TULSA, Okla. — The landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh is a diviner of places, a city whisperer.
Though he had never set foot in Tulsa, he was coaxed to a flat, ho-hum stretch of land overlooking the Arkansas River by the billionaire philanthropist George B. Kaiser, who was bent on building a park.
Confronting this hodgepodge site with killer views of an oil tank farm and a power plant, Mr. Van Valkenburgh, who created Brooklyn Bridge Park, Maggie Daley Park in Chicago and other celebrated cityscapes, responded the way he typically does. “A limitation,” he will say about challenging terrain, “is the beginning of a gift.”
Seven years later, the Olmsted-style transformation of 66 acres in the central city is now Gathering Place, a much-anticipated $465 million park that opens Sept. 8 as one of the largest and most ambitious public parks ever created with private funds — and the latest example of deep-pocketed citizens rebuilding cities through projects they perceive to be in the public good.
If it succeeds, as its founders and community leaders hope, it can bring families together and help mend a city with a legacy of segregation, where many neighborhoods grapple with poverty, health disparities and the isolating effects of urban renewal. “Tulsa has a long history of social inequality,” Mr. Van Valkenburgh observed. “There’s hardly a better way to bring people together than in a democratic space like a park.”
At Gathering Place, play and landscape get equal billing. The wide range of park programs, which arose from a close engagement with the public, are the heart and soul of the project.
Even as the finishing touches are readied, it is a richly imagined landscape inspired in part by local limestone cliffs, in which a child can encounter a 22-foot-tall Great Blue Heron with a slide between her wings — one of more than 160 inventive play structures secreted among its groves, glades, vales and prairie-flowered hillocks.
The project, which comes with a hefty $100 million endowment for maintenance and family programming, has been spearheaded and largely funded by the George Kaiser Family Foundation, with an assist from other donors. Its Tulsa-born benefactor, Mr. Kaiser, is a progressive Democrat in a sea of red who has devoted much of his philanthropic energy toward addressing intergenerational poverty in Tulsa, trying to level the playing field for children left behind by “the accident of birth.”
The son of Jewish refugees who fled Nazi Germany, Mr. Kaiser has a net worth estimated at $7.9 billion from oil, banking and other investments. The Kaiser foundation has gifted the entire property to River Parks Authority, a city and county agency that develops and maintains public riverfront parks. A foundation subsidiary is responsible for operating the park and picking up the tab for the next 99 years.
Mr. Kaiser has given away more than $1 billion over the past decade and signed the “Giving Pledge” launched by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates that commits billionaires to donating at least half their assets to charity.
He is part of an expanding coterie of American tycoons who are forking over big philanthropic dollars for high profile civic spaces by star designers — among them “Diller Island,” an off-and-now-on-again performing arts center on a Hudson River pier in New York underwritten by the billionaire Barry Diller and his fashion designer wife Diane von Furstenberg.
On a recent sultry morning, Mr. Kaiser, 76, was walking the park in a hard hat and a shirt with a plastic pocket protector for leaky pens, spouting statistics on dew points, quoting Monty Python and angsting about whether spending millions on a park best furthered equal opportunity for young children (“I feel guilt about everything I do,” he allowed). “We got more and more divided over time by geography, race and class,” he said of this city of 400,000. “So getting people together is step number one.”
A high-decibel preview of what Gathering Place might become was on display recently as about 150 children from the Tulsa Dream Center, a community nonprofit in the city’s underserved North Tulsa district, made a mad dash for four gigantic castle towers worthy of Rapunzel, connected by bouncy rigging.
Amaiah Jenkins, 10, emerged sweaty and panting after barreling down a slide positioned between two elephant tusks. “My favorite part is everything!” she enthused before making a beeline to a zip line in the trees.
The name “Gathering Place” intentionally addresses the city’s need for inclusion. Dubbed “The Oil Capital of the World” by 1920, Tulsa became the scene of a devastating race massacre, known as the 1921 Race Riot, in which white mobs burned the thriving, traditionally black Greenwood district — “the Black Wall Street” — to the ground. An estimated 300 black residents were killed.
