Officials with the Oklahoma Department of Transportation say they plan to use a 23-day extension of a comment period on designs for a downtown boulevard to address confusion and answer lingering questions about the project.
Records obtained by The Oklahoman suggest a community divided on the project. The extension is being applauded by Friends for a Better Boulevard, an advocacy group that succeeded in lobbying state and city officials to look at scrapping a previous design that would have resulted in an elevated highway bypass being built between Western and Walker avenues along the old Interstate 40 alignment.
“I like it,” said Bob Kemper, founder of Friends for a Better Boulevard. “The whole thing gives us an open door again. Now we can bring this up to the city council on some issues we have.”
Kemper hopes the city council will vote a preference on boulevard designs presented by the Transportation Department, noting a previous vote two years was for a design presented by a hired consultant, StanTech, and not in response to the designs released by the state agency earlier this month.
“There have been changes made on what was given by StanTech,,” Kemper said. “The city council can now look at the options and make some fresh decisions.”
State transportation officials faced criticism over the previously set two-week comment period, which ended Wednesday and started with an open house hosted by highway engineers at the Cox Convention Center on May 7. Transportation Department officials said the two weeks was in compliance with guidelines set by the Federal Highway Administration, but Friends for a Better Boulevard argued it did not give the public enough time to scrutinize the design options and be fully informed about the project.
Developers and real estate professionals have told The Oklahoman the boulevard’s design can either boost or kill development chances for a large blighted area bordered by the new roadway, Interstate 40, Western and Walker Avenues known as part of Core to Shore.
The area includes a collection of decades-old buildings deemed by developers to be architecturally significant. Kemper said a new concern is the state’s plan to cut off Exchange Avenue between the Stockyards and downtown.
“I don’t think they realize the importance of that street as a connection to Cow Town,” Kemper said. “We have to do something for the people in Stockyards City— that’s a good access road and this would cut them off.”
Kemper’s organization is favoring Option C, the design scored highest by the Transportation Department, but with changes including restoring Exchange Avenue access to downtown and creating a full boulevard extension at Lee Avenue.
Other groups, notably Better Block OKC, favor Option D, which was scored lowest by the agency and would eliminate the boulevard between Western and Hudson Avenues in favor of restoring a street grid that was interrupted by construction of the original I-40 in the mid-1960s.
Comments filed with the Transportation Department at the open house, obtained by The Oklahoman, show attendees were split between Options C and D, while only two people advocated building the original design, Option A, which would create a six-lane elevated uninterrupted highway bypass west of Walker Avenue.
Copies of the comments, which were provided by the Transportation Department with names redacted, showed 11 people favored Option D, eight favored for Option C, two asked for for Option C with modifications, another two indicated they would support Option C with changes but also would support Option D. Another four people said they opposed designing the boulevard as a highway bypass.
Two other attendees indicated no preference but were highly critical of the state agency and its handling of the boulevard designs and public participation.
In a statement to The Oklahoman, Transportation Department spokeswoman Brenda Perry said the agency is striving to inform the public and answer questions and concerns.
“The massive I-40 Crosstown relocation interstate project including the future Oklahoma City Boulevard has experienced some of the highest level of public involvement and participation success,” Perry said. The Transportation Department “in conjunction with the City of Oklahoma City, has worked beyond the standard requirements for public involvement so that the boulevard project is transparent and effective for local citizens.”
Kemper said he is not surprised by the split in support between Options C and D among attendees at the open house and believes it reflects the community’s ongoing struggle with the boulevard’s design.
“I think most people agree now that the idea of a Crosstown Boulevard being a bypass, a reliever for the highway, is pretty much out the window,” Kemper said. “Our intention is not to block the crosstown boulevard or to stop it, but to make sure it’s done right. It’s a 50- to 70-year decision, and we have to do it right.”