Brave New Park

by Russell Cobb

08/15/2018

It’s one of those steam baths of a late August night. Cicadas are revving up their engines in the post oaks and sycamores. Stealthy mosquitoes are feasting on my ankles. The corner of 33rd Street and Riverside Drive is officially closed to traffic, but there’s a desire line through the front yard of a house on the corner. The cicadas are the only sound on this once-bustling section of the scenic boulevard that winds its way alongside the Arkansas River through Tulsa. The river smells like dead fish.

I walk north and come to a high cyclone fence that used to bear a sign reading “Manhattan Construction.” The sign hasn’t been replaced since the George Kaiser Family Foundation (GKFF) abruptly dismissed Manhattan a week earlier. I guess they haven’t replaced security either, because a gate in the fence is wide open.

Ambling on through, I’m humming that verse of “This Land Is Your Land.” You know, the one about how the other side of the “No Trespassing” sign was made for you and me? Right now the other side of the fence is an unholy mess of dirt, weeds, and steel pipes. It’s the heart of what will be A Gathering Place for Tulsa, one of the most stunning and expensive parks to ever be built in America. I guess I’m trespassing, but this is supposed to be a public park. Or is it?

Economists acknowledge that America is the midst of a New Gilded Age. A few mega-wealthy individuals, such as Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett, are giving billions of dollars to causes that used to be the sole domain of government institutions—public education, public health. This has given rise to a phenomenon called “philanthrocapitalism.” It’s a mouthful, but it gets to the heart to a new economic model in which the rich avoid a tax bill by giving away their billions for specific purposes, either directly to charities or through their own foundations or donor-directed funds, like community foundations. Oklahoma’s own mega-wealthy individual, George Kaiser, has turned his efforts into the revitalization of public space. A Gathering Place will be the crowning achievement of this effort—Kaiser hopes it will shift the center of gravity of the city away from sprawl and back toward the river.

I ask Jeff Stava, COO of the George Kaiser Family Foundation and the public face of A Gathering Place, who, exactly, owns the park. It’s a complicated arrangement, he explains. Kaiser’s foundation created the GKFF Parks Conservancy LLC, which gifted the park to the River Parks Authority for 100 years. The LLC remains in charge of the maintenance and programming of the park. It gets trickier because the River Parks Authority, for its part, is not technically part of the city or county government, but rather another public-private partnership created in 1974, during Tulsa’s last monumental attempt to transform the nature of the prairie river that ambles along its western shoulder, the Arkansas River. A Gathering Place then is a public-private partnership whose public partner is a public-private partner whose public partner is Tulsa and whose private side is a subsidiary of a foundation known for its public-private partnerships. Stava has, on occasion, referred to the park as “my project.” You tell me who owns it.

The massive scale of the project—$350 million over the next five years—has put some people in the quiet, affluent neighborhood of Maple Ridge on edge. Residents around the park regularly engage in skirmishes with GKFF and its partners in the project about road closures, sidewalk access, and construction noise. NIMBY stuff, basically. Some residents are the staunch libertarians who fought the city 20 years ago to make Riverside Drive inaccessible to public transit. Still, Stava has pounded the pavement, reassuring neighbors that the unwashed hordes will not be pouring into their leafy midtown enclave and parking on their lawns. According to the neighbors I spoke to, the Foundation has been unexpectedly responsive to their concerns.

There are some cranks in the neighborhood, for sure, but the big question about the park is not whether it will lead to prolonged road closures and construction noise, but what it will mean for the future of the city. Will A Gathering Place be the city’s central square, where all races, classes, and age groups finally come together? Or will it become “One Percent Park,” the yuppie playground of one of Tulsa’s most exclusive neighborhoods? Either way, where do voters fit in?

An Uncommon Commons

The idea for A Gathering Place first appeared in the so-called “fiery crash memo,” which Kaiser periodically shares with his staff at the George Kaiser Family Foundation. With over $3 billion in assets, the GKFF is one of the richest—and most influential—charities of its type in the country. The memo tells the Foundation how Kaiser would want his money spent in the event of a tragedy—hence the fiery crash.

Until recently, Kaiser directed most of his efforts toward helping “those left behind by the accident of birth.” Kaiser is ardently in favor of equal opportunity, and has stepped in to fill the void left by a state government that has favored tax cuts over investment in early childhood education. He played a vocal role in 2014 in opposing preferential tax treatment for oil and gas drilling, even though his business roots are in the Oklahoma oil patch. By all accounts, Kaiser’s investment has paid dividends. Both presidential candidates Barack Obama in 2007 and Hillary Clinton in 2014 detoured to the reddest of red states to see Educare, a model early childhood education program fostered by Kaiser and his staff, in action at a Tulsa school. Clinton wants to implement Kaiser’s ideas on a national scale.

