Friday, December 23, 2011

Abq / Oklahoma City Analogy Doesn't Work

Albuquerque’s downtown advocates and Mayor Richard Berry have come in thrall of the perceived analogy with the perceived success of downtown Oklahoma City’s redevelopment, says Megan Kamerick, New Mexico Business Weekly senior reporter says in a December 20 post. Kamerick reported a December 14 speech by OKC Mayor Mick Cornett to the Downtown Action Team.

The trouble is the analogy doesn’t work. I can say this. I was born in Oklahoma City and lived there until age 13 when my parents had the good sense to come to Albuquerque. My dad worked in the Kerr McGee building downtown.

For, though, the good news about downtown OKC.

The renovated Skirvin Hotel, OKC’s oldest hotel and properly the Skirvin Hilton Oklahoma City, is wonderful. Reopened in 2007 after a multi-tens of millions renovation that included evicting bats, it offers 224 rooms amid art deco elegance. The rates, while not cheap, aren’t bad at $125 for a regular room using a AAA discount.

We checked out the Skirvin a couple of years ago on a whim. We were avoiding snow to the north. My one compliant was that the Internet connection was an extra charge, a petty approach given the overall class of the place.

As a sort of cultural bonus, when I explored the lobby after checking in, I found a group of tall black guys hanging out and wearing warmups. Finally a t-shirt provided a clue. Worn by a white guy, it said, “Phoenix Suns.”

For Albuquerque the analogy doesn’t work because Albuquerque’s downtown has not been the central focus for the city since World War II, in other words, since Albuquerque became large. Albuquerque is a series of urban nodes. Downtown is a much better place than 30 years ago. But Albuquerque downtown is not, nor will it be the central focus of the metro area.

OKC’s downtown was created as the central focus of the city, remained so a long time and now has been somewhat restored. Downtown OKC has some other neat stuff. But the real world intrudes. When we visited, the old 1930s First National Bank building offered an emptiness in the former banking floor with its marble and art deco metal work.

With oil and other locally based firms, OKC has a driving entrepreneurial culture that doesn’t exist in Albuquerque. What that means is OKC has a kind of corporate oligarchy not found here. If I remember correctly, the firm driving the North Dakota gas boom is based in Oklahoma City.

In 1995 the Murrah Building bombing brought OKC an emotional focus that I hope Albuquerque can avoid.

With big time football Oklahoma City has a cultural focus that happily doesn’t exist in New Mexico. (Boomer Sooner.)

OKC has other huge socio-economic differences with Albuquerque, a comparison we win. Then there is the lousy weather, which I don’t think counts for the purposes here.

OKC has raised something over $1 billion from tax hikes to pay for all this.

While in OKC on our Skirvin whim, we drove the well-publicized Brickyard area. Vacant land was the dominant sight.

One other cool thing. The area around 23rd Street and Classen Blvd., about two miles from downtown and my family’s stomping ground through the 1970s, has become the Asian center, marked by a median sign on Classen Blvd. The ultra-establishment Gothic-design First Presbyterian Church is two blocks from an Asian big box store.

A couple of miles from the Asian center and also a couple of miles from downtown lies the neighborhood where my mom lived in the 1920s. It’s a borderline slum.

If you are driving I-40 through Oklahoma, stay at the Skirvin. Take a little time to visit the Murrah Building monument, called the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum. (

Otherwise, be very careful with any claimed Albuquerque analogy.

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