Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Plaza District - Carless Rating #6

One of the best things about cities is the tendency to form districts; that is, neighborhoods or areas where there arises a certain unique and undeniable atmosphere, an air that separates that district from other places in the city. This atmosphere can arise organically or it can be prescribed to a certain extent, but it usually seems to be a combination of both - a neighborhood will start to take on a particular character in its development, its residents and visitors will respond well to that character, and then the neighborhood will make a concentrated effort to encourage new growth that corresponds with that character. The quality that I'm talking about is called a sense of place, and it is one of the most attractive traits that a city can have as far as being able to encourage tourism and new residency. When a city fosters the development of its sense of place, the return on that investment cannot be overstated.

Walk to the Plaza District: 21/25

The Plaza District is such a place here in Oklahoma City. It gives city residents a place where they know they can depend on a certain atmosphere that is a departure from the white-noise drone of everyday life. The offbeat vibe is the antidote to suburban strip mall living, and when you visit the Plaza District, you can always count on that feeling of escape from the stifling constraints of corporate cookie-cutter consumption.

Located on NW 16th Street between Classen and Penn Avenue, the Plaza District boasts locally-owned restaurants, bars, and shops, all with a decidedly hip sensibility. It is one of our favorite places to go here in OKC, and this past weekend we spent a good bit of time there. On Thursday evening, we were in the mood to try something new, so we decided to walk down to the Plaza District for dinner.

One of our favorite things about the Plaza District is its relative accessibility from a pedestrian perspective. Located a little over 1.5 miles away, it's a tad on the far side, distance-wise, but that distance is made up for by the fact that virtually the entire route has well-kept sidewalks through safe and interesting neighborhoods. Our route takes us up Hudson, through Midtown, through historic Heritage Hills, across Classen (which is the one real negative to this walk, but I'll get to that in a moment), then through the Plaza residential neighborhood, until we finally arrive in the commercial Plaza District. Almost every step of the way is accessible (at least from an able-bodied perspective - as with most of the pedestrian infrastructure in OKC, it is lacking in disability accessibility), safe, and provides pleasant architectural scenery.

Every time we walk to the Plaza District, I feel like we start talking about how enjoyable the walk is, and then without fail, we arrive at the indisputable worst part of the walk.

Panorama view of the intersection at Classen and 16th

 A mutual sigh is heaved, and then we start trying to cross Classen at NW 16th without getting killed. The intersection there is, to put it quite simply, a mess - especially from the pedestrian perspective. This is where NW 16th meets Classen, and Western Avenue veers off here as well. The result is a sprawling, confusing intersection, where a pedestrian has to dash between three different medians with faded, questionable crosswalks and *not one* walk/don't walk signal. 

There's no walk signal!

The intersection is so weirdly aligned that it's even difficult to take cues from the traffic lights themselves; it's not even as easy as walking when your direction of traffic has the green light. I never feel that secure when I'm trying to cross this intersection; it always takes several minutes to get across because it takes that long to take the necessary precautions without proper crosswalks or signals.

We had never been to The Mule before, and have heard nothing but good things about it, so our plan was to have dinner there. Unfortunately, The Mule is even more popular than we ever imagined, as we arrived around 7:00 on a Thursday night and there was already a 40-minute wait! We had stopped by the OKC Holiday Pop-Up Shops at Midtown on the way and we had purchased a beautiful vintage lamp at the RetrOKC pop-up shop; because we were on foot, we had to pick it up on the way back home. We were afraid that between the wait, eating dinner, and walking back, that we might not be able to get in to pick up our lamp by the 9:00pm closing time, so we had to skip The Mule for the night. We are excited to try it out, but it just wasn't going to work out that evening.

OKC Holiday Pop-Up Shops at Midtown

We opted for Empire Slice House instead, which is a big favorite of ours. We love the atmosphere, which reminds us of the kind of funky restaurant we would have gone to back in Athens, Georgia. Empire is always bustling; the lighting is just the right balance between bright and dim, and the walls are covered with vintage rock and roll and pop culture posters. Empire serves whole pizzas as well as the slices promised by its name; the by-the-slice offerings vary daily. So far our favorites are the Fungus Among Us, which features shiitake, portobello, and button mushrooms with spinach and topped with truffle oil, as well as the Rocksteady. The Rocksteady is an amazing pizza achievement, with bacon, gorgonzola, and red onion, with a drizzle of balsamic reduction. We are absolutely crazy about the Rocksteady pizza and I would highly recommend that you walk on down to the Plaza District and get some ASAP!

Tallgrass 8-bit at Empire

The next day, we decided to go to Live On The Plaza, which is a monthly event that happens on the 2nd Friday of each month. The Plaza District website describes this event as "a monthly artwalk featuring live music, featured artists, special events, and local shopping," which to me only describes half of what makes it a worthwhile venture; I feel like the most important and exciting part of the Live On The Plaza event is the simple yet vital fact that everyone is there. I love that going to the Plaza District makes me feel like I'm part of a community. I got to feel like even more of a part of the Plaza community on Friday, as John and I were invited to the Friends of Plaza party to enjoy food and drinks before the Live event. We enjoyed food from Garbanzo (delicious) and cupcakes from Cuppies & Joe (which I had already heard amazing things about, and they did NOT disappoint).

After the Friends of Plaza party, we met up with our new fellow carless friend, Anona, and showed her around the Plaza because she's even newer to OKC than we are! We shopped at RetrOKC (we can't get enough of that place), The Salvage Room, and Bad Granny's Bazaar. We didn't get to stay out as late as we would have liked because we had all gotten up super early, but we still had a fantastic time while we were there.

Now... let's rate the Plaza District!

At a distance of around 1.8 miles from our apartment, The Plaza District rates a C on our walking distance scale. Once at the Plaza District, however, there may be no better walkable area outside of downtown.

The walk to the Plaza District gets a B for pedestrian infrastructure. The trip up to Classen, and after Classen, is about as much as we could ask for as able-bodied pedestrians; however, the trek across Classen is neither safe nor convenient for walking, and the sidewalks, while a welcome amenity for us, are not necessarily very disabled-accessible.

The Plaza District has a reasonably good array of transportation options. The pedestrian infrastructure is obviously alive and well; the Metro Route 10 provides bus access, and it is of course easily reachable by car. The one minus is that while you can ride your bike to the Plaza District, there are no bike lanes. The lack of bike infrastructure puts the transportation options rating at a B.

Land use within and on the way to the Plaza District is definitely one of the best qualities about it. The walk through the Midtown area takes us past food, retail, and residential buildings. The historic Heritage Hills neighborhood with its beautiful houses and park is always a joy to travel through. The Plaza district itself boasts exemplary land use, both in the residential area, with densely placed yet attractive historic homes, and in the commercial district, which is made up of all the restaurants, bars, shops, and residential that you could want in an urban neighborhood. Land use here is definitely an A. 

The Plaza District and the walk both to and from offer a fantastic atmosphere. That whole "sense of place" thing that I was talking about at the beginning of this post? That's what I'm talking about, and the Plaza District has it in spades. The atmosphere grade for the Plaza is a resounding A.

With grades of C, B, B, A, and A, the Plaza District gets a total score of 21 out of 25. 

I hope to see all of you at the next Live On The Plaza, or better yet, come say hi to us if you see us at the Plaza before then. We're sure to be stuffing our faces at Empire, picking up our next piece of vintage furniture at RetrOKC, enjoying some bird dog pie at Pie Junkie, or finally getting a chance to eat dinner at The Mule!

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