A few years ago, Kaiser noticed that many talented, educated people left Tulsa for cities like Austin or Chicago. Tulsa, he felt, wasn’t retaining human capital. This trend would only accelerate during the Great Recession. According to Stava, the billionaire landed on the idea of a central park for the city. “If you look at all the great cities of the world—New York, Paris, San Francisco—all of them have a central park,” Stava says. “Tulsa doesn’t. This is something George felt should happen.”

Including Tulsa in the phrase “greatest cities in the world” might seem hubristic, but this is a city that ordained itself the “Oil Capital of the World” when it was just a fledgling town of about 75,000 people. It’s a mid-sized city where the “Center of the Universe” sits atop a decaying concrete bridge and where a televangelist once built the world’s tallest hospital—60 stories tall—before it went bankrupt eight years later. Tulsa’s civic dreams often outstrip reality as a mid-sized city with a metro population size comparable to Fresno or Tucson. But that didn’t stop some Tulsans from seriously considering a bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics.

Kaiser’s initial gift of $350 million to create a vast park on the east side of the Arkansas River was not, then, out of keeping with Tulsa’s character. It’s the largest sum ever given to a public park in American history. And it has created something of a snowball effect, with other foundations and corporations donating to the park, endowing programming and securing naming rights to different parts of the park. Many of Tulsa’s big names in business—Williams Companies, QuikTrip, ONEOK—have since joined Kaiser in giving to the park.

The ambition of the project has already turned heads around the world. It piqued the interest of the New York Times, which squeezed Tulsa between Shanghai and Rome as one of the “52 Places to Go in 2015.” Owners at vacation rental sites like Airbnb are already touting proximity to A Gathering Place as a selling point, even though it won’t open for another two years. The anxiety of some residents about crowds overflowing onto the quiet streets of Maple Ridge belies the fact that the park will almost certainly be an economic boon to the area. Property values have already risen around 20 percent since the park was announced, and will likely rise even more when it opens.

“Tulsa’s at this critical point of deciding what its future is going to be,” says Chris Gates, the project lead for the park’s architectural firm, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA). “Not all cities have a great foundation like the (George) Kaiser Foundation to help push things along. But they’ve helped Tulsa decide it was not going to be left behind. We want to make our city as livable as can be. Parks and open space are a big thing.”

Stava and the GKFF in general have been so passionate about the project from the beginning because “this is their town,” Gates says. “They know this is for everyone.” Listening to the rhetoric of the people building the park, you get the sense that there is something idealistic, even utopian, behind all the plans. Tulsa’s socio-economic trends point to increasing income inequality, entrenched racial segregation, and obesity. The park provides at least a partial answer to all of these problems.

Stava gets emotional about the potential for the park to bridge the divides that have plagued Tulsa for years. As we talk, he rarely sits still. He’s often seen in the media wearing a hard hat on the site. When we meet, though, he’s dressed in business casual: pressed khakis and a button-down shirt, no tie. He has a boyish charm, but bristles at any criticism of Kaiser’s projects.

He says he started to get passionate about programming after an earlier GKFF project, the Guthrie Green, an outdoor urban entertainment space that was partially planned, paid for, and developed by GKFF to help revive a dormant industrial area. That neighborhood also houses the Woody Guthrie Center and its extensive music archives across the street. It too was planned, paid for, and developed by GKFF. “Last year, I was there when the holiday lights went on at Guthrie Green,” he says. “We had a mariachi band. All the kids were down on the stage dancing with the band, unabashedly dancing around. There were hundreds of people there from all over Tulsa. You said to yourself, ‘There is something bigger happening here, something bigger than the park itself.’ There’s something happening here civically that is binding people together.”

Boosterism for A Gathering Place is everywhere. A long billboard for it covers an entire hallway in the arrivals section of Tulsa International Airport. Stava is in the news almost weekly, talking about the latest multimillion-dollar donation to the park. But behind the cheerleading is an idea that is quite radical for red-meat-and-guns Oklahoma: the idea of the commons. It’s obviously not something that Kaiser or anyone in his organization wants to play up in a place where private property is sacred, but it’s there. The mission statement on the MVVA website places the idea front and center: “Our parks are founded on the idea of the commons—democratic, inclusive spaces that anchor neighborhoods and serve as focal points in the daily rhythms of their users while promoting ecological, programmatic, experiential and social diversity.”

A Gathering Place, in other words, is not simply a place to play softball and climb a jungle gym. It is at the heart of “The Commons,” a concept that economists have been debating for centuries: the notion that any shared public space could be overused and abused by citizens wanting to freeload or maximize their own well-being. Sheep over-grazing on common land is the frequent metaphor. “The tragedy of the commons” became a catchphrase among libertarians describing the seemingly inevitable decline of shared public resources.

