Tulsans on Saturday got to do something they had never done before – play on their city’s front lawn. The Blair Mansion property on Riverside Drive — long a privately owned Tulsa jewel — officially opened to the public for a four-hour groundbreaking celebration of the park that will be built there.

A Gathering Place For Tulsa is its name.

And David Hoffer, for one, couldn’t believe he was there.

“What I am excited about is to actually step foot here,” he said. “I’ve lived here my whole life and never been on it.”

Nor had the thousands of other people who showed up for the groundbreaking.

Even Michael Van Valkenburgh, who designed the park, felt something special about the 33-acre site on Saturday.

“I think our team realized when we came here four years ago that it was a big site, but when you get (a lot of people), it feels like nobody’s here, which is great,” he said. “Because I think when people come to a place where this is a lot of other people, they don’t want to feel too crowded.”

And they weren’t. Officials estimated the crowd to be 2,000 to 3,000 people, but it felt like fewer.

Mothers and fathers pushed their children in strollers. Cyclists pedaled through. Dogs walked their masters.

It was a lazy, fun day.

On one end of the property, kids walked a balance beam. On the other end, they lined up – with plenty of adults – to take a five-minute virtual tour of the park inside the inflatable Park Pod.

Auggie Sinnett, a curly-haired 4-year-old, killed some of the wait sitting in the cab of a shiny Manhattan Construction backhoe.

His mother, Molly Sinnett, said she brought Auggie and his brothers, James, 3, and Gabriel, 1, to be part of history.

“Hopefully in 30 years they’ll bring their kids and say we were part of it,” Sinnett said.

A Gathering Place for Tulsa is the brainchild of Tulsa businessman and philanthropist George Kaiser.

Organizers had a shovel with his name on it, but the famously private man never showed up. At least no one saw him.

But Gov. Mary Fallin and other dignitaries who spoke at the noon groundbreaking ceremony made sure the moment did not pass without recognizing him.

“I just personally as the governor of Oklahoma want to say how grateful I am that George Kaiser loves the state of Oklahoma, loves Tulsa, loves our children, loves our people,” Fallin said.

Ken Levit, George Kaiser Family Foundation executive director, reminded visitors that the foundation’s work is to help ensure equal opportunity for all children.

Beyond the great features of the park and its potential economic impact on the community, Levit said, the park is intended to be a place that will better children’s lives.

“We are really striving for the countless small learning interactions that each individual child will seek out with his or her parent,” Levit said.

That point was made in no stronger way Saturday than at the groundbreaking ceremony itself, where dozens of children filled a huge sandbox and used plastic yellow shovels to help donors, politicians and other dignitaries begin digging.

Just minutes before it happened, Mayor Dewey Bartlett looked down from the stage to the young people and noted that they might not appreciate the significance of the day — and that that was OK.

“They aren’t paying any attention to us,” Bartlett said. “They’re having fun, which is what they should be doing.”

And when the moment finally came, Jeff Stava, who is overseeing the project for GKFF, could hardly speak.

He said afterward that when he looked down into the sandbox he saw his children, Will, 6, and Luke, 5.

“I glanced down and saw my boys and my niece and nephews getting ready to break ground in the sandbox, and it hit me how important this is for our community both today and for future generations,” Stava said.


Gathering Place Q&A

 Who is building the park?

 Tulsa's Gathering Place, LLC a subsidiary of River Parks Authority with funding provided by over 40 donors and George Kaiser Family Foundation.

How much will it cost to build?

 The current cost estimate is $350 million

 Who is paying for it?

 The George Kaiser Family Foundation is providing $200 million, including $50 million in land. Private and corporate donors are anticipated to give $150 million.

The funding includes money for park programming and maintenance.

 Where will the park be constructed?

 Phase 1: Phase 1 will stretch from approximately 27th Street to 31st Street on the east side of Riverside Drive and from 27th Street to 34th Street along the west side of the street. Phases 2 and 3 call for an extension of the park south along Riverside Drive and will could include a children's museum and mixed use housing, office and restaurants.

 When will construction Phase 1 begin?

 October.

 When will Phase 1 of the park be completed?

 Late 2017.

 When will the entire park be completed?

 Five to seven years.

 What can Tulsans expect to see at the park site in the next six months to a year?

 Within the next few weeks, fencing will be put up around the for Blair Mansion property as preparation for construction begins. Beginning in January, the Sundance and Legacy apartments will be torn down to make room for a staging area.

 On Tuesday, the Midland Valley Trail will close between the east end of the railroad bridge over Riverside Drive to the other end of the arch where the former Blair Mansion north property line would cross the trail.

 The trail closure will be in effect until Phase I of A Gathering Place opens in 2017.

 Q.How will the project affect traffic along Riverside Drive and surrounding streets over the next year to 18 months?

 A. From approximately January through June of 2015 - and perhaps briefly before then - Riverside Drive near 31st Street and 31st Street from Riverside Drive east to Boston Avenue will be closed from time to time as the city installs storm water systems and demolition of Sundance Apartments takes place.

 The apartment site will be a staging area for the park's construction crews.

 In approximately June 2015, Riverside Drive from Crow Creek to 24th Street will be closed for 10 months to a year as the city makes improvements to Riverside Drive and constructs the foundations for the Gathering Place's land bridges.

 Thirty-First Street from Riverside Drive to Boston Avenue is expected to be closed continuously from the spring/Summer of 2015 until the park is completed in late 2017.

 Note: Officials caution that this schedule is subject to change.

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Kevin Canfield 918-581-8313

Kevin.canfield@tulsaworld.com