Downtown Revitalization: Oklahoma City

October 17, 2012 51 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Metro Jacksonville visits a city Jacksonville's size and scale that has been recently recognized as the most "recession proof city in America": Oklahoma City

Tale of the Tape:

Oklahoma City Population 2011: 591,967 (City); 1,278,053 (Metro) - (incorporated in 1889)

Jacksonville Pop. 2011: 827,908 (City); 1,360,251 (Metro-2011) - (incorporated in 1832)

City population 1950: Jacksonville (204,517); Oklahoma City (243,504)

City Land Area

Oklahoma City: 607.0 square miles
Jacksonville: 757.7 square miles

Metropolitan Area Growth rate (2010-2011)

Oklahoma City: +2.00%
Jacksonville: +1.09%

Urban Area Population (2010 census)

Oklahoma City: 861,505 (ranked 51 nationwide)
Jacksonville: 1,065,219 (ranked 40 nationwide)

Urban Area Population Density (2010 census)

Oklahoma City: 2,098.0 people per square mile
Jacksonville: 2,008.5 people per square mile

City Population Growth from 2000 to 2011

Oklahoma City: +85,835
Jacksonville: +92,405

Convention Center Exhibition Space:

Oklahoma City: Cox Business Services Convention Center (1970) - 100,000 square feet
Jacksonville: Prime F. Osborn III Convention Center (1985) - 78,500 square feet

Connected to or across the street from Convention Center:

Oklahoma City: Renaissance (311 rooms), Sheraton Hotels (395 rooms), Courtyard by Marriott (225 rooms), Colcord Hotel (108 rooms)
Jacksonville: N/A

Tallest Building:

Oklahoma City: Devon World Headquarters - 900 feet
Jacksonville: Bank of America Tower - 617 feet

Fortune 500 companies 2009 (City limits only):

Oklahoma City: Chesapeake Energy (229), Devon Energy (232),
Jacksonville: CSX (226), Winn-Dixie Stores (363), Fidelity National Information Services (425), Fidelity National Financial (472)

Urban infill obstacles:

Oklahoma City: Urban renewal and building fabric demolition has hurt downtown's connectivity with urban core neighborhoods.
Jacksonville: State & Union Streets cut off Downtown Jacksonville from Springfield.

Downtown Nightlife:

Oklahoma City: Bricktown
Jacksonville: East Bay Street

Common Downtown Albatross:

Both cities have a large number of surface parking lots.

Who's Downtown is more walkable?

Oklahoma City: 83 out of 100, according to
Jacksonville: 88 out of 100, according to

About Downtown Oklahoma City

Map of downtown Oklahoma City

Downtown Oklahoma City is currently undergoing a renaissance, one of the largest in the nation. Middle-class moves during the 1950s and 1960s left much of the inner city abandoned, and retail services declined. During the urban renewal of the early 1980s, almost 50 historic buildings and skyscrapers were demolished as part of the overall plan. Examples include the Biltmore Hotel, which made way for the I. M. Pei-designed Myriad Botanical Gardens, but this was at least a major urban renewal project completed as planned. Others were not, leaving vacant lots where buildings had stood. Many of the historic buildings remaining in the Central Business District were covered by new façades or adapted as Class-C office space. The removal of historic structures, which followed the decrease in population, left downtown without many retail options.

During this time, Oklahoma City had one of the worst job and housing markets in the country.  Things changed for Oklahoma City in the early 1990s as a result of United Airlines rejecting the city as a maintenance hub, selecting Indianapolis instead.

This came together when the city laid out a tour for the executives and didn't fill in a weekend day. The following day the newspapers, radio and TV were blasting the news that the CEO had taken a rental car and did his own personal tour. He bluntly told the city that the trash, oil field pipe and equipment yards, unkept homes and general lack of pride led him to a cataclysmic decision for the city. At the time this went down, MJ's Robert Mann was a city councilman in a bedroom community northwest of OKC.

The airline told Oklahoma City officials that Indianapolis won because it offered a superior quality of life and that they couldn't see employees living in Oklahoma City.  The City put together a task force, tour buses took the officials of OKC and the surrounding towns around the streets in an intensive idea session. That rejection led to the Metropolitan Area Projects (MAPS) initiative being passed by voters in December 1993.  This five year, 1 cent sales tax increase funded the implementation of nine major quality-of-life projects and the rest was history.