Nobel Prize-winner Elinor Ostrom, however, debunked the tragedy of the commons by studying societies that managed to govern common-pool resources without depleting them. A common-pool resource is something all people use: the air we breathe, the water we drink, the streets we drive on. Public grazing land. Today, the idea of the commons is at the core of smart growth and New Urbanism movements, ideas that have finally made their way to Tulsa.

A Gathering Place, with its reliance on private money for everything from events to infrastructure, is something new, a hybridized version of the commons—something you might call a “private commons.” With an enervated public sector and a slate of politicians unwilling to raise taxes of any sort, much less to fund large public works projects, philanthrocapitalism may be the only way forward. But there are costs: money that might have gone into the treasury through capital gains or estate taxes is instead shifted to charities, who answer not to a ballot box but to select donors.

A Prairie River Runs Through It

To understand how the City of Tulsa, River Parks, and GKFF worked out an unprecedented deal to build A Gathering Place, you have to understand Tulsa’s complicated relationship with its river. Generations of Tulsans have looked over the bluff where the Creek people settled Tulasi-Lockabovcha in the 1830s and experienced a strange—and contradictory—mix of sensations.

The river brought the first settlers to Tulsa and later provided a home for oil refineries and water treatment plants. It also flooded.

It flooded so much that Tulsa was declared a federal disaster area nine times in 15 years through the 1970s and 1980s. I remember the river smelling like burning tar on humid summer nights. It was a place that, as a boy in the 1980s, I was taught to avoid. Bacterial infections and a dangerous undertow—when there was water in the river—awaited those foolish enough to set foot in the Arkansas River. Talking about the similarly-often-dry Trinity River, Oklahoma’s Will Rogers once told the leaders of Dallas they “ought to go right ahead and pave it.” He could have been speaking for Tulsa.

Three decades have now passed since the last major flood. Water quality is improving. Tulsans now want to be close to the river and even—God forbid—play in it. As former Mayor Kathy Taylor puts it to me, “How do we make the Arkansas River more attractive? It’s been the subject of lore.”

In 2006, Kaiser threw his weight behind a ballot initiative to develop the Arkansas River with an ambitious plan to keep the river full of water, improve the parks alongside it, and encourage active engagement by Tulsans on adjacent trails, playgrounds, and athletic fields. Kaiser vowed to match public funds with his foundation’s own money, but a proposed increase in Tulsa County’s sales tax turned voters away from the project.

The generosity of the donation itself may also have backfired. Oklahoma City pollster Bill Shapard said that even the plan’s supporters wondered, “If he’s going to put up all that money… why doesn’t he just pay for all of it?”

As Tulsa—and the nation—fell into a recession the following year, it appeared that any plans to rejuvenate the Arkansas were dead in the mud-red water. Then-Mayor Taylor didn’t know that Kaiser was still pondering river redevelopment. Her time was spent making sure basic public services still functioned.

Even as Tulsa went through a period of public austerity in which Taylor had the lights along city highways turned off, Kaiser and the board of GKFF pondered a brighter future. Stava told me that for a time the Foundation got stuck in a rut. The idea of the river improvement faded away; “we felt like we were pushing our own ideas around. The economy was bad.”

One GKFF board member, Phil Frohlich, heard that the Buford family might be interested in selling the Blair Mansion, a white Southern plantation-style mansion that faced the Arkansas on a plot of 30 acres in the Maple Ridge neighborhood; it was also centrally located, two to three miles south of the center of downtown Tulsa and three to four miles north of the general transition of the sprawling beast knows simply as “south Tulsa.” This set the Foundation in motion. Another board member knew someone who owned the Sundance Apartments a few blocks down river on Riverside Drive. The apartment complex next door, Place One, had gone into foreclosure after a California real estate company couldn’t pay the bills. Between the Blair land and the apartments was a slice of River Parks land with a lot and a lawn that basically collected dog poop. Connect all these disparate places and suddenly there appears a nearly 100-acre swath of land big enough for a major park.

At this point, GKFF started to move quickly. Buford moved out and the mansion was slated for demolition on February 1, 2014, sparking a cry from some longtime Tulsans. The local newspaper, the Tulsa World, published an online comments section that lit up with posts urging Stava to include the “historic” mansion in the new park. Amateur historians were quick to point out that, while the mansion appeared historic, it was only completed in the early 1960s. The house was modeled on Beauvoir, Jefferson Davis’s home in Biloxi, Mississippi. A relatively new building built in homage to an apologist for slavery wasn’t deemed worth saving, so the foundation razed it with very little fanfare.

Along the way, Stava explains that “George had the idea to hold a competition.”

The Foundation got the word out to the top landscape architecture firms about a park in Tulsa. The scale of the project attracted the attention of the best of the best around the world. With 96 firms on the line, the Foundation staged a two-hour conference call. Stava says it was bordering on chaos, “with questions being simultaneously interpreted in all different languages.”

