Jeff Stava didn’t need to be asked the question. From time to time, it pops into his head: What would he have done differently?
What, a year after the opening of Gathering Place, does he look back on and wish he could change?
Not a thing, it turns out.
“I don’t really have anything that I think could have been better,” said Stava, executive director and trustee of Tulsa’s Gathering Place LLC. “We had so much community engagement and so much involvement by different constituencies and user groups.
“We have a really, really good riverfront park, a great riverfront park.”
Stava is not exactly an impartial observer. He oversaw construction of the 66.5-acre recreation area along Riverside Drive. But one does not have to take his word — follow the footsteps, and listen to the experts.
Time Magazine recently named Gathering Place one of the 100 Greatest Places to experience in 2019, the latest in a string of publications and industry organizations to recognize the park as something special. It’s the people, the throngs of people, that provide the strongest evidence that Stava and the George Kaiser Family Foundation — the major funder and driving force behind the project — got it right.
Through Friday, there have been 2.8 million guest visits to the park since it opened Sept. 8, 2018, according to Gathering Place. Park officials expected the number to be closer to 1 million.
“You never know,” Stava said. “You talk enough about it, you believe it, but you don’t know if people are really going to provide the connection, and they have.”
Park Director Tony Moore said that for all the media attention and accolades Gathering Place has received, the most gratifying moments have been the ordinary, everyday ones.
“The family that came from Arkansas with their kids who heard about the park, that is what did it for me,” he said. “Just family XYZ coming in. … To me, that is where it’s at.”
What would Moore change about the park?
“If we had to do it over again, I would build a catering facility,” he said. “We get a lot of requests.’
Additional or stronger water elements would also be on his wish list.
“Just because when it gets hot, it gets hot,” Moore said.
Gathering Place was envisioned to be a place that brought together diverse groups of people who might not otherwise interact. Moore said that will continue to be at the heart of the park’s mission, with events like La Fiesta de Tulsa and Caribbean Vibes expected to be annual events.
Later this year, Gathering Place will play host to a regional Native American cultural festival and welcome north Tulsa churches to participate in a gospel event called Tulsa in Harmony.
“It’s cool to see other cultures embracing the park and coming (together) as one with the history of Tulsa having some geographical and cultural divisions,” Moore said. “Have we nailed it? No, it’s still a work in progress, but I think we have made huge steps in the right direction.”
Gathering Place’s first year hasn’t been devoid of controversy. Some neighborhood residents have complained about visitors parking in the streets and the noise generated by concerts and shows.
But Stava says those complaints have subsided, in part because the park has reconfigured its sound systems and provided additional parking options.
“We’ve been working with communities around the city to provide free neighborhood shuttles on weekends and during larger events,” Stava said. “We are constantly evaluating sound levels as they dynamically interact with wind and other environmental variables. We continually make adjustments based on these results.”
Gathering Place represents the largest private gift to a public park in United States history. It was donated to the River Parks Authority by GKFF, which gave $200 million, including $50 million in land. The project has received more than $200 million in pledges from more than 80 corporate and community philanthropists, and the city of Tulsa contributed $65 million in park infrastructure and improvements to Riverside Drive.
And there are still two phases of the park to go.
Phase two will be centered around the new Tulsa Children’s Museum Discovery Lab to be constructed on 5.2 acres on the southeast corner of 31st Street and Riverside Drive. Officials initially announced it would be completed by March or April 2020, but the timeline has been extended.
In the meantime, Gathering Place is working to put together a plan that will incorporate public input for what attractions and amenities could be constructed to complement the museum.
“We want the Children’s Museum to kind of feel like it is in the middle of the park,” Stava said.
The phase two development will result in a loss of about 300 to 400 parking spaces, but Stava said that will be more than offset by a reconfiguration of the parking lot south of Crow Creek that will add about 300. Another 700 parking spaces are available on the west side of the Arkansas River near the old skate park. Shuttle service will be provided on weekends.
Phase three of Gathering Place will be constructed on approximately 12.5 acres just south of the Children’s Museum site. Stava said GKFF has yet to determine what that piece of the park will look like.
The day will come, though, when the entire park property is developed. But getting there, Stava said, can’t help but be complicated — in a good way — by the success of phase one.
“Because you want to build on that momentum and you want to deliver on new experiences and new things for people to do,” he said. “And you want it to be complementary to what you have already built. We are already kind of swirling around thinking about what that will look like and how it will all interrelate.”