The new Downtown OKC Boulevard: a better option

Constructed in 1965, the I-40 Crosstown freeway recently carried approximately 120,000 vehicles per day, nearly 50,000 over its intended capacity. In January 2012, a new rerouted I-40 opened a few blocks south. The old freeway was dismantled, leaving its right-of-way vacant. The prevailing wisdom would be that a boulevard would be built in its place. But, as the construction design was clarified, it seems that a section of it would be elevated where it cut diagonally across the grid of downtown streets. This caught citizens and even the City Council off guard - it was unexpected that the old elevated freeway would be replaced by a new elevated freeway. That didn't make much sense.

Another proposal was presented: Shorten the elevated section so it is only a few blocks long. This elevated portion serves, as I-40 once did, as a visual, literal, and geographic divider and barrier to new developing areas of downtown. It would likely be counter-productive to improving downtown.

Alternate proposal: Build a large roundabout/traffic circle joining 5-10 city streets. This proposal excited some, but primarily because it was an improvement over the elevated proposal. There are still some issues - there are too many streets converging at that point for an efficient traffic circle. The government would have to buy additional land for the large circle, close some streets, or build underpasses (as shown in the proposal in the middle).
These proposals have some merit, but they still accommodate the old mindset - that there should be a continuous bypass connector off I-40 and back on.

Criteria for the old I-40 right-of-way
Feed commuter traffic to downtown
Improve access to downtown development
Decrease the impact of the car culture
Improve bicycle and pedestrian lifestyles
Respect the fabric of the city in its street grid
What does Oklahoma City really want from this project? I'm guessing they want to continue the momentum of developing downtown and providing more amenities for improving the livability of the city, not the drivability.

Audience of users
Office and work commuters
Restaurant goers
• Fans to and from the Arena
• Audiences to the Music Hall
Visitors to the library and art museum
Downtown residents
Convention attendees
Recreational users going to parks
Tourists going to the National Memorial and Bricktown

All of the above users need and want to access downtown, not to bypass it. Bypassing happens on the new I-40 freeway.
Drivers are not likely to exit I-40, stop at their destination downtown and then get back on that road and leave in the same direction. Almost all users of the new road will exit, stop, and return back in the direction from which they came.

There is just no need for an I-40 bypass connector, elevated or not, with or without a traffic circle.

More thoughtful proposal: Restore the grid

David Dickerson proposed this idea of simply restoring the city streets without a connector that slashes through the grid. The rendering above shows a grid plan with traffic circles at 4 intersections. Below is a rendering of a similar option, this one by Paul Ryckbost:

The concept

OKC has a prominent grid plan to its city streets. The grid was broken and severed in the 1960s by the then-new I-40. There is now an opportunity to restore the city to its earlier, more efficient, more visually appealing format. The diagonal 'gash' is removed and the city grid is restored. The concept of the grid plan is to develop two feeder streets from I-40 that serve downtown destinations (without disrupting the city grid) rather than bypass through downtown.
A street off I-40 from the west that serves Film Row, the Myriad Gardens, and downtown.
• A street off I-40 from the east that serves the new Central Park, the Public Market, and downtown.
Both streets feed the new convention center, the arena, and the new park.

This proposal requires a change of thinking, a fresh approach to the problem: Maybe there is no need for a boulevard along the right-of-way of the old I-40. A fresh approach is the attitude that Oklahoma City would be better served with streets adhering to the grid that serve destinations rather than bypassing them.

The city of Memphis successfully opposed part of I-40 that would cut through a park and downtown naborhoods. The land reverted back to the city and was developed into an urban naborhood. In Manhattan, sections of Broadway (which also cuts across and disrupts the grid) have been closed and turned into pedestrian plazas. It has been very successful, returning parts of the city to the public and improving the movement of traffic on the efficient grid.
Important: Streets that cut gashes across an established grid require: more intersections, more stop lights, and more land used for concrete roadways. The angled cuts also cause a greater disruption to orderly traffic flow.

Grids provide easier ways to navigate urban environments.
Emphasizes pedestrians, cyclists, and the downtown experience, rather than the automobile.
Probably cheaper to construct than the connector boulevard or traffic circle.
The remaining vacant right-of-way could be used as open green space or sold to developers to generate funds and spur further downtown development.

Comparisons: elevated diagonal and street level grid plan

Above: aerial shot showing the angled 'gash' across the grid. Below: the east approach to the new boulevard.

Below: a logomark by Walter Jenny.

Bob Kemper started and directed a Facebook page, Friends for a Better Boulevard, and momentum was building in support of the Grid Plan.

City Council recommendation
On January 8, 2013, the council voted to recommend the plan with the overpass on the diagonal right-of-way. From Eric Wenger, who heads the Public Works Department, said he thinks most members of the city council are satisfied with public involvement in developing the boulevard (as in they don't want more input that disagrees with their preconceived notions). The plan all along has been to fill the footprint of the old Interstate 40 with a road that makes downtown more accessible to interstate traffic, Wenger said.
There it is - "The plan all along" As in, once a decision has been made, even a thoughtless one, we should stick to it.

Oklahoma DOT Must Consider Restoring Street Grid in Downtown OKC
by Angie Schmitt, Streetsblog
In a rare victory against state DOT standard operating procedure, residents of Oklahoma City managed to compel the Oklahoma Department of Transportation to consider a redeveloped street grid as an alternative to a wide, high-speed boulevard through the city's downtown. A highly-organized group of volunteers calling themselves Friends of a Better Boulevard has been challenging Oklahoma DOT's plans for an area near downtown where the I-40 elevated highway was recently torn down. ODOT had originally proposed an elevated highway-like road through the "core-to-shore" area, where the city had been planning a walkable, mixed-use naborhood.

OKC advocates have changed the DOT's "alternatives analysis" process - part of the environmental impact study. This process is meant to evaluate a set of options for the project; generally state DOTs just trot out of a handful of similar road plans with slightly different alignments. But Friends of a Better Boulevard and its allies argued that the DOT should add a proposal that differs significantly from the "boulevard" plan: the reconstruction and enhancement of the original street grid, known as "Alternate D." And, the Federal Highway Administration intervened on the advocates' behalf and ordered the state to add Alternate D to the analysis.

"The FHWA has clearly told ODOT that they must respect the widespread outcry from the people of OKC to study the option. By trying to funnel traffic to one high speed corridor in which cars cannot exit to reach potential development along the boulevard, one impedes economic development as well as forgoes the creation of walkable destinations and place-making that might otherwise be possible."

On September 25, 2012, I emailed this essay to the mayor, each City Council member, the Director of Public Works, and the Downtown reporter for The Oklahoman newspaper. Of the 11 emails I sent to the OKC officials, I received only one reply, from Eric Wenger, Public Works City Engineer. The other 10? Nothing. Not even courtesy replies of receipt or thank you.
A few months ago, I sent emails about an issue in Manhattan to the City Councilwoman, Mayor Bloomberg, and Governor Cuomo. Within hours, I received a reply from each of those 3. Granted, they were most likely from an assistant, but they were still recognitions of a citizen's input.
Percentage of public servants replying to my emails:
    NYC: 100%
    OKC:     9%
I suspect the Oklahoma City officials simply did not want to acknowledge an alternate proposal to their plans.