By the summer of 2011, the Foundation had developed a shortlist of four firms. Each received a stipend of $50,000 toward a bid presentation for the Board of Directors. Stava says that every firm came up with something original, but Michael Van Valkenburgh caught everyone’s attention with the idea of long, gently sloping land bridges across Riverside. “There are all these barriers on the old site that divide up the space. There’s 31st Street, Crow Creek, Riverside Drive, and the Blair Mansion. None of it was very seamless.”

MVVA found a way to smooth over these divisions in the landscape by having a wide piece of land extend across Riverside, thus submerging traffic and opening up a vista to the river and beyond.

“We had a lot of meetings trying to ferret out what people wanted,” says Stava. “We had 1,400 individual ideas about what the park should be. Michael listened. He’s sculpted this park so that every person can have a unique moment each time they come to the park.”

 

Even if knocking down the Blair Mansion was the best decision, many residents started to feel like the project was moving forward without enough public input. In response, Stava knocked on doors and organized public forums that brought city engineers, councilmen, and architects together.

The forums were not always pretty. At one meeting in September 2014, at All Souls Unitarian Church, attendees were loud and diverse in their views. Some residents of Maple Ridge started accusing Stava of ramming the park down their throats. The scale of construction was going to destroy the character of the neighborhood. People complained about the closure of two major thoroughfares and the construction of a 20-foot-high metal building. Internet message boards lit up with wild accusations of a conspiracy to make the temporary construction headquarters permanent. Others warmly welcomed the park.

Martha Cantrell, who has lived in Maple Ridge since 1970, remembers one resident finally getting up to speak and asking whether the people of Maple Ridge had lost their minds. Jason Brimer stood up and provided a Frank Capra-esque defense of civic-mindedness. “This is an amazing park we are getting,” Cantrell remembers Brimer saying. “We all need to remember that.”

Cantrell says the situation grew volatile. City Councilman Blake Ewing arose. With a bald head, beard, and size-52 chest, Ewing looks more like a nightclub bouncer or NFL lineman than a wonky politician. He reminded Maple Ridgers that they were getting a project that many urban dwellers only dream about. At the end of two years, he said, Maple Ridge would not only have a new park, but would also have new streets, sidewalks, and water lines.

“I went to the unveiling of the model,” Cantrell says. “Our house was on the actual model. Most people were delighted. But a lot of people were upset about the Blair Mansion. There’s this little distrust about what people hear and what they see. The original plan didn’t call for Riverside Drive to be closed for two years. But putting up with this inconvenience will be worth it because we’re going to have a world-class park in our backyard.”

History Written by the Donors

Where was Tulsa’s first gathering place? J. D. Colbert, a Muscogee (Creek) tribal official and amateur historian, says that the Spanish conquistador Hernando De Soto came across a place called Tullahassee or Tallahassee—in present-day Florida—in 1539. The name comes from the same linguistic root as Tulsa—“it just got slanged up,” he says—in the Muscogee language, meaning “old town.”

“So the town De Soto came across 500 years ago was already old,” Colbert says. “De Soto said it had imperial sway.”

The Creeks had a very particular way of building a town, which centered around a ceremonial fire and a roundhouse. As waves of European invaders pushed the Creek people back to Georgia and then to Alabama, they preserved ashes from the ceremonial fires that represented the founding of the 44 original Creek towns. When Andrew Jackson forced the Southeastern tribes to Indian Territory along the Trail of Tears, the Creeks settled along the Arkansas and Canadian rivers. One leader, a medicine man named Achee Yahola, led a band of the Creek to the northernmost border of the new Creek Nation, up a bluff on the Arkansas, and relit the ceremonial fire at the Council Oak Tree at 18th Street and Cheyenne Avenue.

The park that stands there today—Council Oak Park—is a few blocks from the northernmost part of A Gathering Place. Tulasi, as it was then known, had a central town square; dwellings were organized so that the communal nature of the Creeks could be sustained. “It was quite the town before the Civil War,” Colbert says. The 500 or so residents built their houses to be oriented around this central area. This was where dances and community meetings were held. According to Colbert, Tulasi was burned to the ground during the Civil War.

As the U.S. government pushed the tribes to give up their traditional communal lands after the Civil War, the Creek Nation resisted, preferring to maintain communally held lands. The Dawes Commission, however, concluded that the idea of communal ownership was keeping Indians from integrating themselves into white “civilization.” A Creek Indian named Tuckabache, who had lived through the most traumatic moments of the 19th century (forced relocation and the Civil War), was given a 160-acre allotment; his land encompasses the footprint of A Gathering Place and other parts of Maple Ridge.

