I-235, also known as the Centennial Expressway, opened to traffic in 1989 coinciding with the celebration of the 100 year anniversary of the Land Run of 1889. This new highway quickly became a well-traveled route within the metropolitan freeway system, serving as an important link between northern and southern portions of the Oklahoma City area.
Even though I-235 was by all accounts beneficial to the car-commuting citizens of the metro area, it was devastating to the already-fragile urban neighborhoods though which it passed, including Deep Deuce. Both the mainline interstate as well as multiple cloverleaf ramps devoured large swaths of neighborhoods and turned them into a soulless stretch grass and concrete. While a boon for drivers, this 5.4 mile freeway ultimately severed the northeast portion of the inner-city from the rest of downtown.
At the time the freeway was constructed, downtown was all but dead and the loss of these neighborhoods was of little concern. However, as the renaissance and redevelopment of downtown Oklahoma City continues, the barrier created by I-235 becomes more distinctive and the underutilized land becomes more attractive to development. Eventually the presence of the interstate and the redevelopment goals of downtown Oklahoma City will reach the point of incompatibility and will necessitate a solution.
In many similar cases, removal is the ideal solution to problematic urban freeways. However in this case, since the highway is relatively new and neither functionally nor structurally obsolete, it would be difficult to make a case for complete removal in the near future. Maintaining the existing freeway, while restoring connectivity and encouraging development represents a significant challenge. It is this challenge that the Centennial Park concept attempts to solve.
The Centennial Park concept is designed to mitigate the negative effects of the highway by constructing a new park over the below-grade portion of the interstate. By limiting the park to between 13th Street and 4th Street, the existing highway would remain as-is with only ramp modifications. The elimination of the cloverleaf ramps, would open much of the existing right-of-way to development.
Red – University. In addition to meeting the needs of the Oklahoma School of Science and Technology, an expanded campus could house multiple branch campuses of existing universities or a completely new downtown university.
Orange – Parkside Neighborhood. This neighborhood would be a blend of residential, mixed-use, & commercial uses, similarly to the current development trends in the immediate area.
Blue – Research Park. This area would be an extension of the current research park and consist of primarily office and laboratories. There could be opportunities for other, accessory uses in this area.
Purple – Deep Deuce. Since this neighborhood is nearing completion, any new residential and mixed-use buildings would be either infill or occupy former highway ramp right-of-way.
A few items of special note:
The current ramps at 10th Street would be eliminated and new ramps would be constructed to and from I-235 at 13th Street.
The circular area of Stiles Park would be converted to a roundabout with the Beacon of Hope remaining in the center.
The intersection of 6th Street, Harrison Ave., and Walnut Ave. would be converted to a roundabout.
Harrison Ave. would be extended under the railroad tracks south of 4th Street and into a new roundabout at EK Gaylord and 3rd Street tying the Central Business District directly to the northeast portions of downtown.
The elevation of the highway at the 4th Street bridge, would require a mound of earth to cover the highway in this area. The would create a promontory overlooking the downtown skyline.
The cloverleaf would be replaced by a linear on-ramp from 4th Street. This would free up additional land for further Deep Deuce development.
2nd street would be extended from The Hill under I-235 (in place of the former cloverleaf) and connect with Lincoln Boulevard. It would continue under the off-ramp and reconnect in the JFK neighborhood.
Lindsay Ave. would be extended under I-235 and into a new roundabout at Sheridan and Lincoln.
(Update: On September 24th, 2013, the city council voted 5-3 to approve the route recommended by the MAPS 3 streetcar subcommittee. Route Zeta, while not my preferred route, represents a compromise between conflicting desires, technical obstacles, economic development, legibility, expandability, and numerous other criteria. To see the approved route and my ideas for expansion, scroll to the bottom or click here)
As a problem-solver by nature and training, I couldn’t resist joining the streetcar route dialog. The concept described and illustrated below is based on an idea I posted earlier in the summer. Like many of the myriad of proposed solutions, this idea is not perfect. Many details would still need to be worked out. However, the strength of this system is its ability to effectively meet immediate demands while providing flexibility and expandability for future needs.