History of MAPS

Route of proposed modern streetcar line funded 100% by MAPS 3.

It's hard to believe now as we look back that the original MAPS initiatives nearly didn't pass a vote of the people. Early polls showed less than fantastic support for the Metropolitan Area Projects, a bundle of 9 major Oklahoma City projects to be funded by a 5 year, 1 cent sales tax increase. But in December of 1993, MAPS squeaked by voters at 54%. The rest, as they say, is history.

Originally conceived by the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce and then-Mayor Ron Norick, MAPS included the following:

- Construction of a 20,000-seat, indoor sports arena (known originally as the Ford Center but now called the Chesapeake Energy Arena)

- Construction of a 15,000-seat ballpark (The Bricktown Ballpark)

- Construction of a new downtown library

- Construction of the Bricktown Canal

- Development of a streetcar transit system

- Development along the North Canadian River

- Renovations to the Civic Center Music Hall

- Renovations to the Cox Convention Center

- Renovations to the Oklahoma State Fairgrounds

Although there were delays and complications, most of the original MAPS goals were met. And the resulting success has been nothing short of phenomenal. Most would attribute directly to MAPS the revitalization in Bricktown as well the great prospects for the continued presence of the NBA in OKC.

The 2nd set of MAPS projects went before voters in 2001. Dubbed "MAPS for Kids," the initiatives included over 100 Oklahoma City area school projects, from extensive renovations to new school constructions. Funded again by sales tax, MAPS for Kids would cost around $470 million.

That sales tax expired in 2008. Naturally, the talk of MAPS 3 began...


Mayor Mick Cornett brought up the idea in his 2007 State of the City Address.

An initial survey site,, was then launched. Cornett's goal was to sample Oklahoma City residents on what they wanted to see happen next.

The early results, released in May of 2007, overwhelmingly favored public transit improvements such as street work, a light rail system, downtown streetcars and improved bus service.

Perhaps more important than the ideas themselves, though, was the fact that over 85 percent of respondents thought MAPS 3 was a good idea. Although the sample size was quite small, of course, this was a good indicator for future city improvements.

MAPS 3 was delayed in 2008 due to the city's pursuit of an NBA franchise. After the Seattle SuperSonics relocated and became the Thunder, the one-cent sales tax was continued in order to renovate the Ford Center.

Planning and Campaign

The sales tax extension for the Ford Center renovations expires at the end of March 2009. Mayor Mick Cornett and the city released the official plan for MAPS 3 on September 17, 2009.

The official plan called for a December 8, 2009 vote on a continuation of the one-cent sales tax for a period of 7 years and 9 months. The total $777 million would be used for the following:

- A new, approximately 70-acre central park linking the core of downtown with the Oklahoma River. The park would include a restaurant, lake, amphitheater, dog park, skating rink and other amenities. ($130 million)

- A new rail-based streetcar system of 5 to 6 miles downtown, a downtown transit hub to link streetcar, commuter rail and bus systems, and possibly increased funding for the building of commuter rail lines. ($130 million)

- A new downtown convention center on the south edge of downtown near the proposed park. ($280 million)

- Sidewalks to be placed on major streets and near facilities used by the public throughout the city. ($10 million)

- 57 miles of new public bicycling and walking trails throughout the City. ($40 million)

- Improvements to the Oklahoma River, including a public whitewater kayaking facility and upgrades intended to achieve the finest rowing racecourse in the world. ($60 million)

- State-of-the-art health and wellness aquatic centers throughout the city designed for senior citizens. ($50 million)

- Improvements to the State Fair Park public buildings, meeting halls and exhibit spaces. ($60 million)

- Contingency funds to cover unforeseen costs ($17 million)

Coming out in support of MAPS 3 were, obviously, the mayor and the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, as well as many other civic organizations, schools and businesses. They had a campaign website at On the other side of the issue were Oklahoma City's fire and police unions, among others. Their committee Not This MAPS claimed far more pressing concerns in the current economic climate.

