Amongst downtown residents and new urbanists, Jeff Speck has quickly become something akin to a rock star. When he spoke recently at the Skirvin Hilton, the crowd overflowed into the hallway just to hear his thoughts on how to make downtown Oklahoma City a more vibrant place to work, live and play — and to do all that walking, above ground, place to place.
Speck is considered a pioneer in "new urbanism,” and was director of town planning at Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co, the firm that designed new urbanist communities including Seaside, Fla., and Kentlands, Md. He later served as director of design at the National Endowment for the Arts and co-authored "Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream.” Mayor Mick Cornett began talks with Speck during several visits to Washington, D.C. Cornett then led the council to hire Speck to provide a study on making downtown more walkable. Speck’s report challenges several initiatives under way. Supporters and critics alike agree that if Speck’s recommendations are implemented, they could dramatically alter downtown development for several years to follow. Here’s a look at his position and a few of the responses to some of Speck’s suggestions: Housing Background: Downtown housing construction has gained momentum in recent years popping up in Deep Deuce, the Maywood Park area, the Central Business District and MidTown. But momentum has slowed following the economic crash in September. Several developers interviewed say creating a critical mass of housing in the Deep Deuce/Bricktown/Maywood Park area is essential for continuing downtown's revival. Jeff Speck's observations: “Housing is the urban use that is most under-represented downtown. If the city wants to increase downtown walking in a meaningful way, it must direct resources towards the provision of this housing, so that the private market finds it profitable to do so. A remarkably large number of Oklahoma City suburbanites are very likely to relocate downtown if they can do so in a way that makes sense economically. The recent growth in Deep Deuce and Maywood Park manifests this appetite, as does the success of loft projects on Broadway. But any experienced developer will confirm that it simply takes more time and money to reinvest in existing neighborhoods than it does to create new subdivisions on the urban fringe, so cities that wish to invite more residents downtown must be willing to dedicate some of their own time and money towards this goal.” His recommendations: Remove or reduce any zoning impediments to housing provision. Create an expedited process for housing developers. Donate underused public land to housing developers that meet certain criteria. Create a public office that writes grants and otherwise coordinates fundraising from other public and nonprofit sources. Ron Bradshaw, Maywood Park developer: “It does take more money to invest in old neighborhoods versus new ones. I think the city is doing a good job in reducing zoning impediments. The city manager and mayor would like to have an ombudsman to expedite the process but with the budget right now, there is no money. I've been at this for five years; I've got 20 acres, 20 brownstones and 55 lofts. And until I get all those sold, I'm not starting any more. If we go into Core to Shore, build a park and get housing started there, it's a danger to what we're doing. I do worry about us losing focus on what we having going on now.” Core to Shore Background: Oklahoma City initially fought plans by the Oklahoma Department of Transportation to relocate Interstate 40 several blocks south of downtown. They agreed to the project when Secretary of Transportation Neal McCaleb promised the state and federal government would replace the current alignment with a grand boulevard. City leaders envisioned the boulevard as a way to kick off development of several hundred acres of blighted land between the Oklahoma River and downtown and in 2006 Mayor Mick Cornett kicked off a series of planning sessions dubbed “Core to Shore.” To date the city has spent about $6 million buying properties to make way for a large central park Cornett proposes to be the center of Core to Shore. Plans call for the park to be surrounded by a new convention center, retail, housing and offices. Transportation officials, however, have been vague about when the boulevard will be built. The project is not funded and is not yet on the agency's eight-year funding plan. Jeff Speck's observations: “The Core to Shore plan is a top-notch long-range plan for the expansion of the city. There is little in it that could be improved in terms of encouraging walkability. But, as a long-range plan, it is looking 20 to 50 years into the future, and shows how to absorb a large amount of growth once the downtown is complete. Like Daniel Burnham's famous ‘make no small plans' Plan of Chicago, this sort of document is necessary if a city is to grow in a healthy way. But, having a good plan for future expansion can also present a danger, if excitement for its development reallocates resources that would be better concentrated on the existing downtown. As will be argued in greater detail ahead, the center of Oklahoma City has yet to achieve critical mass from a walkability perspective, and public and private resources need to be further concentrated in key bocks if a tipping point is to be achieved.” His recommendation: “Not a penny be spent” on Core to Shore implementation until downtown achieves greater development and a critical mass. Mayor Mick Cornett: “The timetable for Core to Shore is presenting itself as the I-40 relocation takes place. If the time frame stays as it is, the interstate in 2012 and the boulevard in 2014, the public elements of Core to Shore are pretty much laid out. I don't know that there is discretion in the timetable — we're working on ODOT's timetable. To me the boulevard has a distinct timetable that can't be altered ... the boulevard is the most important element of Core to Shore. The boulevard will become the address and allow for downtown retail to get a signature foothold. The park needs to open up at the time of the boulevard. Ideally, I'd like to see the park and boulevard open at the same time in 2014. I think this will be a catalyst for downtown momentum.” New Greater Oklahoma City Chamber Headquarters Background: The Greater Oklahoma City Chamber in June, 2008 planned to build an $18 million, four-story headquarters at NW 4 and E.K. Gaylord. The project was put on hold after the stock prices began declining in September. Plans were approved by the Downtown Design Review Committee despite concerns by local design and planning professionals that the project was too suburban and that the chamber's efforts to change the intersection should have been given more consideration by city engineers. Jeff Speck's observations: “In the traditional, walking city, buildings take rectangular or other nondescript shapes in order to give shape to the spaces they surround — the streets and squares. In the modernist city of the automobile, buildings stand apart as sculptural objects.