Reverberations persisted for decades, and the events were long concealed. Brady Street, which runs through the vibrant downtown arts district, was named after Wyatt Tate Brady, a Tulsa founder and member of the Ku Klux Klan, until 2013, when the City Council voted to keep the name but transfer the honor to Mathew Brady, the Civil War photographer.
Greenwood is part of North Tulsa, which, like the heavily Latino east side of town, continues to struggle with economic and social mobility. “The park has the opportunity to bridge the physical divides and heal some of the wounds of history that have festered for so long,” said Hannibal B. Johnson, an attorney and the author of “Black Wall Street: From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District.”
Like many cities, Tulsa reserves its budget for fire, public safety and other nuts and bolts concerns, not elaborate parks. The Gathering Place evolved from a more modest proposal to build small sites along the river between the city and the Tulsa county suburbs with public funds matched by private donations, a prospect that was defeated by county voters in 2007. “That caused us to rethink,” said Ken Levit, the George Kaiser Family Foundation’s executive director. “The result was a better thought-out plan in the core of the city with community input at the outset.”
The site consisted of four disparate parcels, including a 35-acre estate with a replica of Jefferson Davis’s house, since demolished. The foundation launched an international competition, winnowing 99 candidates to four. In 2011, Mr. Van Valkenburgh and his team touched down on an unplowed runway with over a foot of snow (still, it beats a tornado). The firm had just been awarded the commission for St. Louis’s Gateway Arch Park, which included a grass-covered land bridge over the interstate.
Since the opening of Teardrop Park in Battery Park City in 2006, a mini-version of upstate New York nestled amid skyscrapers, Mr. Van Valkenburgh and his partners have challenged prevailing notions of what an urban park can be. At Brooklyn Bridge Park along the East River’s edge, the site included rotting piers, defunct warehouses, land that flooded and an excruciatingly loud expressway. Mr. Van Valkenburgh and his team created a place, as he observed during walks, “where quinceañeras in orange taffeta dresses with Christmas lights on them stand in the archways of the ruins of a tobacco warehouse and a strange guy with a miniature Chemex and a demitasse cup sips coffee at dawn while looking at Lower Manhattan.”
The firm’s stock-in-trade is complex topography incorporating serendipity, mystery and of course a rich variety of plants (current projects include the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago). Mr. Van Valkenburgh grew up on a dairy farm in the Catskills, where he tended the family garden. A zealous cook, his approach to landscapes is similar to the one he uses in the kitchen: “You look through the house and see what you have,” as he put it. Unlike earlier eras of park design, which focused on observing scenery, parks today, he said, “are about intensity of involvement, with people and space becoming one organism.”
To root Gathering Place in the region, he and his longtime principal Matthew Urbanski and others toured rock formations at Chandler Park, a county park outside the city where narrow paths squeeze through towering limestone walls that appear as if they might tumble down.
“We were stunned to find geological expressions as powerful as Chandler,” Mr. Van Valkenburgh said. The team scoured quarries in eastern Oklahoma and Arkansas to bring richly-veined sandstone in myriad hues to the park. Dramatic stone outcroppings are everywhere, forming grottoes, misty waterfalls and, at one entrance, a canyon-like series of stacked stone walls that look like stowaways from a John Ford western.
Three buildings by the architects Mack Scogin and Merrill Elam include a lodge that will serve as a living room for park visitors. The Great Hall includes a massive circular stone fireplace and a vaulted ceiling composed of thousands of variegated cedar and maple planks. A boathouse pavilion on a Van Valkenburgh-made pond will house cafes and a “Cabinet of Wonder” by the artist Mark Dion.
The oppressive Oklahoma heat defined water as a park priority and pushed Mr. Van Valkenburgh toward his thorniest task: connecting Gathering Place to the Arkansas River by extending the park in two places over a busy roadway. This technical derring-do also involved an ecological mitzvah: 450,000 cubic yards of river silt formed the park’s “hills” as well as an expanse of lawn planted with cedar and ginkgo trees that may become the Tulsa equivalent of Central Park’s Great Lawn.
