POSTED ON MAY 13, 2009:
Downtown Tulsa Unlamented
In spite of being loved to death, the central business district is coming back, thanks to local ingenuity
The departing head of Downtown Tulsa Unlimited (DTU) reflected with satisfaction on his 20 years of service. He told the business reporter:
"Our downtown is destined to be one of the outstanding downtowns. No other downtown association got into the nitty gritty. All our programs have been successful....
"We're no longer trying to save downtown....
"We needed to get the cheap joints out. We formed the old urban renewal authority and it has been effective. We cleared out the old, obsolete areas...."
Those words came from L. A. "Bud" Blust, Jr., who served as DTU's head from shortly after its inception in 1956 until 1977.
As his fourth successor, Jim Norton, leaves DTU this month after his own two-decade stint, it's a fitting time to look back at the downtown organization's history and its future, if any. DTU's policy successes ultimately led to the very result the group was formed to prevent: The collapse of downtown retail.
DTU was founded by downtown retailers concerned about growing competition from new suburban shopping centers, although from the beginning its membership included other downtown businesses and organizations.
In 1951, Froug’s opened a branch in the new Eastgate Center at Admiral and Memorial. Utica Square debuted in 1952 as a middle-class shopping center, complete with a bowling alley and T. G. & Y. (For you young whipper-snappers, T. G. & Y. was a chain of five-and-dime stores, sort of like a Walgreens minus the pharmacy and food, plus fabric and patterns.)
In 1956, Sears Roebuck decided to move from 5th and Boulder to 21st and Yale, near new edge-of-town subdivisions like Lortondale and Mayo Meadow.
DTU deserves much of the credit--or blame--for what happened to downtown over the next half-century. The 1959 "Plan for Central Tulsa," initiated by DTU and developed by planners from California, introduced the notion of a Main Street Pedestrian Mall, closed to traffic, and a superblock office/retail complex, called Tul-Center, to replace several blocks of old retail buildings around 1st and Main.
The same plan endorsed earlier proposals to clear a mixed residential and business area west of Denver Ave. for a multi-block civic center and to create a loop of expressways around downtown to make it easy for drivers to come in from the suburbs.
DTU lobbied very effectively to get the city to use federal highway and urban renewal dollars to accomplish these "progressive" plans, although it took until 1981 to complete all the projects. By the time Tulsa finished, other cities had already begun to rethink and remove inner city expressways, pedestrian malls and superblock developments.
A Sept. 23, 1984, Oklahoman story celebrated the state of downtown Tulsa, which seemed to remain healthy despite the oil bust that had begun two years earlier.
The expressway system made it easy for people to live in the suburbs and commute to work and church in downtown. But creating the IDL wiped out apartments and homes and blighted nearby neighborhoods. More people coming from further away meant greater demand for parking.
As new skyscrapers went up and as downtown churches drew members from all over the metro area, one- to three-story buildings came down to make way for surface parking lots. These are the same sort of old buildings that have served as affordable venues for unique new businesses in Cherry Street, the Brady District, the Blue Dome District, Brookside and 18th and Boston.
Retail followed the commuters and their families out to the edge of the city and ultimately into the suburbs. Office workers were in their offices, working, not out shopping.
One by one, downtown stores closed. An indoor mall, the Williams Center Forum, lingered for a bit longer, before being converted to office space in the early 1990s.
In 1977, Bud Blust was happy to be rid of the "cheap joints" (a description that evidently included ornate, irreplaceable downtown movie palaces like the Ritz, Orpheum, and Majestic). But those old buildings, however seedy their occupants, had the kind of character that new construction in the suburbs could never duplicate.
In trying to imitate suburbia, DTU failed to win back customers who still found it easier to shop Southroads or Woodland Hills than to navigate the confusion of a street grid that had been hacked to pieces by downtown "improvements." At the same time DTU discarded the uniqueness that made going downtown worth the extra trouble.
You might think that a downtown merchants' association would close down once most of the merchants were gone, but DTU stayed alive, thanks to the business improvement district (BID) that was put in place in 1981. The City contracted with DTU's subsidiary, Tul-Center, Inc., to maintain the Main Mall and downtown plazas and sidewalks, funded by an assessment on properties within the BID. (DTU's executive committee serves as Tul-Center's board of directors.) Tul-Center, in turn, contracted with other provides and with DTU to do the actual work. (That at least was the arrangement early on, according to news accounts of the time.)
