KERR PARK COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT WORKSHOP
AUGUST 1, 5:30PM – 7PM
PARKSIDE BUILDING – 120 ROBERT S. KERR AVE.
Kerr Park has been selected for the Southwest Airlines Heart of the Community grant. The park will be receiving a $225,000 upgrade and we want your input on how to improve this public space.
Join us for a Community Engagement Workshop on Tuesday, August 1, 5:30pm-7:00pm. Food and beverages will be provided as you work with placemaking experts to determine future amenities and programming in the park.
This event is free and open to the public. Please RSVP at the link below to ensure your spot in at the workshop.
More than a year after reopening to the public, downtown’s Kerr Park looks great, but on a daily basis something is missing: people.
It’s not that the park is void of any life.
Downtown Oklahoma City Inc. has staged several events at the park, including free pizza for a downtown employee appreciation day that drew hundreds of visitors. Soundbites in the park, a concert series held at the park before it was rebuilt, is once again drawing fans.
But without such programming, the park at Broadway and Robert S. Kerr is a pretty quiet place. A boost is coming, however, thanks to a $200,000 grant that was years in the making.
Downtown Oklahoma City Inc., which operates the downtown business improvement district, spent the past few years tracking a grant program launched in 2014 by Southwest Airlines to promote place-making. The grants, tied to consulting provided by the Project for Public Spaces, have totaled $6.4 million and addressed 20 underperforming urban parks and plaza across the country.
“We were waiting for the perfect space and the perfect time,” said Jill DeLozier, vice president at Downtown Oklahoma City Inc. “This met all the criteria. It’s not an area where we will have to use a lot of the money to rebuild or replace things in disrepair. It’s in great shape, so we can make a huge impact with the grant money to make very visible changes.”
Elena Madison, vice president at the Project for Public Spaces, assisted in reviewing the 75 applications submitted to Southwest Airlines for the 2017 grants and was impressed by the Kerr Park proposal and the experience of Downtown Oklahoma City Inc. in programing and bringing life to public spaces.
Projects like the yearly Bricktown Beach on the west plaza of the Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark drew applause from Madison, who was pleasantly surprised to see an impromptu, unscheduled volleyball game at “the beach” during her recent visit with DeLozier and the crew at Downtown Oklahoma City Inc.
“They have embraced place-making, they understand the approach, they know the language, and that really showed in their application,” Madison said. “They get it … They were definitely way ahead.”
As a result, Oklahoma City’s Kerr Park was chosen for the grant along with two other recipients, Reading Park in Buffalo, New York, and Duncan Plaza in New Orleans.
The cash award from Southwest Airlines totals $200,000. Downtown Oklahoma City Inc. is adding $15,000 to the project and another $10,000 is being donated by SandRidge Energy, which rebuilt the park as part of what was originally envisioned as a larger “SandRidge Commons.”
Add in the consulting by the Project for Public Spaces provided by Southwest Airlines and Madison estimates the initiative is ultimately valued at $300,000.
Madison sees location and the continued momentum of downtown Oklahoma City’s residential population, visitor traffic and workforce creating great potential in Kerr Park. But she adds there is reason why it is falling short on attracting people when it is not programmed with events.
“The existing design is somewhat of a challenge” Madison said. “We’re not proposing to redesign it. But there are some obstacles we will have to creatively work around to make it work better. It looks good, but it looks good for a photo. From a functioning space point of view, it’s not perfect. It’s a park that is looking for its character.”
When Kerr Park opened in May 1975, it had character. Creation of the park was part of Dean A. McGee’s vision for bringing life back to a downtown that had lost its luster during the suburban sprawl of the previous two decades.
McGee, co-founder of Kerr McGee, built a modern corporate headquarters that rose above the park. His own workforce regularly filled the park during those early days. And the park was very different from what it is today or from any other space downtown.
Instead of a grand lawn with trees, the park as built by McGee was a sprawling, stepped up plaza with waterfalls and an amphitheater where water separated the stage from the seating rows. The park hosted concerts, magic shows, annual fall craft fairs and political rallies.
By the 1990s, however, Kerr McGee’s presence downtown diminished. And when the company was acquired in 2006 by Texas-based Anadarko Petroleum, the tower went dark and park’s primary patron was no more.
Downtown Oklahoma City Inc., meanwhile, faced increased costs maintaining the park’s crumbling tile plaza and broken fountains. The tower didn’t stay dark for long. And a new vision was set for Kerr Park.
Oil and gas prices were still surging when SandRidge Energy bought the Kerr-McGee headquarters in 2007. The company pledged, along with Chesapeake Energy, to rebuild Kerr Park. New York-based Rogers Marvel, tasked with renovating the former Kerr-McGee tower and surrounding property, also took on the challenge of redesigning Kerr Park.
SandRidge, then led by Tom Ward, envisioned a park that would be overlooked by a modern, cubist “amenities building” that would be home to an employee day care, auditorium, gym, rock-climbing walls and a restaurant on the ground floor above a new park that would replace the tile plaza with a shaded lawn.
A couple of years into the project, however, energy prices plunged. Ward left SandRidge and the company along with others in the city laid off workers and struggled to survive the plunging market. SandRidge survived and built the park as promised — without the participation of Chesapeake as originally promised by its former CEO, the late Aubrey McClendon.
The amenities building was converted into an 11-story office building that was briefly listed for sale and has stood empty since completion two years ago.
“They had identified that the park wasn’t getting as much usage as they’d like,” DeLozier said. “They originally intended to have more seating and shade and programming. Their finances and leadership changed, and they looked at us to help with programming.”
Madison said SandRidge’s commitment to the park, even during tough times, was an important consideration in the grant approval. The company has kept its promise to maintain the park, which is owned by the city, through 2022.
How the grant will be spent and what’s next has yet to be determined. Community meetings are being set up to start Aug. 1 for brainstorming and gauging how best to make the park livelier. DeLozier suspects part of the improvements will involve creating more shade and seating for visitors.
“The grant doesn’t dictate what we can and can’t put there,” DeLozier said. “That will be determined by the partners and what the community says. Permanent structures are not off the table. We know temporary structures like umbrellas on tables can be a challenge because of the wind. That’s a lighter, quicker, cheaper solution but we have to take into account what happens in the area.”
Art, she said, may also be a part of the yearlong effort.
“We’re really wanting to engage the community and find out what they want,” Delozier said. “The ultimate goal is for this to be a place where everyone in the community and visitors feel welcome. We want them to feel like it is their space.”