If the planned downtown Oklahoma City grand boulevard includes a roundabout or traffic circle as part of efforts to keep the road at ground level, it's going to create some prime real estate for a potentially iconic piece of public art.
The boulevard, which will replace the old alignment of the Interstate 40 Crosstown Expressway bridge, is intended to be a magnet for development as it bisects Oklahoma City's urban core between downtown and the Oklahoma River. Studies are under way now to determine if the road can be kept at ground level as it passes through a complicated series of intersections, and some of the ideas to keep it at-grade include at least one large roundabout or traffic circle.
Some of the world's most recognizable landmarks, including the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, are the centerpieces of roundabouts and traffic circles. The chance to get started on something unique to Oklahoma City in such a setting is enticing to local public art advocates.
“Roundabouts particularly, I always feel as if the art is springing forth from the ground, and you can't help but to notice it and see it,” said Debby Williams, director of the state's Art in Public Places program.
“Those are just spaces that beg for attention.”
The area near where the old Crosstown bridge comes in near Reno and Western avenues and Classen Boulevard is the most likely candidate for a roundabout or traffic circle on the boulevard, if one is used. Because of the placement, it could serve as a gateway into the downtown area for people using the boulevard.
Such a focal point with a void in the middle is an obvious candidate for an eye-catching bit of public art or landscaping.
“They're placeholders that call for more in an urban environment, and we want to fill those things up,” said Robbie Kienzle, Oklahoma City's arts and cultural affairs liaison. “As a community, it shows our growth. It shows what we're reaching for.”
Kienzle said there are examples of similar centerpieces in other cities across the country. One is Indianapolis, which features the 284-foot Soldiers and Sailors Monument in the middle of a traffic circle in the urban core.
The Indiana government estimates the modern-day construction cost of the 110-year-old monument to be about $500 million, so something that massive isn't likely to soon grace Oklahoma City's skyline. But the way the monument serves as a beacon is what could serve the region's cultural interests.
“It serves people well to have that (space) used as a canvas or as a pedestal for sculpture,” Williams said.
Someone will have to pay for whatever would go in the middle of the roundabout, of course. The space wouldn't be eligible for an Oklahoma City program to spend 1 percent of the annual city construction budget on art in public places unless it's designated as a park, Kienzle said, so funding would need to come from somewhere else.
“Certainly it would be a public-private philanthropic effort,” she said.
But the potential to add density to a growing arts community, especially in central Oklahoma City, could be enough to bring donors and political will in line. The Skydance Bridge and Devon tower are two new icons in the city, and burgeoning arts districts are nearby. Adding another big piece of public art to the city could make for an important investment in the city's cultural future.
“I think it all works together to create this really artful environment,” Williams said. “And that contributes to quality of life, but it also leads to economic development from visitors and citizens.”