The year was l973, Tulsa's 75th anniversary, when the idea of a river park was first proposed by the so-called Excellebration Commission. The concept wasn't entirely popular at the time because the Arkansas River had a reputation for being polluted and dangerous; and Tulsans weren't sure that a waterfront district would work.
It was an idea outside the box, so to speak.
The year was 1998, Tulsa's 100th anniversary, a rare occasion for a Centennial Committee to propose a lasting monument to celelbrate the city's achievements. No concepts, no vision, nothing but a silly statue in a re-named Central Park (now called Centennial Park) that has an identity crisis with the development of the nearby Village at Central Park. (See "Community," Page 10)
In the spring of l974 an independent public trust called the River Parks Authority, was created to develop both banks of the Arkansas River. Originally a master plan entailed a low-water dam–-which exists today, and significant development of the west bank between 11th and 21st streets to include a floating restaurant, an amphitheater, science and petroleum museum, shopping, and a marina. Electric shuttle buses and ferries were to provide transportation from one bank to the other. San Antonio's river walk was what some people envisioned but the Arkansas, with flooding always a possibility, was no where near as tame as the Trinity River.
Later that year $2 million urban renewal dollars got the ball rolling. The first project completed was converting the former Midland Valley Railroad Bridge near 31st into the popular Pedestrian Bridge. A "Model Park" was then built at 19th to demonstrate the promise of a river parks. During the late '70s a trail on the west bank was added. This made it possible to make a loop from east to west bank via the Pedestrian Bridge. In a few years the low-water dam formed Zink Lake and the sandbars along downtown became a memory. Blair Fountain added beauty to the east side of the Pedestrian Bridge.
Later the Reynolds floating stage, the amphitheater and the River West Festival Park were added. The festival park hosts a number of occasions the most well known being the autumnal rite of passage, Oktoberfest going on this week (see "7+1," Page 23). The west side of the river is where the fireworks for the Boom River 4th of July celebration are set up prior to the event. The park has grown to 726 acres with more than 60 events taking place there every year.
Only Just Begun
There is more to come as Jennifer Edwards, manager of public affairs for the River Parks Authority, describes the continually evolving Master Plan. "It goes into master development of trails throughout the metropolitan Tulsa area. It talks about how existing trails and other trails will all link together. Recreational trails are our future. More people cycle to work, more people have leisure time."
The expansion of the parks system is also important because usage needs to spread out. The parks and trails can become oversaturated. Trails are eight to 10 feet wide and when overused can result in "trail rage." Eventually, suburbs and nearby lakes and rivers will be connected. "There's a lot of future in leisure programming," Edwards says.
New River Parks signs are in the works. The larger signs will include a map of the entire parks system along with park rules. River Parks plans an adopt-a-sign program to pay for 10 new signs. The old wood signage will come down. "These types of signs that are in the park, while esthetically they blend into the park, they are hard to read and there's more information that we need. Our park directory signs will take the place of a lot of that."
The colorful artwork seen on the sewer boxes throughout the park are there because graffiti is less likely to appear when they are made into a work of art. To adopt one all you have to do is contact River Parks. Give an example of your proposal. Art supplies are the responsibility of the artist. If graffiti appears the artist will be contacted. If there is no response the sewer box can be adopted by someone else.
The eight bronze sculptures throughout the park were donated by Nature Works. "They are a highlight at the park. They're gorgeous. We put wreaths and bows on them for Christmas." The section of the park running from 61st to 68th Street is called the Cadieux Mile. "Chester Cadieux is the president and owner of Quik Trip Corporation. He was instrumental in raising the funds to purchase this."
When people think of River Parks the first thing to come to mind is the trails. "That is what we are, number one. We have multi-use trails. You don't have duo trails, one for cycling, one for walking and jogging." The trails were originally chat which has been left in place alongside the concrete paths for runners because it causes less shock to the body when jogging. "The roller blade people are a new generation that has come forward. They take more room than anybody. The new trails have a center stripe very much like you have for vehicular traffic. We don't have the stripe on all of our trails yet. The mayor feels the trails that are eight feet wide are so narrow that she is not really in favor of putting the stripe on the old existing trails." The growth of River Parks will include more than trails.
On June 8-9 next summer the first-ever River Fest will debut. "It will be a myriad of activities, especially activities based on the water. We have the Tulsa Rowing Club who will be involved and we'll probably have a regatta. We will have kayakers. We have the best kayaking spot in Oklahoma. It's called 'the wave.' It's right in front of the PSO power plant.