Tuckabache’s cabin sat at the present-day intersection of Hazel Boulevard and Cincinnati Avenue, directly behind the park opposite the river, and he got his water from the natural springs that have since been paved over by city streets. For decades, Tuckabache roamed the eastern bank of the Arkansas River, hunting deer with his dogs. His family’s cemetery, where he and at least 17 of his relatives were buried, sits under 28th Street and Cincinnati, a stone’s throw from where a pedestrian entrance to the park will be. When Tuckabache died in 1910, he was almost 100 years old and had at least one regret: granting an easement on his land for the white man to build a railroad, the tracks of which form the original path for the Midland Valley Trail.

Colbert, like most Tulsans, is excited about the park. He’s talked to Stava and hopes the Kaiser Foundation does something to honor the land’s Creek heritage.

There’s a catch, however. “A lot of that rests on whether the Muscogee (Creek) Nation becomes a major sponsor of the park,” Colbert says. He says a historical marker is “pretty much a given,” but more than that would require a donation from the tribe. Colbert would like to have some sort of permanent structure—perhaps a traditional Creek roundhouse—on the site.

According to Colbert, a permanent building on the site with information about the land’s Native history, however, would cost money. Potentially a lot of money. Colbert says the tribe has had an invitation from GKFF to discuss their presence at the park and that the Foundation wants to honor the land’s Creek past, but it all comes back to the bottom line. Colbert, who has been involved in discussions with the Kaiser Foundation about the tribe’s presence in the park, is Chairman of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Small Business Development Center Board of Directors. He estimates that the Muscogee (Creek) Nation would need to contribute $10 million to become a major sponsor of the park. That figure is in keeping with ONEOK and the Chapman Foundations (both major sponsors) have donated. Little could Tuckabache have imagined that one day the white man would ask his tribe for millions of dollars to help fund a park where he had finally found a home after the Trail of Tears.

In the model of philanthrocapitalism, history can be rewritten by those with the means to do it. For example, in Tulsa, the City’s 2012 master plan for the revitalization of the area of Tulsa that is home to Guthrie Green and the Woody Guthrie Center, known as the “Brady District”—named after a leading Oklahoma Ku Klux Klansman—contained but one passing mention of the 1921 race riot in Tulsa. That event did as much as the discovery of oil to shape the social development of the city in the past century.

Tulsa Pastoral

Maple Ridge is one of the most solidly white and well-to-do neighborhoods in Tulsa. As a child in the neighborhood, I remember the first black family moving into a house on the corner of Cincinnati and 27th Street in the early 1980s and the hushed tones of the grown-ups wondering what would happen next. At the time, it was a neighborhood of plumbers, electricians, and teachers. Maple Ridge is close enough to downtown and the primarily African-American neighborhoods of north Tulsa that many whites fretted openly about integration. Although this not-so-subtle racism has—fortunately—abated, it’s still just below the surface. Scroll through the comments section of the Tulsa World’s stories about the park and you will find trolls warning of the impending “ghettoization” of midtown.

Despite these fears, Maple Ridge has maintained a communal spirit. “We’ve never had privacy fences in this neighborhood,” Cantrell says. “You could always see your neighbors up and down the street.” Then, in the past decade, something changed. The new arrivals wanted houses like they have in south Tulsa, with fences and huge additions in the front and on the sides, impeding the visibility that characterized Maple Ridge. “They’re much more cloistered in their homes.”

Access to the park, not the park itself, may be the thorniest issue that the Kaiser Foundation has had to deal with. The Foundation is caught between two competing desires: those—especially on the north and east sides—who want more access to the park, and some in Maple Ridge who only see thousands of hoi polloi strolling across their lawns and parking in front of their driveways.

This opposition flared up when the city unveiled its plans to create a new sidewalk on the east side of Riverside Drive to facilitate access to the park. From a Smart Growth perspective, the sidewalk was a no-brainer: it would lead pedestrians from downtown straight into the park without having to cross the pseudo-freeway of Riverside Drive. Artistic renderings of the sidewalk show a broad concrete path with a low brick wall and metal fencing separating the sidewalk from private property, a feature rather typical of urban parks.

But in October 2014, Mayor Dewey Bartlett signed an executive order rescinding the designs for the sidewalk. Bartlett’s ties to Maple Ridge ran deep. One of his business partners had a house in the neighborhood in question. In November, plans for the broad, landscaped sidewalk leading through Maple Ridge to the park simply disappeared.

After some residents cried foul, Bartlett conceded that he had nixed them due to “safety issues.” Bartlett said that pedestrians should be kept to the west of the road. Residents of some of the older, statelier mansions on the north end of Maple Ridge put together a professional-looking video that argued—in an interesting twist of logic—that the sidewalk would pose a threat to pedestrians. Steve Welch of the Maple Ridge Neighborhood Association wondered to News on 6 about the character of the pedestrians streaming to the neighborhood. “Where is the parking that supports this sidewalk? Where are these people coming from?” he said.

