The departure this month of Russell Claus as Oklahoma City's planning director marks the end of a career that included overseeing recovery from the aftermath of the 1995 bombing and an attempted fight against blight.
Along the way he built a talented staff of planners — many of whom then left as engineering influence took precedence over planning at City Hall.
Claus was one of those hires that occur when coincidences line up in the city's favor. Family obligations prompted his move to Oklahoma City in the mid-1990s. It was fortunate timing; in November 1993, the city hired its first “modern” planning director, Garner Stoll. He introduced ideas considered radical at the time, including streetscapes and the caution against suburban sprawl.
Claus, a native of Australia, was hired in 1996 and was assigned to oversee the Murrah revitalization fund. He saw to it that federal funds given toward recovery were turned into revolving loans instead of grants. As a result, those revolving loan funds are still boosting the rebuilding of north downtown, most recently with the financing of redevelopment of the former Journal Record Building.
Stoll's tenure ended in his 2000 with his forced departure, a response to his effort to curtail suburban sprawl and assess growth costs to developers. His successor, John Dugan, stayed a few years but his tenure consisted mostly of the quiet implementation of less controversial plans envisioned by Stoll.
Claus was hired in2008 to take over the reins at the planning department, and when he did, he went about adding younger, more innovative new planners. He sought to come up with a plan for the area known as Core to Shore, he successfully obtained federal funding for buying up, renovating and reselling distressed homes, and ended his tenure with the passage of a watered-down attempt to combat the effect of abandoned properties throughout the city.
Other success stories included assisting developer Gary Brooks in tackling redevelopment of the former Stewart Metal Fabricators complex in east Bricktown.
All the while, planning was given minimal involvement in the staging of MAPS 3 projects like the Core to Shore park and the streetcar system. Planning was not given a vote in hiring consultants for either project, while, as I've noted before, engineers at City Hall had multiple votes on the same decisions.
Claus leaves behind a staff that has lost some of those considered its best and brightest planners. Some have told me privately of their frustration with a city leadership that values engineers far more than planners (City Manager Jim Couch and Assistant City Manager Dennis Clowers are both former city engineers).
Departures included Catherine Montgomery, a preservation architect who led the effort to modernize historic preservation guidelines and allow residents in historic neighborhoods to make small changes to their homes without a full commission hearing.
A.J. Kirkpatrick, another departing planner, was respected for his work with the Bricktown master plan and efforts at tackling the district's parking challenges. He also was an expert on downtown's business improvement district.
Ben Davis, meanwhile, was a true neighborhood guy who first worked with Neighborhood Alliance and led in the creation of the Strategic Neighborhood Initiative. His vision was to end a city strategy of granting small amounts of money to neighborhoods citywide in a way that had no meaningful impact, and instead seek out major game-changing targets to aid.
Paul Ryckbost brought the unique perspective of a public works engineer who switched sides to planning. He was a bridge between the two worlds, and helped developers throughout the urban core navigate the complexity of the city's design ordinances.
Finally, the woman who might have succeeded Claus also left. Susan Miller came to Oklahoma City from Florida in 2006 and oversaw an overhaul of the city's design districts in an effort to be more effective and fair. She led PlanOKC, the ongoing comprehensive plan. She worked with Claus on reorganizing the planning department so it could focus on big-picture efforts.
Planning is an investment. To understand how long it takes for some investments to pay off, look no farther than the 16th Street Plaza District, which is thriving today but is no overnight success story. I've followed the Plaza District story since the beginning, when the community was blighted, dangerous and seemingly hopeless.
Former Councilwoman Ann Simank worked closely with former Planning Director Garner Stoll to organize the surrounding neighborhoods, to incentivize and penalize property owners to participate in a recovery effort, and pursued a streetscape that is the backbone of the neighborhood we see today.
The question ahead is whether city leadership recognizes the value of planning, whether they understand that the city is a corporation like GE, which is setting up an extensive research and planning center just east of downtown. Planning can be that research and planning arm — if city leadership can recognize and support what it brings to an operation.