Channel Vision

The Arkansas River is an “emerald necklace” running through Tulsa and The Channels will be “the broach,” according to internationally known designer Bing Thom.
Bing Thom Architects, based in Vancouver, British Columbia, is known the world over for its expertise in architecture and urban design.
Thom, who has garnered dozens of design awards, has had a major influence on the urban design character of the proposed Trinity Uptown area in Fort Worth.
Thom unveiled a 3-D model for The Channels, Oct. 18 at S.R. Hughes, 3410 S. Peoria Ave.
The urban designer sees opportunities for economic “hot spots” to develop the length of the Arkansas River.
“All along 21st, 31st, 41st, 51st, 61st and 71st — they all junction with Riverside,” Thom said. At these hot spots many different retail opportunities exist, like restaurants, bike, roller blade or kayak rental, he said.
The public facilities and public art give character to the river, Thom said. “I see each as having a different expression because of the community they relate to,” he said. “These streets go back (from the river) into the neighborhoods. In a way that links the neighborhoods to the river, like tentacles.
“All these are beads of the necklace,” he said.
Bring the ‘Energy Back’
The excitement and buzz created by The Channels is like nothing Thom has seen in his “30-something years of experience,” he said.
“This unveiling of the model reveals a thirst for something,” he said. “This ‘something’ has captured peoples’ imagination.”
At the same time, Tulsan’s need to “get over” the $600 million in public funds it will take to launch the project.
“To me, that is something you have to get over. What else is the tax for but for the public good?” Thom asked. “If you are not interested in the public good, then everyone will be retreating to their own bastions. Into their own little balkanized homes.”
“Balkanization” is a term used to describe the division of a region into smaller regions that are often hostile or non-cooperative. Recently, the term has been used in U.S. urban planning to describe the process of how gated communities are created.
“So, there is a series of small interest groups that are very active and strong but they are not banding together to build a city,” Thom said. “They are fighting each other. They are competing with each other and cannibalizing each other.”
While calling the debate over the $788 million project “healthy,” Thom said Tulsans are too easily divided, he said.
“Tulsa needs to get over this regional divide. The energy has gone south, so the center has rotted. So now, The Channels, will bring fresh energy back to the center.”
Even though the energy “has gone south,” Thom opted not to place The Channel development at 71st Street, he said.
“We looked at 61st and 71st streets. But the reason I said ‘no’ was because it would appeal to a small group of people. It (would) leave the whole north side out. It would not address downtown,” he said.
Turkey Mountain is a great asset, he said. “It will become a major (development). But Turkey Mountain itself will not do it. Tulsa needs something more dramatic, more bold, inventive.”
“What You Need”
Thom has been working with representatives from the Indian Nations Council of Governments to mesh The Channels with the Arkansas River Master Plan.
“The INCOG plan is technically sound. They had an extensive public engagement process,” he said.
The problem, he said, was that while the public was able to express what it wanted, “they needed an outsider — like me — coming in and saying, this is what you want; but this is what you really need.”
“There is big difference between what you want and what you need,” he said. “Sometimes you need someone from the outside to tell you what you need. That is why you have doctors.”
“The (master river plan) lacks a concept. There are a number of activities, but no overall concept about the river — as a planning concept, as a designing concept, as an inspirational concept.”
“What is it that makes people look at the river and say ‘wow. I want to live here. Wow, this what our city can become.’”
Fixing sidewalks and planting trees are things that are needed, he said, but that is not enough.
“These are incremental, small steps. You need big steps and small steps.”
The INCOG study does not go far enough, he said.
“It is a lot of little-bitty plans, with little-bitty groups of people that encompass all 42 miles,” Thom said.
“Otherwise, then you have just a bunch of NIMBYS. ‘This is what I want in my backyard.’ ‘This is what I do not want in my backyard.
“That is not community planning or community engagement. Maybe neighborhood engagement, but not city engagement.”
Regardless what happens with The Channels, all the debate is “extremely healthy for the community,” he said.
“For once, people are sitting around the dinner table and debating what they want for Tulsa,” he said. “They care about the city.”
The overall concept for the Arkansas River may have areas that become more urban, some become recreational, others might return to a natural state, he said, “As things evolve.”
“Should this process go forward, toward the public arena and is voted on in a bond issue, then the public can judge this project.”
The Channels is not just a pie in the sky venture, he said.
“It is based on economics,” he said. “In my experience, architecture is enormously popular as a tool to inspire people. It is 10,000 years old — it created the pyramids, The Louvre.
“Citizens gravitate to strong vision.”
The Channels is such a vision. ?

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