It happens every Spring, Riverside becomes a hot topic once again and for the future?
Some call it a stinky mud puddle, others appreciate it as an untapped natural treasure, some see dollar signs (read: extensive retail and restaurants) along the river's banks, coins sparkling along its waters. The Arkansas River doesn't pay Tulsans much mind as it cuts through the wrong side of town, only a short stretch relative to its 1,469-mile journey starting in Colorado and winding through Oklahoma and eastern Arkansas before feeding into the Mississippi River.
The Arkansas River has made and broken mayoral and city councilor campaigns, it swirls through our politics, lifts the city on its tides and occasionally even inspires us to come and sit along its banks, to walk or bike its trails.
Despite its mixed reputation, this ambiguously untapped natural resource is a perfect blend of north, west and south Tulsa, of indoor amenities and outdoor fun, where T-Towners can gather together as a city.
On the heels of the immediate success of the revamped dual trail system along Riverside Dr. and the park at 41st St., the George Kaiser Family Foundation (GKFF) is moving forward with its plans for a $100-million-dollar, 55-acre gathering space which will encompass the prim, sprawling estate of the Blair Mansion.
In 2008, GKFF purchased the historic mansion, which overlooks the Arkansas River near 26th St., plus two nearby apartment complexes, Legacy and Sundance, just south of 31st St. Now that renovations along the river are nearly complete, and Blue Rose Café and Elwood's have opened their doors on the waterfront, it's not surprising that the foundation is pushing ahead with this new project.
But why now? Only five months ago, solar technology company Solyndra went bankrupt after receiving millions from the federal government and from George Kaiser, one of the richest man in the world, give or take a billion.
Kaiser, a strong Obama supporter, was roundly criticized for allegedly seeking out political favor for Solyndra. Once the situation became public, Kaiser's foundation was also scrutinized. Come to think it through, the foundation was just trying to find a way to invest in the zeitgeist.
Less than half a year later, GKFF is showing up in the news again, this time with a big-money project tied to an expensive, premier landscape architecture firm. And now it wants to spend some of that cash, improve its image and wants to hear your ideas.
District 9 City Council Chairman G.T. Bynum said the foundation's plan is "just unheard of. We are awfully lucky to have a group that generous and willing to infuse $150 million into public improvements that everyone can enjoy."
The last time Bynum could recall a private donor providing assets for public benefit was in 1960, when his great-grandfather Joseph LaFortune donated 270 acres and $650,000 for the creation of LaFortune Park.
Nothing has reached this same level of generosity in the 60 years since LaFortune decided to "repay Tulsa's kindness to me," as he said during the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the park in Oct. 1960. Until now.
"We've been thinking about [this project] for a number of years," said Ken Levit, executive director of GKFF, "and I think this next phase is going to be critical because we very much want the best thinking from our community about the project. When we finalize whatever plans we have, we want it to reflect the interests and the passions of Tulsa."
Bynum, whose district cuts through the southern edge of the new park, said there will "still be a public role" for the city and county in the new plan. But "as far as funding, it's extraordinary," he said.
A Sense of Place
In recent years, Tulsa's River Parks underwent a major facelift, and Tulsans have responded by running, walking and playing along the Arkansas River in droves. "In the summertime, it's just packed," said Jeff Stava, chief operating officer of Tulsa Community Foundation and project manager for the new GKFF gathering space project. "The kids are running around, people are sipping coffee, and [the trails and parks along Riverside Dr.] are really truly a gathering place for town," he said.
While River Parks land is limited to the thin greenbelt between the river and the road, GKFF bought up a bigger swath of acreage on the other side of Riverside Dr. to plump up river development. "We just felt that we needed to acquire a lot of land and create this big Tulsa gathering place. We're really excited about it," Stava said.
Who wouldn't be excited? The foundation, created as a supporting organization of the Tulsa Community Foundation, is promising to dedicate between $100-$150 million toward a friendly, state-of-the-art park and outdoor area where Tulsans can play, shop, and grab coffee or food.
