Water taxis in Bricktown, Oklahoma City's reclaimed warehouse district.
Seattle readers can, and should, stop here and read other posts.
The Oklahoma City Thunder is in the NBA Finals. I think of 1976 and the Suns and Gar Heard's Shot Heard Round the World. Even though the league has been much degraded since then, pro sports will never get sweeter for a city than this moment. Enjoy, whatever the outcome. The Thunder — the former Seattle Supersonics, moved away by a new owner in a civic wound that refuses to heal — are also the capstone of downtown Oklahoma City's remarkable comeback from the grave. This in an even redder state than Arizona.
By the late 1980s, the state's oil industry was in a depression and downtown Oklahoma City was suffering all the familiar ills of urban America: Major corporations had decamped for the suburbs or a big office row in the northwest part of the city or been shattered by the economy, and shopping had gone out to malls. As Steve Lackmeyer of the Daily Oklahoman writes, "Oklahoma City's corporate base was dying. City Hall struggled to keep up with a record number of boarded-up homes. College professors were instructing students to seek opportunities out of state." Consolidation among railroads and changes in their business had left a vast area of warehouses just east of downtown empty. The old titan/stewards were dead or dying. Even worse, a misconceived "revival" effort involving famed and overrated architect I.M. Pei had only gotten about as far as tearing down many irreplaceable historic buildings, leaving blocks and blocks of nothing. I remember this desolate downtown from when I was teaching at a college in the southeastern part of the state and later working for a newspaper in Lawton.
Imagine my surprise when I returned a couple of years ago. The old warehouse district had been turned into Bricktown, a lively entertainment district making great use of these wonderful multi-story buildings from the early 1900s. The puddle of the nearby North Canadian River had been rechristened the Oklahoma River and was a series of lakes and channels for recreation. The stately Skirvin Plaza Hotel was being returned to life. A new minor-league ballpark, arena and library were up.
It was not Seattle or Denver or even Dallas. Most of downtown Oklahoma City lacks inviting walkabilty, suffers from too many surface parking lots and retail is long gone. Transit is inadequate. Still, this is the most remarkable downtown turnaround I've ever seen for a mid-sized city, particularly the one that had to also rebound from the 1995 white/right terrorist bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building (the memorial that replaced it is post-modern but very simple and moving, drawing huge numbers of visitors). Just a comparison to nearby Tulsa, built on more attractive, gently rolling hills and the Arkansas River, is striking.
The game changer was MAPS, the Metropolitan Area Projects campaign, which was championed by Mayor Ron Norick and business leaders, passing in 1993. It established a sales tax to build and rehabilitate downtown amenities. The benefits of MAPS didn't happen at once and took many years of effort. But by the time Oklahoma City faced the loss of Kerr-McGee Corp. in a 2006 merger, it wasn't fatal to downtown. Supporters of MAPS expected it to lure around $140 million in private-sector investment. Instead, the amount is near $2 billion and rising, including the sleek new Devon Energy Center. The glass prism is wildly out of scale and offers many breakables in an Oklahoma twister, but still, it is downtown, a major private investment that is luring more. As with the Thunder this season, downtown was winning far more than it was losing. (You can read Lackmeyer's columns here, although some might be behind a pay wall).
I don't know what Phoenix readers can take away from this. Oklahoma City is smaller (580,000 in a metro of 1.3 million). It's younger, being established in a single day in the 1889 land run. But oil, agriculture, railroads and proximity to eastern markets made it a much richer city much sooner than Phoenix. It had more than 185,000 people by 1930 (Phoenix, 48,000), so even with the tear-downs, OKC is rich in beautiful buildings from the first quarter of the 20th century. These continue to provide the good bones for the central city's progress. Nobody moves to Oklahoma City for the weather. Thus, the people there, even if predominantly conservative, truly value their community. And it has a real economy, chiefly natural gas and oil, not a bunch of real-estate hustles in search of one. (Oklahoma is also among the states worst hit by climate change, with much hotter summers...)
Phoenix has not wanted for big projects to revive downtown, from the original Civic Plaza to pro-sports Keynesianism. But there's something for the smaller, sustained efforts, too. This is especially true when they lure high-paid jobs and corporate investment, as happened in Oklahoma City. Even with the energy economy rebounding, the benefits could have gone to the fringes — or just been consolidated to Dallas and Houston. That downtown benefited, and is in many places lovely and reclaimed, worth caring about and cared about, is a major civic achievement. As for Seattle, a hedge-fund manager has assembled an ownership group including Microsoft's Steve Ballmer and the Nordstroms to bring a new NBA team and build a downtown arena (if Seattle doesn't shoot itself in the foot). Good things come to places with real economies and civic stewards.