A Ferris wheel and a private school are both likely to be among the first developments in the new Wheeler neighborhood emerging from a week-long planning charrette that ended Wednesday night.
Dozens of people once again packed The Grill on the Hill, 324 SW 25 in Capitol Hill, to hear the results of a week of planning sessions for development of the former Downtown Airpark, 1701 S Western. A week earlier more than 300 people showed up and submitted ideas for the project – a turnout lead planner Victor Dover called unprecedented in his experience.
“We’ve done this hundreds of times in many different towns all over the country,” said Dover, a principal in Miami, Fla.-based Dover-Kohl. “In this town there is a robust participation that other communities crave. Your peer towns have a much harder time of getting the crucial group that is age 25 to 35 that typically don’t come to public meetings or meetings about community planning.”
The planning team, consisting of an economist, geographer, planners and engineers, joined with local consultants assembled by developer and urban planner Blair Humphreys and cranked out an elaborate proposal for the former Downtown Airpark and dozens of acres located to the east. Those expressing interest in the project included a grocer, restaurateurs, retailers and aspiring homeowners.
Plans, which will be further tweaked and then submitted to the city to begin a discussion of zoning changes, infrastructure and street designs, show roundabouts book-ending the north and south entries along Western Avenue just south of the Oklahoma River.
The plan also shows former runways will be turned into a tree-lined avenue with paths connecting the existing river path to the south end of the project. Other new streets will create new east-west connections extending SW 15 and creating a corridor to Walker Avenue and Capitol Hill, and Shartel Avenue and Mount St. Mary’s High School.
“The roundabouts will help distribute traffic on three north-south corridors,” Humphreys said. “We will be maintaining capacity for commuters while calming speeds to promote pedestrian activity.”
The charrette showed participants wanted a Ferris wheel along the river and a roundabout on Western Avenue — ideas incorporated into the plan. The team, however, was unable to find a feasible way to include another popular idea — inclusion of a canal.
The designs also reflect participants’ passion for urban design showcased in New York City, Chicago, Denver and Portland, Ore. The streets winding through the proposed housing and retail corridors are designed to be built to the curb, with views shifting as the roads follow gentle turns.
Humphreys said he is more convinced after a week of meeting dozens of interested homeowners and merchants that Wheeler can proceed.
“We see a very strong market,” Humphreys said. “We are seeing there is a market for smaller houses, urban development, and we’re seeing a lot of millennials, people in their 30s with families, and boomers getting into their later years where they can walk and experience all that downtown can offer.”
Humphreys said he is targeting a start of early phase construction next year on the west side of Western Avenue with the first homes being completed in 2016. Talks also are underway with operators of a school and early possible commercial tenants.
Humphreys said the Ferris wheel, bought from the Santa Monica Pier by brother Grant Humphreys several years ago, also will be built during the first phase of development.
“It’s going to take four to five years to get our feet on the ground,” Humphreys said. “It could be 2016 when we get our first residents in, but it won’t be a complete plan all at once. It will take five, 10 to 15 years before it’s all done.”
Dover, meanwhile, called the project a rare opportunity to build a new urban mixed-use neighborhood so close to a major city’s downtown.
“This is not just any site – it is a great site. It is along the riverfront, it has both sides of Western Avenue, and it has a great view of the skyline,” Dover said. “And it’s the only project where the developer came to us and said ‘oh by the way, my brother bought a Ferris wheel on eBay.’”