The proposed system consists of a centralized, one-way circulator loop with multiple branch lines extending into the various inner-city districts and neighborhoods. Each streetcar line would travel from its respective terminus along its branch line to the loop. The streetcar would then travel around the loop and return along its branch line to its terminus. In the MAPS 3-funded initial phases, there would be three different lines operating around the loop and on three short branches. Each line would travel its branch at a reasonable frequency; however, as the lines converged around the loop, the frequency would increase significantly resulting in better service. As these lines are extended and new lines are added, the streetcar service would improve in both area coverage and frequency of service in the densest part of the city. Overall, this concept creates a usable starter system that functions as a basic circulator while providing a logical framework for future expansion. If this concept seems familiar, it is because it is patterned after another successful public transit system–the Chicago Loop.
The loop portion of the system would be a single, one-way track that would encircle the central business district and connect several important destinations and modes of travel:
Santa Fe station (the future hub for all metro, intercity, and high-speed rail)
The National Memorial
The existing bus transit center (this center is the terminal point for nearly all current bus routes)
The civic/arts complex
The MAPS 3 convention center
The MAPS 3 Central Park
The Chesapeake Energy Arena
In addition to the central loop the following branch lines would be a part of the first phase:
Red Line. The Red Line would be a bi-directional, single-track line on Reno Ave. serving Bricktown. A future extension would serve the Boathouse District via Byers Ave.
Blue Line. The Blue Line would be a double-tracked line on Broadway serving Automobile Alley as far north as 11th.
Yellow Line. The Yellow Line would be a double-tracked line on Walker Ave. terminating just before the traffic circle at NW 10th serving Midtown. A future extension of both double and single tracks ould serve the Plaza District via Classen Drive, NW 13th, Classen Blvd. and NW 16th. This extension would also link the near northwest neighborhoods of Gatewood and Classen-Ten-Penn.
Green Line. The Green Line would be a double-tracked line on NE 4th and Lincoln Blvd. serving Deep Deuce and the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. A future extension would serve the Capitol complex and government buildings via the Lincoln Blvd. loop around the complex. This extension would also link the streetcar system to a high-frequency bus route on 23rd Street.
Purple Line. The Purple Line would be a double and single-tracked line along Walker Ave. serving Heritage Hills and Uptown and linking the streetcar system to a high-frequency bus route on 23rd Street. A future extension would serve the Paseo. This extension would also link the near north neighborhoods of the Paseo, Jefferson Park, and Edgemere Park.
Orange Line. The Orange Line would be a double and single-tracked line on Sheridan Ave., Classen Blvd., and Exchange Ave. serving Film Row and the Farmers Market District. A future extension would serve Stockyards City. This extension would also link neighborhoods to the south of the Oklahoma River and to the high-frequency bus routes on Classen Blvd. and Pennsylvania Ave.
Pink Line. The Pink Line would be a double-tracked line on NE 4th serving near east neighborhoods. A future double and single-tracked extension would serve additional neighborhoods and link the streetcar system to a high-frequency bus route on 23rd Street.
Light Blue Line. The Light Blue Line would be a double and single-tracked line on Walker Ave. serving the Core-to-Shore areas. A future extension would serve Capitol Hill and link the streetcar system to a future airport rail line.
Light Green Line. The Light Green Line would be a double and single-tracked line on NW 4th and Linwood Blvd serving the Linwood neighborhood. The line would also link the streetcar system to high-frequency bus routes on Classen Blvd., Pennsylvania Ave., and NW 10th.
Over the last few years, I have made an effort to become actively involved in shaping the future of Oklahoma City’s urban environment. One particular issue that I have dedicated a great deal of time to is the new boulevard that will replace the former I-40 crosstown bridge. This is Part I of a three-part story about the boulevard and my ideas, hopes and dreams for my city’s new front door. (Click for part II. Part III coming soon)
I-40 and the Boulevard
In 1965, in conjunction with an ill-fated urban renewal plan by architect I.M. Pei to modernize downtown Oklahoma City, a 4 mile elevated interstate highway known as the Crosstown Expressway was constructed along the southern edge of the central business district. Over the next several years this viaduct became a de-facto division between downtown Oklahoma City and the neighborhoods to the south. Even as the inner-city began to revive in the 1990s, the highway continued to be a barrier to growth and reinvestment.
