Thunder officials announced Wednesday they will no longer show games on the giant screen affixed to the exterior of Chesapeake Energy Arena, ending what had grown into an NBA playoffs tradition in Oklahoma City.
The pregame Thunder Alley festivities will continue on Reno Avenue north of the arena, team officials said in a statement. What officials describe as an “outdoor block party” with food, drinks, music, games and face-painting will begin three hours before home games as it did during the regular season; festivities will come to an end when the game starts.
The move comes in the wake of a shooting late Monday in Bricktown as thousands of people left Thunder Alley and Chesapeake Energy Arena after the Thunder's series-clinching win over the Los Angeles Lakers. Eight people were hurt, including one critically.
The Thunder Alley crowd watching the game had swelled to an estimated 6,000 people Monday, far larger than the crowds that watched games outside the arena during previous playoff runs.
The team operates Thunder Alley using what the city calls a Revocable Right-of-Way Use Permit, which is needed when an event operator wants a city street closed. Examples downtown include large events like the Festival of the Arts in April and smaller events like Better Block OKC last weekend.
City officials said the process to apply for and approve those permits, and ensure event operators are in compliance with a permit's rules, has become so cumbersome and vague that efforts began a year ago to make changes.
The permits are not governed by any city ordinance or any city document, assistant city attorney Dan Brummitt said. A chapter of city code related to some types of permits and licenses, and a subsection of the code's streets chapter dealing with permits for parades and “street meetings” with closed roads, don't apply.
“It's just the council's inherent authority to limit the use of public streets,” Brummitt said.
Typically, the permits are approved by a city council vote, and each permit is essentially a stand-alone contract between the city and the event operator.
The Thunder's original permit for Thunder Alley this season was approved in December and included the team's home games through the regular season finale last month. The Thunder got a new permit for the playoffs signed by Public Works Director Eric Wenger without getting a council vote because there wasn't enough time between when the NBA announced game dates for each playoff round and the first Thunder home game of the series, city spokeswoman Kristy Yager said.
A copy of the Thunder's newest permit was not available for The Oklahoman to review Wednesday, but it is similar to the permit the Thunder used for the regular season, which was included in a council meeting agenda late last year.
The regular season permit requires the Thunder to have extensive insurance coverage, manage crowd control and pick up trash, among other things. The document explaining the Thunder's crowd control plan is a sparse three sentences, one of which is incomplete.
Permits for large events are rarely, if ever, approved without a council vote, but an exception was made in this case because of the timing and because the permit is essentially the same as ones previously approved by the council for Thunder Alley, Yager and Brummitt said.
Changes on the way
As more and more events were held downtown and in Bricktown in recent years, officials realized more specific rules and a better process for the permits were needed, Yager and Brummitt said. Work to write a new ordinance governing the permits began about a year ago, and a new city position specifically to handle the permits is included in the proposed Public Information and Marketing Office budget for the next fiscal year.
City traffic engineer Stuart Chai handles permit applications now, but in recent years increasingly diverse applications in growing numbers made it hard for him to handle them on time and also fulfill his other job obligations, he said.
The new ordinance is expected to grant the city manager, police chief and fire chief, or their designated subordinates, power to revoke a permit. Currently, the rules are defined only in the permits themselves, and the permits allow city officials to revoke a permit “at will,” with public safety specifically mentioned as an area of concern.
No permit has been revoked in recent memory because the event operator and city can work with each other to make changes before it gets to that point, officials said.
“We always work with the event coordinator to mitigate any problems or concerns,” Yager said.
Final decision rests with city officials
Ultimately, the city holds the final decision on what is allowed to happen in Thunder Alley or any other event using a permit. The city can tell an event operator what it has to do to allay public safety concerns, and they can't hold the event if they don't comply.
Police can also shut down any event deemed to be an immediate threat to public safety, said Assistant City Manager M.T. Berry, a former police chief.
“The police officer working the event, his responsibility is to make sure whatever hazardous situation ... is addressed,” Berry said. “The decision as to whether or not an entire event should be shut down would be something that he has to consult with his supervisor and ultimately the chief of police.”