Innovation district promotes connections
The $71 million proposal is focused on connecting neighborhoods and economic growth.
The Oklahoma Health Center is an Oklahoma City economic engine employing 18,000 that has long been overshadowed by the nearby downtown skyline both literally and figuratively.
But a drive through the area reveals a neighborhood institutional in design with little street life and scarce evidence of the array of activity going on inside the buildings — anchors that include a medical school, hospitals, research labs, bio-tech companies, the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics and the Baker Hughes/GE Energy Innovation Center.
Roy Williams, president of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, sees the proposed MAPS 4 investment of $71 million as being key not just to unlocking the area’s full potential as an innovation district but also connecting it with historically black neighborhoods that for years were kept separate.
“Over the last 50 years with help of the University of Oklahoma and the State of Oklahoma, we’ve built a tremendous academic health center in our city,” Williams said. “And in the last 20 years we’ve taken this center of patient care and research and turned it into a real engine for economic growth.”
The MAPS 4 innovation district proposal is focused on investments highlighted as a first step in a master plan created over the past two years by Chicago-based Perkins & Will.
• $15 million for redevelopment of the Henrietta B Foster Center for Northeast Small Business Development and Entrepreneurship at 614 NE 4. The former YMCA is currently a community center.
• $25 million for improved connections in and around the innovation district, especially on key bridges over Interstate 235 between the district and downtown.
• A $10 million matching fund for creation of an innovation hall.
• $21 million partial funding for operations of the innovation hall and Foster Center with expectations for additional funding from outside sources.
Other suggestions by the Perkins & Will plan are outside of the MAPS 4 innovation district proposal, but are listed on other parts of the MAPS 4 list including improvements to Booker T. Washington Park at 400 NE 4 and creation of a northeast bus rapid transit line.
After more than $1 billion of investment in the area in recent years, Williams admits it all adds up to a “self-contained daytime campus.”
“It isn’t integrated with neighborhoods that surround it and, in fact, many decisions in the past have the opposite effect, creating barriers between the health center and the neighborhoods,” Williams said. “We know we can do better and change this.”
Williams believes the investments will attract more investment in jobs key to transitioning from an energy-oriented economy and expanding opportunities for the adjoining historically black neighborhoods that have been left out of the area’s success.
“This new path is about creating a community, a place where there are no barriers between the institutions and the neighbors who live nearby,” Williams said. “We want a place where there’s a seamless flow between entrepreneurs, small business and workers who combine to bring a new reality and a new vitality along with economic growth. This will be a place where people live, work, play and learn.”
Katy Boren, hired last year to oversee the innovation district, is tasked with helping transition the area with programming and get-togethers aimed at sparking collaboration among the schools, bio-tech firms, research institutions, hospitals and area residents.
The stretch of NE 4 between Lincoln Boulevard and Martin Luther King Avenue is seen as an important opportunity to neighborhood connections with the district.
The Foster Center, if MAPS 4 is approved by voters on Dec. 10, is set to become a minority small business and entrepreneurship hub. Boren envisions working with Moon Middle School and Douglas High School to create learning opportunities with anchors of the district.
Washington Park, meanwhile, is just a few blocks east of the Foster Center.
“I think Booker T. Washington Park, with the MAPS 4 improvements, will improve activity in the area and create opportunity for events in the area bringing together residents and businesses,” Boren said.
The innovation hall, meanwhile, is inspired by Cortex in St. Louis and District Hall in Boston. The plan for the MAPS 4 innovation hall is for a center that can host activities ranging from coding training for all ages and other learning academies, versatile space for meetings and events related to innovation and entrepreneurship, and pop-up spaces for entrepreneurs to showcase new ideas and build connections.
“We know that if we place creative institutions, firms and workers in proximity, we will create collisions that will result in new ideas and knowledge that can be transferred seamlessly,” Boren said. “We know we need programming and infrastructure that takes these new ideas and nurtures them.”
The proposed innovation hall is part of a larger plan to create a “first phase” of denser, mixed-use development for the district that is to be centered around Stiles Circle and the Beacon of Hope located between the Oklahoma Department of Commerce, the OU Research Park and the Energy Innovation Center.
It’s in this cluster that Boren believes the market can support a second hotel following the success of the district’s first hotel, the Embassy Suites, at 741 N Phillips Ave. The Perkins & Will plan also envisions an expansion of the Baker Hughes/GE Energy Innovation Center fronting the circle as well.
Add to that retail, services, restaurants, rising up around the innovation center and planners see a new gateway to and from downtown that will start a transformation of the overall area.
The final part of the MAPS 4 innovation district plan calls for beautifying bridges connecting downtown and the innovation district and improving pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure on the spans. The funding also is targeted for improving connections with the neighborhoods.
“A successful innovation district isn’t a traditional research park or science corridor,” Williams said. “It embraces the urban attributes of density, proximity and access. It is a place where there is a mash-up of physical strengths.”