As the city continued it’s suburban growth through the 60s and 70s, more and more drivers utilized the city’s expanding network of expressways resulting in an ever-increasing vehicular load on the structure. By the late 80s, the bridge was handling vehicular traffic in excess of its designed capacity and was rapidly deteriorating. In the following years it became apparent that the aging viaduct was in need of immediate replacement.
Ultimately, and not without controversy, it was decided that the interstate would be reconstructed several blocks south as a below-grade roadway (ODOT’s Alternative D. See below). As part of the environmental mitigation for this project, a tree-lined, pedestrian-friendly boulevard would be constructed in the footprint of the demolished expressway. This would be the new “front door” to a downtown in the midst of a significant urban revival and provide access to many downtown amenities. It would also remove a long-standing barrier and open the door for urban growth to the south of the old expressway.
In light of these new redevelopment opportunities, the city commissioned a study, known as Core-to-Shore, in 2006 to provide a framework for redeveloping the neighborhoods between central business district and the Oklahoma River. As a part of this study, the planning team was tasked with developing a conceptual design for the future boulevard that would suggest both its function and its look and feel. Below is an excerpt from the Core-to-Shore final master plan document that briefly describes the vision for the boulevard:
Planning for the Core to Shore study area began with the Oklahoma Department of Transportation’s (ODOT) decision to remove the deteriorating Crosstown Expressway Bridge and relocate I-40 to a new alignment. The structure defines the current southern boundary of the downtown core and separates it from the land and river to the south. ODOT’s preferred alignment for I-40 was one-half mile south of the current route, along the east-west Union Pacific Railroad corridor. During initial negotiations with Oklahoma City, ODOT proposed building a city street after demolishing the deteriorating bridge structure.The demolition of the bridge would, in effect, remove the south boundary to the core, making major changes in the area to the south inevitable. The proposed relocation raised a variety of concerns from downtown and neighborhood interests. In 1999, Oklahoma City completed a study to analyze the issues at hand and propose solutions acceptable to all parties. The study, The Interstate 40 Land Use and Mitigation Study, recommended:
– Connecting downtown to the river by creating a continuous park and open space system surrounded by vibrant new neighborhoods
– A major pedestrian bridge over the new I-40 alignment to minimize the divisive effects of the new roadway
– A new park on the new freeway’s south side to reduce environmental impacts and provide an open space amenity for new and existing neighborhoods south of the railroad alignment
– A new boulevard to replace the old Crosstown Expressway Bridge, providing an iconic entry into the city and an incentive for new downtown development.
The Classen-Western-Reno Conundrum
In the years since Alternative D was choose to replace the aging interstate, it was frequently repeated in the local media that an “at-grade boulevard” would be constructed in the footprint of the old I-40. As a result, the general public was under the impression that the boulevard would replace the crosstown expressway in its entirety from Pennsylvania Aveune to Bricktown. However, this assumption was unfortunately incorrect; as there were several nuances to the new boulevard design that were not necessary common knowledge. One such nuance was a particularly complicated confluence of the boulevard with Classen, Western, & Reno (C-W-R).
To fully appreciate the complexities of this interchange it is important to understand the basic transportation framework that exists in Oklahoma City. The vehicular transportation network is composed of two systems. The primary system is composed of a grid of square mile sections, bounded by main arterial roads, and subdivided by various collector and local streets. Overlaid on this grid is a secondary system of freeways and boulevards that crisscross the metropolitan area.
What makes this particular location in the city so unusually unique and challenging is the convergence of several major thoroughfares within and between both systems. Reno and Western are both significant primary arterial streets and Classen, Exchange, and the new Boulevard are significant boulevards. The close proximity of several important streets and intersections created a design dilemma. When the Crosstown expressway was in existence, this issue was largely mitigated because the busiest thoroughfare, I-40, was elevated over the other streets. Now that an at-grade boulevard was being considered, by all appearances this area had the potential to become much more complicated.