As retail faded away, DTU morphed into an office-building owners association. Critics say that DTU represents the interests of only a small number of downtown property owners, but city officials continued to treat it as if it were the sole spokesman for downtown.
The same critics note that most of the entrepreneurial initiative has come not in the center, where DTU's attention has been focused, but on the edge of downtown, in places that DTU either overlooked or hoped at some point to wipe out.
In 1981, planners hired by DTU recommended clearing the area we now call the Brady Arts District to make way for an "urban campus." One of the planners was quoted in an April 7, 1981, news story as saying, "There's not really much character left in the Old Townsite, so we see no reason to restore it, as some cities have done to their original site." Thank goodness they never found the money to make it happen.
If Tulsa voters had followed DTU's advice and approved the "Tulsa Project" sales tax in 1997, Hodge's Bend--the area around 3rd and Kenosha, home to Tiny Lounge, Divine Barbering, and Micha Alexander's Virginia Lofts, featured on the cover of UTW a few weeks ago--would have been bulldozed for a soccer stadium.
It angers and amuses me to hear anyone claim that downtown's problem is government neglect and lack of public investment. Quite the opposite: Downtown Tulsa has been nearly loved to death.
A report on Tulsa's downtown issued earlier this year by an advisory panel from the International Downtown Association (IDA) enumerates the many ways in which the planning fads of earlier years hurt downtown's vitality.
When the panel of four visited downtown last November--just before the Tulsa Run--it concluded that "Downtown Tulsa is stuck in a time warp":
"A first-time visitor to downtown Tulsa may be somewhat mystified. Streets and sidewalks are clean and well-lighted. A collection of handsome, even extraordinary art deco buildings adorn the office core. A strikingly designed arena stands dramatically on the edge of downtown, complemented by perhaps the most attractive new City Hall in America. Here and there, a café or coffee house lights the street. And yet... where are the people? ...
"There are few street level establishments of a retail nature. Windows facing the street are far too often dark. The hustle and bustle that today characterizes many downtowns across North America is simply absent."
We wish DTU President Jim Norton well as he moves on to his new position in North Carolina. I served with him on a couple of task forces and always found him to be courteous and congenial, despite our differences. To his credit, he has been an effective advocate for public funding for downtown infrastructure and incentives for residential development.
One could fault him for his opposition to modest historic preservation and urban design measures--the sort that most other cities our size, including Oklahoma City, have had for many years--but it's important to remember that he was merely representing the interests of those who control DTU, those who hired him and who had the power to fire him, and not necessarily the best interests of downtown as a historic urban center.
DTU's days may be numbered. Rather than continue the 28-year exclusive arrangement with DTU's Tul-Center subsidiary, the City is seeking competitive bids to take over public property maintenance services for the new Tulsa Stadium Improvement District, which will also fund the Tulsa Drillers' new stadium. Bids are due to the City Clerk's office by 5pm on May 20. (You can find the invitation to bid and the detailed requirements for the contract at cityoftulsapurchasing.org. The bid number is TAC 843.)
Tul-Center is competing for the contract. If they lose, DTU could theoretically continue to exist, but that may not be feasible. According to the IDA report, "DTU relies on the BID assessment for its very existence. BID revenues constitute about nine out of every 11 dollars passing through DTU each year."
In my opinion, DTU's time has long since passed, and, contrary to the recommendations of the IDA, there's no justification for giving it pride of place in a new "Downtown Coordinating Council."
A single organization representing everything within the Inner Dispersal Loop is at once too broad and too narrow. Within the IDL there are condo owners, small retailers, nightclubs, old apartment buildings, art galleries, and office buildings. No one group can adequately represent such a diverse collection of interests.
But if there is to be an umbrella organization to represent common concerns of those diverse groups, its coverage should extend beyond the IDL to include the surrounding neighborhoods. The revival of central Tulsa requires regenerating the connections that were severed when the expressways were built.
Let the winning bidder for the public property maintenance contract stick to providing exactly those services and nothing more. The City should not accord the winning bidder status as de facto spokesman for downtown. Instead, the City planning department should take the lead role, even-handedly weighing input from central Tulsa stakeholders--neighborhoods, associations, institutions--as they implement a new comprehensive plan.
DTU failed to serve its original purpose, and no longer serves any public purpose at all. Let it go on independently if it will; 53 years of taxpayer-subsidized failure is enough.
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