Today I get to be the bad guy. What the heck. Here’s the follow-up to yesterday’s “OKC Central: Architectural Bests”
1. Federal Building
Address: NW 6, NW 8, Hudson and Harvey Avenues
Designer: Ross Barney + Jankowski, Chicago
One must remember the context of the time when designs were first unveiled in 1999. The building was set to replace the bomb-destroyed Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, and civic leaders had scrambled to prevent the loss of the various federal agencies to the suburbs. Was this the design that civic leaders of the time wanted? Heck no. Did they have a design ordinance to insist on changes? Nope. No one said, “take this or else.” But the message was there. The design was promoted as “an inviting yet secure” complex. It certainly is seen as secure. It was noted at the time this design was released that the U-shape of the building was eerily reminiscent of the blast damage to the Murrah building. Local architects recoiled in horror, but no protest really ensued. Oklahoma City was feeling vulnerable. Downtown needed the workforce to help rebuild what had been lost. The building is as secure as a U.S. prison or army bunker in heart of Baghdad. I don’t know of anyone who likes the design, and the park is seen as less than inviting.
What newcomers to town might not realize is the photo above, of the surrounding park filled with overgrown grasses was actually as the designers intended. But when weeds got into the mix, complaints finally prompted the General Services Administration to do away with the high grasses and keep the “park” mowed. The photo, interestingly enough, is from the GSA website.
Legacy at Arts Quarter
Address: 301 N Walker
ADG Inc., Oklahoma City
Let’s be fair on this one; the complex we see today has very little in common with the original designs submitted by ADG Inc. But due to a lot of value engineering by developer Mike Henderson, Legacy at Arts Quarter is now seen as “how not to” design a major downtown apartment complex. The façade is heavy on white stucco, and it’s staining from the city’s red dirt and wind. And the admission this design was a disappointment was made by none other than Henderson himself as his one-time protégé, Gary Brooks, successfully bid to develop the old Mercy hospital site in MidTown. Sure enough, Brooks’ Edge looks nothing like Legacy. On the upside, Legacy introduced a whole new level of residential density to downtown and strove to include retail on the ground floor (which has been a partial but not complete success).
Address: 400 E Reno
Designed by Lohmeyer-Russell, Springfield, Mo.
This project was partly, but not totally, what inspired me to seek a transfer from the newspaper’s city desk, where I had been working on investigative stories, to creating an entirely new downtown development, public/private development beat on the business desk. I saw Lower Bricktown being developed in a manner that was upsetting readers who were disappointed in what they were seeing rising out of the ground and wondered why they weren’t being told enough in advance about what was set to be built.
By the time these plans emerged in 2005, just before I changed beats, the Harkins Theater, and smaller restaurant buildings were already built.
It’s not as if there weren’t any complaints voiced when this project, the third and last John Q. Hammons hotel to be built downtown, was pitched to the Urban Renewal Authority. Indeed, it was noted that these designs probably wouldn’t have passed the Bricktown Urban Design Committee, which governs Bricktown north of Reno Avenue.
Architect Jim Lohmeyer suggested the difference in design was good – that it differentiated the original historic Bricktown from the newly developed Lower Bricktown. Some influential folks in downtown’s leadership quipped to me “it differentiates good design from crappy design,” and “better than crappy makes us happy.”
The hotel has a color brick and green roof with no connection to the materials historically used in the old warehouse district. The design is closer to what is typical for a suburban hotel. The hotel has no real connection with the adjoining Bricktown Canal (oddly, much of Lower Bricktown has been developed to turn its back on the canal).
Urban Renewal commissioners at the time seemed quite aware of what they were approving, as you can see in the following quote from a 2005 article by Brian Brus at the Journal Record.
“The Bricktown Urban Design Committee does a good job of maintaining the standards north of Reno, but they don’t apply south of Reno,” said commissioner Jim Tolbert. “To the south, it’s mostly up to Urban Renewal to maintain because it’s mostly Urban Renewal Authority. I think it’s too late for there to be any standards.”
Final observation: the Residence Inn and the rest of Lower Bricktown have been cited several times by developers attempting to get Urban Design approval for projects being attempted north of Reno Avenue. Such efforts have been quickly dismissed by members of the Bricktown Urban Design Committee. And even the Urban Renewal Authority put its foot down and demanded changes when Lower Bricktown developer Randy Hogan attempted to design a Kevin Durant restaurant that would again turn its back on the canal.
Myriad Gardens restaurant (still empty)
Address: Robinson between Sheridan and Reno Avenues
Designed by Gensler
This will likely be the most controversial of my picks, but I’m sticking with it. Gensler’s work at Devon Energy Center and overall contributions at the Myriad Gardens will almost certainly, and should win major awards. But this one building is empty a year after completion, and designers, planners and project managers were warned in advance. Photographed from the right angles, it’s simply beautiful. It’s too early to say that form won out too much over function, but with the money spent to create a great glass overlook to the Myriad Gardens lake, the street façade is institutional and forgettable. Not The exterior panels already show evidence of wear and tear similar to what we’ve seen with the Ronald J. Norick Downtown Library. Functionally, something about this building has been scaring away restaurant operators. To say that’s a matter of market timing and demand goes against the openings of some pretty unique new downtown restaurants just in the past few months. The big shame here is that some of the urban core’s most respected restaurant operators warned in advance this design wouldn’t work, that the city and Myriad Gardens Foundation would struggle to find a tenant. The restaurant folks were ignored; the building remains empty.
American Choral Directors Association
Metro Transit Bus Transfer Station
American Choral Directors