In order to avoid the problematic intersections, the plan was to simply reuse a portion of the old viaduct and maintain an elevated roadway over C-W-R. At the time, this strategy made a certain degree of sense. In Oklahoma City in the late 90s, there was generally little concern about pedestrian amenities and development potential in the dilapidated, western edges of downtown. Through movement of vehicular traffic held first priority. Therefore, it was no surprise that the decision was made to select an auto-centric solution for this area. This plan of action was formalized in the Final Environment Impact Statement dated November 2001 and in the Record of Decision dated May 2002. It was also alluded to in the final document of the subsequent Core-to-Shore study (page 43).
In 2006, while following the on-going Core-to-Shore study, I became curious about the future of some of the areas just beyond the study area. I was particularly interested what an at-grade boulevard would look like where it interfaced with C-W-R. At this time I was not aware of the FEIS or the Record of Decision and the plan to maintain the elevated portion of the old expressway. I assumed that since the project was several years away from beginning construction, the intersections with C-W-R had not been designed yet. Being a problem-solver by nature and training, I began to sketch out potential solutions. During this process it occurred to me that this location would be ideal for a roundabout.
Much like the iconic traffic circles of many of the world’s great cities, a grand roundabout would create a magnificent civic space, while elegantly resolving the functional aspects of a complex intersection and maintaining urban continuity. A roundabout would link 3 of the city’s important boulevards and provide connectivity between the near-northwest neighborhoods, Stockyards City, and Downtown. It would also unite the Farmer’s Market, Film Row, and other future districts and serve as a western gateway into the core of the city. Instead of dividing this portion of the city like the former elevated expressway, a grand roundabout could in itself be a “bridge” that reconnects the adjacent inner-city neighborhoods.
This is the image I sketched out and posted to OKCTalk.com in 2006:
Friends for a Better Boulevard
In 2012 the I-40 was opened to traffic and demolition crews began to demolish the old expressway. Now that the viaduct was no longer a barrier, many downtown observers were realizing the potential for areas along West Main Street, SW 3rd, and in particular, the Farmer’s Market area. However, this opportunity would be short-lived. Through a series of circumstances, urban advocates become aware of ODOT’s plans for the west end of the boulevard. It appeared that an elevated expressway would once again isolate these areas from the urban core.By this time, urban redevelopment had expanded beyond the traditional boundaries of downtown and previously overlooked areas, such as Film Row, were in the process of being revitalized.
In May of 2012 I was participating in Better Block OKC where I met Bob Kemper in the MAPS 3 Streetcar Public Information pop-up shop. During our brief conversation, the topic of discussion drifted to the recent news regarding the west end of the boulevard and the controversy it was generating. To my surprise, Bob mentioned a roundabout sketch that had been “making the rounds” and that the concept was generating quite a bit of interest in certain circles. When I asked about the specifics of the sketch, it became obvious to me it was the very same sketch I had posted on OKCTalk.com six years earlier.
Between the brewing controversy on the boulevard and the apparent interest in the concept of a grand roundabout, I realized my off-the-cuff, pie-in-the-sky idea might have some small bit of influence in the boulevard dialogue. Shortly after our chance encounter, Bob launched a citizen advocacy group, Friends for a Better Boulevard, and I set to work developing, refining and eventually publishing the roundabout concept.
In the initial Market Circle concept, I decided to separate the street/arterial system and the boulevard/freeway system vertically. By depressing both Reno and Western below grade, I was able to bring Classen, Exchange, and the new boulevard neatly together in a roundabout surrounded my parkland. On the surface, this concept reasonably solved the functional issues while creating an attractive and monumental gateway into the city. However, even though it was not as auto-centric as the originally-proposed bridge, the first Market Circle concept was still designed primarily for vehicular traffic.
The revised concept takes into account the myriad of changes that have taken place in this area since the initial idea was proposed and recognizes the importance of pedestrian and development opportunities. The needs of downtown access must be balanced with walkability, development potential, and the viability of fledgling urban neighborhoods. The revised version of the Market Circle is an attempt to strike that balance.
