Tulsans have long lamented downtown’s one-way street system, and with reason. One-way streets are disorienting, increase trip times, are bad for business, and cause drivers to speed like they’re on highways.
In the fifties, First and Second Streets were converted from two-way streets to a system of paired one-ways in order to accommodate through-highway traffic – at the time, the streets were co-signed as Oklahoma Highway 33 and US 75 (and earlier served as Route 66). As we’ve seen, the conversion to one-way traffic obliterated businesses downtown, and the construction of I-244 and other highways left a path of destruction miles long and ruined many thriving neighborhoods along the way.
Though downtown streets have not been a part of the National Highway System since 1974, traffic engineers have continued to assert the impossibility of converting several downtown streets back to two way traffic because there are highway on- and off-ramps. They are wrong.
I first disproved this notion in 2012, with a series of illustrations showing how to treat intersections near highway ramps. Even then, people balked. In his recently-released walkability study for downtown Tulsa, Jeff Speck recommended converting practically every street to two-way traffic, and stopping about a block or two before each highway ramp. That’s a very good start, but it doesn’t go quite far enough. By stopping those two-way sections too early, we’re missing out on great opportunities to build interesting, high-quality places.
The area along 1st & 2nd between Greenwood & Lansing is a prime example. Though mostly barren now, some interesting buildings remain along East 1st Place, a street many folks pass by but don’t even know exists. Until 2010, it connected 1st & 2nd Streets – that year, the railroad crossing had deteriorated and the city decided to close the crossing instead of fixing it.
Before the highway was built, these streets continued north and east, and connected with the rest of the then-established street grid.
The streets that had been lined with industry, businesses, hotels, and apartments were then cut off from the rest of the system and forced into a new role: uninterrupted speedways to get on and off the highway. Predictably, businesses withered, and many buildings were demolished.
1925 Sanborn map of subject area (click to view larger):
Subject area, 1951 and 2016:
We now have an opportunity to fix the problem we created in the 1950s. Just a block south, the East Village is a growing, interesting, nice place to be. A large redevelopment of the Nordam site is underway, and will include apartments, restaurants and retail.
Life is seen just north of this site, too: the old Bacon & Sons building (a 47,300 sq ft building constructed in 1924 as Tulsa Winch’s headquarters) has become home to the First Street Flea, and at Iroquois & Admiral (also cut off by the highway), just across the street, there are a couple interesting buildings that have also somehow survived the wrecking ball, including the Hooper Brothers Coffee building, built in 1920, and another from 1910. It’s a forgotten corner of downtown.
Immediately to the west, the old Hartford Building is being transformed into apartments, and The Edge Apartments have been completed. The large, empty lot across the street from both of those will soon become Santa Fe Square, a massive mixed-use development with 600,000 square feet of office space, apartments, retail, restaurants, and a hotel.
The area I’d like to revive is an essential connection between all those areas. It needs to be built to support businesses, restaurants, and apartments once again. It needs to be attractive enough to implore people to walk from the East Village to the First Street Flea, or to Santa Fe Square. And it needs to be two-way to connect them. It’s essential that we get this right, instead of writing it off as an inevitable loss because of the highway ramps.
If we treated our streets with a little dignity, a little gentleness, instead of making them as straight and wide as possible so as to move as many cars as quickly as possible, we could have something really special.
Or we could have this:
What a beautiful way to greet travelers entering downtown.
How I Would Fix It
My First Street fix includes re-opening First Place, re-opening Lansing Avenue north of First Street, adjusting the two-lane exit ramp from I-244, and reducing westbound travel lanes. The current I-244 off-ramp feeds two lanes of traffic onto First Street. I would create a landscaped median/barrier so the right lane separates drivers to either First Street or Second Street (via First Place). The median would culminate on the west with substantial landscaping, a proper welcome sign with decorative features, and room for sidewalks. Reducing westbound lanes from three to two allows two-way traffic on First Street until it curves and intersects with First Place and Lansing Ave.
Remaining are two westbound lanes created by off-ramps from US-75 and I-244. The outer travel lane created by the US-75 ramp will remain a through-lane, while the inner travel lane created by the I-244 ramp will merge right and end before reaching Iroquois Avenue, resulting in a two-lane, two-way street with enough room for either two rows of parallel parking, or one row of parallel parking and a bike lane.