Levit said the new park is "a high priority project."
"It's going to be a park like no other park," Stava said. And he knows about the outdoors. Stava graduated from Jenks High School, graduated with a bachelor's from Baylor University, and has since served as president of Normark (formerly Outdoor Innovations) and SportsWire before he joined GKFF. The young Tulsa professional talked to UTW just before he hopped a plane to Shreveport, La.
In the southern-fried city, Stava studied up for his other big project: volunteer lead organizer for the 2013 Bassmaster Classic, a popular three-day event that will likely draw more than 100,000 visitors (and $26 million) to Green Country next February.
Stava said he's personally inspired by the Brooklyn Bridge Park in Brooklyn, N.Y. The park is "right on the water and you can see the Statue of Liberty at a distance," Stava said. The silver screen-worthy park also features "the most unique, chit gravel walk areas, beautiful sidewalks, and you can almost get lost in the lawn," he said.
Repurposed concrete and industrial warehouse piers add to the personality of the popular park, while New Yorkers also have easy access to the water for their ocean kayaks. At night, the park features "soft glow lighting, and little lights on the trails [creating] kind of a romantic oasis right there in the city," Stava said.
As Stava talked about the park in Brooklyn, it's hard not to imagine a similar spot in Tulsa where old and young couples can stroll after a tasty dinner and live music at say, Blue Rose Café.
"We want to keep it authentic and make it 'Tulsa,'" Stava said, "We don't want neon lights and intense retail." The project isn't about creating a behemoth vanity venture, more the new development is about furthering a uniquely Tulsa vision. More repurposed wood, public art and subtle touches than a vast rethinking of our city's style.
With the Blair Mansion in the background, the new park will have a built-in sense of history. The southern plantation-style mansion was designed by renowned Tulsa architect John Duncan Forsyth, and built in 1952 for wealthy oilman B.B. Blair. The 6,000-square-foot Blair home is just one of several eye-catching and extravagant mansions built along the water of the Arkansas River.
In 1995, the 33.6-acre Blair property was purchased by Daniel Buford, a nursing home developer, who lived in the home for a few years after selling the property to the foundation.
Now, GKFF is charged with bringing this historic and well-kept property from Tulsa's past into our future.
"What we envision is a place for all of Tulsa, where anyone can come and anyone can enjoy," said Stava, "where everyone can find something to do."
A Sense of Inclusion
And they can't do this without your input. Though the project won't break ground until spring 2014 (according to GKFF estimates), the next step in the process is getting vast amounts of input from everyone in the community. On March 6 and 7 at 6pm, head over to the Tulsa Community College Center for Creativity, across the street from TCC Metro Campus at 909 S. Boston. And bring your ideas, Stava said.
He said to "bring the best ideas you have for activities in a park or public space."
Whether it's a small idea for landscaping or big renovation plans for Riverside Dr., show off your concepts on those dates. Whether you need to bring a painting, a diagram, a sketch or photos, the GKFF staffers want to see what you've got.
With lots of community interest and input, Levit said, "We can best ensure [the gathering place] is a success for this generation and others in the future. It's going to be a fun process and though I'm sure it's going to have its challenges at times, we're excited about it."
At the March 6 and 7 events, they'll introduce the landscape architects, and then open up three different stations where people can add their input on sticky notes or discuss ideas with staffers. "We'll have a list of questions to prompt people's thoughts and ideas, just to get them started," Stava said.
Have concerns or questions? Bring those, too. "There will be a lot of concerns that come naturally with something new, whether it's crime, accessibility, connectivity or lighting," he said. "Those are all legitimate concerns and we want to understand them so while we're going through the design process, we've addressed as many of those concerns and ideas [as possible] and implemented them into our plans."
And if you can't make it to these sessions, add your input to the project's new website, agatheringplacefortulsa.com. You can submit your ideas, post your concerns, and upload photos or drawings, too.
