The Atlantic’s CityLab Ι Oct. 11, 2019
In the early 1990s, a crisis of confidence—and urbanism—gripped Oklahoma City. Oklahoma’s capital wanted a bustling, active city center that would attract and retain large corporations and the people who would staff them. But the city had mostly been a luckless suitor. Foreshadowing the Amazon HQ2 cage match, in 1991, after a 21-month bidding war, United Airlines rejected Oklahoma City for a $1 billion dollar maintenance facility that instead went to Indianapolis, on the basis of its superior quality of life and urban amenities.
The city was “desperate,” says Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt, a Republican. Land values were low, and there was no one downtown. “We realized we didn’t have any of the amenities of a great American city.” Even with a metropolitan population of over 1 million, Oklahoma City felt like it was punching below its weight. “We felt like America’s biggest small town,” says Holt.
The answer, in one of the most conservative states in the nation, was to raise taxes. Civic leaders developed the MAPS (Metropolitan Area Projects) program, a series of limited-time, one-cent sales taxes, which have brought in a total of more than $1.5 billion.
MAPS has paid for convention centers, sports arenas, transit, and more, with a strong emphasis on developing the city’s center. Its most recent achievement is the new Scissortail Park, named for Oklahoma’s state bird, the scissor-tailed flycatcher. Opened in late September, the park is a new civic front yard on the edge of downtown, framing views of the city’s skyline with its concert stage and broad lawn.
“It’s an aspirational park, in that it’s the kind of amenity that people in Oklahoma City used to imagine only existing in other places,” says Holt. The $132 million park was designed by the landscape architects Hargreaves Associates. Mary Margaret Jones, a senior principal at Hargreaves, says that whatever the political orientation of her clients, “we’ve never found it hard to convince people that they want parks.”
As a gathering space in the heart of the city, Scissortail Park aims to find a large and diverse audience with a wide range of features and landscape types. Pedestrian and biking paths alternately curve or slice across it, though nearly everything orbits the park’s ovular great lawn and concert stage venue.
The park’s northern edge, bordering downtown Oklahoma City, is its most urban and connected, with a boulevard planted with lines of London planetrees. Along this edge is an entrance pavilion and café that marks the beginning of the park, designed with subtle references to the history of settlement and colonization in Oklahoma by Butzer Architects and Urbanism (who designed all of the park’s new buildings). The entrance pavilion’s 45-foot-high open-air tower is lined in red and orange metal panels and lit brilliantly, so that this crimson glow extends outside of its walls, like a hearth or campfire.
“The image of the fires and gathering spots across a landscape seemed so relevant for a park in the midst of our city,” says Torrey Butzer, a partner at Butzer Architects and Urbanism. The original inspiration came from an 1889 quote from Harper’s Weekly. In “The Rush to Oklahoma,” William Willard Howard wrote, “At twilight the campfires of 10,000 people gleamed on the grassy slopes of the Cimarron Valley, where, the night before, the coyote, the gray wolf, and the deer had roamed undisturbed.”
The new buildings (the café, a performance stage, a boathouse, a play and picnic pavilion, and a multi-purpose shade pavilion) use low-key chromatic references to the Great Plains as well, with a champagne-colored metal that’s “the color of dust,” says Butzer. The hot and windy climate meant that the buildings are “as much about shade as they are about interior space,” says Jones; they deploy deep roof overhangs and low, broad profiles to block out wind and sun.
The eastern edge of the park hosts a promenade leading south, lined by native Shumard oaks, with 22-foot-high, luminous “sky pillars” by light artist James Carpenter. Further south, a pond offers paddle boating and plenty of shoreline.
To the south and west of the park are woodland gardens that are densely planted, more sylvan than civic; a “place for people to get lost,” says Jones. These areas are also home to one of the park’s most expressive landscape features: “lens gardens.” The lens gardens are slight depressions or mounds, about 40 feet in diameter. These are covered in themed plantings (cactus, grasses, perennials, sages) and adapted for several purposes, like stormwater retention or playscapes. With such clear artificial geometry, “we like to strike formal moves [that] are clearly discernible as manmade,” Jones says. “These perfect circles appeared within the field of ‘nature.’ [But] this is not nature. This is a made place. [It’s] form-giving to make a place memorable.”
A dog park, picnic grounds, playgrounds, and more round out the park’s offerings. And this 36 acres is just the first segment of Scissortail Park to be unveiled. By 2021, Oklahoma City is planning to open a southern section of the park, to be connected over Interstate 40 at the existing park’s southern border via a pedestrian bridge, called the Skydance Bridge, also designed by Butzer Architects and Urbanism (with the consortium S-X-L) and completed in 2012. The upcoming park will feature more naturalistic plantings and sports fields, and together, the two halves will form a 70-acre park that stretches from the central business district to the banks of the Oklahoma River.
Scissortail Park is among MAPS’s most democratic offerings. It’s notable that Skydance Bridge was completed a full 7 years before the park, when the surrounding neighborhood was a disused warehouse district. Without the long track record of MAPS, it might have ended up as a literal bridge to nowhere, the kind that lawmakers enjoy lambasting as a feckless waste of public dollars. As Oklahoma City continues to invest money and resources into Scissortail Park, there’s reason to hope that, like the bridge, it creates more paths for investment to flow beyond the borders of downtown.