A call for collaboration: Leaders consider ways to improve Innovation District (The Journal Record)

By Molly M. Fleming

OKLAHOMA CITY – The neighborhood surrounding the Oklahoma Health Center should be better integrated into the area, said Cathy O’Connor, president of The Alliance for Economic Development.

“We need to have a porous campus,” she said.

She described the campus as a silo, where activities happen inside. She is part of a task force that’s developing the area into the Innovation District. She said the group is generating ideas that will help attract residents.

“We want to promote educational opportunities within the community around the Health Sciences Center and within the area,” she said.

O’Connor was part of a panel hosted by the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber that on Tuesday discussed the Innovation District.

The Brookings Institution and the Project for Public Spaces have been studying the Innovation District since October 2015. The final report will be released in winter 2017.

The institution sent researchers to meet with people who work in the area, as well as other Oklahoma City leaders. The district stretches north and south from NW 13 Street to Fourth Street, southeast to the railroad tracks, east to Lottie Avenue, and west to Robinson Avenue.

Brookings Institution fellow Jennifer Vey said her team has done more than 65 interviews with people in the district. She said one challenge is the profound racial disparity in social and economic well-being.

But a lot of jobs within the Innovation District require only an associate degree, which is why O’Connor said the district businesses need to communicate openings to the community. She said area entities could also look for nearby vendors.

Vey said the institute’s study showed the same problems.

“There are a lot of well-paying, middle-level jobs that can be made more accessible to local residents,” she said.

Besides collaborating with the neighborhood, Vey said the institute observed that there could be more collaboration among the diverse energy and health care industries based in the district.

Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation President Stephen Prescott said he has some ideas about how energy and health companies can collaborate on research. He and other leaders in the Innovation District are scheduling a Pumps and Pipes Symposium for the spring.

“If you keep everyone as their job clusters, there are not obvious problems,” he said.

But when the businesses looked at what problems they’re all trying to solve, they did find some common ground. He said three topics are imaging, sensing, and robotics.

“We’re going to take the technology in different industries and see if there is a bridge between the work,” he said.

Vey said the area’s lack of collaboration is a weakness. She said a lot of energy research is done in Norman and having the GE Oil and Gas Technology Center in the area doesn’t make the district a hotbed of oil-and-gas research.

“You need a collaborative hub of activity and you don’t quite have that in the energy sector,” she said.

A third piece that needs improvement is the connection from the district to downtown and Bricktown. She said the Innovation District is a low-density environment, so a car is needed for transportation. She encouraged improving access for walking and bicycle riding.

O’Connor said more could be done with bike lanes. Her task force wants to work with the city of Oklahoma City on its Bike/Ped Plan. She said the bike routes are a long-term plan.

“There’s been a lot of interest in putting a cap on the highway,” she said.

Miles & Associates architecture firm drew plans for a covered bridge across Interstate 235 that would cost $200 million to build.

“That’s an interesting idea, but a very expensive one,” O’Connor said. “There might be better short-term ideas, such as putting buildings closer to Fourth Street.”

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