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By Patricia Leigh Brown

 

 

The landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh is a diviner of places, a city whisperer.

Though he had never set foot in Tulsa, he was coaxed to a flat, ho-hum stretch of land overlooking the Arkansas River by the billionaire philanthropist George B. Kaiser, who was bent on building a park.

Confronting this hodgepodge site with killer views of an oil tank farm and a power plant, Mr. Van Valkenburgh, who created Brooklyn Bridge ParkMaggie Daley Park in Chicago and other celebrated cityscapes, responded the way he typically does. “A limitation,” he will say about challenging terrain, “is the beginning of a gift.”

Seven years later, the Olmsted-style transformation of 66 acres in the central city is now Gathering Place, a much-anticipated $465 million park that opens Sept. 8 as one of the largest and most ambitious public parks ever created with private funds — and the latest example of deep-pocketed citizens rebuilding cities through projects they perceive to be in the public good.

If it succeeds, as its founders and community leaders hope, it can bring families together and help mend a city with a legacy of segregation, where many neighborhoods grapple with poverty, health disparities and the isolating effects of urban renewal. “Tulsa has a long history of social inequality,” Mr. Van Valkenburgh observed. “There’s hardly a better way to bring people together than in a democratic space like a park.”
The park includes “hills” formed by river silt and a peaceful wetland with stepping stones, where dragonflies alight on lily pads.CreditElizabeth Felicella

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At Gathering Place, play and landscape get equal billing. The wide range of park programs, which arose from a close engagement with the public, are the heart and soul of the project.

Even as the finishing touches are readied, it is a richly imagined landscape inspired in part by local limestone cliffs, in which a child can encounter a 22-foot-tall Great Blue Heron with a slide between her wings — one of more than 160 inventive play structures secreted among its groves, glades, vales and prairie-flowered hillocks.

Students on a pirate ship at the Tulsa park, where play and landscape get equal billing. Programs arose from an engagement with communities.CreditNick Oxford for The New York Times

english-web-banner_728x90-1The project, which comes with a hefty $100 million endowment for maintenance and family programming, has been spearheaded and largely funded by the George Kaiser Family Foundation, with an assist from other donors. Its Tulsa-born namesake, Mr. Kaiser is a progressive Democrat in a sea of red who has devoted much of his philanthropic energy toward addressing intergenerational poverty in Tulsa, trying to level the playing field for children left behind by “the accident of birth.”

The son of Jewish refugees who fled Nazi Germany, Mr. Kaiser has a net worth estimated at $7.9 billion from oil, banking and other investments. The Kaiser foundation has gifted the entire property to River Parks Authority, a city and county agency that develops and maintains public riverfront parks. A foundation subsidiary is responsible for operating the park and picking up the tab for the next 99 years.

Mr. Kaiser has given away more than $1 billion over the past decade and signed the “Giving Pledge” launched by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates that commits billionaires to donating at least half their assets to charity.

George B. Kaiser, whose foundation provided the primary funding for the park, in The Wetlands. “We got more and more divided over time by geography, race and class,” he said of Tulsa. “So getting people together is step number one.”CreditNick Oxford for The New York Times

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He is part of an expanding coterie of American tycoons who are forking over big philanthropic dollars for high profile civic spaces by star designers — among them “Diller Island,” an off-and-now-on-againperforming arts center on a Hudson River pier in New York underwritten by the billionaire Barry Diller and his fashion designer wife Diane von Furstenberg.

On a recent sultry morning, Mr. Kaiser, 76, was walking the park in a hard hat and a shirt with a plastic pocket protector for leaky pens, spouting statistics on dew points, quoting Monty Python and angsting about whether spending millions on a park best furthered equal opportunity for young children (“I feel guilt about everything I do,” he allowed). “We got more and more divided over time by geography, race and class,” he said of this city of 400,000. “So getting people together is step number one.”

A high-decibel preview of what Gathering Place might become was on display recently as about 150 children from the Tulsa Dream Center, a community nonprofit in the city’s underserved North Tulsa district, made a mad dash for four gigantic castle towers worthy of Rapunzel, connected by bouncy rigging.

Amaiah Jenkins, 10, emerged sweaty and panting after barreling down a slide positioned between two elephant tusks. “My favorite part is everything!” she enthused before making a beeline to a zip line in the trees.

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