Monday, February 4, 2013

What Fresno can learn from Oklahoma City

Streetsblog recently ran an interesting series of articles about Oklahoma City and the changes implemented by their current mayor to make the city a more attractive, more liveable and healthier place. The lessons for Fresno are extremely relevant.

Cornett’s zeal to make Oklahoma City a healthier city led him to take a hard look at the built environment. He realized that car-centric, pedestrian-unfriendly streets weren’t just costing residents their health, they were costing brainpower — too many of Oklahoma City’s talented young people were leaving. Businesses didn’t want to locate there because their employees didn’t want to live there.
 Streetsblog Interview Part 1

That's exactly what this blog talks about. In order to make an attractive city, one in which Fresno State graduates aren't trying to run away from, you need to start by making the bone structure of the city (the transportation network) attractive and safe for all users, not just those in SUVs. 

Before getting into the article and the points made, lets see why it makes sense to take lessons from Oklahoma City and apply them to Fresno.

To start off with, the cities are pretty similar. Both have strong agricultural roots (and the conservative politics that come with it), and a city design that's drawn from the same mold. Oklahoma City sits 205 miles from the much larger and influential Dallas - Fresno is 220 from Los Angeles. Like Fresno, Oklahoma City built a AAA ballpark downtown to try and revitalize a historic area littered with surface lots (their stadium holds just 500 more than the Fresno one).

Oklahoma is a richer city than Fresno (thanks to the oil) but that doesn't stop them from having a 16% poverty rate. While Fresno is a good 10% higher, neither are exactly something you'd brag about.

Population wise, they're in the same league.

Population:
Oklahoma City: 591,967
Fresno: 509,039

Oklahoma is spread out over a much larger area....

Area
Oklahoma City: 621.2 sq mi
Fresno:  112.308 sq m

But that doesn't matter much. The metro areas are of similar size and city boundaries don't mean much 

Metro Area:
Oklahoma City: 1,278,053
Fresno: 1,081,315

So what does Oklahoma have to teach Fresno?

For one, investing downtown can be done, with great results.

Mayor Cornett sought — and got — public support for a $777 million package of investments to construct a new downtown park and recreation areas by the riverfront, build out the streetcar system, expand sidewalks and biking trails, and create new senior wellness centers. Another $180 million was raised to redesign downtown streets. If Oklahoma City is a different place now than it was 10 years ago, residents have the mayor to thank.

Naturally, Fresno doesn't have that kind of money right now. That's ok. You don't need $777 million to make a city attractive.

Note that getting the money isn't impossible.

(referring to taxes) Passed ‘em all. But they’re not easy to pass. We have a very active anti-tax environment in Oklahoma City. So it’s something short of a miracle that we’ve been able to pass this series of initiatives and we’ve never lost one. And the last time, we had a funded opponent — our police and fire unions opposed it.
Even with the powerful police and fire unions against him, the conservative people of Oklahoma voted yes for projects to rebuild the city.

But let's assume taxes are out of the picture (we already have Measure C).

Fresno directs plenty of money at an enormous array of road projects. From the widening of Peach Ave, to the ongoing projects surrounding the brand new CA-180, we can't forget about how Herndon keeps growing and how the city wants to build the "essential" Veteran's Boulevard. The list goes on.

Here's the key: Most of that money doesn't come from City Hall, it comes from the county Measure C, the State (Caltrans) and the feds. But it's Fresno that requests the money to be spent this way - the states aren't the ones demanding that Fresno demolish a dozen homes to add new lanes. That means two things happen simultaneously:

1) Large sums of money get poured into road widening, and none on other modes of transport
2) The city is made less attractive to those who prefer not to drive absolutely everywhere.

Does spending so much money to speed people out of the city make sense?


Luckily, it can be changed.

The first thing you have to do is change the perspective. The way I describe it is: We have built this city for cars. We have to start building this city for people. When that message percolates inside City Hall, inside your public works department and inside your planning department, they start to look at things differently. And what I noticed was, it wasn’t a lack of enlightenment. It was a lack of direction. They were doing what they felt like they were supposed to be doing. And when we exposed this new direction, I was amazed how much creativity was inside those departments that I hadn’t seen before, that hadn’t been tapped. It was as if they’d been unleashed — all these new ideas.

With the proper leadership, all the departments who are working together to widen streets at the expense of everything else can use that knowledge to direct money to alternate projects. Fresno is full of bright engineers and planners, many of whom support better pedestrian and cycling accommodations - they just need a leadership that says they should pursue that.

