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MAPS 3.1


Blair Humphreys September 2nd, 2010

The idea of spending $30 million for just 1.7 acres of land " a price of over $400 per square foot " seems patently absurd.

How would you spend $25 million to improve Oklahoma City's quality of life?  

I have been asking that for more than a month, and I've been impressed with the diversity of ideas and thoughtful suggestions proposed by citizens willing spend a little time and imagination to dream up ways to enhance OKC.    

Usually, such an exercise is nothing more than that " a game, fodder for civic discussion, a way to keep online chatter, well, chattering. But in this case, the money is very real, or at least could be. If we choose to take a step back and apply some creative thinking and quality design, we very well could have $25 million to spend on another project (or projects) in an effort to enhance OKC's quality of life. Think of it as MAPS 3.1!

Let me explain. As Oklahoma Gazette recently reported, the $280 million budgeted for the MAPS 3 convention center includes $30 million to cover the estimated cost of moving an OG&E substation located east of Robinson Avenue, between S.W. Fourth and S.W. Fifth, across the street from the future MAPS 3 central park.

The substation is a tangle of high-voltage equipment and barbed wire fencing, which, while a typical sighting throughout the city and a necessary component of our infrastructure, is not in keeping with the active, urban, mixed-use vision for Core to Shore. The substation is located within one of the proposed convention center sites east of the park. If this site is selected, the substation's relocation is likely a must, and you add the $30 million to the tab for land acquisition.  

But what if the convention center is sited elsewhere? Leaving the substation as it stands, fronting on our new park is certainly less than ideal. And yet, the idea of spending $30 million for just 1.7 acres of land " a price of over $400 per square foot " seems patently absurd. Surely there is a way to ameliorate the negative physical and visual presence of the substation without plunking down such a ridiculous amount of public dollars.  

Other cities have come up with a range of architectural solutions. Some are very simple, like the strategy used in a number of Canada's residential districts where substations are hidden inside what appears to be a regular suburban house. Other designs take the opposite approach, attempting to show off the infrastructure by creatively exposing the "guts" of the city, as demonstrated in the colorful 1954 design by Dal Grauer in Vancouver, B.C.

And late last year, construction began on a 70-foot-tall steel structure in Portland, Ore., that adds both aesthetic enhancement and functionality by draping a curving array of solar panels and wind turbines around not just a substation, but multiple utility buildings, while providing 75-90 percent of the power needed to operate local facilities. All of this at a price tag of $2.6 million!

Can't we come up with some creative solutions to address the "substation issue" while properly weighting the cost and benefit? A clear site would be great " but not for $30 million.  

Most of OKC's best architectural work is a direct result of open design competitions. Such a competition would spur the local and international design community to dream up a substation upgrade that we would love to have next to our new park. Even if we spend twice as much as Portland, we will still have $25 million left over to spend on something else " so keep the ideas coming.

Humphreys is a fellow at the Institute for Quality Communities at the University of Oklahoma and an adjunct professor for OU's College of Architecture.
 
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