Ambitious Parks Aim to Transform Oklahoma’s Cities

Scissortail Park, Oklahoma City / Hargreaves Associates
The Gathering Place / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

In Oklahoma City and Tulsa, massive, city-changing riverfront parks will open over the coming year. In Oklahoma City, Hargreaves Associates is now building the 70-acre, $130-million Scissortail Park to revitalize its downtown. In Tulsa, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA) is building the 100-acre, $485 million Gathering Place designed to bridge the racial divide and bring reconciliation. Oklahoma’s smart urban leadership — former OKC Mayor Mick Cornett and current Mayor of Tulsa GT Bynum — know big city parks can transform a city. At the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA), the mayors outlined how these parks came about and what these spaces are expected to accomplish.

Scissortail Park in OKC

Scissortail Park is the city’s response to the removal of the Interstate highway that once cut through downtown. With its relocation five blocks south, a large space opened up. “We knew it was a one time and forever opportunity,” said Cornett, former Mayor of Oklahoma City and now Republican candidate for Governor of Oklahoma.

Scissortail Park, Oklahoma City / Hargreaves Associates

With funds from OKC’s innovative MAP3 program, which has brought in hundreds of millions for public space improvements through a penny sales tax, the leadership of the city, over multiple mayors, were able to implement a 20-year plan for transforming downtown, including new sidewalks and bicycle infrastructure, streetcars, a convention center, and grand central park. In this conservative state, the modest sales tax ensured no debt was generated by the public projects. “We built as we collected the money.”

Cornett said “25 years ago, downtown was terrible.” Today, the transformation is already apparent: the downtown is walkable and bikable, the streetcar and park are coming in, and designs for a new convention center were just approved.

Cornett sees Scissortail Park, which is expected to open next year, primarily as an economic development tool. New retail, commercial, and residential buildings will form a mixed-use neighborhood, with affordable housing, surrounding the park. The city aims to “re-populate the urban core” in order to fight sprawl and bring more people down to the Oklahoma River.

Scissortail Park, Oklahoma City / Hargreaves Associates

Models for Scissortail are Millennium Park in Chicago and Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York City. OKC’s leadership and a citizens’ advisory group went to visit these parks to see what they could learn. Then, they worked with Hargreaves Associates to customize the park. The citizens advisory group “came up with most aspects of the park.” Cornett believes this is how it should work: “the Mayor’s job is to create the framework and organize financing; the public does the details.”

Cornett emphasized that in today’s digital world, “you can’t have enough citizens’ involvement. We created the most inclusive process you can imagine.” But still there were complaints about a lack of transparency.

The land for the park is owned by the city, but Scissortail will be operated by a non-profit. The city will provide the non-profit a subsidy in its first few years, but the support will drop off as private sponsorships increase. “It’s the Central Park Conservancy model. We hope to quickly get to zero city financing.”

And he noted that Hargreaves Associates principal Mary Margaret Jones, FASLA, promised him they wouldn’t build something OKC “couldn’t afford to operate.”

Sources of revenue are built into the park. Low-maintenance native plants are being incorporated. Dirt from a large lake carved into Scissortail was used to build a hill, saving money.

Scissortail Park, Oklahoma City / Hargreaves Associates

The Gathering Place in Tulsa

Tulsa, the second largest city in Oklahoma, has a “challenging history around race.” In 1921, the city experienced the “worst race riot in the country’s history” — some 300 African Americans were killed. Tulsa has been a segregated city ever since.

Mayor Bynum said years of “honest conversation helped change the dynamics about unofficial segregation and created greater understanding.” Latinos, who now make up 15 percent of the population, were also brought into the city-wide conversation about the future.

That dialogue led to new questions: “What draws people together? How can we pull people out of their bubbles?” The city’s leadership heard from the people: an ambitious park was the answer.

Space for a unity park appeared along the Arkansas River in one of Tulsa’s wealthiest neighborhoods. The large estates of private homes were purchased and merged to form the basis for a new landscape. Apartment complexes on the site were bought, then demolished. Dozens of donors and philanthropists came together to make it happen.

The resulting park — the Gathering Place — will be the “largest gift park in any city in US history,” said Mayor Bynum. By “gift park,” Bynum means it was entirely financed with private donations. Half of the $485 million goes to capital investment, while the other half is for an endowment for long-term operations and maintenance. The park will be free to all.

The Gathering Place / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

In contrast to Scissortail Park, the Gathering Place will be designed to “socialize people in Tulsa” — it primarily has a cultural and social mission. But Bynum admitted Tulsa already sees this as a major tourist draw, attracting some one million visitors annually, and he’s worried whether the transportation and hotel infrastructure can keep pace.

“Exhaustive public participation,” including input gathered from over 100 town hall meetings, fed the planning and design of the park. “Scale models, created at no lack of expense, were set up in various places around the city, and we asked for feedback.” Tulsans went into 3-D tents so they could experience the park.

The Gathering Place will offer some 60 miles of trails, connecting the park to the Arkansas River and the rest of the city. MVVA designed land bridges to cover Riverside Drive, a major commuter route, helping to instill the sense of “being in the outdoors.” The bridges will “muffle vehicle noise pollution.” The problem now, Mayor Bynum said, is “everyone in Tulsa wants a land bridge — and they cost about $30 million a pop.”

The Gathering Place / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates
The Gathering Place / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

MVVA is also building a lake in the river corridor and a bridge that will connect the Gathering Place to the west bank of the river.

At the opening in early September, The Roots will play a free concert. “They appeal to all parts of the city, but particularly the younger crowd.” Mayor Bynum said achieving multi-racial buy-in is critical to the park’s success: “Will the park be fully embraced by everyone?” The city seeks to ensure that’s the case.

The city has been organizing tours of the park with school kids from every district. “The kids then go home and tell their parents about the park and how they met other kids there they’ve never interacted with before.” With the Gathering Place, the city seeks to change — to break down segregation and create a more diverse and resilient Tulsa.

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