The Oklahoma River hasn't moved, nor has downtown. But the distance between the two is without a doubt getting smaller.
With prominent airing on the hit national television show “American Idol,” the era of the river being seen as a drainage ditch that needed to be mowed three times a year is becoming a faded memory.
An entire generation of Oklahoma City young professionals knows the river only as a vibrant waterway lined with “gee-whiz” rowing venues designed by modernist architect Rand Elliott.
That same generation, and plenty of relative newcomers, also has no memory of a downtown that was declared “dead” by city leaders in 1988. But even with such revivals going on, all within just a few hundred feet of each other, the existence of a highway and railroad tracks made pedestrian access between the two areas virtually impossible and vehicular access equally confounding.
This disconnect is known all too well by all who have attempted to travel downtown to the river over the past few years. But the opening of the new Interstate 40 removed the visual barriers, and the boathouses, especially the Chesapeake Finish-line Tower, can be seen by anyone walking or cruising along the Bricktown Canal.
Pedestrian connection will soon be established with an extension of a river inlet used by the Oklahoma River Cruisers at Regatta Park. That inlet, being built under the new highway and adjoining railway tracks, will create a key pedestrian connection, and a means for passengers on the river cruisers to jump off and hitch a ride on the more popular Bricktown Water Taxis.
With construction well under way on the SandRidge Pavilion, which will include a zip-line ride, and design work proceeding on a MAPS 3 white water rapids venue, the river likely will become one of the city's top visitor destinations.
And that's where the connection to downtown and Bricktown becomes essential to the area's future. The river is drawing thousands of visitors already with the popular regattas, drag boat races and other events.
Restaurants, shops and hotels ordinarily would set up in and around these venues. But shoreline space is dedicated to the rowing and water sport venues, and little room will be left for ancillary commercial development.
More connection is needed — and will take place with development of the new downtown boulevard. And when it's all done — not that far off in the future — a new generation will grow up never knowing a time when the Oklahoma River wasn't a part of their downtown.