Out of Its Darkest Moment, a Blueprint for Renewal

AS he walks down a city sidewalk, about a block from the bomb site, Garner Stoll hears a crunching noise underfoot. Glancing down, he sees hundreds of glass chips strewn across the concrete.

For Mr. Stoll, Oklahoma City's director of planning, it's a small reminder of the damage wrought by last year's terrorist attack, and the frustrating pace of the cleanup.

As Americans observe the anniversary of the bombing today, the area surrounding the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building is still marked by boarded storefronts, vacant offices, and unswept debris. Damage estimates total nearly $500 million.

Moreover, there is no successful model for speedy restoration after a terrorist strike. Local officials point out that four years after several bombs ripped through London's financial district, some buildings are still boarded up, and the restaurant atop New York's World Trade Center has yet to reopen.

But in the coming months, the city will hand out more than $39 million in federal funds for repairs, and Stoll will unveil a blueprint for rebuilding the city and pumping economic life into a downtown area that has been stagnant for a decade.

Out of its darkest moment, Oklahoma City has earned its best shot in years at transforming itself into a vibrant urban center.

"The bombing threw cold water on a lot of our downtown projects," Stoll says. "But it also brought the problems of this area to everybody's attention. I think it might be the push we needed."

* * * *

The story of Oklahoma City is, in many ways, the standard tale of urban decline. Before the World War II, between the Dust Bowl years, the downtown bustled with commerce. People flowed in each day on an interurban trolley that guided the city's expansion.

But the advent of freeways, coupled with the postwar demand for suburban tract housing, tore the web that radiated out from downtown, creating suburbs inaccessible but by car and prompting downtown merchants to relocate.

In the 1960s, the city hired the architectural firm of I.M. Pei to craft a comprehensive plan for urban redevelopment. It drew on the common strategies of that era: clearing whole blocks of crumbling shop fronts for large projects like a convention center, a public garden modeled after the leafy refuges of European cities, and a mammoth centralized shopping center in the style of Doges' Palace in Venice.

But the renaissance never came. The shopping galleria was never built, and the suburbs swelled. The energy crisis of the 1970s, coupled with the oil boom and bust of the 1980s, left the downtown choked with empty office space, and the simultaneous savings-and-loan crisis drained the available pool for capital projects.

"We do most of our development on the edges now," laments James Loftis, one of the chief architects of the Murrah Federal Building. "A lot of people think downtown is somebody else's problem."

* * * *

Stoll was at lunch a few weeks ago with a friend, talking about the complexity of the redevelopment effort. After several minutes, his friend looked at him with mock seriousness and said: "You know, sometimes I wish we hadn't had a bomb hit us."

The bombing has drained city coffers and increased overtime pay for city employees. Downtown office vacancies remain at 30 percent. The state's per capita income remains the nation's seventh lowest.

For local merchants, the bombing has had a double-barreled impact. Not only were many of their buildings damaged, but the absence of office workers has also dried up their customer base.

Larry Myers Jr., who runs an automobile paint shop half a mile from the federal building, says business declined 80 percent in the months immediately following the bombing. To replace the front windows and repair the roof, his family had to empty their savings. The total bill was $180,000.

Today, the bomb area is still a shambles. Only one of the five major office buildings has reopened here, and the YMCA stands empty as its owners negotiate with their insurance company. In all, 342 buildings were damaged.

"A lot of the people around the country have no idea of the devastation of that bomb," says Ron Norick, Oklahoma City's mayor. "They thought it was a single building episode."

Mr. Norick, like many officials here, is concerned that today's media coverage will give the nation the false impression that the city has done nothing. He notes that although President Clinton approved the federal relief money last July, the funds were not released until January. Since then, the city has been busy doling out grants, mainly to reimburse small businesses that have already made repairs.

In addition, he notes, it takes engineers months to determine the extent of the damage to buildings, because few of them have any experience gauging the safety of structures jarred by major explosions.

But the primary reason for the delay, Norick says, is that city officials do not feel comfortable carrying out such a massive redevelopment effort in piecemeal fashion.

"I wish it was all cleaned up and redeveloped, but it just doesn't happen that quick," Norick says. "A lot of work must be done in planning, and a lot of property owners are involved. I think that's better than just going out and throwing money around."

Some of the ruined buildings, like the Oklahoma Water Resources Board across the street from the site of the federal building, have been left intentionally, at the request of the families of blast victims.

