An exposed steel frame rises out of Chesapeake Energy CEO Aubrey McClendon's unfinished wine cellar like the skeleton of a beached whale laid out in the middle of the Manor Hill neighborhood at NW 68 and Classen Boulevard.
McClendon personally purchased an office building and at least one house to make way for the wine cellar in 2006 and 2007, but construction stalled after the site was cleared, the concrete foundation was poured and ark-like steel eves were erected in 2008. Stacks of unused building materials, including rusting metal beams still clutter the site.
“I think it's an eyesore,” said Manor Hill resident Linda Ross, who lives two doors down from the back side of the incomplete wine cellar. “All of the building materials are just sitting there rotting. I don't appreciate Aubrey just leaving it there half finished.”
Like the wine cellar, much of McClendon's grand vision for Chesapeake Energy's campus and ancillary development will be incomplete when he leaves the company he co-founded April 1 in the wake of a boardroom shake up.
Chesapeake Energy Corp.'s real estate timeline
1989: Aubrey McClendon and Tom Ward start Chesapeake Energy. They pay $240,000 for a single 6,000-square-foot office building in 1989 at the office park known as “Three Chopt Square,” 6200 N Western Ave. Over the next few years the company buys the entire office park for its headquarters.
1997: Chesapeake Energy buys adjacent land for expansion.
2000: Chesapeake Energy begins building new, Georgian style brick buildings as it continues headquarters expansion.
Early 2000s: Chesapeake Energy begins buying nearby office and warehouse properties.
2005: Chesapeake Energy and its affiliates begin to buy retail properties, including Glenbook Centre, 1140 NW 63, for $8.5 million.
2006: Chesapeake Energy buys Nichols Hills Plaza for $27.5 million. When asked about talk of Nichols Hills Plaza being turned into “another Utica Square” — the popular Tulsa retail-restaurant center — Executive Vice President Tom Price Jr. responds Chesapeake is an oil and gas company, first and foremost, and not a real estate developer. That same year the company buys Metro Center, 6418 N Western, a retail and office complex home to the upscale Metro restaurant, for $1.85 million.
2008: Deep Fork Acquisition, a company sharing the same post office box with Chesapeake Land Development, buys Deep Fork Restaurant, 5418 N Western, for $4.5 million. The property previously sold for $775,000 in 2000. Chesapeake buys a 2,000-square-foot Shell station at 6405 N Western built in 1969 for $3 million. McClendon also begins approaching upscale retailers about moving into a planned upscale shopping center, Classen Curve, that the company sought to build at Classen and Grand Boulevards.
2010: Classen Curve opens. Whole Foods confirms it will anchor a second shopping center, Triangle, that Chesapeake Energy will build just north of Classen Curve.
2011: Crescent Market, a 122-year-old grocery at Nichols Hills Plaza, closes and the owner blames its demise on a $6,000 per month rent increase by landlord Chesapeake. The company announces plans to open its own grocery in the same spot. The adjoining Nichols Hills Drugstore closes its lunch counter and moves into a smaller storefront after being assured by Chesapeake the pharmacy will be included in the new grocery.
2013: Nichols Hills Drugstore leaves Nichols Hills Plaza. The grocery and other commercial projects are left in doubt as McClendon is set to leave Chesapeake Energy on April 1.
STEVE LACKMEYER AND BRIANNA BAILEY, Business Writers
A review of court records, speech transcripts, and planning documents by The Oklahoman show a vision that went far beyond the headquarters.
Chesapeake's plans for the area around its campus included company-owned shopping centers, a hotel, high-end condominiums and a chain of modern convenience stores dubbed “Peake” that would feature pumps with compressed natural gas.
That vision, far from complete, would have complemented a corporate headquarters that features such amenities as a 2.5-acre community garden, a 72,000 square-foot fitness center and a $10-million, 63,000 square-foot employee child care center topped with a steel-tube sculpture spelling the word “Hi.”
Although Chesapeake has said it is slashing costs and selling billions of dollars in assets in the face of a bearish natural gas market and a board shake up, the company has remained mum about its plans for the hundreds of millions of dollars of real estate it owns in Oklahoma City or for several development projects in various stages of completion.
Chesapeake Energy officials declined to comment on its future real estate development plans to The Oklahoman.
CEO drove vision
Much of Chesapeake's land development activities have been intertwined with its charismatic CEO since McClendon co-founded the company in 1989 with Tom Ward, now CEO at SandRidge Energy Inc.
