A developing view
By Steve Lackmeyer
Riding in a Ferris wheel gondola, nine stories high and soaring 100 feet above the Oklahoma River, it's a lot easier to see the potential of Wheeler and the heart of original south Oklahoma City.
The 90 acres, once home to the Downtown Airpark, was bought in 2006 for $7.2 million by the Humphreys family, who took a big gamble at a time when a turnaround story for the Oklahoma River was no sure thing. In 2014, the family doubled up its bet and bought another 60 acres to the east of the airpark.
From my bird's-eye view, I was surprised to see a steady flow of bicyclists, joggers and families with baby strollers walking along the landscaped trails along the river's south shore. To the north I saw how Western Avenue really is set to become a major corridor once it is rerouted to merge with Classen Boulevard north of Interstate 40.
The distances between Wheeler, the emerging Farmers Market area and rapidly developing Film Row district are as close as those between Midtown, Automobile Alley and Deep Deuce. The redesigned downtown boulevard now under construction along the old alignment of I-40, hopefully, will act as the thread that will link all these emerging areas together.
Buying a famous Ferris wheel on eBay, rebuilding it and going through proper permitting to place it along the Oklahoma River was no easy task. It was expensive and represents an ongoing investment by the Humphreys family that has yet to be matched by any other private investment in the heart of original south Oklahoma City.
The Wheeler development, originally led by Grant Humphreys, was initially set to be a creature of the 1990s and early 2000s, a mix of hotels, housing and maybe even big box retail. The national recession that hit in 2009 forced a change in scheduling and plans as it became make or break time for a project Humphreys already had started at Lake Eufaula — Carlton Landing.
With no homes built yet in the planned mixed-use community, Grant Humphreys in 2011 doubled his effort in Eufaula and moved with his family to Carlton Landing to ensure the development stayed on track. Five years later, Carlton Landing is a success story with more than 100 homes built in a traditional urban village complete with a church, school, store, restaurant, boat docks, parks and trails.
Carlton Landing is an experiment in planning and sustainability, providing new development approaches that can be copied throughout the state. To get it done, Grant and Kirk Humphreys started with master plan consulting from Andres Duany and DPZ, the creative forces behind the Seaside preplanned community in Florida.
Blair Humphreys took a similar approach when he took over development of the Downtown Airpark and started fresh on planning. He hired Victor Dover and his firm Dover Kohl to meet with area residents and community leaders and create a new master plan for Wheeler.
That was in 2014. With the Ferris wheel opening Monday, Humphreys and his crew are set to start the first phase of transforming what is by any means a blighted area separating south Oklahoma City's working-class neighborhoods from the urban core renaissance being enjoyed by those north of the river.
Initial improvements will include the terminal building at the former airpark entrance.
The terminal is the strongest surviving tie to the airpark, which opened in 1947, built by a group of city power brokers led by Dean A. McGee. The terminal, with a hint of art deco-style design, also was home to a cafe that operated from 1954 until the airpark went bankrupt.
Initial plans call for renovating the terminal building into a community hub (with more details to be revealed at a later time) and building a first phase of housing that will sell at an average price of $250,000 to $350,000. Zoning approved this spring also includes plans for what Humphreys calls “tiny homes” that might attract young couples and families just starting out.
Phase One village jib
If all goes as planned, phase one, starting later this year, will include a village hub for what will turn into a full-scale district. The work will include approximately 50 single family homes, including both urban houses and multistory town homes, more than 100 apartments, a three-story office building and the restored terminal building.
The potential upside from Wheeler goes beyond providing a boost to south Oklahoma City, nearby Capitol Hill, the historic Mount St. Mary's Catholic School and nearby neighborhoods. During recent visits with City Planning Director Aubrey Hammontree and others interested in city development, Wheeler came up multiple times as an example of where the city wants to go, breaking the endless cycle of neighborhoods with no soul, no character, no sense of place. It's not that all developers strive for mediocrity. But without any examples of how to do it differently, they go with what they know. So Wheeler, as it is envisioned, could have a ripple effect throughout the metro just as homebuilders like Jeff Click and others are coming back from visits to Carlton Landing with new ideas on how to connect retail with housing.
“If all goes as planned” it also includes one other big step, one that will press city leaders to decide whether they agree south Oklahoma City is deserving of the same investment and support given to projects on the north shore.
The application has yet to made, but the Humphreys have made it clear a vast, blighted property like the airpark will need tax increment financing, the same instrument used for projects throughout downtown and along the north shore of the river. The airpark will need water lines, streets and drainage.
Over the past couple of years I've heard some at City Hall wonder if helping Wheeler would hurt efforts underway to revitalize the area known as “Core to Shore,” located between the river, Reno Avenue, Bricktown and Film Row.
Tax increment in future?
Such thinking goes along the logic of whether Midtown hurts Deep Deuce, or whether Uptown hurts Paseo, or whether Film Row hurts the Plaza District. Such logic and worry is crazy. As a direct observer of what's transpired the past 20 years, I saw how Deep Deuce thrived off Bricktown, only to in turn help make possible the housing, retail, hotel and entertainment venues being built now in once-blighted east Bricktown.
The emergence of housing in Deep Deuce did not, ultimately, hurt the chances of housing in Bricktown. Without Deep Deuce (and millions in tax increment and other public assistance), I seriously doubt we would be seeing the development underway in east Bricktown.
From atop the Ferris wheel, I saw how the same connections can take place with Core to Shore. Restrict support to just Core to Shore and the trend of some speculative owners demanding crazy prices blocking progress will only worsen. Provide some competition to the south and it could act as a catalyst to actually forcing some reality into the marketplace while still providing the momentum for other development in Core to Shore to continue.
The pieces of this whole puzzle may seem pretty complicated. But from atop the Ferris wheel, the view is a lot clearer.