Soon, the 300-member committee in charge of crafting a bomb memorial will begin accepting proposals, and families want to preserve these shattered structures in case architects want to incorporate broken walls and girders in their designs. They are the only standing reminders of the savagery of the blast.

According to Bob Johnson, chairman of the memorial committee, the process is well under way. After all designs are submitted, the panel will select three winners, which will be put to survivors and families for a vote.

In the meantime, he says, many decisions remain. Some community members oppose closing streets for a memorial, and the committee must decide whether the badly damaged Journal-Record building nearby should be razed or restored as a visitors' center.

Since local, state, and federal governments have jurisdiction over parts of the site, the committee has to draft an intergovernmental memorandum of understanding to outline responsibilities. The committee must also begin raising funds for the project and lobbying Congress to denote the memorial as a national monument.

* * * *

But there are also signs of progress. Last week, President Clinton broke ground on a new day-care center for federal employees in the Oklahoma Publishing Company building, and St. Joseph's Cathedral, one of two churches flanking the bomb site, is almost ready for Sunday services.

The Rev. Nick Harris is the pastor of the First United Methodist Church. A burly man with a straight-talking style, he presides over one of the fastest-growing Methodist congregations in the country.

His 84-year-old sanctuary, staked out on April 24, 1889, during the Oklahoma Land Rush, is one of the oldest buildings in the city, and one of the most unique.

According to Mr. Harris, the force of the bomb lifted the roof several inches and slammed it back down, cracking many of the solid pine rafters. Nearly all the historic stained glass windows were shattered, including a priceless "Grand Army of the Republic" window that pictured Abraham Lincoln. It was built by Civil War veterans.

But the bombing has proved fortuitous for this congregation, Harris says. With the insurance settlement, he plans to construct a new, larger sanctuary on an adjacent lot that will seat three times as many worshippers. Construction begins in July, and, in the meantime, Harris has begun soliciting donations to convert the original building to office and classroom space.

"We saw the worst that human beings can do to one another," Harris says. "Now we want to build a monument to love."

Indeed, Stoll is overjoyed at the decisions by both churches to remain in their downtown locations. In the years ahead, he says, they will serve as anchors for growth.

In the comprehensive downtown redevelopment plan he is crafting, Stoll says he will propose building a "federal campus" of two- or three-story buildings, with gardens and recreational space.

Stoll believes that in the years to come, more people will begin moving back into the downtown area. The Regency Towers apartment complex, which was full before the bombing, has reopened at 70 percent of its capacity, he notes, and planners have begun looking for ways to build residential town houses near the city center.

In 1993, city residents approved a 1-cent sales tax whose proceeds would fund nine new sports and entertainment facilities, including a 20,000-seat hockey and basketball arena, a baseball park, a fairgrounds, a new public library, and a canal from the North Canadian River that will snake through downtown. To date, the Metropolitan Area Projects plan has raised more than $47 million.

A concerted effort to renovate the city's historic "Bricktown" warehouse district has begun to pay off, luring major restaurant chains and new clients back to the city center. Construction began on the Bricktown Baseball Park, which will host the Oklahoma City '89ers, a minor-league franchise.

* * * *

But perhaps the most positive consequence of this bombing is the effect it has had on the profile of Oklahoma City and the pride of Oklahomans, many of whom still resent John Steinbeck's unflattering portrayal of them in his novel "The Grapes of Wrath."

"As a result of the Dust Bowl, Oklahoma had an image challenge," says Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating (R). "We frequently didn't think we were as good as we were. But to handle this tragedy with the enormous dignity, efficiency, and [sense of] family that we did was tremendously uplifting to the confidence and spirit of this state."

And it hasn't been bad for business. In the year following the bombing, Mr. Keating has crisscrossed the nation, wooing investors. America Online, an internet access provider, has announced plans to employ 1,000 people here, and Southwest Airlines has chosen the city for a reservations center employing another 1,000.

In total, the city added more than 10,000 jobs in the last year, and the Chamber of Commerce has raised $10 million for a marketing campaign.

While the path to redevelopment is still long and fraught with complications, Oklahoma City has made substantial progress in a year's time. Once a speck on the map of middle America, it now registers in the minds of most Americans as an emblem of courage. "Everywhere I go now, people immediately know where Oklahoma City is and what went on here," Norick says. "I don't think the visibility has been negative. The nation got a good look at this city and what its people are all about."

Parts 1 and 2 of this series appeared on April 9 and April 15, respectively.

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