Plans for redevelopment in Wheeler District advance
By William Crum
The city council set the stage Tuesday for a "new urbanist" district that could become a catalyst for redeveloping long-neglected neighborhoods south of the Oklahoma River.
The Wheeler District already is known for the riverbank Ferris wheel erected last year.
Public financing to leverage $576 million in private investment over the next 10 to 15 years is expected to produce 2,000 housing units, along with retail and entertainment venues.
Developer Blair Humphreys' plans include tree-lined streets, right-sized housing options ranging from the utilitarian to the comfortable, and two new public schools.
In density and variety of housing, Wheeler is designed to break the mold of the cookie-cutter residential choices common among new developments in Oklahoma City.
Characterizing the developer's designs, Ward 4 Councilman Pete White said, "I can't think of a better word than 'courageous.' "
"It's a big opportunity but for it to be the first real project of its kind in the city and also for it to be on the south side of the river — finally — I couldn't be more pleased," he said.
Wheeler is to encompass 150 acres on either side of Western Avenue just south of the river. The section west of Western to be developed first is the old Downtown Airpark.
The council spent the better part of an hour dissecting the project with Humphreys and Cathy O'Connor, head of the city's nonprofit economic development arm, before voting unanimously to advance it to a final vote on Jan. 31.
Terms provide for reimbursement of up to $120 million in direct costs and interest for water and sewer, streets and alleys, sidewalks and trails, and other infrastructure.
As the project matures and property values rise, the developer could claim up to $60 million more in reimbursements for an elementary school and, planned later, a mid/high school.
Inclusion of plans for new public schools addresses a key factor in redeveloping the inner city — building faith among potential residents in the quality of education for their children.
Humphreys envisioned neighborhoods where children whose families span the range of socio-economic and language situations could live alongside their teachers.
The "dual immersion" elementary planned for Wheeler would be designed for 450 children, with 45 percent expected to attend from the neighborhood west of the Airpark, where Spanish is the primary language in many homes.
Shutting out existing neighbors is a losing proposition, Humphreys said.
"In the long run, what's good for the neighborhood west of us is going to be great for Wheeler," he said. "We realized rather than building walls we needed to build connections."
Wheeler's 2,000 housing units are expected to range from single-family homes, to duplexes and triplexes, apartments and even garage apartments.
The vision includes "tiny houses" of as little as 700 square feet.
Residences are to meet the needs in size, type and price of a broad spectrum of individuals and families, from college students and singles to empty-nesters.
Plans are for 20 percent of housing to be at the low end accommodating those with household incomes in the $35,000-per-year range, Humphreys said.
"We feel like mixed-income neighborhoods are one of the best things for a healthy, balanced community where it really does break down some of the inequity of geography," he said.
"It begins to allow social institutions and networks and access to be more evenly distributed."
Ward 5 Councilman David Greenwell imagined Wheeler becoming a catalyst for redeveloping neighborhoods from the Stockyards on the west to Interstate 35 on the east, south to Capitol Hill and beyond.
"You'll see development after development come in after they demonstrate that they'll be successful," Greenwell said. "I think this is critical."