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What is Urban Land Institute Oklahoma?

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As I continue to blog and tweet about the #ULIOKtravels trip to Bentonville, Arkansas, I am reminded that not everyone is up to date on ULI, it's history, and how it has influenced development through the OKC metro.

ULI traces its roots to 1936 with the formation of the National Real Estate Foundation for Practical Research and Education in Chicago. The model was that of a real estate college—a school of urbiculture—that could stand as an objective and recognized source of research and education, governed by a board of real estate professionals.

Over the years, it has evolved into a leading organization worldwide that connects developers, real estate professionals, builders, planners, architects, engineers, civic space planners and anyone involved in reshaping cities. Oklahoma's chapter can be credited with the emergence of Richard McKown, whose family owns the suburban-based Ideal Homes, in becoming a leading downtown developer. The chapter is credited by David Wanzer in influencing the direction of his career, as well as matching him up with Jonathan Dodson and Ben Sellers - the guys so beloved by many for their work with the Tower Theatre in Uptown that they are often referred to as the "Tower trio."

The Oklahoma chapter brings people together, and these trips are amazingly effective in bringing in cutting edge ideas  into Oklahoma City before they are commonplace. Deals are made on these trips. Solutions are found for problems that may seem impossible to overcome. And at the annual ULI Oklahoma Impact Awards, innovation is showcased and emerging talent and leaders are given the spotlight.

And now we're listening to a speech by Ed McMahon, a veteran senior resident fellow with the ULI headquarters in Washington, D.C. He remembers when building green, LEED certified buildings was mocked as a fad, when only 523 people were certified to design LEED green buildings. Now green construction is commonplace (Devon Energy was quite proud of the LEED certification earned by its new headquarters downtown). Indeed, the country now has more than 200,000 LEED certified designers. TSoo learn more about LEED certification, read here:

Place matters. McMahon argues that how a community is designed is a matter of life and death. Build a community that encourages walking with trails, interaction with neighbors, and you have residents who enjoy a healthier lifestyle. School design is key - schools were once built in neighborhoods but are now built on the fringe - discouraging walking at an early age. Design non-connecting streets and you again discourage walking. 

"Where you live can have a greater impact on your health than your genetic code," McMahon said.

So far, Oklahoma City has done well trying to keep up. Mayor Mick Cornett and former Mayor Kirk Humphreys are in some ways very different people. But both have played huge roles in this transformation. Humphreys and his sons Grant and Blair led in creation of the ULI Oklahoma Chapter. Cornett, meanwhile, made the creation of sidewalks and trails a citywide priority as part of MAPS 3. 

As all this was going on, the world was changing. In 2002, the country was home to just seven bike share programs. Now we have 750 such programs worldwide, 70 in the United States, and dozens of those bike shares in Oklahoma City.

Change continues. Today we are learning about "bicycle highways." We're seeing how bike trails are attracting serious adjacent development. 

Thanks to ULI Oklahoma and others in the community, these challenges and changes are widely embraced by civic and business leaders, though stubborn hold-outs like some of the city's traffic commissioners have yet to figure it out. We have an Oklahoma Department of Transportation that has yet to learn, as explained by McMahon, that the constant traditional expansion of highways is not the answer to properly growing a community.

Historical mistakes remain to be fixed. The research and health sciences district east of downtown was built with wide open roads and large green spaces around an amazing collection of hospitals, schools, and research firms. But the area looks dead on the outside. You've read my coverage of the efforts to recreate the area as an Innovation District - and the involvement of dozens of people during local planning sessions is evidence of a community that has bought into the ULI mission and the issues listed by McMahon. 

The Oklahoma City metro is creating places that matter - the Plaza District, Midtown, Bricktown, Deep Deuce, Uptown, Automobile Alley, and in suburban areas like downtown Edmond, downtown Norman and Norman's Campus Corner. Add SW 29, Capitol Hill and the Windsor District to the list of areas that "get it" are attempting similar transformations.

McMahon notes the change in demographics and market realities favor this change. Millennials are more likely to shop at a grocery multiple times a week instead of once a week as was common with older generations. 

Some may confuse ULI as being a group exclusively focused on downtown development. But as I continue to follow ULI Oklahoman and join them on these trips, I am learning about new approaches that can benefit every area of town. With Heard on Hurd and other efforts in downtown Edmond (the heart of a very suburban town), we know that Edmond civic leaders like Jill Castilla "get it."

Bentonville gets it as well. This ULI Oklahoma trip is the best attended excursion yet. Northwest Arkansas is undergoing it own amazing transformation, yet they are just now pondering creation of their own ULI chapter. They are here today, local reporters are covering this meeting, and this is absolutely a two-way discussion. Let me add, Bentonville and the Northwest Arkansas civic leaders have been amazing hosts (especially Specialized Real Estate Group). When it rained today, these folks bought us umbrellas and ponchos.

These are two communities that are connecting. Developers from Oklahoma City are already hoping to bring these folks to speak back home and to consult on upcoming projects. 

The world is changing. It's not just about business, education and technology. It's about simple things like bicycles and trails. It's about complicated questions like "how do we create a place that is special? How do we create a city that will thrive in the future?"

If you want those answers, get involved in ULI. 

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