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Oklahoma City planning director's departure could signal change

Russell Claus, who is leaving his post in Oklahoma City this month, built a talented staff of city planners, many of whom already are gone.
by Steve Lackmeyer Modified: January 14, 2014 at 8:00 pm •  Published: January 13, 2014

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).

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by Steve Lackmeyer
Business Reporter
Steve Lackmeyer is a reporter, columnist and author who started his career at The Oklahoman in 1990. Since then, he has won numerous awards for his coverage, which included the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, the city's...
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