By allowing traffic to flow on First Place again, folks entering downtown via a highway ramp can now reach their destinations in multiple ways, reducing the periodic strain on First Street. Reducing the number and width of travel lanes will also result in lower travel speeds, making it safer for all road users, including drivers, people on foot, in wheelchair, and riding bicycles. The current configuration encourages high speeds, and comically includes “Pedestrians Ahead” warning signs.
A redesign of the street, with a road diet, two-way traffic, street trees, and active storefronts is a much better way to alert drivers that they’re no longer on a highway, that they’re entering a place inhabited by human beings.
Lansing Avenue north of First Street used to be a through street lined with restaurants and the Lansing Hotel (built 1921). It is currently a parking lot. By reclaiming part of the parking lot for Lansing Avenue and connecting it to Admiral Blvd., access to the First Street Flea and Hooper Brothers Building is improved, and small, mixed-use buildings geared toward small entrepreneurs can replace the parking lot and help reduce the noise level from the highway traffic.
Admiral is a narrow street that connects with Iroquois Avenue on its western end. With only 48 feet separating buildings on either side of the street, it is probably one of the narrowest, coziest streets in Tulsa. That slender profile could allow it to become an intimate, lively area with cafes and shops. The Hooper Brothers Coffee building, listed on the National Register, and its neighboring building (also a former coffee roastery) would be excellent spots for a coffeehouse, brewpub, or tap room (especially given its history as a whiskey distillery during Prohibition). It also has Tulsa’s only hydraulic water elevator.
The First Street Flea has enough floor space to be able to create lots of small retail spaces for its vendors or up-and-coming retail entrepreneurs who want to try something small and test the waters. The building meets the street along Admiral, and with the right doors and windows, it could really liven the street.
Another, grander idea is to turn the building into Tulsa’s version of LA’s Grand Central Market (or DC’s Eastern Market), a large indoor marketplace of unique restaurants and grocery vendors in an historic warehouse. The mini restaurants are very small, and seating is mostly shared, which allows cheaper rents and overhead that give small operators a chance to succeed.
The Second Street solution involves reducing the number of travel lanes from four to two, adding on-street parking and bike lanes, and a proper sidewalk. A liner building would be added on the northeast corner of the intersection to further separate the neighborhood from the highway. The bridge containing on-ramps to US-75 and I-244 is narrowed at the intersection, and uses striping and painted highway symbols to better communicate instructions to drivers. This plan also involves connecting the existing bridge to Second & Madison on its eastern end. It wouldn’t take much work to make that a reality, and would help reconnect that area with downtown.
Throughout the whole area, intersections should be narrowed, reducing the time and distance it takes to cross the street, and slow down cars.
I also propose extending Iroquois Avenue south, from First to Second. Doing so further integrates (or at the very least, de-isolates) the buildings on Admiral into a regular street pattern, while creating opportunities for interesting public spaces due to the angles of the existing streets and railroad tracks. It also breaks up a superblock and would allow the creation/platting of new, smaller parcels, which the city could sell to local, small-scale developers.
An old gas station stands west of the intersection of First Place and Second (where Iroquois will also meet). It has large glass overhead doors and a 576 square foot canopy. It could be re-purposed as a tap room, brewpub, or restaurant, with outdoor seating. Since it sits on a corner and would face other (new) buildings shaped by the intersection of First Place, Iroquois, and Second, the space around the intersection becomes gently enclosed and active. The intersection could become home to corner cafes with sidewalk dining under shade trees, street performers, live music, and small neighborhood events.
Small Area, Big Opportunity
Don’t discount this area because of its relatively small size. A lot can happen in small spaces. In fact, the most interesting and financially productive parts of our city are the small, intimate areas designed around the human experience, not maximum throughput and high speeds. Among the best patio dining in the city exists just a block south of here at East Village Bohemian Pizza. It’s a cozy, 20’x40′ space between two small brick buildings, and it’s a popular place to grab a slice, catch live music, or just watch the people walking by. It’s a lively, active area, even though it’s right next to the highway.
The area bound by Admiral, Second, Hartford and Lansing could be just as charming, lively and financially productive, if we’ll only give it a chance.
For as long as we choose to abandon a redesign of the streets because of the wrongly-perceived complication the highway ramps pose, it will remain vacant, unproductive, ugly, and inactive.
The power is in our hands. We are capable of doing the right thing, and I hope we do. Let us not write it off because we think it may be difficult, and knowingly make new mistakes because of old ones. Let’s revert all our streets to two-way and build a Northeast Village.