Current Status

On December 8, 2009, MAPS 3 passed by a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent. Election board officials estimated a total voter turnout of 31 percent, significantly higher than most local elections. Final vote numbers were 40,956 yes and 34,465 no.

Automobile Alley

During the early and mid 20th century, Automobile Alley was the city's car dealership district.  By the late 20th century, it had declined.  Since the 1990s, efforts in the area have focused on historic preservation and the transformation of former automotive structures into upscale lofts, galleries, and offices.

According to Metro Jacksonville's Robert Mann, who lived in the area at the time, "during the first pre-MAPS tours, we walked Automobile Alley and learned some of the amazing things that took place there among automobile sales, parts distribution and oil companies. Many of the old buildings had faded signs from their glory days, we wanted to keep those in place. Today a few of those buildings are still empty, but the bright neon signs illuminate the streets every night anyway with words such as 'HUDSON' home of the legendary Hudson Hornet. It is a well preserved time capsule of the early auto industry."

Park Plaza


Midtown is located just northwest of downtown Oklahoma City's business district.

American Farmers and Ranchers Mutual Insurance Company

St. Anthony's Hospital

Oklahoma City launched its bike share program in Spring 2012.

The City of Oklahoma City launched its Spokies bike share program on Friday, May 18 to provide visitors, employees and residents with an environmentally-friendly, healthy and affordable transportation option for the downtown area. Spokies provides daily, monthly and annual memberships, each of which entitle users to unlimited 30-minute rides throughout the duration of their membership. Additional time can be purchased at a rate of $4 per hour.

“I spend a lot of time downtown, and Spokies will make it even easier for my friends and me to visit our favorite hangout spots – including the new community basketball court,” said downtown resident Greg Collins. “It’s great to see Oklahoma City offering different forms of transportation and promoting a healthy lifestyle.”

The solar-powered, self-serve Spokies kiosks will appear in 6 downtown locations, providing docking space for a total of 97 bicycles. Spokies kiosk locations include:

• The Ronald J. Norick Downtown Library
• The Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum
• Plaza Court in Midtown (on Walker between 10th and 11th streets)
• Deep Deuce at Walnut at 2nd St.
• South side of Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark
• Northeast corner of Reno and Robinson near Cox Convention Center

The Spokies program began with an Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block grant administered by the City of Oklahoma City’s Office of Sustainability. This grant was designed to promote energy efficiency, including alternative methods of transportation. According to Sustainability Director Jennifer Gooden, “Spokies will make it easier and more convenient to get around downtown Oklahoma City, reduce tailpipe emissions, and provide a healthy alternative to driving a car.”

Arts District

Oklahoma City's Arts District is anchored by Myriad Botanical Gardens. Myriad Botanical Gardens is a 17-acre botanical garden just south of the heart of downtown Oklahoma City.  It was designed by renowned architect I.M. Pei and initial construction broke ground in 1977.  The effort to establish this botanical garden was led by Oklahoma City oil pioneer, Dean A. McGee, founder and CEO of the Kerr-McGee Oil Corporation. The Crystal Bridge Tropical Conservatory is the primary focal point of Myriad Botantical Gardens.  The Conservatory is a 224' long living plant museum featuring palm trees, tropical plants, flowers, waterfalls, and exotic animals.

The Cox Business Convention Center, along with the adjacent Myriad Botanical Garden, was the centerpiece of Oklahoma City's first major urban renewal project, the Pei Plan, in 1970.

The 18,203 seat Cheasapeake Energy Arena (background) opened in 2002, as a result of MAPS funding.  The structure is now the home of the National Basketball League's (NBA's) Oklahoma City Thunder.  The Thunder were known as the Seattle Supersonics before relocating to Oklahoma in 2008.

The Stage Center is the showpiece of the Arts Council of Oklahoma City's arts campus.

Oklahoma City Amtrak Station

Central Business District (CBD)

Currently, Oklahoma City's CBD is a major construction zone for "Project 180". Project 180 is an initative to transform downtown Oklahoma City 180 degrees by redesigning the majority of downtown's streets to include pedestrian and bicycle amenities.

