No one claims ownership of the underground pedestrian tunnels that traverse downtown Oklahoma City, but an agreement is being drafted that may cover catastrophic damages including flooding and earthquake damage.
The Downtown Business Improvement District, managed by Downtown Oklahoma City Inc., has assumed responsibility for the tunnels’ upkeep and improvements since the 1999 collapse of the original operator, the Metro Conncourse Association.
Then-Mayor Kirk Humphreys and the city council declined to own the system, which was built through a winding series of agreements and easements involving downtown property owners, civic leaders and the city in the early 1970s.
Downtown Oklahoma City Inc.’s budget, however, did not include funding to address the catastrophic flooding that has hit the central business district each of the past two years.
A.J. Kirkpatrick, director of operations at Downtown Oklahoma City Inc., was tasked with sorting through the questions and finding a solution. Digging through boxes of old records, Kirkpatrick said he was able to determine the tunnels were built for $1.3 million in 1974. That information, Kirkpatrick said, is important to potential insurers in calculating replacement costs.
“Maybe this conversation happened 50 years ago and we don’t know,” Kirkpatrick said. “But it needs to happen now.”
The tunnels connect many of downtown’s major properties, spanning from Sheridan Avenue to NW 5, and from Broadway to Hudson Avenue. On nice days the tunnels are bare, but on harsh weather days the tunnels are used by thousands.
Ownership of the tunnels remains in contention. Brent Bryant, economic development programs manager at the city manager’s office, said the city still denies ownership of the system. Building owners say they own only the tunnel segments that pass through their basements.
A tentative plan drawn up with city officials, however, calls for consideration of damage like a tunnel collapse costing more than $500,000 to be covered by the city’s self-insurance funding.
“The city doesn’t own it, but we have determined the city at least has an interest in it,” said Jason Smitherman, risk manager for the city. “We are looking at this seriously and we want to help.”
The business improvement district board on Wednesday, meanwhile, grappled with whether to spend up to $40,000 a year for insurance or increase the annual budget for repairs and maintenance from $27,000 to $35,000. After extensive discussion, the board chose to increase its annual repair budget rather than seek an insurance policy.
“This is an interesting process,” Smitherman said. “We are learning as well. How do you insure an underground hallway?”
Underground story shows deep roots
The Underground, previously known as the Conncourse, was opened in 1974 under the guidance of Jack Conn, chief executive officer of Fidelity Bank.
Conn and other major civic leaders worked out an agreement that provided for 15 major property owners whose buildings connected to the tunnels to pay for the system's maintenance and operation. Revocable permits were issued by the city to the Oklahoma Industrial Authority to build the system.
The agreement worked until the 25-year contracts and permits expired in 1998. At that point those who backed the creation of the tunnels, and most of the institutions they represented, had disappeared during the 1980s oil bust.
To make matters more confusing, portions of the tunnels cross under buildings and are owned by those property owners. Other portions of the tunnels pass under city, county and federal properties.
A couple of the tunnels, most notably one that crosses under Hudson Avenue and connects to the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, were never finished and opened.
Some representatives of the Conncourse Association argued the tunnels were owned by the city and it was obligated to take them over. Then-Mayor Kirk Humphreys denied responsibility. To this day, no one claims ownership of the tunnels.