Some of the most extraordinary accomplishments are born out of delays and failures.
When Grant Humphreys first unveiled his vision for The Waterfront in 2006, the plans showed a mixed-use development at the former Downtown Airpark site, 1701 S Western Ave., along the south shore of the Oklahoma River.
The plans were ambitious, but also based on residential and commercial development trends of the time. The economy crashed, the project was put on hold, and Humphreys went on to developing property acquired at Lake Eufaula that is now the innovative and successful Carlton Landing.
Grant Humphreys’ brother, Blair Humphreys, spent those interim years obtaining his master’s degree at MIT in Boston and overseeing the Institute of Quality Communities at the University of Oklahoma before agreeing to take on the airpark project in January.
An entirely new approach – one that could revolutionize mixed-use development statewide – is emerging from Humphreys’ work with Miami-based planning firm Dover-Kohl. About 300 people from throughout the metro area accepted Humphreys’ invitation to join his planning team at a kick-off “charrette” Wednesday night at The Grill on the Hill in Capitol Hill.
Having covered urban development for the past two decades, I’ve never seen such interest and excitement for what amounts to an exercise in urban planning, albeit one that has a real shot at becoming a reality.
The emerging young professionals in Oklahoma City are clearly wanting change. They don’t want gated suburban apartment complexes and the Dallas-style country-cottage brick homes with brick mailboxes they are seeing in many new neighborhoods.
The hundreds who attended the charrette all talked about mixing retail in with housing. They want bike and walking trails. They want public spaces, not just pocket parks, and most importantly, they want the sort of communities that disappeared when cars and roads took priority over the rules that had created cities throughout the world for centuries.
Humphreys, well wired into the planning community thanks to his studies and work at OU, became familiar with Victor Dover and his firm’s work with El Paso. “Plan El Paso” had won accolades and was named “America’s Best Smart Growth Plan” in 2011.
The airpark development, rechristened “The Wheeler District,” started off with 24 different lists of proposals submitted by participants Wednesday night. Over the weekend, Dover-Kohl, working with a team assembled by Humphreys, turned those ideas into draft plans that, if realized, will create a community different from any other in the state.
In a city where traffic roundabouts are built only grudgingly to address multi-street intersections, Wheeler envisions the intentional creation of two such junctions with streets replacing Western Avenue that provide multiple south and northbound traffic options and other streets leading to adjoining housing and retail. The street grid could also benefit nearby neighborhoods by increasing access to the river and downtown with new east-west connections to SW 15 and Walker Avenue.
The street grid is connected, but is in no way is it boring. The streets wind their way through the envisioned neighborhood, creating vistas of downtown, Mount St. Mary High School and the Oklahoma River. If the draft plans are embraced, multistory buildings with retail on the first floor and housing on the upper floors will line up quite a few of the streets.
Neighborhoods may include low-, moderate- and upper-income housing on the same blocks, potentially even allowing for a simple 800-square-foot home on the same stretch as a 2,500-square-foot home.
In the middle of it all will be the Santa Monica Ferris Wheel the Humphreys bought at the very start of this dream. Some of the draft renderings suggest the Ferris wheel should be located in a public plaza on the edge of the Oklahoma River.
The plans aren’t going to be easy or quick to implement. Longtime city assumptions about traffic flow, street design and planning are being challenged with this effort. I challenge the traffic engineers and the city planners to consider how such roundabouts and efforts to slow traffic have performed in Midtown.
Boring will not revive the south half of the urban core. The potential of this development, if done successfully, if done in a daring way, will spark a revival of struggling nearby neighborhoods and Capitol Hill.
Areas to the north, west and east of downtown have all enjoyed a revival thanks to Oklahoma City’s urban renaissance. When proposals from the Wheeler charrette are formally unveiled Wednesday, will city leaders ask how they can best make this the start of a south-side resurgence, or will they resort to saying why it can’t be done?
Hop on the charrette
The word “charrette” is French for cart and first came into use in planning circles in the 19th century when students in Paris gathered for rapid work sessions where they fed off of each others’ ideas and produced plans under a tight deadline. Charrettes often take place in multiple sessions in the participants divide into smaller groups addressing different aspects of the project while gathering input from the public. The Wheeler District design charrette will convene with a final presentation of a draft plan for the community at 6 p.m. Wednesday at The Grill on the Hill, 324 SW 25 in Capitol Hill.