By Dr. Stephen Prescott
Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation
Copyright © 2014, The Oklahoma Publishing Company
Last week in this space, I joined the rising chorus of voices proposing that we transform the Oklahoma Health Center into an innovation district. Namely, we need to take an island of health care and health-related research entities and effectively connect it to the rest of the surrounding urban areas so that it can function as a sort of creative nerve center for all of Oklahoma City.
Sounds great, right? Now let’s talk about how we can make this happen.
Any discussion about integrating the area east of downtown with the rest of the city must begin with I-235. When it was built, the so-called Centennial Expressway effectively chopped north Oklahoma City in half, cleaving the health center and the surrounding Capitol neighborhood from downtown Oklahoma City and Heritage Hills.
According to Dan Batchelor, who’s served as general counsel to the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority since 1966, the federal government expressed a great deal of concern about this very issue when it built the freeway the late 1980s. The feds were particularly focused on generating investment and development of the properties that adjoined the expressway in order to link the less affluent, predominantly African-American communities to the more economically robust business and residential districts to the west.
Still, in the ensuing decades, that development has lagged. The communities around the health center have suffered from a lack of economic activity and infrastructure investment as resources have been focused elsewhere. While downtown and adjoining areas like Automobile Alley, Mid-Town, Film Row and SoSa have seen a boom in development and redevelopment, the Capitol area has remained largely unaffected by the renaissance to the west.
With the exception of the Oklahoma School for Science and Mathematics, a magnet school that draws its students from around the state, the schools to the east of downtown have been among the city’s poor performers. At a time of rising social inequality, these neighborhoods continue to suffer from the litany of problems that plague disadvantaged urban areas everywhere: poverty, unemployment, crime, deteriorating residential areas, crumbling public infrastructure, a paucity of new commercial and retail activities, and a widespread lack of job and educational opportunities.
Before we proclaim this challenge to be systemic and insoluble, it’s important to remember the power of connectivity. If we can find a way to knit northeast Oklahoma City and the health center into the vibrant, renascent areas to the west, the benefits can flow both ways. Economic development can move east, while the intellectual capital that powers the health center can become an innovation hub that drives activity to the west.
The process begins by working with the surrounding community and providing pathways for its inclusion. The next step is public transportation.
Developing a system that utilizes light rail or trolley—along the lines of what Detroit is now doing—will be key. Expanding our bicycle share system to include northeast Oklahoma City in the network will also help. But need to do more if we are truly to weave this area into the fabric of the city.
We need a grand gesture. And what could be grander than putting a roof on I-235 and then using the “found” space atop it as the missing puzzle piece that will reconnect Oklahoma City?
The highway runs below grade from 6th Street to 13th Street. Were we to infill that area above it, the city could use it to build green space to provide a much-needed inner city park at the heart of our city. With some nudging, the border around that green space would almost certainly sprout the kind of mixed-use residential and retail development that we so sorely need to transform the sterile health center and the adjoining community into a vibrant, creative district that fuels innovation throughout Oklahoma City.
Let me be clear that while I heartily endorse this idea, I did not come up with it. And while it might at first seem far-fetched, it is hardly without precedent: St. Louis is doing the very same thing with its CityArchRiver Project. Currently under construction, this effort will build a park over Interstate 44 that will reunite the St. Louis Arch with the Mississippi River.
The St. Louis initiative is a transformative undertaking that has garnered substantial support and resources from both the public and private sectors. This is because the city’s political and business readers recognize that this reimagining of space will alter not only the city’s face but its quality of life.
Oklahoma City is in the midst of an unprecedented renaissance. Yet it is at times of great success that we most need to embrace change. For, as any biologist will tell you, an organism that is not growing and changing is dying.
This project would require a significant infusion of capital. Private and public sector dollars would both be required. We’ve seen significant successes with MAPS I and II, and we’re in the midst of using MAPS III funds to improve quality of life throughout our city. Wouldn’t this project be a natural fit for MAPS IV?
Prescott, a physician and medical researcher, is president of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation. Email him at [email protected].