical Tube — began as he focused on new headquarters across the street.
Nichols was shocked by what design consultants told him — that a visitor driving or walking around the gardens couldn’t even see the Crystal Bridge or find an entrance to get to it.
"I didn’t believe it,” Nichols said. "I drove very slowly around the park on a Saturday and very rarely could I see inside. That’s not good for visitors. ... We know it’s here, and we think we can see it. But if you or I walk or drive around it, we won’t see it either.”
James Pickel, board president of the Myriad Gardens Foundation, couldn’t agree more that a makeover is overdue.
"We’ve been working on improvement plans for 20 years,” he said. "But there was never a source of funding.”
With construction of the new headquarters set at $750 million, Nichols surprised many downtown observers by asking that the tax increment financing (TIF) proceeds from the project not be used for amenities for the corporate campus, but rather to improve the surrounding downtown neighborhood.
The Myriad Gardens is the biggest single beneficiary of the TIF, with $35 million dedicated to making it a people place by adding amenities requested by residents.
Assistant City Engineer Laura Story said the timing couldn’t have been better — voters in 2007 had approved $8.75 million for replacing the Crystal Bridge’s 3,028 glass panes.
Planning began with a design charrette in which the public was invited to submit ideas, several of which, including the children’s play area and dog park, were incorporated.
But planning hasn’t been without a share of tension rooted in how the gardens are perceived: Some see it as a park, while some of garden’s staunchest advocates cringe at such a description and want the attraction referred to as a garden (city definition sides with the garden advocates).
A small but vocal minority argued the gardens should not be changed.