By: Brian Brus

Plans for the new downtown convention center are nearly $685,000 under budget, opening the possibility of adding a couple of features that other cities are struggling with.

The MAPS 3 convention center design principles have not changed significantly over the last three years, said Adam Paulitsch, architect and associate principal at Populous. He told Oklahoma City Council members Tuesday the project is shaping up nicely with about 200,000 square feet of exhibit hall space, 40,000 square feet of meeting space and 30,000 square feet for a ballroom.

The total project estimate for the project was initially set at $195 million. Paulitsch said Populous is due to revisit the council at the end of February for final approval of the plans, trusting that market prices won’t change significantly by then.

In the meantime, Populous has started communicating with the Omni Hotels architectural team as well. Council members decided that the convention center’s success would be bolstered by a luxury hotel within a short walk and asked for proposals from the industry. Omni Hotels came out on top with a pitch for a 17-floor building with 600 rooms, restaurants and another 50,000 square feet of meeting space. The hotel will be built at Robinson Avenue and Oklahoma City Boulevard.

“Truly, you will have a coordinated project between the two facilities once they’re constructed,” Paulitsch said.

He was referring to the overall interaction between the hotel and convention center with visitors economically supporting both sites. However, the comment could also be taken as a reference to actual bridges. The conference center was always designed to allow for the extension of skywalks to keep visitors protected from the elements as they cross the street to a parking garage and hotel.

Cities across the country have been debating those cozy amenities because they create the appearance of lifelessness at street level. Cincinnati, Ohio, for example, started taking down pieces of its extensive skywalk system in 2002, beginning with a segment connecting the Riverfront Stadium to office buildings. City leaders continued dismantling bridges into 2013 as new development replaced older buildings. Baltimore, Maryland, has taken down seven bridges with plans to remove two more, and city leaders in Spokane, Washington, announced they would not allow more skywalks.

Ten years ago, urban designer and popular writer Jeff Speck visited Oklahoma City to review walkability downtown. He concluded that tunnels and tubes were counterproductive to development. His book, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, was a best-seller in 2013.

“What we find is that they take away the whole livability of the street network and deprioritize investing in the accessibility of streets,” said Amanda O’Rourke, executive director at 880 Cities consulting group in Toronto, Ontario. Fellow 880 urbanist Gil Penalosa concluded the same in his reviews of walkways in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. “Even when they protect pedestrians from extreme cold, which is what you find a lot here in Canada, they take away from interaction with the community.”

Regardless, Oklahoma City has not turned away from skywalks. Devon received approval for a bridge to the new BOK Park Plaza last year, and the Populous convention center plan has already been approved by the Planning Department and Downtown Design Review Committee. Oklahoma City Planning Department Director Aubrey McDermid said City Hall doesn’t have a black-and-white stance on the issue, not disallowing skywalks but rather highlighting a preference for street development.

“We very rarely get a development of a magnitude that the owner is going to request a skybridge,” she said. “Typically, they’re only requested between garages and places of employment where they’re introducing hundreds of people at once to the sidewalks. … It’s more of an amenity.

“The reason that skywalk space exists is because they’re bringing so much foot travel to the area, so it kind of balances,” she said.