Mayor Cornett describes a situation that is all too familiar in Fresno
We didn’t have sidewalks in a lot of communities and so we’re going back in and building, literally, hundreds of miles of sidewalks throughout the city. It’s a lot better to do it on the front end and not go back in later and put those in. It’s more expensive to do it the way we’re doing it. But it is what it is.
Can you remember the last time the city went in and installed sidewalks on all the (poorer) neighborhoods that lack them? How about the way the city widens a road and installs no sidewalk - leaving the area with no pedestrian accommodations for years or even decades until a developer comes in. The price of inaction is measured in lives.

The mayor of Oklahoma City also talks about bikes.

We’re completing our bicycle trail master plan. We were using some federal money every year that came in to extend our bike trail plan. One day I asked the parks director in a public meeting, I said, “At the rate we’re going, when are we going to finish our master plan?” And he was speechless. And what I realized was, we were all going to be long gone by the time we finished our master plan.

Sounds exactly like Fresno. The bike master plan debuted in 2010 to praise. How much of it has been built? 2013 will see the construction of a whole 1,100 feet.  In Oklahoma, they hit the ground running and turned the plan into reality.

The mayor also talks about obesity, and how the built environment contributes to it. Look around - Fresno is an obese city. Like Oklahoma, it's because of all the driving.

We were allowing ourselves to be more and more obese and less healthy. When I looked at it freshly I thought, “No wonder we’re not healthy – we’ve designed this city so you never have to walk anywhere.”
But again, he pushed through change. And it worked.

Last week, when the Wall Street Journal announced failures around the country of cities to capitalize on weight-loss challenges, the article singled out Oklahoma City.

There have been notable successes. Oklahoma City said last year that it had lost "the equivalent of 100 elephants." But a less celebrated ritual has also emerged: local leaders from Corpus Christi, Texas, to Walpole, Mass., poring over disappointing results, trying to figure out how diets fared so badly.

Do you really think the residents of Fresno would react any differently from those of Oklahoma City? He says the people love it - and I'd wager the residents of Oklahoma City own more trucks per capita than those of Fresno.

In fact, we’ve designed this city so you can’t walk anywhere! That’s not easy to change, but you can certainly start, and it’s happening much more quickly than I would have ever guessed that it could. People really like the new direction. And we’re now building neighborhoods where you don’t have to own a car if you don’t want to. You can live, work and play all in the same neighborhood — and that was unheard of ten years ago.

The second interview dives deeper into the political side of things. You know those old people who comment on the Fresno Bee website about blowing up downtown because they haven't been south of Nees since Nees was first paved?

Oklahoma has those people too.

Here’s what I do. I try to win an intellectual argument. I stand toe-to-toe with a lot of retired suburbanites who don’t like downtown, don’t like me, are tired of funding taxation. I’m serious, they have more negativity than you could possibly imagine.

And when I’ve lost on every turn and every argument in this debate that takes place in neighborhood after neighborhood I close with this: “We’re creating a city where your kid and grandkid are going to choose to live.”

And they know it’s true. Because in Oklahoma City, my generation left. If you had an advanced degree, there wasn’t a job for you. And so people left. They’re now in Houston and Dallas and New York and Washington, DC and Tokyo and all sorts of great places. We raised a lot of really smart people. They’re gone.

Sounds exactly the same, doesn't it? Downright spooky how similar it is.

As the interview goes on, (outside of the NBA talk), you get more insight into a city that was just like Fresno

So our successes are very impressive to us. In the grand scheme of things, most people are still moving to the suburbs as opposed to downtown. Most people still choose a 10- or 15-mile journey to work — which only takes 10 or 15 minutes.

We virtually had no downtown housing 10 years ago. The only people we had living downtown were people in jail. We had fewer than a thousand, probably, living downtown. And the demographics of the downtown culture have completely changed. I live downtown.

The interview closes with talk about attracting business. Fresno over and over again has tried schemes to get big companies to move in, to no avail.

Maybe it's time to try the opposite approach?

We learned the hard way that we were trying to attract jobs by incentivizing businesses to move to our city. What we learned is, if we create a better city for us, people will move jobs to our city because they know their employees will be happy there.

A company like Facebook or Twitter is never going to move to Fresno today, even though they could save millions on rent, because they'd lose the majority of their staff - those engineers and professionals want to live someone where they can be happy, even if it means paying $3,000 a month for a one bedroom apartment in a 50 year old building.

Dell moved a couple thousand of jobs to Oklahoma City — or created them; they were brand new jobs. And one of the things their guy told me was, “We spend a lot of time and energy training our employees. We can’t afford to locate a facility in a city where we don’t think they’re going to stay. They’ll leave Dell, not because they’re dissatisfied with us, but because they don’t like living there.”

There's nothing Fresno can do to turn into San Francisco, but the administration can start by making some very important changes to the way the city is designed. It's too late to attract the current star companies, but what happens when a group of Fresno State students creates the next big thing? If the city doesn't change, they're taking the first San Joaquin to the Bay area and never looking back.

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