A nationally recognized urban planner hired by Oklahoma City to assess its lack of walkability said two major projects are unsustainable as envisioned, unless changes are made.
Jeff Speck said a massive boulevard, slated to eventually replace the Crosstown Expressway, is a colossal mistake in design that needs to be changed before it is built. The boulevard is planned for the space vacated when Interstate 40 is moved to the south.
Speck also said the current design for the proposed new Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce building, which is to be shaped like a large, silver football, is an object that “doesn’t hold or comfort you” and won’t work for making a walkable city.
Speck, tapped by Mayor Mick Cornett to develop solutions to the city’s last-in-the-country walkability standing, according to a 2008 study from Prevention magazine, made his walkability presentation before a standing-room-only crowd at the Skirvin Hilton Hotel last week. Speck spelled out the design flaws in Oklahoma City that have led to the current walkability conundrum. He said many of the changes could be implemented cheaply in only a few places to start, to create a “core” of walkability.
“This is a crisis,” Speck said. “We need to change. I’m here because your leadership wants to change. It doesn’t have to stay that way. In 2015 it could be completely different. Even sooner.”
Speck, who had earlier presented his findings and recommendations to the City Council, said one key is to pass ordinances requiring street width be based on actual traffic volume. He said that many downtown streets, such as E.K. Gaylord, Hudson, Broadway, Sheridan and others, are vastly too wide, with overly wide lanes that would have been more appropriate for an interstate than a downtown street that needed to be crossed by pedestrians.
Many of the streets in downtown Oklahoma City are far wider than they need to be for the numbers of cars on them, Speck said. He said many of the large, wide streets, such as Hudson or Sheridan avenues, could be two-lane with space for parking and not adversely affect vehicle connectivity.
“This is an appropriate roadway for Chicago or Manhattan, not for a city of this size with this amount of traffic,” Speck said. “That’s the most dramatic thing I found.”
Speck’s assessment of the future Greater Oklahoma City Chamber building matches that of critics of the building, which argued that a set-back “iconic” design, such as the chamber’s proposed plan, violated city planning codes that called for downtown buildings to be flush with the sidewalks around it.
“I believe that what that site needs, as I drew, is not an object building, not a sculptural piece of art that stands alone to be admired, but a building that fills the site, hides the parking and places a firm edge against the streets that surround it,” Speck said of the planned building. “Buildings set back behind grass that are nicely shaped do not encourage pedestrian life. Buildings that hold the sidewalk encourage pedestrian life.”
CARS, NOT PEOPLE
Speck said the current design, which was described as “iconic” by the chamber when it was presented to the city, is meant to be seen by cars, not by people.
“It’s surrounded by leftover, residual space which doesn’t hold you or comfort you. In the traditional city, buildings have all kinds of weird shapes to fill their lots so that the streets and squares are well-shaped,” Speck said. “My argument against the current plan of that building is theoretical, but based on the experience of many cities in which object buildings have failed to attract pedestrian activity. It’s nothing against the architects. I don’t think it’s a bad design. I just don’t think it’s the right design for an urban environment.”
The planned boulevard, Speck said, is a “mistake about to happen” and needs to be made what it was originally intended to be ” a park with streets on either side. Right now, the plans call for the proposed boulevard to be a wide expanse of concrete, which he said is just another highway.
“The current plan for the boulevard is not living up to the vision for the boulevard, which is that the city was going to swap the highway for a park,” he said. “If you look at the plan, it’s basically another highway with trees in it.”
Speck called for two, three-lane streets with parking on either side of a wide, tree-filled park that would fill the empty space in the center.
“You are moving a highway and gaining a street,” Speck said. “There is no reason why that street has to handle any capacity at all ” it’s new. Let’s right-size it, and make it into the park that it wants to be.” “Ben Fenwick