As the Oklahoma City Council sets out to decide whether to approve designs for a makeover of downtown's Civic Center park, one question, most recently asked by Councilman Pete White, has gone unanswered.
How, he asked, did a cosmetic makeover of the park take priority over the reconstruction of streets like E.K. Gaylord, or the two-way conversion of Hudson Avenue — both streets deemed disaster zones for pedestrians?
Three years have passed since Jeff Speck, a nationally recognized expert on creating safe streets and sidewalks for pedestrians, declared Hudson Avenue and E.K. Gaylord as being among the worst streets for downtown. Both streets, he noted, were designed for far more traffic than actually experienced and encouraged drivers to travel at speeds that endangered pedestrians.
Speck took great interest in a photo taken by my friend and colleague Jim Beckel that showed a couple, two children and a woman in a wheelchair risking their lives crossing the six-lane-wide Hudson Avenue.
When Project 180 was launched soon after, residents were assured such urban ailments soon would end. A 2014 deadline was declared for converting all downtown streets, including Hudson Avenue, from one-way to two-way traffic, and the wider corridors like Hudson and E.K. Gaylord would be narrowed so they would be safer for pedestrians.
Construction overruns and revenue shortfalls ensued, and plans changed. City staff submitted schedule and scope changes to various review committees and the city council. Councilman Ed Shadid was the first to question the changed priorities. He was told the park was required in the Project 180 funding agreement with Devon Energy. But so were the eliminated street improvements.
City staff then acknowledged that E.K. Gaylord was being eliminated from Project 180, but gave assurances the city had a great chance at winning a federal transportation grant for the work.
That grant application was recently rejected.
City staff did not tell the committee or council that they were choosing the makeover of Civic Center park (also known as Bicentennial Park), as a priority over the conversion of Hudson Avenue to two-way traffic.
The changed implementation of Project 180, as confirmed by City Engineer Eric Wenger and Assistant City Manager Dennis Clowers, boils down to this: the section of Hudson Avenue between Reno Avenue and Robert S. Kerr Avenue already being rebuilt will open as a two-way corridor.
The next section of Hudson Avenue between Robert S. Kerr Avenue and NW 6 will be a one-way street. North of NW 6 the street will then resume as a two-way corridor.
E.K. Gaylord Boulevard, meanwhile, will remain a six-lane-wide corridor separating the central business district from Bricktown and Deep Deuce, which are widely seen as downtown's most pedestrian-friendly districts.
White's question went unanswered at last week's city council meeting. Will it continue to be greeted with silence as the council weighs whether to proceed with the makeover of Civic Center park?