The foundation chose Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), a Brooklyn-based landscape architecture firm, to take our ideas from these sessions to a final concept. MVVA specializes in river-front projects, like the Hudson River Park in New York, which the firm transformed from crumbling industrial waterfront into a community landscape featuring a boardwalk, carousel and expansive views of the river.
After the input sessions, the landscape architects at MVVA will head to the drawing board. In early May, the architects will come back to T-Town with first-draft renderings and layouts and concepts. From there, the architects will take on more specific input through more community meetings. By September, we'll hopefully have a final concept in hand, said Stava. "We're hoping we can get there," he said, "But if we need another public input session in June or July, well, we might [do that]. We are going to be very inclusive...this is going to be something that defines us as a community."
After all the detailed design work and construction documents are done, GKFF will bid out the work. "Hopefully in spring of 2014, we'll be breaking ground," Stava said. "And depending on design, [construction] could take anywhere from two to four years."
A Sense of Cooperation
Though this is largely a private venture through the Kaiser foundation, the city of Tulsa is appreciative and supportive of their vision. Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr. said, "Tulsa is very fortunate to have many, parks, trails and green spaces available for our citizens to enjoy and the City of Tulsa supports any development that would be beneficial to the public," the mayor said.
Plus, Stava and others have stated they want to make the new gathering place work with the recent improvements along the Arkansas River. The executive director of River Parks, Matt Meyer, said GKFF "has been a best friend to River Parks, so I have a lot of confidence that whatever they do will be done excellently."
In recent years, GKFF also funded the $12.4 million dual trail system revamp along the river from Jenks all the way to downtown Tulsa. The foundation is working to expand the trails farther south, Meyer said. "I have a lot of confidence in what they will do," he said. "Tulsa is blessed to have them in the community in many ways."
The final piece of the dual trail system -- between 58th St. and Interstate 44 -- will be completed once conflicting construction in the area wraps up this year. The city of Tulsa has been working on a sanitation project near the river, while the Oklahoma Department of Transportation will finally complete the widening of I-44 in the area this year. Once Riverside Dr. is realigned after the ongoing interstate construction, River Parks expects to gain a little land.
GKFF also funded improvements at Turkey Mountain Wilderness Area. Another heavy-hitting T-Town company, QuikTrip Corp., pitched in millions to create a park that complements the trail system and overlooks the Arkansas. The park, on the river at the crossroads of 41st St. and Riverside Dr., was an immediate success with Tulsa's families and kids. The park brings kids (and their moms and dads) in from all over Tulsa County to splash-splash in the natural rock playable fountains, the splash pad, and funky, modern playground.
Slowly but surely, Tulsa's chunk of the Arkansas River is becoming the playground for our city. As far as the River Parks Authority is concerned, the small organization of 12 employees maintains 26 miles of trails as well as the parks along the river. The authority was created by the city of Tulsa and Tulsa County to transform the waterfront. In the late 1980s, fireworks and festivals were started up to draw people to the river.
Now, River Parks single-handedly raises money for Tulsa's annual Freedom Fest (our Fourth of July celebration and fireworks), as well as organizes the city's annual Octoberfest and Scottish Games festival. More than 800 acres of land along the riverfront are under River Parks' purview.
River Parks Authority is governed by a seven-member board of trustees. Three are appointed by the city, three by the county, and one by the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission. Ken Levit, also working on behalf of GKFF, is a chairman of this board.
Each year, River Parks organizes Octoberfest and the Oklahoma Scottish Festival, events that bring thousands of visitors to the banks of the Arkansas for fresh, tasty ethnic foods and giant tents and fair rides. Octoberfest brings in about 60,000 visitors while the Oklahoma Scottish Festival attracted national media attention last year when River Parks organizers constructed the "World's Largest Kilt."
The pedestrian bridge near 29 St., which spans the river's 1,400-foot channel, is also a big draw. Formerly a bridge for Midland Valley Railroad trains, the bridge near Zink Lake is crossed by hundreds of people each day.
