The latest proposed designs for a downtown boulevard by the Oklahoma Department of Transportation are being met with a mixed response, with some critics questioning the agency’s review process while others are arguing the boulevard should not be built.
The boulevard was first envisioned in 1998 as part of the reconstruction of Interstate 40 south of downtown and was to follow the old highway’s alignment between Western Avenue and Lincoln Boulevard.
The Oklahoma Department of Transportation set a two-week public comment process that ends Wednesday. Most of the discussion centers around Option C, which was scored highest by state highway engineers and creates an uninterrupted four-block bypass between Western and Walker avenues, and the option scored lowest, which would abandon construction of a boulevard and instead proposes reconstructing the city street grid that existed in the area a half-century ago.
Groups take a stand
One organization, the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, has publicly endorsed Option C. The option includes a bridge over a merged Western Avenue and Classen Boulevard and sidewalks that would adjoin the at-grade road between Bricktown and Reno Avenue. The design eliminates an elevated roadway that would have spanned between Western and Walker Avenues. The only at-grade intersection between Western and Walker avenues would be at Reno Avenue.
“We have discussed it at length, I’ve talked to a lot of people downtown, and we believe the best one is Option C,” Chamber President Roy Williams said. “There is no consensus for Options A and B, though some do like Option D.”
Williams said Option C appears to be the best compromise, adding “we may not get a perfect design.” The debate, he said, also hinges on the Transportation Department paying for the project. The road will be owned and maintained by the city once it is built and opened.
Those critical of designs as currently presented include Friends for a Better Boulevard and Better Block OKC. The local chapter of the Urban Land Institute stated it has not taken a formal position, but that the grid option best matches the organization’s principles, while Downtown Oklahoma City Inc. and Urban Neighbors are not taking a stance.
At stake, according to some, is the development of the area south of the proposed boulevard between Western and Walker Avenues. David Wanzer, a designer and developer active in Film Row, Midtown and the Plaza District, said the area is the “backyard” to Film Row and is filled with architecturally significant buildings that will be ripe for redevelopment. He also noted that the area immediately to the north of the proposed boulevard is developing rapidly with Film Row and the conversion of the Fred Jones assembly plant into a 21C Museum Hotel.
“We need a road that will be an economic development tool, not an economic barrier,” Wanzer said. “I’m very concerned about this separating north and south. The area south of the boulevard has tremendous development potential if it’s not stifled by an economic barrier.”
Wanzer believes a full intersection at Lee Avenue on Option C could address such concerns. The current designs call for entrance and exit ramps at Lee Avenue, but not a crossing. Councilwoman Meg Salyer, whose ward includes the boulevard, is also hoping to see Option C modified to include an intersection at Lee Avenue.
“We’re now three more years down the road with this, and we have additional circumstances and development,” Salyer said. “We have the 21C Museum Hotel and other major development coming. I’m willing to compromise from the no-boulevard option to Option C because I do understand the competing needs of those who live downtown and those wanting easy access.”
Councilman Pete White, meanwhile, is advocating for intersections at every block of the proposed Option C boulevard.
“Otherwise you can’t get across it,” White said. “I’m not sure we don’t need controls at almost every intersection. I don’t know why we need people to drive through downtown at 45 or 50 mph. We can make it like what Reno Avenue is now — it has a median, lighting and controlled intersections at every block.”
The process used by the highway department also is being questioned. Two weeks were provided for public comment on the four options, and an “open house” in which engineers were available to answer visitors’ questions was held at the Cox Convention Center two hours before a Thunder playoff game.
Brian Taylor, division engineer at ODOT, said no one design was being chosen yet over the others. He said a decision is likely within 30 to 60 days. He said the open house and comment period are in alignment with federal guidelines.
“I’m not taking anything off the table,” Taylor said. “We don’t have a recommendation. We have four alternatives. And based on public comment and recommendations, we will solidify our recommendation.”
An agency spokesman added the potential exists for “non-participating features if they fall outside of the old I-40 right-of-way.”
“Many of these details and specifics will be sorted out once an alternate is selected,” spokesman Cole Hackett said.
Questions on public input
Bob Kemper, co-founder of Friends for a Better Boulevard, argues the process involving the open house and public comment are not in the spirit of requirements set by the Federal Highway Administration.
“After the last meeting, it’s clear ODOT is trying to limit public input,” Kemper said. “Allowing only 15 days to make comments on a project of such magnitude and controversy is disenfranchising. ODOT wants to be done with the federal process, but they’re unwilling to tell us how they plan to address sidewalks, crosswalks, bike lanes, transit stops, landscaping and beautification. We’re going to make sure this process continues until they do so.”
City Engineer Eric Wenger, who has worked closely with ODOT on the boulevard designs, said such questions cannot be addressed until the current review is completed.
Wenger added he has concerns about the no-boulevard option, including costs the city might have to pay and traffic that would terminate at California and Walker Avenues.
Better Block OKC’s board disagrees, saying Option C would create a Northwest Expressway in redeveloping area. It argues for the restored street grid, saying it would best spur quality development and provide a greater return on public investment.
Mayor Mick Cornett said he understands concerns.
“I don’t get the impression that ODOT is comfortable with the process and I’m confused with how it’s being presented,” Cornett said. “I’m confident we will have a really good finished product. It’s complicated. It won’t address everyone’s concerns because we’re asking it to do different things at different times.”
Projected Traffic counts factor into discussions
Part of the debate over the downtown boulevard design focuses on projected traffic counts. The Oklahoma Department of Transportation projects that for design Option C, the one they scored highest, traffic will total 12,920 vehicles a day on the proposed uninterrupted four-block stretch between Reno and Walker Avenues when it opens in 2015. Engineers estimate traffic for the same stretch will grow to 18,050 cars daily in 2040. Traffic counts for the more traditional boulevard design with intersections between Walker and E.K. Gaylord will total 20,050 cars a day in 2015, and 27,850 cars a day in 2040
Better Block OKC and Friends for a Better Boulevard counter the estimates do not acknowledge changing demographics in which less people are driving cars and the potential impact of improved public transit. They also question how thousands of travelers can suddenly appear for a road that does not exist and note the stretch currently open west of Western Avenue is not heavily traveled.
Highway engineers point to congestion that already exists on the new Interstate 40 at Western Avenue as evidence the boulevard is needed, with 9,100 vehicles exiting eastbound I-40 and 5,800 vehicles exiting westbound I-40 daily at the new Western Avenue junction. Engineers estimate that with the boulevard, traffic for eastbound and westbound exits at Western will total 12,000 and 8,300 vehicles daily in 2030.