Pushback against a revised plan for a grand boulevard in downtown Oklahoma City failed to attract a majority of the city council Tuesday.
Council members instead lauded unprecedented public involvement in developing the project and voted to send the boulevard recommendation on to designers with the state.
“This has been a great exchange in reference to what I would consider probably the beginning of new politics and new policymaking for something of this magnitude,” Councilman Skip Kelly said.
“The true art of policymaking … is compromise.”
The basic outline of the proposed boulevard remains the same as was initially proposed more than a decade ago, but the revision approved Tuesday scales down the elevated length of roadway from about 1,100 feet to about 300 feet.
The new plan merges Western and Classen avenues into a single road, crossed together by the shorter bridge, and also removes three north-south crossings initially planned for the boulevard in the Western-Classen-Reno area.
The 2.4-mile boulevard would continue to connect to Interstate 40 at both ends, running east-west the entirety of the route but snaking south for just a few blocks at the Western-Classen-Reno area.
The revisions were developed over the course of six months and with the help of an outside consultant and public input.
It marks a compromise between initial plans, which were focused on making it easier for I-40 traffic to access downtown, and public requests that the boulevard be pedestrian- and development-friendly for those who use the area.
“We're now able to make a recommendation to (the state Transportation Department) so they can proceed with a design,” said Eric Wenger, the city's public works director.
“There are still some questions in the center section that are being coordinated with MAPS 3 on how that roadway should look and be designed to encourage a pedestrian-friendly atmosphere, but those recommendations haven't yet been made by the city.”
Though ultimately a city road, the boulevard will be coordinated with the state and funded with $80 million to $85 million in federal funds.
The project completes the realignment of I-40, which opened five blocks south of its former location almost a year ago. The boulevard would lie in the highway's former footprint and would ease congestion currently experienced in the only two current highway access points, Wenger said.
“Obviously we have continued traffic congestion downtown, especially in the area of E.K. Gaylord, and the boulevard is going to help mitigate that,” he said.
But not all members of the council were satisfied with the compromise.
Councilman Ed Shadid has been the most vocal critic and cast one of the two negative votes at Tuesday's meeting.
Shadid said he is not opposed to a boulevard but said the roadway could be designed to mesh with the current downtown street grid instead.
He asked the council to delay the vote until further studies could determine whether a “no build” option would also improve downtown traffic and business development.
“To refuse to study and run traffic simulations of that conceptualization … is tantamount to predetermining the outcome,” Shadid said. “It's premature to choose Option A, which has an elevated bridge, which is going to limit north-south movement, which is going to have adverse economic development impacts and potentially is going to cause the very congestion you set out to resolve.”
He said he was concerned the decision would be further delayed by the feds because the process was subverted.Councilman Pete White cast the other negative vote at Tuesday's meeting.
White said he will support the project, but that he believes the city and its elected officials could have done more due diligence in studying the different options for the boulevard.
"I'm giong to vote against this today not because I'm not pleased with what's gone on to this point; I'm going to vote against it because I think we can do better," he said. "There are options out there that could enhance this situation and I don't believe we are following up on them."
Of four residents who took to the podium at Tuesday's meeting, only one was in support of the approved plan.
“We need this boulevard as an ingress-egress for our business; at the same time, part of our opportunity is development, so we need access of pedestrian traffic and access for movement within that area,” said Fred Hall, chairman and chief executive of Hall Capital, a former chairman of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber and a downtown property owner.
Bob Kemper, spokesman for a group that supports meshing the boulevard with the current grid, said the council was acting outside the bounds of public interest.
“I think I can unequivocally say that the overwhelming majority of people in Oklahoma City want this boulevard returned to some sort of grid,” Kemper said. “The curvilinear section is going to divide north and south again (and) the elevated portion is something they don't want.”
Wenger said the city will turn its recommendation over to the state and then proceed with further design planning for the boulevard.
Though the project was delayed six months while the council deliberated the revisions, Wenger said he anticipates construction could begin on the two boulevard ends and for a railroad underpass near Bricktown as soon as next year.