Eight years have passed since the Humphreys family bought the former Downtown Airpark during a bankruptcy auction with plans to create a retail and housing development called “The Waterfront.”
Partners in the venture changed. The market changed.
Kirk Humphreys and his son, Grant, shifted their attention to another project, Carlton Landing, in Eufaula. Grant Humphreys, who led development of The Waterfront, moved his family to Carlton Landing while his brother, Blair Humphreys, developed a reputation as one of the state’s leading urban planners while overseeing the Institute for Quality Communities at the University of Oklahoma.
The development, however, is not dead. Instead, the family doubled its bet by buying up even more land to the south and east of the airpark. Blair Humphreys left OU to take charge of the project earlier this year — a development now rechristened as “Wheeler” in tribute to the early day city father James Wheeler who donated land for what is now Wheeler Park.
After months of behind-the-scenes discussions about the area’s future, Blair Humphreys is set to host a community-wide planning effort that he hopes will result in the city’s next “great urban neighborhood.”
“The plan for The Waterfront was dialed into the market and the market norms of the pre-recession era,” Humphreys said. “That plan started in 2007, was completed in 2008, and a lot of the things that we planned to do in terms of retail, and the aggressiveness of the phasing, don’t seem as appropriate after the recession.”
The ambition, however, is even greater than before.
The Ferris Wheel
Some aspects of the former plan remain; tying into the trails and park area along the Oklahoma River, and incorporation of a Ferris Wheel the family bought from the Santa Monica Pier.
Humphreys, however, sees a landscape that is far better than it was in 2006, starting with the RiverSports recreational venues and boathouses on the river’s north shore, the Skydance Bridge over the new Interstate 40, and the new city park being built along the river and the future downtown boulevard between Robinson and Walker Avenues.
“The opportunity is bigger now due to the great strides Oklahoma City has taken during that period,” Humphreys said. “And there are other aspects of the old plan we can accomplish more of, and do at a higher quality.”
A key to this new vision is the Humphreys’ purchase of 70 acres on the east side of S Western Avenue, just south of the river and across the street from the former airpark.
The acreage was originally owned by Kerr-McGee, whose co-founder, Dean A. McGee, also was one of the original developers of the airpark when it opened at 1701 S Western in 1947. The property passed into Chesapeake Energy’s ownership when it acquired local holdings of Kerr McGee after the company was swallowed up by Texas-based Anadarko Energy.
“We think the Chesapeake property makes what was going to be a good project even better,” Humphreys said. “The opportunity is to work with the city to turn S Western Avenue into a great street where people want to be, that will be the heart of the development.”
A transformation of the street, concepts for building a mixed-use neighborhood, and how best to tie into the river and future MAPS 3 park are all set to be studied at an upcoming series of design sessions to be held July 9 through July 16 to be overseen by Victor Dover, a renowned expert on livable communities and sustainable development and author of “Street Design: The Secret to Great Cities and Towns.”
A new community
Where others might see a barren former airpark, Dover sees the bones for a great new community that is already connecting to the city thanks to a temporary riverfront concert venue and a weekly bicycle and food truck festival on the property’s former runways.
Dover, who previously met Humphreys during his stint at the Institute for Quality Communities, was recently introduced to Oklahoma City via a bike tour from the airpark to downtown. On that bike ride, Dover saw a future community that is in close proximity to downtown, venues along the river, trails and thousands of jobs.
“I felt like we were seeing the city in the process of moving through the aftermath of its urban renewal phase,” Dover said. “You could see the lights are coming back on downtown, people are filling in the empty properties, streets are getting changed to be more friendly to pedestrians and businesses.
“Oklahoma City is pregnant, and it’s in the midst of giving birth to a whole new generation of positive place-making,” he said.
A listening process
Together, Humphreys and Dover hope to gather ideas and visions from residents of adjoining neighborhoods and from urban dreamers in drafting a new plan that could include a redesign of Western Avenue, a mix of housing to serve an array of incomes and interests, shops and businesses.
Cycling and pedestrian friendly streets, Humphreys added, will definitely be a part of the mix.
“This will be an organically grown community,” Dover said. “It’s not a corporate monolith — one big super-project done by one architect and managed and controlled by one corporation. This group is into the small-is-beautiful movement, that a lot of projects in a lot of designers’ hands is better. It’s the idea that you end up with a community with more of a blend.”
The choice of “Wheeler” as the new name for the area at Western Avenue and the Oklahoma River is intended to tie to the redevelopment of the former Downtown Airpark and surrounding properties, 150 acres in total, to Wheeler Park, which is one of the city’s oldest parks. The land for Wheeler Park was donated to the city by James Wheeler in 1902, and it was once home to the city’s zoo, several baseball fields, and the adjoining Delmar Gardens amusement park.
Blair Humphreys, developer of Wheeler, is hosting a series of planning sessions, open to the public, that will be held July 9-16. More information about meeting locations and topics, and about the development can be found online at www.wheeler