River Parks has placed a work of public art for every mile of trail along the east bank of the Arkansas in Tulsa. NatureWorks and other artists and donations have added to the beautification process along the river.
River Parks' next project is a $7.6 million renovation of River West Festival Park, 2100 S. Jackson St., where the Scottish Games and Octoberfest are held each year. In 2006, third-penny sales tax money was approved by voters to pay for these renovations but so far delays have kept the park from being updated.
Renovations near 19th St. and Riverside Dr. allowed for the first restaurant to open up in River Parks. In Feb. 2011, Blue Rose Café officially relocated from its little spot on Brookside to its current home nestled on piers over the river. The café offers up heaping portions of blackened chicken, signature burgers, ranch-laden salads and piles of cheese fries and onion rings. Blue Rose has a spacious outdoor patio (voted by UTW readers as Absolute Best Outdoor Patio 2011), where diners can enjoy live music from tables with stunning views of the river.
Next door to Blue Rose is Elwood's, a smaller outdoor bar that offers deli sandwiches, hot dogs, and cold beer and cocktails. The bar opened its doors last March after investors renovated the old River's Edge Café and turned it into a local music hotspot right on the river. Some of the best bands from T-Town's local music scene serenade Elwood's patrons most days of the week.
A Sense of Balance
Once construction kicks off in 2014, the new gathering space will likely be going up at the same time as the city and county dig into improvements on nearby Zink Dam. In February, the city learned it would finally receive $26 million in bonds to fund improvements and repairs to the dam near 31st St. and Riverside.
Zink Dam and Lake are manmade and were completed in 1983.
The low-water dam's hydraulic system and gates will get much-needed repairs while the dam itself will be raised a few feet, which will make way for the addition of a whitewater recreation area. Last year plans were drawn up for the whitewater park, which would turn an otherwise spare, flat chunk of the river into a manmade park where Tulsans can kayak, canoe or raft.
Pediatric dentist Ryan Roberts and another whitewater enthusiast, Jeff Simmons, are heading up the push for the new recreation area, which would be located near 31st St. and Riverside -- close to the new gathering space.
The whitewater park is tentatively named after what was called the Tulsa Wave, a 500-foot stretch of west bank river just south of the Zink Dam. The wave became a popular underground kayaking destination throughout the '80s and '90s. In 2006, Public Service Company of Oklahoma opened up Tulsa Wave Park, but it was a little too late. "By the time they did that (opened the park)," Roberts told UTW in September, "The waves had already deteriorated and were not attracting boaters. Tulsa Wave is no longer in existence; it's washed out from a large flooding event."
The manmade whitewater recreation area would bring back kayakers and attract new enthusiasts. But first, there's construction. "We'll be working with the county," Stava said of the work set to begin on Zink Dam and the new park in years to come. "There will be a lot of construction around [Riverside Dr. between 26th and 31st Sts.] so we'll have to coordinate, if it's possible," he said.
Additionally, Stava said, he and others at GKFF have already "briefed all elected leaders to talk about investments that would be made by the foundation." Plus, the foundation is in more "detailed" talks with the city on logistics like public works, capacity requirements, and roads, he said.
"This is a long, long process and we're at the very, very, very beginning," Stava said.
The biggest point of possible contention may be the future demolition of the Sundance and Legacy Apartment complexes, located just south of the intersection at 31st St. and Riverside Dr. They were both purchased by GKFF in 2008.
"Eventually yes," Stava said. "They will be torn down."
Legacy Apartments is only half occupied, according to Stava. "The previous owner went bankrupt and they didn't even remodel half of the apartments," he said. "They're uninhabitable."
The other, rentable half of Legacy is fit to live in but still not current. Sundance Apartments, said Stava, "are filled with young people and young professionals, but they're also dated and the architecture is a little bit older." But not older in a cute, quaint, historic way.