The goal of the Market Circle concept is to take the two overlapping street systems and mesh them together without any form of grade separation. This is achieved by modifying the alignments of Reno and Western within the street grid and shifting the intersections of these secondary streets away from the circle. In the case of Reno, it is simply re-routed one block south onto the alignment of SW 2nd street between Shartel and Clegern. Western is a bit more difficult. Due to the proximity of Classen Boulevard, Western in this area is not a significant through street north of Sheridan. Taking that into account, northbound Western is terminated where it meets the re-rerouted Reno and southbound Western is terminated at Sheridan. Traffic on Western south of Reno is routed to and from Classen via Exchange. By making these adjustments, I was able to resolve much of the complexity in bringing together so many roadways while preventing growth-stifling grade separations.
Overall, the Market Circle concept is a viable solution that balances multiple, competing goals:
Accommodates large-volume vehicular traffic flow.
Encourages pedestrian activity.
Promotes connectivity between emerging districts and existing neighborhoods.
Provides development opportunities.
Creates a sense of place with a unique, local landmark.
Establishes a western gateway to downtown.
Provides an opportunity for public art.
Below are images of the Market Circle concept. Click on the images for larger versions. There complete presentation can be downloaded here (28MB PDF).
The Rest of the Story…?
My part of the story ends here (for now). Following the establishment of Friends for a Better Boulevard and the publication of the Market Circle concept, the local news media outlets began to devote a significant amount of coverage to the ongoing boulevard controversy. In the months following meetings were held, interviews were given, and stories were written. The links that I have complied below that, read together, should tell the rest of the boulevard story through January of 2013. However, the story is still being written. Look for Part III in the coming weeks.
Over the last few years, I have made an effort to become actively involved in shaping the future of Oklahoma City’s urban environment. One particular issue that I have dedicated a great deal of time to is the new boulevard that will replace the former I-40 crosstown bridge. This is Part I of a three-part story about the boulevard and my ideas, hopes and dreams for my city’s new front door. (Click for part I. Part III coming soon)
Robinson Avenue at the New Boulevard
The roundabout at Robinson and the new Boulevard ties together the new southwest entrance to the arena, the future convention center, the convention hotel, and the central park with a grand civic gesture. Linking these current and future MAPS projects creates a distinctive and dramatic sense of place that is only experienced in Oklahoma City. This roundabout is not only aesthetically pleasing but also provides an opportunity for each facility to benefit from the proximity of its neighboring facilities and work as a unified whole.
An underground pedestrian concourse creates a protected connection between all four MAPS projects, while an underground garage provides parking and convention center service access. By moving these functions below grade, the urban fabric and open green space above is preserved. The concourse level also provides pedestrian access to the fountain in the center of the roundabout without having to cross traffic.
The convention hotel is located directly across the roundabout from the convention center and is physically connected via the pedestrian concourse. By locating the convention hotel across the street, the convention center is allowed to completely occupy the site and maximize its usable area. The building is a true mixed-use structure with a full service hotel, meeting rooms, residential units, and office/retail spaces on the ground floor
The pedestrian portal splits the above-grade levels of the convention center into a west building and an east building. This passageway provides a necessary link between the Myriad Gardens and Central Park and encourages travel between the two green spaces. The structure consists of a translucent cylindrical form that mimics the shape of the Crystal Bridge across the street to the north. On the inside, lighting, video projectors and audio systems create an exciting and interactive light show. The pedestrian portal is a destination event intended to draw pedestrians to and through the passageway and induce travel between the park and the gardens.
At the center of the roundabout is a large water feature which includes several vertical jets and waterfall elements. In the evenings, this fountain is illuminated by lighting that is programmable to glow in any color of the rainbow. This is especially exciting on game nights when the fountain glows Thunder blue, orange, and red. The centerpiece of the fountain is a beacon that projects a bright shaft of light skyward each night. Since the fountain is partially below grade, it is safely accessible to pedestrians from the concourse level.
To download a high-resolution PDF of the entire presentation, click here.