Advocates for pedestrian-oriented streets are battling with state highway engineers over design of a new downtown boulevard, with critics claiming plans to elevate the roadway between Western and Walker avenues will hamper development in much of the area known as “Core to Shore.”
City council members only recently learned that the $80 million boulevard replacing the old alignment of Interstate 40 is designed to be elevated far more than previously thought, leaving the road at grade only as it passes through Lower Bricktown and along a new Core to Shore park planned as part of MAPS 3.
The elevation would leave business owners such as Scott Friedman isolated from downtown. As owner of Horn Trader Music Store, 114 S Western Ave., Friedman is enjoying his first clear view of downtown since buying the property 22 years ago. Now he faces losing that view in less than two years.
“It would be better for me if it were at grade level — a boulevard with a median and trees,” Friedman said. “The area already has redeveloped. There is a lot of interest by people wanting to come in, participate in the rebirth of downtown.”
Gary Gregory, manager of commercial broker Collier International's Oklahoma City office, warns any potential development of the area will falter if the road is elevated.
“It would impede the flow and pedestrian and vehicular access,” Gregory said. “There is a reason this area became blighted, and it's the barrier that was built: the Crosstown Expressway.”
Gregory, who represents several affected property owners, said developers have sworn off investment in the area as long as plans show the boulevard not built at street level. With vintage buildings as interesting as those in Bricktown, Film Row and Automobile Alley still standing, Gregory calls the prospect of an elevated boulevard a deal killer for creating another vibrant downtown district.
“This could be the park district,” Gregory said, noting the proximity to the Core to Shore park that will be built along the at-grade boulevard as it passes between Walker and Robinson avenues. “Having an elevated boulevard going through that with residential and retail development should not be the city's goal.”
Cars vs. people
A survey of all eight Oklahoma City Council members shows not one desires the boulevard be elevated east of Western Avenue, and all indicated they did not believe they were well-informed about the road's design.
Engineers and officials with the state Transportation Department and the city of Oklahoma City say they're listening to such concerns.
“We don't want to build something the city doesn't want,” said Gary Ridley, state transportation director. “If we have to change some things with our Federal Highway Administration partners … the city will have to request that.”
Highway engineer Paul Green said the agency's challenge is the intersection of Western Avenue, Classen Boulevard and Reno Avenue, which are all within a compressed area requiring an overpass.
Plans call for the remnants of the old I-40 between Agnew and Western Avenues to be rebuilt in place, with four lanes instead of six. The speed limit, likely to be 45 mph, would allow quick access to downtown at Western Avenue.
That segment is uncontested by critics and all but one council member, Pete White, who questions whether a boulevard is needed.
Oklahoma City's director of public works, Eric Wenger, sees the logic in plans being drafted by highway engineers. To have an at-grade intersection at Western, Reno and Classen with traffic lights every 100 feet, Wenger said, “goes against every sound engineering judgment.”
The solution being offered by Friends for a Better Boulevard would involve a “roundabout” where the various streets meet in a traffic circle, and traffic must yield to cars already in the circle.
That plan, says the group's coordinator, Bob Kemper, would slow traffic as it goes into a more pedestrian-oriented area. He says the roundabout would allow for a grand entry to downtown and for the boulevard to be built at-grade through Bricktown compared to current plans he compares to a “high speed highway exit ramp.”
“I don't see it being something iconic for Oklahoma City,” said Kemper, a former state highway urban design engineer. “We've done so much right in Oklahoma City, why do we want to pull up short? That's what we're doing — building something that's a bad fit.”