The half-mile distance along Second Street between downtown Tulsa’s BOK Center–a large arena that hosts concerts, sporting events, festivals, and tournaments–and the Blue Dome District, an area filled with restaurants, bars, and interesting shops–may only be a 10-minute walk, but the lack of engaging storefronts, restaurants, or even windows makes the walk feel much longer, leaving those folks walking between the two feeling unsafe.
The sad story of Second Street begins in the 1970s, a time when the Urban Renewal craze, lending requirements, and federal policy were combined like ingredients in a cauldron, creating a deadly explosion. At least part of each of these nasty ingredients was intended to remove blight from city centers. Defining blight was essentially left to individual cities, and it often meant tearing down entire majority-black neighborhoods. In the case of Second Street, “blight” was used to describe any building a person or company wanted to tear down. This stretch of Second included a brothel or two, restaurants, shops, old bank buildings, furniture stores, etc., in many of the oldest buildings in Tulsa, some dating back to the 1890s. It was vibrant, full of activity and people on the street.
The wrecking balls came, and roughly 11 city blocks along Second Street were completely, devastatingly, demolished.
For a closer look at what we lost, including photos during demolition, check out Tulsa Gal’s article on Urban Renewal.
What replaced it? Steel and glass office buildings without any sort of outward-facing, street-level engagement, and many structures with blank walls. A performing arts center with no windows, faced entirely with concrete, complete with an attached, matching, windowless parking garage. A 400-room hotel with no windows at street level, but that includes a circle driveway for vehicles. An indoor mall with no windows but for a skylight on the roof. Air bridges were built between buildings and across streets to ensure no one set foot on the actual street below. A “motor bank” (a bank branch that consists solely of drive-thru lanes) that took up an entire city block. And loads of surface parking lots. Those were later complemented in the 2000s by another concrete parking garage, an office building clad in pre-fabricated concrete panels, with no windows on the ground level facing Second Street, but with a large, overhead garage door for deliveries. The motor bank was replaced by a surface parking lot. Four square blocks of old buildings on the west end of Second Street came down in the early 2000s to make way for a 19,0000-seat arena, known as the BOK Center.
It’s a dismal, uninviting, unfortunate (and self-inflicted) scene that links entertainment, lodging, dinging, and employment. In all, there are ±984 linear feet of blank, windowless walls along the south side of Second Street between the BOK Center and the Blue Dome District. There’s an additional 250 feet of blank walls on the north side, and if you include the West Garage, the total rises to 550 feet. This is a major factor leading to the street’s inactive quietude, and to the feelings of insecurity, danger, and exaggeration of time by people walking. Blank walls send a clear message to folks on the street: Leave. This isn’t a place for you. Go on, now. Don’t linger.
Interruptions to the sidewalk by driveways abound on this sleepy street. On the south side of the street, there are 10 driveways and 2 alleyways; on the north side, there are 7 driveways and 2 alleyways. Each driveway introduces conflict between cars and people. This poses a risk to people using the sidewalk, as cars regularly barrel out of garages and parking lots without looking for folks on the sidewalk. Driveways send a clear signal that this is not a place for humans – it’s built for cars.
Parking lots and One-Way Traffic
After all the buildings came down, parking lots sprang up in their place, like persistent, invasive weeds. When the Super Blocks were created for the Williams Center, Performing Arts Center, the hotel, and the Williams Towers, on-street parking was removed from the north side Second Street from Boulder to Cincinnati (a span of 3 blocks).
The street had already been converted into a stroad in the 1950s, replacing two-way traffic and on-street parking on both sides and plenty of mixing between cars, streetcars, and people walking, with four lanes of fast-moving one-way traffic.
This was no accident, either. It was designed this way on purpose: at the time, this stretch of Second Street was designated as a highway: US-75 and OK-33.
Our streets, bustling with people at the time, were completely reconfigured to maximize the speed at which vehicles could travel. First and Second Streets were the first streets in downtown Tulsa converted to one-way traffic. In the following two decades, there were contentious battles over the one-waying of several more downtown streets, in order to facilitate rapid access to the Inner Disperal Loop, a loop highway built in the 70s and 80s that displaced hundreds of homes and businesses, and still acts as a noose around downtown. As many business owners opposed to turning downtown into a one-way maze observed at the time, one-way streets lead to higher vehicle speeds, and multiple lanes encourage jockeying behavior. That means there is less time for eyes to land on storefronts and watching for folks crossing the street, and the increase in speed turns collisions with people walking from dangerous but survivable to deadly.
Combined, it hurt downtown businesses so badly that scores of them folded. When a “temporary” test converting downtown streets to one-way was proposed in 1957, downtown merchants banded together to try to stop it. A group of 60 businesses and taxpayers banded together in a last-ditch effort to stop the one-way conversion, asking a judge for a restraining order that would prevent the city from converting the streets.
During the brief hearing on the request for a temporary restraining order, Travis Milsten, co-counsel for opponent of the one-way conversion declared, “We’re putting in probably a speedway. In every one-way operation, traffic is speeded. Let us not experimentally do something we might regret later.”
The restraining order was denied, and the “temporary” test proceeded. C. Harold Miller, the City’s Traffic Engineer of the day, proclaimed that if the test failed and businesses were hurt as a result, he would be the first to recommend reverting back to two-way traffic, as the Tulsa Tribune reported on December 13, 1957: “City Traffic Engineer C. Harold Miller says if the trial period proves the system unsatisfactory he will be the first to recommend that it not be continued. However, he has faith in the one-way system, he said.”