"The Marines will build a foot bridge so that people can go from the west bank to the east bank. It will be floating on the water. It's going to hit Tulsa by storm." Other possible activities include sand sculpting, rafting, and a run. "We need a new festival. There have been a lot of festivals that have come and gone. This one would showcase the river and allow us to have water activities." For two days the river banks will be known as the East Harbor and the West Bay. Edwards promises major entertainment. An $8 button gains entrance to both days.
"We've been to the Wichita River Fest. We've been to the Little Rock River Fest. For Tulsa to have a river that runs through it and not have a river fest is embarrassing. We have this beautiful Zink Lake area to use. I can already see the rafts out there. There will be a category for the rafts for some of them to illuminate in the evening." Aqua shuttles similar to those in use in Oklahoma City can transport 20 people. The Arkansas is about a quarter mile wide so the shuttles promise to make the trip much faster than on foot.
One of the newer features of Rivers Parks is the 71st Street crossing. "When they built the 71st Street bridge they had the foresight to put spurs on it so a pedestrian lane could be added." A safety barrier separates the auto traffic from the park users. The pedestrian-bicycle lane provides access to the Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness Area. The River Parks trail going on south was lowered so there could be a lighted passage beneath the bridge. As a result more people are using the south end of the trail. New lights, called a cobra-head, have been added from 71 st to 96th. More importantly, there is an eagle preserve in this part of River Parks. To protect the birds this area is fenced.
Farther south is the 96th Street project which opened in late August. This part of the park has a gazebo and restrooms in place. A pavilion is also planned making this a great spot for family and corporate picnics for up to 100 people.
Call of the Wild
"Turkey Mountain is Tulsa best kept secret," Edwards says. "Sixty-first Street is basically where our Turkey Mountain starts going almost to 71st Street. The parking lot was completed within the last month. Over the past three years the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board has capped oil wells for us. They've cleaned up debris. We've had a major cleanup here with a volunteer effort. This 80 acres was contributed by the late Steven Jatras. He was a very influential, wealthy individual in town." The mountain is named for the wild turkeys which roamed the area. The Turkey Mountain River Parks area has parking for horse trailers and equestrians ride the trails regularly. "This is all nature trails. This is not what you would normally think of as a River Parks trail. They're all hiking and nature trails. We have a lot of cross-country runners and mountain bikes that come up here."
A downside to parks in all cities is open sexual activity usually at night. River Parks officials are working closely with police and mental health personnel to work out these problems. Signs have been added discouraging this activity in the parks and levying fines against those caught.
Sadly, the past 4th of July may have been the last Boom River Celebration as some long-time sponsors have bowed out. It's time for new sponsors to pick up the baton, or firecracker as the case may be, if the fireworks displays are to continue. "They bring their own ice chests. They bring their picnic baskets. You can't make a lot on concessions. We've tried to do the event earlier in the day and people don't want to come because it's too hot." The Boom River Celebration costs $58,000.
The Festival Park is located on the west bank. Oktoberfest, which runs Thursday through Sunday this week, happens on these 16˝ acres. During that festival more than 75 percent of the park is covered in canvas. "Oktoberfest over the past 21 years has contributed in either improvements to the park or unencumbered funds in excess of $430,000. We are trying to get creative on ways that we can show the public we're the benefactor. They've supported the park system to where it's not high commercialism."
Also on the west bank is the home of the Tulsa Rowing Club. "They practice early in the mornings and evenings. They have a team from TU. Some people ask, 'Can you put a boat down there?' You can put a boat down there. No power boats. Canoeing is great. Paddle boats are good. There's no swimming or wading in it because we do not want you to ingest the water." The quality of water in the river over the past 25 years has improved greatly.
Although there is no fishing allowed along certain parts of the river, it's okay to eat the fish from the river. The health department takes samples routinely, but an open sore could be a hazard due to bacteria. Most pollution in the river is a result of residents applying pesticides and fertilizers to their property which then runs off into the storm sewers, according to Edwards.
Connecting River Parks to downtown may get a shot in the arm if the downtown improvements package passes in November. "Another part is to have a trailhead from downtown that will lead into River Parks. People who come and stay at the Adam's Mark and Doubletree want to know where the trail is."
With the concrete barely dry the new pedestrian bridge near 11th is almost ready for use. Edwards points with pride as another section of park is joined. "That spans more than 4 railroad tracks (200 feet across). This project with the trail and the bridge was a $1 million project." From the west end of this bridge one can see the crossing first used to traverse the Arkansas River by wagon train.
"The Historical Society wants to put up a landmark for that." This trail takes one all the way to Sand Springs. "The park dream is to have trails extending from county line to county line–-Sand Springs to Bixby–-on both sides of the river."
It may just be a dream right now, but River Parks proves there's a very practical side to visionary ideas.
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