It’s hard to visualize the transformation that will take place in the next two years, but Stava has a presentation that walks his visitors through the changes. At GKFF headquarters, he patiently takes me through the model, which, for the time being, is kept behind lock and key in a generic office tower on the south side of Tulsa. In the model I spot the house I grew up in, a tiny square just off Cincinnati Avenue.

As Stava waxes about playgrounds, ice cream, and beaches, it’s easy to get infected with his enthusiasm. When he says, “You’re going to fall in love with the park,” I can’t help but believe him.

I later watch one of his many public lectures about the park. He starts with Riverside Drive, which has now become part of the parkway. In cities like Boston and Chicago, “the road carries the theme of the park,” he says. Riverside Drive was like a demilitarized zone between two different parts of the River Parks. Not any longer.

The road goes under two conical landbridges, each about 100 yards long. Berms shield the park visually and audibly from traffic and keep the vistas wide open on the QuikTrip Great Lawn, named after a donor corporation headquartered in Tulsa which owns and operates a chain of regional convenience stores. Driving into the park, visitors come to the Williams Lodge—named after the Williams Companies, one of the biggest donors and a long-standing Tulsa company but which was recently acquired by Energy Transfer Equity, a Dallas-based energy company. The Lodge has a community room that accommodates up to 300 people and provides shelter from Tulsa’s extremes—heat, snow, and rain. The Lodge will be something like a large living room for the city, with a huge fireplace, furniture, and smaller areas for meetings and events. The back of the Lodge has a series of terraces with movable tables and chairs and a built-in playground for young kids.

Moving west through the park, Stava points to Mist Mountain, a water feature designed by the same architect who designed the Bellagio Fountains in Las Vegas. Interconnected pathways go from koi ponds to lily pad gardens to a main water feature that shoots water above and around visitors. The water then cascades down a stone wall.

The playground area covers five acres on its own. There are essentially seven different “rooms,” each gauged for a different age group, starting with Cloverville for babies and toddlers, and staffed by child development professionals.

River Giants, another of the rooms, has equipment being produced by a Danish company called Monstrum. Like much of A Gathering Place, this playground is at the vanguard of design and contemporary thinking about parks. A New York Times profile of Monstrum described the company’s playgrounds as “elaborate, enormous and highly imaginative. Their designs often feature giant creatures, both natural and fantastical, that children can climb, swing from, slide down and incorporate into their play.” The structures in Tulsa will be Monstrum’s entry into the United States and the company’s largest work to date.

Chris Gates says that his firm has tried to pay homage to Oklahoma’s rich diversity of habitats and ecosystems. There’s even a 45-foot-long replica of a prehistoric billfish found at the bottom of the Arkansas River. “The kids can climb up and on the billfish. And it’s wheelchair accessible.” Gates says he and Michael Van Valkenburgh were inspired by the limestone bluffs at nearby Chandler Park and the native grasses at the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in adjacent Osage County. They’ve found ways to introduce elements from both of those parks on the site.

It’s hard to leave a presentation by Stava and not feel awed by the vision and scope of the park. Only the most fiercely libertarian individualist could oppose it, and yet its very ambitiousness raises a difficult question about the nature of public parks. By Stava’s own admission, Tulsa’s city parks can barely stay afloat based on the city’s meager tax base. Maple Ridge homeowners cheering for the park might see a return on investment in a neighborhood where they own properties, but what about Tulsa’s marginalized parks? Who will save them?

Progress Is Lovely

Who owns public space in 21st century America? When the nation’s great urban parks were founded, it was clear who owned them: no one. Golden Gate Park, Central Park, Balboa Park. These parks were, in the words of Frederick Law Olmsted, “the lungs of the city.” Densely populated cities need big parks not just to breathe, but to thrive. They create a sense of identity among city dwellers and an outlet for recreation. And they level the playing field.

In the 1960s, however, parks became the space of confrontation between police and protesters and between private-property owners and hippies. Many of the most violent episodes of the social upheaval of the 1960s took place in parks: Grant Park in Chicago and People’s Park in Berkeley were the scenes of very public riots, all well documented by television and beamed into the homes of terrified suburbanites. By the early 1980s, public parks in big cities became synonymous with urban decay and crime.

During this time, New York’s Central Park had deteriorated to such a point that roving bands of teenagers circulated through the park mugging tourists. One group of bandits stabbed patrons inside the park’s most prestigious restaurant, Tavern on the Green. Central Park was a no-go zone after dark. In 1980, New York threw up its hands and turned the park over to the Central Park Conservancy, a semi-private group of philanthropists and urban planners who began to turn the park around. Miraculously, crime went down and the park’s natural beauty was restored. As a public-private model, the Central Park Conservancy resembles the Tulsa River Parks Authority and many other organizations around the country; the injection of private money has led to a revitalization of scores of urban parks. Thanks in part to private donations, Central Park is once again a destination for locals and tourists, even after dark.