The same issue of the Tribune featured a pro-con argument by two of their editorial writers (underlines are mine, to add emphasis):
Occasionally two editorial writers on the same newspaper meet each other going in different directions. Such a situation has occurred on the question of making Tulsa’s Main Street a one-way street. Here two Tribune men argue it out:
A BRIEF AGAINST
This is not just a question to be decided for motorists and merchants. If every merchant favors it—and most of them do not seem to have serious objections—the reasons why it should remain two way are solid. If every hurrying motorist approves, it doesn’t make any difference.
If others are willing to risk deflating Main Street’s tax valuations and pick up the additional assessments on their homes in return for the two hours-a-day-five-days-a-week convenience it might be to them to save 45 seconds going south on Main Street from First to Eighteenth streets, that is not controlling.
Main Street is our bazaar. A showplace. Stores fill up the buildings, not offices. Windows facing the streets are stacked attractively with the world’s best merchandise. They are worth seeing, not racing past under pressure from a hot-rod pursuer or an impatient policeman’s whistle.
Surely it is not wrong to designate just one short street out of the city’s vast network as its bazaar, where the shopper is to be considered first and the merchant or motorist second. Thousands of us love to drive up one side of Main Street and back, especially at night and on Sundays, showing off our town to guests or, maybe, simply amusing ourselves.
Is there to be no more simple romance in this world? No inexpensive pleasures left? Must we all bow down to the Machine? I object. When Fifth Avenue in New York City and Michigan Boulevard in Chicago, two of the great free entertainment spots in the world, are made one-way, it will be time for Tulsa to consider doing it.—V.F.B.
AND ONE FOR IT
How could business be hurt by making Main a one-way street? The fear seems to be that traffic would merely hurry by, because cars on one-way streets flow faster. The stream of traffic would be so fast, so this fear goes, that fewer people would stop to shop.
Well, who can stop now? What are your chances of finding a curbside parking place on Main Street during business hours? Shoppers have to go to parking lots or garages, anyway.
As it stands, downtown Main Street has only one lane of traffic for southbound cars and one for northbound cars. The outside lanes are clogged with cars waiting for the “Wait” signal to make right turns. If Main were made one-way there would be two usable through lanes at intersections where both right and left turns are allowed, and three where only right turns are allowed. How can downtown business be hurt if the flow of traffic is made easier and the job of driving downtown less exasperating?—J.L.J.
Within months of the conversion, businesses were already being affected negatively. According to the February 7, 1958 issue of the Tulsa Tribune, Downtown Merchants Unlimited, a group that promoted downtown businesses, was opposed to the new street configuration, and requested a professional studies of the effects. “The delegation included businessmen who testified that the trial network of one-way streets is injuring—and in some instances ruining—business.” Other pleas came directly from the affected businesses:
Representatives of Frank’s Pig Stand, 15th St. and Boston, said business there is down 20 per cent due to the one-way streets. The place will be closed if something is not done, they said.
Elzie W. Munn, operator of Mary Lou Pastry Shops on south Boston and in Utica Square, said business on Boston is down 20 to 30 per cent while business in Utica Square is up 40 per cent. “The one-way streets are driving people from the downtown area to the shopping centers Munn said. “Traffic on the oneway street is so fast we can hardly back out of our driveways.”
Martha Stone Spartan, who operates an interior decorating business in the 1700 block south Boston, said their service has been slowed because the company trucks cannot go south without using narrow Baltimore Avenue or detouring around the one-way streets.
Most impassioned plea for elimination of inequities caused by the one-way system came from A. D. Strahm, operator of the Parkade at Second St. and Boston Ave. He said that January—first month of the one-ways—saw his auto parking business drop more than any other January—or any other month—in the history of the business. He added that if the loss continues, it will amount to $28,000 a year and he will have to take money from other interests to meet mortgage payments on the Parkade.
Police Commissioner William R. Peterson told merchants who said that there was excessive speed on the one-ways that they should report it to him or police headquarters. “We’re 228 policemen short, but I beg of you to call me or the chief or the traffic director and report areas where this speeding is,” Peterson said. “It’s the duty of us all as citizens to contribute that much to the safety of our city.”
Many other merchants testified to poor business conditions, but attorney Ernest Clulow appeared and said he “took exception to the statement that the oneways are not good.
In a Tribune article from October 4, 1957, Merchants and Methodists March on City Hall to Protest ‘One-Way’ Plan, W. L. Lauhon, a downtown merchant opposed to the plan, said “this is the worst thing we could do to the downtown area at this time.”
He and the other protesters turned out to be right. In the end, businesses died, but the streets remained one-way. Eventually, downtown became a ghost town after 5 p.m.
Street Removal and Super Blocks
After entire blocks were demolished, Main Street and Boston Avenue were closed and removed between 1st and 3rd Streets, creating two massive super blocks where the monolithic office buildings and hotel with blank walls would be built. This achieved a few things: it cemented both a physical/visual barrier, and a racial barrier between streets North and South along the railroad tracks. The creation of these super blocks made it more difficult to travel into the heart of downtown from the north, or vice versa. Southbound travelers, either on foot or in a car, were met with the blank concrete walls of office buildings, and one-way traffic around these gigantic blocks. Closing and tearing out public streets and ceding them to private companies also gave just a little more land to the real estate developers to do terrible things with.
A Small Fix
To help make the walk along Second Street more pleasant, more vibrant, more varied, more aesthetically pleasing, and more conducive to walking, 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.
It would turn this…
Into something like this:
The plan would remove 20 parking spaces but 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.
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 Santa Fe Square development at 2nd & Elgin (under construction) and the PAC Lot Development (proposed) at 2nd & Cincinnati are complete, 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 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 (the Hampton Inn is nearly complete; and a Hilton Garden Inn has been proposed for the southeast corner of 2nd & Cheyenne). Adjacent to it is a surface parking lot that could one day be transformed into a mixed-use retail/office/residential combo, thereby creating a stronger link between the two areas (and would begin connecting them to the Brady District to the north).
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.