Until a couple of years, the corner of NW 7 and Hudson didn't make a bad impression on passers-by as much as it simply made no impression.
Most of the brick buildings were neatly boarded up, and most drivers likely had their attention drawn to the modernistic federal office building on the east side of Hudson Avenue.
The life is returning to the strip with openings of the hip eatery Ludivine, Cadence Yoga, and the successful launch of the monthly H&8th outdoor food market.
Area residents, however, are being challenged to imagine the area as fully developed, with stores selling everything from fruit to flowers to home accessories. The vision also will include a newsstand, sidewalk dining, bike racks and a dog park — all part of a “better block.”
And on May 18 and 19, this vision will become a reality as organizers launch Oklahoma City's first “Better Block OKC.”
Allison Bailey and Kristen Vails, who are helping organize the event, say “Better Block” is inspired by similar efforts in Dallas.
Bailey, a retail consultant, said she first learned about how founder Jason Roberts organized the Better Block movement in Dallas' Oak Cliff neighborhood. Businesses that started out as demonstration “pop-up” shops ended up establishing permanent stores and revitalizing the neighborhood.
By coincidence, the Oklahoma chapter of the Urban Land Institute shortly afterward hosted a presentation by Roberts.
“It just seemed like a natural fit for where Oklahoma City is now to do a better block here,” Bailey said. “You take a block that is overlooked now and make it the best block you can for the weekend with a lot of volunteerism and recycled materials.”
In his presentations, Roberts readily admits his Better Block Project began as an act of defiance against established codes and zoning that discouraged the creation of sidewalk cafes, bike racks and involvement of food trucks and pop-up stores.
By involving volunteers and using inexpensive recycled materials, such “guerrilla” efforts were waged without the risk of wasting years of planning and a big loss of money if the staging was shut down by authorities.
Since the first Better Block was staged, the project has spread to more than 20 other cities. In his presentations, Roberts reported Better Block has permanent transformed previously abandoned city blocks into vibrant mixed-use corridors, with one street seeing vacancy drop from 75 percent to 10 percent and active storefronts jumping from 25 percent to 65 percent.
Leslie Batchelor, chairwoman of the Oklahoma chapter of the Urban Land Institute, sees “Better Block OKC” as less of a guerrilla event (Bailey and Vails obtained permits Tuesday from the Oklahoma City Council) and more of a chance to show residents how they can transform their neighborhoods.
“It makes a statement that from building face to building, that it's public space,” Batchelor said. “It's about people. So by taking over the block for a day, making it a place where people want to be, we can create a vision of what people might want everyday.”
Bailey said the block of NW 7 west of Hudson Avenue was an ideal starting point with its wide sidewalks, buildings with storefronts on both sides of the street, and yet also it is a largely undeveloped corridor within walking distance of the Mesta Park and Heritage Hills neighborhoods.
They also hope the project will draw more people by coinciding with H&8th, which itself ran into code and ordinance complications when it was first started in August.
“By doing it when another popular event is going on, you can draw people who don't even know Better Block is going on,” Bailey said. “It's a fun night. It's a great group of Oklahoma City residents who come out to enjoy the event, and I think they'll enjoy Better Block.”
Vails, who has helped oversee the revitalization of the 16th Street Plaza District (NW 16 between Classen Boulevard and Pennsylvania Avenue), is hoping that residents and civic leaders alike will see that zoning changes and meager investment in street amenities can transform a neighborhood.
“We're wanting to invite council members, city staff and leaders to come and see how these projects are positive for areas — that maybe ordinances and codes need to be changed and that one-size-fits-all isn't always the best fit,” Vails said.
“If a group of 25 people can come together and pull this off, it can be done anywhere,” she added. “You don't have to spend a lot of money at first on buying a bike bench — you can create one cheaply and try it out, see how it works.”
To learn more about Better Block OKC, visit www.better