But what would happen if a public-private partnership were creating Central Park today?  Welcoming more private than public money into the public space and giving unaccountable private persons the lead role may create its own problems. Beth Gazley, a professor at Indiana University who has extensively studied public-private partnerships, has written that the influx of money into what used to be the sphere of public services can create a “virtual Pandora’s box of potential ripple effects.” These include “reduced public accountability and citizen access, less donor transparency, more-challenging power dynamics, and less stable public services.”

Gazley cited Chicago’s Millennium Park as an example. While residents are generally happy with their new park, there have been conflicts around its hybrid public/private nature. The Jay Pritzker Pavilion, for instance, has been closed on occasion for private functions for those who can afford to rent it for dinners, weddings, and Indexer marketing or fundraising events, leaving park-goers wondering if the space belongs to them or only to the one percent. The preponderance of private donations has also meant that donors were able to follow their whims and fancies without public input. Corporations like Boeing, AT&T, Chase, the Tribune Company, and Wrigley have splashed their brand names across parts of the park.

Kaiser is, by all accounts, a benevolent philanthrocapitalist with the best of intentions. But even he has found himself scrutinized by the national media for contributing to causes that would benefit his for-profit ventures. For example, in 2013, Bloomberg reported that “at least $1.25 billion of the charity’s $3.4 billion in assets is invested in ways that benefit Kaiser’s for-profit endeavors, according to a Bloomberg analysis of the George Kaiser Family Foundation’s 2011 tax return. The charity invests alongside the billionaire’s stakes in some companies. In other instances, it directs funds in ways that support his for-profit businesses.”

Kaiser’s Foundation’s connection to the Solyndra scandal have made him a frequent target in the national conservative media. More dispassionate critics say the problem is not philanthropists themselves, but a legal framework that has incentivized charities to act like corporations. Peter Buffett—son of Warren—made a forceful case in the New York Times in 2013 that charities were doing precious little to address the underlying crises of our time: inequality and global warming. And yet, our political system now desperately turns to private money as the silver-bullet solution to the problems capitalism created in the first place.

“[W]ith more business-minded folks getting into the act,” Buffett wrote, “business principles are trumpeted as an important element to add to the philanthropic sector. I now hear people ask, ‘what’s the ROI?’ when it comes to alleviating human suffering, as if return on investment were the only measure of success.”

The Tulsa Community Foundation—an umbrella organization that works closely with the GKFF—punches way above its weight for a city of Tulsa’s size. In terms of assets, with its $3.8 billion the TCF is richer than the New York or Chicago Community Trusts. Only the Silicon Valley Community Foundation is richer. This means the stakes for public-private partnerships are even higher here. As inequality increases, Tulsa leans on people like Kaiser—the richest of the rich—to solve the problems the political class ignores. Tulsa is indeed lucky to have a  Kaiser, a man that by all indications is committed to noble causes. But his foundation is appointed, not elected. His money is his, not the public’s.

“In a public-private partnership,” Kathy Taylor says, “the public has to have a role. It has to have a say.” Taylor, like most Tulsans, is excited about the future of A Gathering Place. But, she says, city leadership has lagged behind the ambitions of the Kaiser Foundation. In particular, she cites access to the site via public transit as a problem. “The regional leadership needs to ensure that everyone can get there. We need to have a regional discussion about transit.”

Those conversations become more and more complicated as the “private commons” expands into new areas. But in at least one case, due to Tulsa’s blurred lines, the conversation is easier: The 2015 chair of Tulsa City Council, Phil Lakin, is a one-man, walking-talking, public-private partnership. In addition to his salary as an elected official, he is the well-paid chief executive officer of the Tulsa Community Foundation. In those dual roles, he influences both the public and private sides of public-private partnerships. Persons inside Tulsa’s City Hall speculate that Lakin aspires to follow Taylor someday as mayor.

And, by the way, Lakin is chair of the board of the George Kaiser Family Foundation.

Building a Better Tulsa 

Chris Gates told me that building a park for Tulsa—even one as vast and diverse as A Gathering Place—is a completely different challenge than it would be in New York. “Tulsa is essentially a suburban city,” he says. “People are used to paradise in their backyards.” The city has never had a park that functioned as a commons, where teenagers, adults, and small children all interact in the same space. This means that part of Gates’ job has been to change the mindset of Tulsans.

If A Gathering Place functions like Stava, Gates, and others think it will, it will represent Tulsa’s biggest shift from suburban to urban living, a change that is in line with a larger demographic trend across North America. Millennials, especially the upwardly mobile, college-educated ones, are increasingly forsaking their crabgrass kingdoms for the conveniences of city life. When I ask Stava what Tulsa would look like in 2020, he tells me to look even further down the road. “By 2030, you’re going to see dense living up and down Riverside Drive. Restaurants, cafes, all the way from downtown to the park.”

