Friday, August 1, 2008
In a former job, I got to see a detailed wide-area aerial photo of downtown Oklahoma City, not long after the 1995 bombing. It was an eye-opening sight. Like many American cities, about half of the land use in downtown OKC consisted of large surface parking lots. Office, commercial, and industrial buildings covered nearly all of the remainder that wasn’t streets. How different this was from the traditional image of a densely built-up urban “downtown”! And I knew that the same vantage in 1920 would have revealed far more small buildings, small apartment houses, and single-family homes. But like much of America, residential housing pretty much disappeared from downtowns as the 20th century, and its automobiles, progressed.
But the revival of downtown housing has spread even to Oklahoma City. In many spots around its downtown, the city -– which will have an NBA team this year –- boasts a number of new, often-high-priced housing developments. And not just a few “bachelors’ arms” apartment blocks. The new construction includes a lot of townhouses. Thirty years ago, a residential developer would have scoffed at the idea of “high end” townhouses near downtown in a city such as the OKC. Who would want to live downtown, when one could buy a big house with a yard in the suburbs, just as quick trip away on the freeway? And haven’t you noticed all the parking downtown for the business end of the commute? Today, of course, the commute may not be so easy, and the advantages of living in the city –- the city's got an NBA team now, if you didn’t know –- are encouraging more affluent people to make the plunge and become an urban pioneer. And Oklahoma City is not the kind of place to have a dense new development stopped by land use law concerns about too much “traffic” –- most city streets haven’t been crowded for decades, of courses.
Who’s moving into these townhouses? Mostly empty-nest couples and young professionals, a developer says. The fact that fewer American households include a school-age child is another factor in making urban living popular. The Oklahoma developer also states the hope that more families with children will follow. After all, the video-obsessed generation doesn’t play ball in the backyard, so who needs one? Getting families to move downtown is, of course, the biggest hurdle to the larger success of urban revival. How are downtown OKC public schools? Unless the answer is, “As good as those in the suburbs,” very few affluent families will move downtown.
If they ever do, our 20th century conceptions of land use law and policy, which were predicated on separation of uses and sprawl, will have to change, and cities such as Oklahoma City –- did I mention the NBA team? –- may look, feel, and be regulated much differently than it was in the days in which downtowns were half parking lots.
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