The initiative, named Project 180, is a four year, $160 million redesign of downtown streets, sidewalks, parks and plazas to improve appearance and make the central core more pedestrian friendly. Plans call for the addition of landscaping, public art, marked bike lanes, decorative street lighting, and additional on-street parking spaces.

The Devon Tower was completed in March 2012 at the cost of $750 million.  The 52-story, 844' tall tower is the corporate headquarters for Oklahoma City-based Devon Energy Corporation.

The 14-story Colcord Hotel was the city's first skyscraper when it was completed in 1909.  Originally an office tower, the building was renovated and reopened as a luxury hotel in 2006.

Completed in 1911, the Skirvin Hilton was originally the 224-room Skirvin Hotel.  This building closed in 1988 and sat abandoned for 19 years before being renovated and reopened by Hilton in 2007.

Standing 493' tall, the First National Center was the tallest building in Oklahoma City and 4th tallest building west of the Mississippi River when it was constructed in 1931.  Today, it is the city's third tallest behind the Devon Tower and Chase Tower.

Deep Deuce

Deep Deuce was this historical African American section of downtown Oklahoma City. During the 1940s and 1950s, it was the region's epicenter of jazz musice and black culture. During the 1960's, this community was negatively impacted by the construction of Interstate 235.  In the past decade, it has benefited from Oklahoma City's desire to make the urban core area a vibrant pedestrian scale place again.


A former early 20th century warehouse district, Bricktown is now a popular entertainment district just east of downtown Oklahoma City. During the 1990's, after losing a competition for a new airline maintenance plant to Indianapolis, IN, mayor Ron Norick visited that city and returned believing Oklahoma City needed a vibrant downtown to compete economically.  This led to the development and passage of a massive redevelopment package known as the the Metropolitan Area Projects (MAPS).  The creation of the Bricktown canal and the surrounding entertainment district was a result of Oklahoma City's MAPS.  Today, MAPS is recognized as one of the most successful public-private partnerships undertaken in the country, exceeding $3 billion in investments.

Lower Bricktown

The walk score for OKC is currently lower then that of Jacksonville, but there isn't much logic in that. OKC is eminently more walkable if not downright more pleasurable then Jacksonville. Part of the reason is investment in infrastructure that is causing a rapid evolution into a cosmopolitan city with tree lined streets, the other reason is the weather. OKC, has a short cold winter, and a short extreme summer, everything in-between is some of America's best crystal clear, shirt sleeve weather with more perfect flying days then any other American City, as rated by the FAA.

Centennial Land Run Monument

The Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark opened in 1998 and contains 13,066 seats. It is the home of the Oklahoma City RedHawks, the AAA affiliate of the Houston Astros major league baseball team.

The current demolition of the former I-40 viaduct is a part of the city's "Core-to-Shore" project.  The Core-to-Shore project was created to relocate Interstate 40 further south of Oklahoma City's urban core and replacing it with a landscaped boulevard and greenway in the heart of the city.  This project also allows the city to reconnect the downtown district with the shore of the Oklahoma City.  It is one of several public projects being funded by MAPS3, which was approved by voters in 2009.

The original I-40 corridor was built through the south edge of downtown on former Rock Island and Katy Railroad rights of way. The old rail yards were home to some out of date warehousing and the various railroad spurs hadn't seen a train for many years. Today that land has been cleared again, this time the freeway has been removed. The former I-40 right-of-way is going to be used as a lineal parkway, a true 'Oklahoma Boulevard' with broad green spaces. There are also plans to make this roadway into a mass transit corridor which would eventually have streetcar or light-rail service. After an absence of 60 years, it appears that the rails are going back in place.

The sculpture of the Scissor Tail Fly Catcher, the state bird and symbol of the city, points skyward next to Union Station and straddles the I-40 pedestrian crossing and part of the freeway itself.

Oklahoma City is no longer a pass through, it has become a very desirable community with an increasingly vibrant urban core. Oklahoma City is not only a great place to visit, but an example to Jacksonville of what can happen in a similarly scaled city when it finally decides not to accept mediocrity.

Article by Ennis Davis and Robert Mann. Images by Robert Mann and Russell Conner.