But it is the landscape of fantasy and play — where fanciful castles rise to the tree canopy, and hidden kaleidoscopes and fun-house mirrors lurk in the boxwood — that seems most likely to bring the community together. Part Lewis Carroll, part Brothers Grimm, its eight and a half acres of playgrounds are geared to specific ages and abilities. In this somewhat madcap environment, it’s possible to climb inside a bear, slide through a tulip, hang out inside a giant paddlefish, and dream up a play on a stage with a velvet curtain. There is a major BMX and skate park for teenagers.
The significant difference between designing a park for an enlightened billionaire, rather than a public agency, Mr. Van Valkenburgh said, was the Foundation’s willingness to embrace play structures with moving parts that involve a manageable risk. A water zone invites children to operate dams and pumps, and think like a pint-size Army Corps of Engineers. Children can direct some of the water into a huge sandbox, creating sand castles and tunnels. “It’s really about being able to make a complete mess,” Mr. Urbanski, the firm’s playground czar, said. “It’s going to make control freak mothers crazy.”
For Mr. Kaiser, a lifelong Tulsan, the park — projected at 100 acres, with a children’s museum — is furthering his goal of drawing entrepreneurs and young professionals who could make his city the next Austin. Although, he points out, Austin does not have the Woody Guthrie Center or the Bob Dylan Archive (both Foundation initiatives).
But are cities best served by having parks and other amenities initiated and subsidized by powerful billionaires? To Aaron Dorfman, president of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, a Washington-based watchdog group, “private citizens getting to decide which ‘common good’ ideas get funded is a worrisome trend.”
“They are stepping into the holes because of government underfunding,” he said.
This question is likely to arise more frequently as the rich get richer — and as the nation’s parks assume the kind of cachet that museums and performing arts centers have long had, said Adrian Benepe, a former New York City Department of Parks & Recreation commissioner and now a senior vice president of the nonprofit Trust for Public Land.
The watershed moment may have been 2012, when the hedge fund manager John A. Paulson donated $100 million to the Central Park Conservancy. Parks, Mr. Benepe noted, have become “economic development magnets” — Millennium Park in Chicago, for instance, is now one of the city’s most heavily visited attractions. “There is a peacetime arms race as cities compete with each other,” he said. “Having a great public amenity like a park helps draw residents and investors to a city.”
Park construction has typically been financed through municipal bonds.
Mr. Kaiser may be committed to ensuring that Gathering Place is publicly owned in perpetuity, but there is no guarantee the next billionaire in the next city will be. “You’re relying on someone’s good will,” said Galen Cranz, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley and author of “The Politics of Park Design.”
In Tulsa, a further question will be, how much can a park do to create community and advance equality? Distressing statistics abound, include a 12.8- year difference in life expectancy between certain ZIP codes in North and South Tulsa, according to the Tulsa Health Department. The city lacks extensive mass transit so the foundation plans to run free shuttle buses to the park. Educational programming for young visitors will incorporate bird watching, tree and plant identification and the ecology of the river.
State Senator Kevin L. Matthews, founder and chairman of the Tulsa Race Riot Centennial Commission, whose district encompasses both Greenwood and downtown, said that the park would create an opportunity for cultural tourism. “I want people to learn about our story,” he said. “A park can draw people and where people are drawn, they’re in closer proximity to things that will educate them.”
Aaron Johnson, the Dream Center’s executive director, noted that many children in the city “won’t get to Oklahoma City, let alone Disney World.” The park, he feels certain, will let young people know what’s possible and “fire up creative neurons.”
Even as he spoke, 9-year-old Josiah Shaw was practically vibrating with exhilaration, pretending he was being chased by jungle animals across the castle rigging. “It’s superfun!!” he exulted. “I kind of imagine I’m in a life and death situation.”
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