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Flashback: When Planning is Denied a Vote in Shaping the City

Past policy could determine Core to Shore park’s future


By Steve Lackmeyer

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Edition: DRIVE, Section: BUSINESS, Page 4B

Paul Brum and Garner Stoll are distant memories at City Hall these days, but their legacies serve as a reminder of the stark differences between city engineers and planners.

Brum, who served a long stint as Oklahoma City’s public works director until he died a few years ago, was all business. He rose through the ranks at the public works department and, as with his predecessors, the priorities seemed clear: pave the roads, get traffic moving as fast as possible and don’t worry about trees — people don’t like them anyway.

Stoll, meanwhile, was a bit the revolutionary when he was hired as planning director in 1993.

He arrived from Boulder, Colo., itself a relatively progressive community when it came to planning. Stoll encountered resistance when he suggested redevelopment of the urban core could be assisted by going beyond repaving of streets, and instead going with a more elaborate design with landscaping, street furnishings and other amenities aimed at creating a sense of place.

When Stoll suggested cutting down on city investment in infrastructure in fringe areas to slow sprawl, one city councilman, Jack Cornett, didn’t just want to see Stoll fired. He unsuccessfully sought to abolish the planning department. The effort failed by one vote.

Stoll’s ideas persevered, though his career in Oklahoma City came to an end a dozen years ago when he sought to give planning a bigger role in the city’s operations via a revised master plan.

Now, planning is still perceived by City Hall observers as taking a backseat to public works. Witness the process under way for the hiring of an architect for a planned $120 million park in Core to Shore.

The park is hailed as the key to sparking development in the blighted area between the Oklahoma River and downtown. Mayor Mick Cornett has called it the city’s chance at establishing its version of Chicago’s Millennial Park or Houston’s Discovery Green.

A week before Christmas, the public works department sent a notice to firms that subscribe to the city’s bidding list that it was seeking an architect for the park. Responses were due in early January.

Sixteen firms responded. Of those, four were selected by a committee as finalists to be interviewed for a final recommendation of hiring to be made to the city council. One of the firms, Hargreaves Associates, has the advantage of having prepared a master plan for the park in advance of the MAPS 3 campaign that provided it with funding.

The other three firms are Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, James Corner Field Associates and Design Workshop. All four firms have impressive experience in designing urban parks.

Imagine the questions that can be posed to these competing firms. A city planner won’t get a say in the hiring. Nor will a vote belong to anyone in the city’s park department.

Instead, three of the five votes belong to engineers working for the city: Wenger; his boss, Assistant City Manager Dennis Clowers; and MAPS 3 program manager David Todd, who answers to Clowers and Wenger. All three men report to City Manager Jim Couch, also an engineer.

The two remaining votes belong to downtown property owner Fred Hall and architect Anthony McDermid.

Engineers aren’t without valuable experience and expertise. But when asked why the selection committee is stacked with city engineers, and doesn’t include people with backgrounds in planning and parks operations, the answer wasn’t an argument against diversifying the group or in defense of the engineers’ expertise.

Instead, Clowers cited a policy governing the selection committees that dates back 25 years. It’s being done, he essentially said, because that’s always the way it’s been done.

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Steve Lackmeyer

Steve Lackmeyer is a reporter, columnist and author who started his career at The Oklahoman in 1990. Since then, he has won numerous awards for his coverage, which included the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, the city's... Read more ›