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.”
City and state highway officials say the roundabout plan is being looked at. But in a July 5 letter from state deputy highway department director Gary Evans to Dennis Clowers, assistant city manager, plans for a roundabout clearly are not being embraced by the state engineers.
The letter notes a roundabout would not fit within the existing right of way vacated by the old highway, would require additional property acquisition, business displacement and utility relocation, and need “extensive planning” that would need to be re-evaluated by the Federal Highway Administration.
“Combined,” Evans wrote, “these issues would add multiple years and tens of millions of dollars of cost to the project and delay the completion of the reconnection of downtown Oklahoma City to the Interstate. The additional cost would not be funded through ODOT.”
Public input at issue
Evans also reiterated an argument repeatedly made by Mayor Mick Cornett, City Manager Jim Couch and Ridley: The public has been advised for years the boulevard would be built and opened by 2014.
Ridley noted that while the new I-40 is less congested and safer than the old highway, the limited access to downtown is causing significant traffic delays, especially at Western Avenue, and the boulevard is a solution that is needed as soon as possible.
Kemper said the public has not been informed well and that meetings should be held to allow for public comment. Indeed, not one city council member professes to know all the details of the boulevard's design, with most saying they were surprised when they learned about the criticized elevated section a few weeks ago.
“I think they want to accelerate the process as fast as possible so they can hand it off to Oklahoma City,” Kemper said.
Couch said a presentation to the city council is scheduled for July 31 but added such updates are difficult as the boulevard is still being designed.
“The problem with public process is at first we don't have enough information to make decisions,” Couch said. “And then you're too far down the line, and the decisions have been made. And that's the dilemma we get into … it's a bit of the paradox of public involvement.”
Couch said that despite perception the design has only involved engineers, discussions have involved city engineers, planners and respected urban walkability consultants, including Jeff Speck.
Plans have changed
As a result of those conversations, the boulevard has been narrowed from six to four lanes, and a study is under way as to whether a proposed elevation after Western can be built up with fill dirt (similar to the overpass at Britton Road along Broadway Extension) instead of on piers.
Other potential changes include allowing space for additional tracks by a planned transit hub at the Santa Fe Train Depot and an option for the city to pursue an Oklahoma Avenue connection to the boulevard instead of a zig-zag-like connection proposed by state engineers as they sought to avoid acquiring right of way east of the U-Haul warehouse in Lower Bricktown.
Engineers, Couch said, also are accommodating requests by planners to allow for an unusually wide sidewalk — 15 feet — along the boulevard as it passes underneath the BNSF Railway viaduct.
Work goes forward
As such discussions and debate continue, the transportation department is moving forward with letting the first construction contract in August for the boulevard through Western Avenue.
State engineers note that work won't affect the outcome of the debate on road elevation.
Once the roadway section opens, plans show it will allow access to the incomplete boulevard via ramps similar to those that were in place for the old highway off Sheridan Avenue. That one section, Ridley said, will go far in alleviating backups at Western Avenue and the new I-40.
Some council members, including White, Meg Salyer, Pat Ryan, David Greenwell and Ed Shadid, note the boulevard will be turned over to the city to own and maintain once it is complete. By that logic, they said, the city should be given a far greater voice in its design before any work commences.
Broker Gregory warned that if current plans are implemented, the blight that started when the highway department built the original Crosstown Expressway in the 1960s will continue.
“Those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” Gregory said. “So why would we repeat what failed in the past?”