Officials seek to liven up institutional atmosphere of Health Sciences District in Oklahoma City
By Steve Lackmeyer
Copyright © 2014, The Oklahoma Publishing Company
After spurning commercial and retail development for three decades, a sharp reversal is about to take place in the 300-acre area sometimes known as the Oklahoma Health Center, or the Health Sciences District, or the OU Medical Center.
Truth is, that sort of confusion over the area’s identity is being acknowledged by Roy Williams, president of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, who is championing a new direction for the campus, which is just east of downtown and home to 17,000 jobs.
The answer being pursued by the area’s biggest players is an “innovation district,” which would add some color and vibrancy to what is now a very institutional neighborhood.
“What spurred this is I’m on the Oklahoma Health Center’s board and we’ve been talking about what the role is for the organization moving forward,” Williams said. “There has been a lot of brainstorming with all the people representing the various institutions.”
A Brookings Institute report released in June provided Williams with inspiration; the analysis showed how cities across the world are creating “innovation districts” out of old industrialized areas, suburban science and research parks, and around institutions located in or near central city downtowns.
The Health Sciences District has it all — only Interstate 235 separates it from Bricktown, Deep Deuce, Automobile Alley and the Central Business District. The area is home to 28 research, medical and scientific research organizations along with a number of companies that work in bio-sciences.
The area is home to the University of Oklahoma’s teaching hospital, the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation and some of the state’s brightest students attend classes at the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics.
Newest anchor being built
And its newest anchor, the $110 million GE Oil and Gas Technology Center, is being built at NE 10 and Walnut Avenue and will employ 130 people and is expected to attract a flurry of new high-tech businesses to the area.
“I ran across this Brookings report and I got to thinking we’ve got 17,000 jobs and with GE coming in, it’s no longer a medical-driven entity,” Williams said. “Yet this is a place to work, but not a place to live and play. It’s not been talked about in the development community.”
Over the past years, the area was even protected from mixed-use development with only a handful of exceptions. A MidFirst Bank branch was allowed to be incorporated into an expansion of the Oklahoma Blood Institute. A new Embassy Suites was developed at NE 8 and Philips and is set to open in early 2015.
The area is not friendly for pedestrian traffic. The streets are lined with surface parking lots and large grassy areas surrounding the various institutional headquarters. The area looks like a sprawling, suburban medical campus.
Yet diversification is taking place, not just with the arrival of the GE research center, but also with information technology companies rising up with the assistance of the nonprofit high-tech business incubator i2E.
“It’s been reserved for health sciences,” Williams said. “That doesn’t make sense anymore with GE and other companies coming in through i2E. And what’s exploding here is information technology. That’s the traction we’re now getting.”
Filling in the gaps
As detailed by the Brookings Institute, the new wave of emerging talent want to work in an area that is more than a sprawling campus of buildings. Williams sees the district as having strong anchors, but lacking the critical infill to move forward.
“When you look at that campus there is nothing to do but work and then you go home,” Williams said. “People want to live and play here as well and the development community was never brought to the table.”
Scott Meacham, CEO of i2E, agrees the time is right to chart out a new direction and new identity for the Health Sciences District.
“There was a concentrated effort over a number of years, led by Stanton Young and others, to develop the Health Sciences Center,” Meacham said. “It’s developed into a great asset for Oklahoma City and the region.”
A new phase
The pace of development, which has included huge expansions for OU Medical Center and research institutions including the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, is starting to slow, Meacham said. And the area has phased into another kind of development that includes the Embassy Suites the OK Kids Korral, an oasis for young cancer patients championed by singer Toby Keith.
“We need an integrated plan — both through the innovation district concept and strategic plan for resources,” Meacham said. “How do we do it? How do we attract and retain researchers?”
The Brookings report provides some suggestions; remove fences, walls and barriers that separate the area’s anchors and replace them with bike paths, sidewalks and pedestrian oriented streets and activated public spaces.
The report highlights gathering spots like District Hall in Boston’s Innovation District. The glass-encased building was a private-public venture that includes civic space where the innovation community gathers and exchanges ideas. The building includes a restaurant, coffee shop, classrooms, open workspace, assembly space, flexible use “pods” and extensive writable surfaces.
The Boston Innovation District is held up as a model for what can be accomplished, with the addition of 200 new companies employing 5,000 people in just three years since the initiative was launched on the Boston waterfront. The area is becoming a 24/7 neighborhood with the influx of housing, shops and restaurants.
The new innovation district group being formed in Oklahoma City, meanwhile, is planning trips to other districts that are being launched in St. Louis and elsewhere.
“We need to look at what are the incremental steps we need to take,” Williams said. “What are the low hanging fruit we can put in that’s not here, whether it’s housing, retail or other types of services like attorneys or financial firms.”
The first steps
Williams hopes that the entrance of GE, which is participating in the effort, will set an example with how it encourages researchers of different fields to interact and take applications from one area of expertise to another.
“That’s what we want to see happen,” Williams said.
Williams admits the area can’t be called an innovation district yet — it has “too many missing pieces.”
The first steps are underway, with a resolution of support approved by the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority on Tuesday. As all the area’s involved organizations sign on, a consultant will be hired and plans will be drawn up on how to recruit developers and determine whether a new governing body is needed.
“No one entity has resources to do all this, but jointly it makes a lot of sense,” Williams said. “There is a lot of land that are parking lots. There is tremendous in-fill available. Everyone is enthused and excited about it.”
Who’s joining the effort
Creation of an innovation district east of downtown is being led by the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, the GE Global Research Oil & Gas Technology Center, the Oklahoma City Economic Development Trust, the Oklahoma City Redevelopment Authority and Urban Renewal Authority, the Presbyterian Health Foundation, the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, i2e, University Hospital Trust, the University of Oklahoma Health Science Center, the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology and the Oklahoma Health Center Foundation.