Tulsa’s waterfront is getting a $300 million makeover, courtesy of New York City–based landscape architecture firm Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA). The project, a 66.5-acre park that stretches along the Arkansas River, began with a 2011 competition sponsored by the George Kaiser Foundation. The foundation’s invitation was met by over 100 applications, out of which MVVA and four other firms were chosen as finalists. MVVA won out in the summer of 2011 and began designing the project that fall.
Chris Gates, a senior associate at MVVA, knew that the park’s greatest challenge—and what he would also deem to be its greatest success—would be accommodating the various needs of the Tulsa community in one relatively small space. The community expressed a strong need for the park to accommodate not just children, but the whole family unit. Having a variety of activities for a wide age range became a primary factor in the development of the design. Upping the ante on community expectations was the fact that virtually everyone in Tulsa has a backyard—or, as Gates put it, “his or her own special park.” As a result, a large part of the challenge focused on drawing people from their backyards into the wider community.
Several outdoor eating amenities respond directly to that need. Picnic tables and outdoor barbeque grills pepper the park’s landscape. Of even greater import are two central buildings that house food and recreational options. “The Lodge” offers indoor fireplaces, open rooms for inclement weather, and an informal beer garden nestled beneath a grove of trees. Downstairs is a country store that holds, in Gates’ words, “everything you would imagine in a country store”: ice cream, kites, and fishing lures for the nearby pond. The Boat House, located near the pond, is the second central building. This multi-level structure accommodates a restaurant and open-air pavilion on the top floor, with kayaks and canoes underneath.
Four and a half acres are dedicated to the playground alone, which includes 45-foot-tall lookout towers, bridges, and activities appealing to children of all ages. But the most exciting development—especially given Tulsa’s roasting summers—might be the water park area, which “is really more of a water garden,” said Gates. Dams, a water labyrinth, and jumping jets are all standout features, enhanced by a unique interactive feature that requires children to physically engage with the park in order to initiate water play.
What makes MVVA’s design especially unique, however, and what Chris believes won them the competition, are the two 300-foot-long land bridges that seamlessly transition over two roadways that bisect the park. The bridges incorporate earth and plantings so that the roadways do not interrupt the continuity of nature. “It’s like you never leave the park,” said Chris.
The bridges also connect to two landmasses that push out onto the waterfront, thereby creating more real estate and maximizing on the park’s natural resources. A Gathering Place currently has $59.5 million in backing from seven major donors and is slated for completion in late 2017.