A Modest Proposal

Second Street in downtown Tulsa is desolate and an uncomfortable place to walk, but it wasn’t always this way. Before it was turned into a car-centric street with blank concrete walls and fast-moving, one-way traffic, it was quite active and lively. To help correct some of these mistakes made in past decades, I’ve come up with a plan involving an existing, publicly-owned parking garage. I propose converting a 135-foot portion of the parking garage between the hotel site and the Performing Arts Center into retail/restaurant space, widening the sidewalk, adding street trees and plantings, and replacing one lane of traffic with parallel parking. Ideally, I’d like to see two-way traffic returned to Second Street, and the addition of protected bike lanes. Those would take a much larger effort and a greater sum of money. Since this parking garage is owned by the city, it reduces upfront costs and could have an out-sized effect on the area. This project would make the walk along Second Street between two large destinations more pleasant, more vibrant, more varied, more aesthetically pleasing, and more conducive to walking.

It would turn this…

Into something like this:


The plan would remove 20 parking spaces from the garage, but would add up to five lease-able units totaling 8,682 sq ft. The concrete floor is already level, and the ceiling heights reach upward of 16 feet. All that would need to be done is the removal of exterior concrete in the places where windows and doors would go, and the addition of plumbing and electrical. The parking garage is owned by the City of Tulsa (officially the Tulsa Parking Authority), so there would be no acquisition price.

The net operating income for 20 spaces in this garage translates to around $18,000 a year. The same spaced leased to retailers or restaurants would generate between $139,000 and $182,000 in revenue per year (based on comp space downtown, listed at $16-21/sf/yr). That’s 7-10 times the annual return for the same amount of space. Plus, the city would realize additional tax revenues from the retail/restaurant activities – which all city services depend on as a source of funding.

The cost of new retail construction per square foot in Tulsa is currently around $75/sq ft. Since the structure is already built and it’s just a matter of subdividing the space, and adding doors, windows, electrical, and some plumbing, I think it’s reasonable to cut that cost in half. At $37.50/sq ft, it would cost around $330,000 to rough-out the space. (Think that cost of out of line? Let me know.) Add in an extra $150,000 for the sidewalk widening, parking meters, benches, and plantings, and that brings us to $480,000. For around half a million dollars, the City could completely transform this section of Second Street. It would serve the adjacent hotel, the Performing Arts Center, the BOK Tower, City Hall, and folks walking to or from events at the BOK Center or Blue Dome District. Assuming 30% overhead and maintenance costs, it would only take  3.75-5 years to cover those initial expenses.

Current Configuration:

Proposed Configuration:

This location is the midway point between the BOK Center and the Blue Dome District, a five minute walk from either destination. The Second Street Connection would reassure folks traveling between the two on foot, and serve as a positive example of re-imagining how our streets look, feel, and how much they contribute to the well-being of the city. When the new developments along the ends of the route are finished, I expect this stretch of Second Street to see even more foot traffic, increasing the need to make the walk attractive and interesting, which are crucial. As Jane Jacobs wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities:

To generate exuberant diversity in a city’s streets and districts four conditions are indispensable:
1. The district, and indeed as many of its internal parts as possible, must serve more than one primary function; preferably more than two…
2. Most blocks must be short; that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent.
3. The district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones so that they vary in the economic yield they must produce. This mingling must be fairly close-grained.
4. There must be a sufficiently dense concentration of people, for whatever purposes they may be there…

We can’t fix the length of the Super Blocks along Second Street (at least, not without demolishing parts of the Williams Resource Center and the ballroom at the Hyatt hotel), but we can make sure we achieve the other objectives fairly easily, and we can make the walk seem shorter by making it more lively.

The South Garage, or Second Street Connection, is halfway between the BOK Center and the Blue Dome District. New developments, either under construction or proposed, are shown.

The same kind of conversion could easily replicated at the first floor of the Williams Resource Center (the space originally built as an indoor mall, attached to the BOK Tower). It fronts Second Street, is within a hundred feed of the Second Street Connection, which puts it directly across from the hotel, slightly closer to the BOK Center and the new hotels at 2nd & Cheyenne. Adjacent to it is a surface parking lot that could one day be transformed into a mixed-use retail/office/residential combo. On the west side of Boulder is the West Garage (also city-owned), which sets back 17 feet from the north side of Second Street. The same parking garage transformation could be applied there, as well (it would also help conceal the lower floors of the parking garage from view). All these things would create a stronger link between the two areas (and would begin connecting them to the Brady District to the north).

The Williams Resource Center, originally an indoor mall, could easily have portions of the first floor along Second Street converted to street-facing retail and restaurant space. The air bridge in the photo connects to a hotel.

The best way to revitalize streets and cities is to do so incrementally, and I think this is a great way to kick things off, with the City leading by example. What do you think? Let me know in the comment section below.

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