And one final consideration: the new, expensive gathering space sounds almost too good to be true. So is it?
A Sense of History
Not all river development has been created equally, and not all has been equally successful. In 2006, the Jenks RiverWalk Crossing opened up along the Arkansas to high hopes and fanfare. Finally, we thought, the river was getting the retail development it needed. With a spiffy new river trail, little boutiques, a coffee shop and two popular restaurants -- Los Cabos and Gina & Giuseppe's -- the new river development couldn't fail.
But six years later, numbers have dwindled and shops have closed. RiverWalk has been slapped with lien after lien, and the property is now sitting in bankruptcy court. Recently, a Tulsa bankruptcy judge ruled in favor of American National Bank of Texas, which claimed RWC Management Inc. (RiverWalk's owner) owed them $28.3 million in loans. RiverWalk will be auctioned off at a sheriff's sale.
Going forward, the gathering space will need to proceed with kid gloves and caution. Sometimes development hasn't gone far enough (like the Tulsa Wave Park -- too little, too late) while RiverWalk went too far into debt without a large enough population base. Other projects, like the so-called "Tulsa Channels" plan from 2006, never get off the ground (or off the water?) at all.
In 2006, world-renowned Vancouver architect Bing Thom was hired by a non-profit organization, Tulsa Stakeholders Inc. (TSI), to design and re-imagine a game-changing river development. Thom did not disappoint, creating an $800 million-dollar scheme designed to "retain and attract talent and the jobs that follow, improve upon our sense and strength of community and bolster the sustainability of our tax base," according to TSI releases at the time.
Thom's designs included impounding the dam at the 23rd St. Bridge, which would have created a 12.3-mile lake leading from Tulsa to Sand Springs. From there, the plan was to fashion a 40-acre, manmade island between 11th St. and 23rd St. Bridges, which would hold high-fashion residences and retail. The pricey project, according to proponents, could've paid for itself through the selling of electricity generated from hydro, solar and wind power.
According to the Tulsa Channels MySpace page (yes, it's that outdated), the manmade island would also house an open air market "lined with local businesses and practicing artisans, covered by a several-story-high canopy that will shade the plaza and collect solar energy," the site reported.
But once T-Town had their say, it was all over. The Tulsa Channels project was on the ballot in 2006, but was roundly defeated. Sheryl Lovelady, who was former Mayor Kathy Taylor's communications director from 2006-2008, said, "The ballot issue [for Tulsa Channels] suffered from poor message development... There was a vote on it and it was defeated simply because it was off-message."
She said that the lack of messaging will be corrected in future river development plans. "Tulsans clearly have wanted and looked forward to quality river development for years," Lovelady said. "Various proposals have been forwarded to them and hopefully [GKFF's new gathering space] is a step in the right direction, and will begin to inspire the process going forward."
She thinks one thing that the Tulsa Channels project lacked was the input from Tulsans. "I think it's critical that Tulsans' input be valued in the process," she said. Currently, Lovelady is the director of the University of Oklahoma women's leadership initiative, and she also offers her services as a policy and communications consultant.
In the past 20 years, there have been more river development projects than we can name. The idea that's probably most universally scorned is the Branson Landing project. For a brief, crazy moment in 2006, Missouri-based waterfront developer HCW Development considered bringing a piece of Branson, Mo., here to Tulsa. The developers built Branson Landing in Branson, and wanted to put in a similar project along the west bank of the river (near Festival Park).
A year later, the 2007 River Tax failed at the ballot box after voters all over Tulsa County rejected the idea of footing the bill for further river development. In the past, some mayors frowned upon any and all private development. But now, Mayor Bartlett has voiced his support for the new GKFF-funded park. "The city council and I have recognized river development as a top priority and we welcome any visionary development opportunities that would help expand development along the Arkansas River," Bartlett said.
In the next few weeks, those who have been born and raised in Tulsa--as well as those late comers--have been challenged to make their voices known about Arkansas River dreams.
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