Building a canal that could hold water
The 20th anniversary of the Bricktown Canal is being celebrated next week as one of the most popular of the original MAPS projects, but the idea itself dates back years earlier.
It was the late ‘80s and times were bad in Oklahoma City. The economy was tanking and people were leaving. It was in that moment of desperation that city fathers convinced residents to chip in to build a waterway from what was then the North Canadian River to the heart of the city’s commerce.
After a year of construction, the waterway opened to great fanfare. The water level dropped on the second day. And on the third day, the canal failed altogether.
It was 1890 and the failure was devastating for Oklahoma City. But the idea of a canal persisted decades later. And in the 1980s, with the city again in an economic tailspin, another generation of city fathers began discussing how to not just bring life back to the North Canadian River (now known as the Oklahoma River) but also to once again build a canal that could connect the river to downtown.
Dreams of a canal connecting the river to downtown were revived in the mid-1990s as the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, cheered on by advertising executive Ray Ackerman, sought to come up with a plan to revive the city’s momentum.
Ackerman was long interested in finding a way to build dams along the North Canadian River, a prairie river essentially turned into a storm water ditch lined with rocks by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in response to a series of devastating floods in the 1920s.
Fred Spitz, an engineer who often worked on city infrastructure projects, came up with the idea of taking the river project one step further by building a canal from the river, but via a west downtown path that would connect to the lake at the yet to be opened Myriad Gardens.
The canal idea faded, but didn’t disappear, as the chamber joined up with Mayor Ron Norick to come up with a list of projects to pitch to voters as a means of improving quality of life and making the city more attractive for outside investment and employers.
The eight other projects put on the MAPS ballot were all practical if not equally ambitious. But the canal? The canal was seen as frivolous, unable to totally connect with the river due to steep elevation changes.
The idea, however, was to add spark to Bricktown, which was the one part of the city drawing some excitement among locals who saw it as a potential answer to West End in Dallas. The canal was seen as a way to add an element of the San Antonio Riverwalk to the city’s century-old brick warehouse district.
Voters narrowly approved the MAPS ballot in 1993, inspired by a rendering that showed the canal flowing south of Reno Avenue, away from any of the existing warehouses.
After passage, engineers, planners and Bricktown property owners including Jim Brewer dared to consider moving the canal to California Avenue. The job would be far more complicated, requiring excavation between basements of warehouses dating back to statehood.
The alignment would accelerate development plans for the canal in buildings that were mostly empty. Basements were redone by the building owners so that patio areas for restaurants and entertainment venues were created on a majority of the buildings along the waterway.
At the urging of consultants from San Antonio, a ground level walkway also was built along each side of the canal.
Groundbreaking occurred as the adjoining Bricktown Canal opened for its inaugural season in 1998. A populace that had grown skeptical of MAPS due to budget over-runs and delays were thrilled with the ballpark. They soon started gathering at an overlook across from the ballpark to watch crews excavating the street for the canal.
The average visitor didn’t quite know what to expect. A contractor dropped a speed boat into the canal for a quick unauthorized thrill ride just days after water was pumped into the cement-lined canal.
In the weeks before the canal’s opening on July 2, 1999, hundreds of people were climbing over the construction fencing to stroll the waterway. City leaders kept an eye on the situation, realizing the public’s enthusiasm couldn’t be totally restrained.
Tens of thousands of people showed up for the opening, lining up for rides on the small fleet of water taxis that had arrived just weeks earlier. They saw banners promising where restaurants would soon open, notably the Bourbon Street Cafe, Mickey Mantle Steakhouse and Chelino’s.
The Bricktown Canal represented a fresh start for Oklahoma City and quickly took on an iconic status. Celebrities ranging from NBA stars, hometown legends like Vince Gill and his wife Amy Grant and more took turns on the boats. And in its 20th anniversary, the waterway continues to evolve with the opening of entertainment venues like Brickopolis, Heyday Entertainment, ACM@UCO, restaurants, bars and shops.
This time, the canal held water.