When I ask Gates what will be the biggest surprise for Tulsans about the park, he mentions the programming. Stava lists off a number of activities that park-goers will have access to. For the ball courts, people will be able to check out soccer balls, basketballs, and volleyballs. There will be board games and restaurants. Ice cream for the kids, beer and wine for the grown-ups. Sit-down meals and grab-and-go snacks. Concerts, exercise and yoga classes. All of this will be in the hands of the George Kaiser Family Foundation, which will remain in control of programming.

The idea of programming has caught on. In October, Cimarex Energy announced an additional $5 million grant to A Gathering Place to endow programs in the park. The company’s president and CEO, Tom Jordan, alluded to the value the park would bring to Tulsa’s quality of life. “We see A Gathering Place for Tulsa as a resource for our employees today and in the future.”

It’s no secret that the generosity of corporations is not simply an altruistic gesture, but an investment. It’s an investment in the viability of Tulsa as a magnet for corporations and potential employees. Stava doesn’t try to hide this. “All the CEOs—QuikTrip, Williams Companies, ONEOK—they need young professionals to stay here. They really believe that this is an investment.”

There may be also a bit of greenwashing going on as well. Many—if not all—landscape architects now plan into the future with the understanding that climate change with dramatically reshape the places they design. While Oklahoma politicians are busy denouncing climate change as a hoax, landscape architects are preparing for unprecedented flooding. New parks in Boston are being redesigned for sea level rise. There is nary a mention of climate change or earthquake preparedness in any of the Gathering Place literature, which is not surprisingly considering many of its major donors are oil and gas companies.

Antoine Harris, for his part, isn’t so sure the park is going to benefit those who need it the most: people in areas of Tulsa where they struggle to keep their parks’ lawns mowed and their pools filled with water. Harris is a lifelong Tulsan who heads Alfresco Community Development, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. He’s studied community development plans in San Francisco and Cleveland that have been successful models of integrated redevelopment projects and wants to bring that kind of development to Tulsa. But he says he’s been pushed aside by the “good old boys.”

“We don’t have an equal seat at the table,” he says, referring to the lack of clout Tulsa’s African-American community has in large-scale civic projects.

Like many African-Americans in Tulsa, Harris has mixed feelings about the redevelopment of downtown and the riverfront. As someone with an immense amount of civic pride, but who sees north Tulsa being perpetually left behind, all of this is bittersweet. At several points during our conversation, Harris stops to reassure me he’s not against the park.

“The park is going to put Tulsa on the map,” Harris says. “And that’s a good thing. I want to make it clear I’m for the park. But is it a bridge-builder? I don’t see it, yet.”

My Own Private Gathering Place

A cynic would say the mega park will be one more way the rich will get richer, pushing up property values along the river and pushing out those who can’t afford rising rents. Those people will have to drive long distances or use Tulsa’s notoriously bad transit system to access the park. And I am a bit of a cynic. I suspect, like Peter Buffett, that there may be a bit of “consciousness laundering” going on. Much of Tulsey Town was obtained by hook or crook by white folks a little over a century ago. I’m also the owner of two properties within spitting distance of A Gathering Place. I grew up in Maple Ridge, when a preschool teacher—my mother—could afford a house there.

So, yes, I might be trespassing as I tromp through the weeds to a place where I took my first girlfriend to watch fireworks on the pedestrian bridge. But this is how we Maple Ridge kids always rolled. Private property be damned. We cut through the backyards and alleys of the neighborhood, carefully avoiding the threat of Mr. Stoghill’s shotgun to get to Midland Valley Trail, where I played hooky and smoked my first doobie. We trespassed through the Blair property and got into all kinds of trouble by the low-level dam. And it certainly was no golden age of the commons; acceptable public spaces were Southroads Mall and a nearby QuikTrip store.

So, yes, let’s go ahead and count A Gathering Place as a win for Tulsa. But it’s also a test case for how we relate to public land in 21st century America. Is it made for you and me? Is it made for Tuckabachee’s great-grandkids and the grandchildren of the race riot? Is it made for Muslim immigrants and Latino day laborers, or for white Maple Ridge ladies in yoga pants? I hope it’s made for all of them. I can’t wait to find out.

In some sense, I still consider Maple Ridge home, even though I live thousands of miles away and haven’t had a permanent address in Oklahoma in a quarter century. I was once one of those young folks who thought happiness was Tulsa in my rearview mirror. So I’m kind of jealous of all these kids who will spend their years roaming freely from playground to garden, from game to game, and even down to the rocky beach of the river that brought the first Tulsans to their original gathering place.