By Steve Lackmeyer
Copyright © 2017, The Oklahoma Publishing Co.
When the results of an 18-month study for an Oklahoma City innovation district were presented this month, the crowd of researchers, academics, health professionals, business and civic leaders all indicated they’re ready to move forward in making the idea a reality.
The Brookings Institute and the Project for Public Spaces confirmed what many already knew: The area east of downtown has an impressive array of the city’s scientific and medical community that dates back a half-century.
Representatives of the Oklahoma Health Center Foundation stepped forward to assume the role of leading implementation of the report and providing staffing. The Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation and the GE Global Oil & Gas Research Center reported collaborative sessions already have started among the area’s medical and energy researchers.
Other quick actions likely to follow could include contracting with Downtown Oklahoma City Inc., which has a good track record with events and place-making, to do the same east of the highway. Imagine a “Bricktown Beach,” parklets, public art and special events adding some much-needed connections between the adjoining neighborhood and the academics, health professionals, medical students and researchers.
Changes to the tax increment financing district are set to provide more educational opportunities to the area and efforts are certainly going to start up to connect nearby residents with job opportunities.
The tough questions
The report’s findings, however, go far beyond collaboration and programming. The question is, how likely is it the more expensive investments will follow to change the nature of what is now a very institutional, sterile community? And can a community that for decades discouraged mixed-use development really understand what is needed to change course?
In visiting with various parties and listening to response to the study, one of the more attractive recommendations to create a community innovation center similar to Boston’s District Hall, a 12,000-square-foot modern, glass-encased gathering spot that, to quote Bruce Katz with Brookings, has ample coffee by day and beer at night.
It’s a mix that is a well-known trick to bring people together and spark conversations that can lead to big ideas. Visit Elemental Coffee in Midtown on any day to get a grasp of the intellectual and creative chemistry that occurs given the right environment.
As the work day ends, students from the University of Oklahoma’s medical colleges hop in their cars and hit places like the bar at Kamp’s 1910. The restaurant and bar is in Automobile Alley, which the Brookings folks are attempting to include in this proposed new innovation district.
Students I’ve spoken to can’t imagine ever walking to Automobile Alley, which would seem to go against the idea of one cohesive district where people are out and about and sparking spontaneous opportunities for collaboration. They would welcome a restaurant with a rooftop bar in the Innovation District, and such an addition could be a significant step in combating the area’s institutional vibe.
Meanwhile, it’s easy to see why folks on the east side of Interstate 235 would love to boast that their district includes Automobile Alley. The stretch of Broadway between NW 4 and NW 10 is home to popular restaurants, shops and creative firms. Defenders of this idea list a couple of software companies in the mix, but no one is claiming Automobile Alley is a hub of research and high tech.
The folks I’ve talked to along Automobile Alley are flattered by the attention. But that appreciation also comes with some talk that the idea of Broadway being a part of the Innovation District is a stretch.
The two areas are separated by a highway with bridges that include narrow, unprotected sidewalks. The BNSF Railway tracks act as yet another barrier. And then there is the issue of Lincoln Boulevard, the major corridor for the heart of the Innovation District.
The street is six lanes wide, designed to ensure rush hour traffic moves as fast as possible. Ironic for a district that has the biggest cluster of medical institutions, the street lacks crossings for the disabled. Crossing on foot or on bicycle is like taking on Northwest Expressway.
Changes are coming for Lincoln Boulevard. But the discussion, at least right now, does not involve putting Lincoln on a street diet or making it friendlier for pedestrians. Instead, a consortium led by OU is moving forward with plans to add a $3 million wayfinding system that includes a series of signs along Lincoln that are the size of highway signage.
I’ve asked the folks at Brookings about the signs, and they say the signage project was started before the study. In the planning community, conventional wisdom dictates that if a street is designed like a highway, it will be used like a highway.
Spanning the divide
The study does not delve much into another proposal by Miles Associates, an architecture firm in the Innovation District that designed the OU Research Park and the stunning OU Children’s Medical Center and GE Global Oil & Gas Research Center. The folks at Miles got a lot of attention when they presented renderings for building a park over I-235 as way to erase the barriers between east and west of the highway.
The renderings come with a caveat — the proposal has no funding. And there is no guarantee it ever will get funded, considering the price tag likely will be in the tens of millions of dollars. But the effort is on the right track; medical students hanging out at Kamp’s 1910 concede they might actually walk or bike between Automobile Alley and the hospitals if they had a safe, secure and cool way to cross the highway.
The Miles plan allows for such incremental approach to connecting the two areas. But so far, no one is suggesting a way to calm Lincoln Boulevard. Instead, city planners are looking at improvements to make NE 8 and NE 10 friendlier to pedestrians and bicyclists between Lottie Avenue and Lincoln. A list of potential bond projects to be submitted to voters in September includes proposed funding for sidewalks and bike lanes in the area.
But this leads to yet another question as to whether anyone will want to go outside without a significant change in how the hospitals, schools and research institutions interact with streets. They are currently designed as buildings surrounded by vast green spaces that are kept pristine and rarely traversed by students, workers or visitors.
So far, no one is stepping forward publicly to say they will be the first to give up their lawns for the sort of mixed-use development suggested by the study. An agreement between OU Medical Center and St. Anthony Hospital in Midtown to join forces fell apart earlier this year, but OU has yet to abandon the idea of building a new hospital tower.
A new hospital tower could provide the first shot at showing how mixed-use development can be incorporated into the project and change the area’s vibe. St. Anthony’s makeover included a Starbucks Cafe with an outdoor patio and a scaled-down Walgreens facing the street.
A new OU Medical Center tower could go even further. Imagine a full-scale Walgreens at the corner of a major intersection instead of another pharmacy hidden inside the hospital. Imagine that Walgreens next to not just a coffee shop, but also a rooftop bar that boasts a view of the downtown skyline.
Combat the institutional vibe and the entrepreneurs the study cites as missing from the district might actually follow.
The final issue still to be tackled is branding. Even after all this discussion, confusion lingers as to whether the area is to be called the Oklahoma Health Center, the OU Medical Center or the Health and Sciences Center.
By sticking with any of those three names, the branding ignores the opportunity that played a key role in starting the innovation district conversion — the chance to blend health and energy technologies and expertise.
And if the area is to continue being known as just a health center, what impact will that have on suggested recruitment of the area’s aerospace and Oklahoma State University robotics studies to be a part of the Innovation District conversation? The wayfinding signage, meanwhile, will emphasize the OU Medical Center with no mention of the Innovation District.
And so after the involvement of dozens of interested parties submitting ideas, talking and dreaming, the basic consensus appears to be that change is needed. GE is showing an interest in helping make the district move forward. But difficult decisions lie ahead.