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Betting on a better boulevard


Bob Kemper August 15th, 2012

Paul Green, field division 4 engineer for the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, had no idea his presentation would let loose a whirlwind of controversy and consequent action.

At the June meeting of the MAPS 3 streetcar subcommittee, Green presented an update on the progress of the new Oklahoma City boulevard. Within a couple days after his remarks, the Friends for a Better Boulevard Facebook group had been formed, newspaper articles began to appear, local blogs were heating up and talk radio was abuzz.

Green had done nothing wrong in his presentation. What he did was reveal the actual design of the proposed boulevard, which caught everyone off-guard.

The updated design turned out to be an elevated interstate-style high-speed exit ramp from the newly relocated Interstate 40. This exit ramp was to run from the west on a rehabilitated portion of the old I-40 crosstown form Pennsylvania to Western, onto a new fly-over bridge that would span Western, Classen, Reno and Sheridan before landing somewhere around Lee and Walker.

The result would be about one to one-and-a-half miles of elevated highway into downtown.

Not a single person in the past six weeks has come forward to say he or she was aware that the boulevard would be an elevated ramp. To a person, the public’s vision had been of a nice, gentle, tree-lined boulevard at ground level. Most envisioned a walkable thoroughfare lined with diverse boutiques, a grand entrance into downtown that would breathe life into an area blighted by the previous elevated highway.

The elevated portion of the new boulevard was not a secret held close by Oklahoma City’s Planning Department and ODOT. The information is out there. However, the public’s perception of ODOT’s design and the city’s acceptance of their design was caused by their failure — and the news media’s failure — to convey detailed and understandable information. There are good reasons why everyone thought the boulevard would be on the ground.

When the decision for an elevated highway running into downtown was made back in the late 1990s, a convincing argument could be made for the elevated solution. At that time, however, we were still recovering from the aftermath of the Penn Square Bank failure and the Murrah Federal Building bombing.

There was no Chesapeake Energy Arena, no Thunder, no boathouse district, no Olympic rowing training center, no Project 180, no Core to Shore, little development in Bricktown, no Devon tower and no rebuilding of Myriad Botanical Gardens. There had not yet been a nearly $2 billion public and private investment in downtown.

The Oklahoma City of 10 to 15 years ago is not the Oklahoma City of today. What was then thought to be a reasonable solution to traffic problems downtown is no longer feasible.

No matter the outcome of the current discussion, we will get a better boulevard as a result of the recent public involvement than if the conversation had not occurred.


Kemper is founder of Friends for a Better Boulevard.



 
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