If Oklahoma City is to be a destination " one with an active, jazzy nightlife in Bricktown and a world-class, millions-of-dollars new convention center, how will people get around when they arrive?
The proposed convention center will possibly be located somewhere south of the existing Interstate 40. Planners propose a six-lane, at-grade boulevard to replace the interstate, but is crossing six lanes on foot any fun? Try it crossing E.K. Gaylord from Bricktown to get to the Ford Center to see a show after dinner, or vice versa.
And walking all the way from that proposed center to the Myriad Botanical Gardens? Forget about it.
"One of the priorities that we have to consider is what do the people do once they've arrived in Oklahoma City, whether it's by high-speed rail, Amtrak or commuter rail, or the Tinker line, which is commuter rail, bus rapid transit. "¦ Once they get downtown, how are they going to get around?" asked Mayor Mick Cornett. "For that reason, we've prioritized the downtown streetcar as an important MAPS 3 component."
You heard him right: prioritized. Cornett said he and the Oklahoma City Council are still in the "consensus-building stage." As MAPS 3 plans progress, the streetcar emerges as the one thing that can link all the MAPS projects together, from the Bricktown Ballpark built by the original MAPS, through the Ford Center's makeover, to the glittering new convention center proposed for MAPS 3 " something has to allow the projected throngs of out-of-town visitors a way to get from one to the other.
Only one kind of transportation emerges that can do it all, Cornett said.
"It makes sense to me that a 'phase one' of public transit in a city that has great plans like we do builds a downtown streetcar as an initial component," he said. "We need to converge our public transit options. We have an Amtrak station, we have a Greyhound station, we have an inner-city bus station. We'll need a fixed transit center that is close to the downtown business district and the entertainment district, and one that can somehow work together that can involve all those different modes."
Jeff Bezdek, the chairman of the Mass Transit Project (MTP) campaign, which proposes the modern streetcar design fueled by OG&E's wind-power system, acknowledged that talks with the mayor and City Council have progressed considerably.
"We have had a very positive and communicative dialogue with the mayor's office and City Council members. They seem to understand that a streetcar is the most viable way to fully fund any rail component in the near future that would be successful," Bezdek said.
As principal of Bezdek + Associates, he is unabashed about his support of the downtown streetcar system. First unveiled by his organization on the May 13 cover of Oklahoma Gazette, the system proposed by MTP would run along Sheridan Avenue from Bricktown, beginning near the Coca-Cola Bricktown Events Center, past the Bricktown Ballpark, across the traffic of Gaylord, past the Ford Center and stopping at the Myriad Botanical Gardens. Later expansions could run farther, up to the St. Anthony Hospital complex. On the other end, the line would extend north through the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center to stop at the Capitol complex.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the proposed streetcar, Bezdek said, is that it would be the first pedestrian rail service in downtown Oklahoma City since the 1950s. It would give Oklahoma City residents a place to start without spending hundreds of millions for a light-rail system before trying out what a rail system is like. For the relatively (in rail terms) modest investment of around $100 million, Oklahoma City could have a usable rail system in three years, Bezdek said.
"It gives us the ability to expose our citizenry to rail without making the kind of investment that is essentially putting the chicken before the egg, and acclimate them to what a rail transit is like," he said. "Plus, downtown belongs to everyone. If you invest major money for one segment of the city, it is likely all the citizens will be able to benefit from it."
But not all transit dreams will be delivered in MAPS 3. Although one commuter rail is in the works " a line running from near Tinker Air Force Base to downtown Oklahoma City, according to Cornett " other hoped-for transit options may not come to pass this time around. One option originally supported by some may well fall outside MAPS 3: an extension of the Bricktown Canal.
In the end, Cornett said, MAPS 3 is about what form of transit will make the most sense for a place to start.
"One of my concerns is that those who are transit enthusiasts will think that MAPS 3 is supposed to solve all the public's mass transit needs or is supposed to be all inclusive to all sorts of different types of modes of public transit," he said.
"There will be those who will say, 'You should do a little bit buses, a little bit light rail, a little bit downtown streetcar.' I think that for where we are headed, the downtown streetcar is the best approach. The point to everybody is that we gotta start somewhere. I want to get started on a rail component for Oklahoma City, and the question is, 'Where do you start?' So, I'm the advocator." "Ben Fenwick
Jim Cowan, executive director of the Bricktown Association, said he is in favor of a new convention center, but he wants the ballot to include some kind of link with Bricktown.
Although the popular district is 10 years old, Cowan said Bricktown is still dependent on downtown events to inject lifeblood into its economy.
Specifically, Bricktown officials are asking for a west extension of the canal beyond the railroad tracks with a link to a proposed convention center.
"Take it from Reno, south through lower Bricktown, underneath the proposed boulevard, west of tracks to the proposed convention center," Cowan said.
Bricktown officials quietly started pitching the canal expansion in December, working behind the scenes, he said.
Cowan said he's interested in hearing more about a proposed streetcar line on Sheridan, but he hasn't seen an official plan. He's all about pedestrian access to the convention center; he just doesn't want it to be three times as far, which the proposed site would be.
"The canal gets you where you don't have to cross the streets," Cowan said.
National planning and design expert Jeff Speck's city-commissioned "walkability" study cited connectivity between Bricktown and the Ford Center as a major challenge.
"This is a natural synergy that Oklahoma City has not properly capitalized upon, because the walk down Reno Avenue into Bricktown is among the worst in the city," Speck wrote.
His study also discussed the continuation of the canal system west to the Ford Center entrance.
"This exciting concept is brilliant in theory, but must be carefully studied to make sure that its reality can approach the power of its vision," Speck wrote. "We must remember that the successful parts of the canal are those where the waterway is lined by active buildings, not walls. For people to choose to walk from the Ford Center into Bricktown along this canal, it must be flanked at its grade by restaurants and housing that give supervision and life to its trajectory. Given that half of the built canal currently lacks such edges, it is difficult to advocate for building more of it. That said, an extended canal that reached the Ford Center, were it properly shaped and lined, would be a tremendous addition to the city."
Meanwhile, former Mayor Kirk Humphreys recently suggested the city consider locating the new convention center south of Lower Bricktown at the Producers Cooperative Oil Mill site, which would be closer to the current canal. "Rob Collins