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City officials say Chamber building debate is traffic vs. pedestrians


Ben Fenwick September 18th, 2008

On June 4, 2007, URS Corporation out of Denver drafted a study on realigning E.K. Gaylord near N.W. Fourth in downtown Oklahoma City, where it curves across the grid and connects with Broadway Avenue....

Kirk-Humphreys-Mick-Cornett

On June 4, 2007, URS Corporation out of Denver drafted a study on realigning E.K. Gaylord near N.W. Fourth in downtown Oklahoma City, where it curves across the grid and connects with Broadway Avenue.

SECOND DRAFT
$18 MILLION PLAN
TRAFFIC STUDY

Proposals then before city engineers and planners for a new Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce building would have E.K. Gaylord straightened and no longer connect with Broadway.

One city official who didn't like that idea is public works director Dennis Clowers. Clowers, an engineer, said that when he got that report from URS, he could tell " in so many words " that those engineers also thought straightening E.K. Gaylord was the wrong move.

The study concluded: "It appears that at this time that if the existing transition is removed, some form of one-way street restrictions would be required for long-term operational success, and the city should understand and be willing to accept the traffic circulation impacts of such restrictions."

Clowers dashed off an e-mail to URS. "Please include a recommendation to the effect that this proposal is not a good idea," Clowers wrote.

SECOND DRAFT
A second draft of the URS study, dated two days later, added this line to the conclusion: "Based on the analysis conducted to date, we recommend that the City not allow the proposed street realignment."

Why did Clowers write them? Because his desire for such a conclusion was based on his 32 years in private practice, he said.

 "Every time I had a client who hired me to tell them what they should do, that's what I was supposed to do. I was supposed to tell them either this was a good idea or a bad idea," Clowers said. "That's why I asked them to put a definite statement in there. And I don't think they would have done that if they hadn't agreed with it."

As it now stands, E.K. Gaylord will remain curved. About a third of the land on the site of the new chamber will remain under pavement.

Developer and former Mayor Kirk Humphreys, who is vice-chairman of aviation and aerospace at the chamber, said the clashes over the site underscore a basic difference between the city's planners and its engineers.

 "There's a philosophical tug of war in Oklahoma City " and probably every other city " between the planners who are basically people-centered and the engineers who are basically trying to move traffic," Humphreys said. "Planners want our cities to be inviting to pedestrians. Engineers want to move cars and move as many and as fast as they can."

The decision regarding the placement of E.K. Gaylord is not due to the chamber, but because in that battle, the engineers won, Humphreys said.

 "That (policy) will be set for the next 50 years on this corner. But it's much broader than this project," Humphreys said.

$18 MILLION PLAN
The chamber's current $18 million plan is to go before the city's Downtown Design Review Committee Thursday, where the committee will review and vote on it, unless it is postponed or withdrawn.

The committee of seven has dwindled to four members who can vote on the project after two resignations and one suspension recently rocked the group. The two who resigned " architect Anthony McDermid, who questions some aspects of the proposal, and civil engineer David Todd " were informed by city officials that they were possibly in violation of state law.

One member, Betsy Brunsteter, who chairs the committee, suspended herself briefly, but in days resumed her duties. However, she told the Gazette she would abstain from voting on the chamber proposal because she works for the Architectural Design Group, which is the chamber's representative on the project.

Humphreys said he supports the new building as well, despite its difference from the previous design he also supported. However, he acknowledged the issues surrounding pedestrian access to the site still trouble him, especially the six lanes of traffic that must be crossed by anyone attempting to walk to the proposed building. The current design will violate city guidelines, he said.

 "Here's the conflict," Humphreys said. "The council has adopted those guidelines, and yet they don't insist or don't understand "¦ that there is a conflict here between what they are saying and what their staff is doing."

TRAFFIC STUDY
City Manager Jim Couch said after Humphreys initially proposed closing E.K. Gaylord, the city commissioned the traffic study. Couch said he and other city staff rejected the proposal.

Mayor Mick Cornett, who recently touted city improvements to walkability, said he remains against rerouting E.K. Gaylord. He said cutting the link would reduce the city's connectivity downtown.

 "I think it's a step in the wrong direction," Cornett said. "Connectivity in general is good. One of the things we have going for us in the inner city is we have a great grid. That's good and that's healthy."

Cornett did suggest, however, that narrowing Gaylord could make the intersection at the chamber site more walkable.

 "I don't think you have to choose between automobile-friendly or pedestrian-friendly, but I think currently "¦ we are not pedestrian-friendly. We need to be," Cornett said. "Streets can be made more narrow, sidewalks can be expanded, you can have better signals that allow for more time for someone walking across a wide street. You can landscape it to make it a more pleasant walk."

Clowers agreed " tentatively.

 "It wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility to do that on Gaylord and Broadway. There is not a whole lot of work that would need to be done," Clowers said. "In regard to Gaylord, without reducing the width of the street, I'm not sure there is a whole lot more that can be done to make it pedestrian-friendly."  "Ben Fenwick

 
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