I've got questions about the financial pros and cons, but I'm already persuaded that moving the City of Tulsa's offices to a new building is an idea worth considering.
A while back, I was having lunch at Jason's Deli in Lincoln Plaza, sitting on the second floor of the old Lincoln Elementary School and enjoying the view of downtown Tulsa when I noticed a spectacularly homely building. It wasn't the Central Park Condominiums or the Doubletree -- I recognized those cement-gray monstrosities right away -- but it was nearby.
The rectangles created by mystery building's dingy white exoskeleton were filled with some dirt-colored substance. At length I realized I was looking at the seat of government for America's Most Beautiful City.
A couple of years ago, I was giving a tour of the city to a friend from New York. Despite her love of '60s pop music and fashion, the poorly-executed '60s architecture of City Hall left her cold. When I pointed out the place that occupies so much of my attention, she declared, "That is the ugliest city hall I have ever seen."
Back in 1989, when Weird Al Yankovic came to Tulsa to film UHF, he turned part of the Kensington Galleria into a soundstage and used locations all over the city. Harden's Hamburgers became Big Edna's Burger World. A Warehouse Market was transformed into Spatula City.
In one scene set on the steps in front of City Hall, an obnoxious reporter from Channel 8 (the fictional Channel 8) knocks over the plucky cameraman from UHF Channel 62, played by Billy Barty.
Of course, the real Tulsa City Hall doesn't have steps, so the movie crew shot the scene in front of the First Christian Church at 9th and Boulder, which, with its steps and double Corinthian columns, looked like a City Hall entrance ought to look.
The real City Hall entrance is gloomy and subterranean, beneath the Civic Center Plaza. In place of grand steps, there is a curb cut leading up a few inches from the main driveway through the parking lot. A set of automated sliding glass doors are framed by white-painted cinder blocks, on which is mounted the words "CITY HALL" in original-series Star Trek block lettering.
Up on the plaza, the stains on the white concrete of the structure are even uglier, and the brownish substance which frames the windows is revealed to be pebble aggregate, the same hideous crud that coats the daily paper's Main Street bunker.
Ugliness is just one of City Hall's problems. It is nearly impossible to give directions to the building. You can't use a street intersection to explain where it is, since it isn't near any street. While you can see it from 5th and Denver, you can't get to it from there.
People who know City Hall intimately tell me that corners were cut when it was built. Its systems are inefficient and in bad shape. The Mayor has said that deferred repairs on City Hall and other city-owned buildings would cost $12 million to complete. It isn't big enough to hold all city employees, so the city owns or leases a dozen other buildings, mostly in other parts of downtown.
In 2000, there was incredulous laughter when then-Councilor Brady Pringle suggested tearing down City Hall or at least refacing the place, but I thought even then that he had a point. A City Hall ought to have a certain dignity, even if it is only a simple dignity. It ought to stand apart from ordinary office buildings. City Hall is distinguished from other office buildings of its era only by being uglier.
So now the City is exploring the purchase of the Williams Communications building on Cincinnati between 1st and 2nd. The facility is only six years old, wired for 21st century business needs, and five times larger than the current City Hall. Its current assessed value is $44.4 million.
Putting nearly all city employees under the same roof would minimize the runaround for citizens trying to locate the right office. It ought to improve communications between departments not only by making it easier to hold cross-department meetings, but also by increasing the potential for serendipitous contacts in elevators and lounges. Some duplication of services, necessary to support workers scattered around downtown, could be eliminated.
The building ought to be large enough to hold far more than city offices. Regional planning agency INCOG, currently leasing space at 201 W. 5th, could move in. There might be enough room to house an expanded Central Library.
Another possibility would be to lease extra space for state government offices, opening up the State's huge campus west of the Convention Center for redevelopment.
There are also some urban design advantages to moving City Hall away from its Civic Center location.
Civic Centers were an urban planning fad in the '50s and '60s. Ours was conceived in the early '50s; the Tulsa County Courthouse was the first project completed. The original two-by-three-block area was later expanded with the construction of the Page Belcher Federal Building, the State Office Building, and the convention center exhibit hall. With the erection of the jail and the arena, nearly every inch within the Inner Dispersal Loop west of Denver and north of 6th Street is in government hands.
Prior to the '50s, Tulsa's city government offices were sprinkled through downtown. The library was at 3rd and Cheyenne, City Hall was at 4th and Cincinnati, the County Courthouse was at 6th and Boulder, and the old Federal Building (still in use) was between 2nd and 3rd on Boulder.
City, county, and federal employees had ready access to downtown's retail and restaurants, downtown workers had ready access to government offices, and downtown retailers had ready access to government workers as customers.
Urban planners long ago recognized that grouping government offices into a single-use ghetto is a recipe for lifeless plazas that are active only for a couple of hours a day.
Moving City Hall away from the Civic Center would open up an entire 300' by 300' block which could be an oasis of private commercial activity in the midst of government's Gobi Desert. The block is adjacent to the Convention Center and a block from the arena, a more strategic place for a hotel than the proposed site east of the BOk Center on Denver. (Whether there's a market for more hotel rooms downtown is a different question.)
A mixed-use development could provide some shopping and dining options for conventioneers who are stuck downtown.
While they're tearing down City Hall, I'd hope they would also tear down the Civic Center plaza and reopen Frisco Ave. between 4th and 6th and 5th Street between Denver and Frisco.
The proposed new City Hall location is at the edge of the central office cluster and less than a block from the Blue Dome District. Adding a few thousand nearby employees could only help existing restaurants and encourage retail development.
But as appealing as the move is, aesthetics and urban design aren't sufficient reasons to spend millions of public dollars. There has to be a net cost savings in the near term. City officials need a business plan that will give them a realistic picture of how much the current City Hall block and other city buildings would be worth.
(A business plan for the cost of operating the BOk Center might be a good idea, too. Before we go buying new buildings, we need to know if one we're already building is going to blow a massive hole in the city budget.)
They also need a conservative estimate of energy and maintenance cost savings. They shouldn't underestimate the monetary cost and lost productivity involved in a move, along with the need to support duplicate facilities for a time.
There ought to be a look at alternatives, too. A group of two or three of the historic buildings in Maurice Kanbar's inventory might serve well as a new City Hall.
Tulsans have already committed all our special projects money for the next six years; it's tied up in the Third Penny, Four to Fix the County and Vision 2025. Redirecting Third Penny funds away from existing projects to pay for a new City Hall would be possible, but politically hazardous. (The City might get away with diverting money for other downtown projects.)
It would be a good thing to do, but only if the move could be done without straining the already-constrained city budget. At the very least, it's worth the due diligence that city officials are now pursuing.
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One more thing: I mentioned Kanbar earlier. Recently the first tangible result of his massive investment in downtown Tulsa was brought to fruition -- the paving and striping of a 15-car surface parking lot on the site of the old McBirney and Cordell buildings, on the east side of Main just to the north of 5th Street.
We were all hoping to see some out-of-the-box ideas for adaptive reuse of buildings from this creative out-of-state investor, and who can be disappointed?
Knocking down an old downtown building for a surface parking lot -- what will those imaginative Californians think of next?
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