After four years of planning that included a public design competition and endless discussions between the city of Tulsa and Gathering Place officials, a contract is in place for the construction of a new pedestrian bridge over the Arkansas River.
The River Parks Authority board on Thursday voted to approve an agreement with the city to take responsibility for the project.
The agreement calls for the Gateway Bridge to be constructed by Tulsa’s Gathering Place LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of the authority. Gathering Place LLC is the legal name given to the Gathering Place park in 2014 when it was given to the River Parks Authority by the George Kaiser Family Foundation.
The pedestrian bridge, near the 2900 block of Riverside Drive, will connect to the $465 million park, which is scheduled to open Sept. 8.
“The decision confirmed by the River Parks Authority today establishes the partnership that will build a world-class bridge spanning the Arkansas River to Tulsa’s very own riverfront park, the Gathering Place, for generations to come,” Mayor G.T. Bynum said.
The Gateway Bridge was selected as the winner of a bridge design competition conducted by the city in 2017. The bridge was designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, the same company that designed the Gathering Place.
Under the terms of the agreement, the pedestrian bridge is to be completed within three years. River Parks Authority will be responsible for routine and nonstructural maintenance of the bridge, with the city assuming financial responsibility for major capital improvements.
Jeff Stava, director and trustee of Tulsa’s Gathering Place LLC, said he expects demolition of the existing pedestrian bridge to begin 45 to 90 days after the agreement is finalized. The design of the new bridge is expected to take nine to 15 months, with construction ranging from 18 to 22 months, Stava said.
“The pedestrian bridge is at the front doorstep to the park,” Stava said. “In fact, it intersects on the east bank with a large stone plaza and a small stone amphitheatre and the north bump out. All of that work is waiting until we get the bridge designed.
“It is kind of a natural that River Parks would be looked at and that the Gathering Place would be looked at as being able to kind of finish that work.”
The finalists in the bridge design competition were asked to present two final proposals — one that could be built for the $24.4 million the city had allocated for the project and one that could be built for $35 million.
Nick Doctor, the city’s chief of community development and policy, said plans call for designing the fully enhanced bridge, but what is actually built beyond the original Gateway Bridge will depend on how much money is raised.
According to the agreement, three sources of revenue will be used to fund the project. The city will provide the first $24.4 million, as it has previously committed. It will then seek to leverage those funds to secure another $3 million in local, state or federal grants.
The remainder of the funding, if needed, would consist of private dollars raised by the city, River Parks and/or private entities that would then be matched by the George Kaiser Family Foundation.
The city is using three funding sources to pay its share of the project: $7.7 million from the Improve Our Tulsa capital improvements program; $4.7 million from a federal TIGER grant; and $15 million in Vision Tulsa sales-tax revenue.
The city has already spent approximately $1.3 million for early design and engineering work on the bridge, money city officials and Stava insist won’t go to waste.
“They (the city) have a lot of hydraulic studies they have done, a lot of technical studies within the river,” Stava said. “Nothing will be lost. It will be used and built upon to do the design of the pedestrian bridge.”
The existing pedestrian bridge is owned by the city of Tulsa and leased to River Parks Authority. Under the contract approved Thursday, the city would retain ownership of the new bridge with a long-term lease agreement with River Parks Authority to be executed after the bridge is completed.
The city of Tulsa and Gathering Place officials had initially believed the century-old pedestrian bridge could be rehabilitated to complement the park. But a 2014 engineering analysis found that the bridge was structurally unsound, leaving the city with no option but to build a new one.
Doctor said it is not unusual for the city to contract with other entities to construct publicly funded projects. The city is doing just that with Tulsa Community College and the Tulsa County fairgrounds for its Vision Tulsa projects.
Another factor in the city’s decision to partner with the River Parks Authority is that Vision Tulsa added a lot more work for city engineering staff at a time when personnel levels in the department have stayed flat, Doctor said.
Given the quality of the Gathering Place, he added, “we have every bit of confidence that with the complexities of this project, that it (the pedestrian bridge) would be delivered and done to that same level of excellence.”