McClendon modeled Chesapeake Energy's original signature red brick five-story buildings on a university-style setting — one he said he hoped would create a comfortable arrival for younger hires. By the early 2000s, McClendon's interest in real estate evolved from the campus itself to nearby properties — many of which were bought at prices far above market value.
The Chesapeake-owned Nichols Hills Plaza shopping center is on the same street as the company's headquarters, and less than a mile from McClendon's Hills home.
The company's $27.5 million purchase of Nichols Hills Plaza, $215 per square foot in 2006, was described as “phenomenal” at the time by retail property specialist Mary Grace of Grace Commercial Real Estate.
McClendon has an ownership interest in multiple Oklahoma City restaurants that Chesapeake plays landlord to, according to loan documents and county real estate records, including Irma's Burger Shack, the Metro Wine Bar & Bistro and Deep Fork Grill.
The company or its affiliates, meanwhile, own Republic Gastropub, the Classen Curve shopping center, Triangle shopping center, Metro shopping center, a strip shopping center at the northeast corner of Western and NW 63 and a Shell Gas Station — properties all within two blocks of Chesapeake's campus.
The wine cellar stands as a reminder of McClendon's intent to create a neighborhood in which he would play a long-term role as chief planner — one that sometimes involved personal business interests locating within or near commercial real estate owned and developed by the company.
A shell company with the same mailing address as Chesapeake Energy purchased a house directly across the street from McClendon's unfinished wine cellar and two other tracts of land a block away in April for $1.8 million, according to property records.
Plan never revealed
Although Chesapeake has amassed real estate in Oklahoma City encompassing hundreds of properties worth hundreds of millions of dollars over the past decade, the company has been reticent to reveal it plans for much of its holdings.
The company previously has said its campus could encompass as much as 300 acres and house as many as 10,000 employees in the future.
Ward 2 Oklahoma City Councilman Ed Shadid, who represents the area, said he spends a lot of time dealing with issues related to Chesapeake's expanding presence in his district when the company's development plans spill over into his constituents' neighborhoods.
“One peculiarity has certainly been that the city has not seen a complete master plan of what the company envisions,” Shadid said. “If there was a master plan, I think it has changed maybe multiple times. It's difficult for me to have changed expectations, because it wasn't clear to me what the master plan was and what it continues to be.”
Between 2003 and 2007, Chesapeake experienced a period of unprecedented growth owing to rising natural gas prices and new technological advances in unconventional drilling.
Chesapeake was added to the S&P 500 in 2006. The same year, documents submitted to the Oklahoma City Planning Department showed that the company had plans for up to 75 condos, restaurants and a heliport.
In 2007, the company said it had hired the Boston-based firm Antonio Di Mambro + Associates to develop a 20-year master plan for its campus, but again, the public was allowed only glimpses of that vision.
Oklahoma City Planning Director Russell Claus admits he was never fully informed about McClendon's grand plan for the area, which in its totality is comparable in land mass to Bricktown, downtown Oklahoma City's entertainment district.
Claus calls the commercial investment by Chesapeake and McClendon “unprecedented” locally.
“I don't have an idea as to what he was planning,” Claus said. “As for the campus itself, we did get to see a lot of his ideas actually get developed.”
While natural gas prices have fallen precipitously since 2008, Chesapeake and McClendon have continued to dream big.
What is known about McClendon's vision is gleaned from pitches he and representatives have made to affected nearby property owners and at civic gatherings.
“The concept we want to establish is a place where you can live, work and play,” McClendon said in a 2007 interview with The Oklahoman. “I want a place where you can walk to work, or to a restaurant, or to a bar or the cleaners ... I'm not trying to replicate anything. We're trying to do something original.”
For several years, construction cranes have remained prominent fixtures at Chesapeake's still expanding corporate campus, where there had not been a construction break in more than a decade. The company currently has about 700,000 square feet of office space under construction on its main campus, according to building permits.
A number of the company's unfinished real estate development projects also surround the campus.
Merchants at the shopping center reported in 2008 they were told plans for rebuilding the plaza included a mix of more offices, housing and a hotel. They also were told the company hoped to remove Avondale Drive if it could acquire Nichols Hills town hall neighboring the shopping center.
ALSO: Nichols Hills waits for grocery store
Interested in boosting sales tax revenue at Nichols Hills Plaza, city officials sent a letter to Chesapeake in late 2011 hoping to begin negotiations to sell the town hall property.
However, the sale talks never moved forward, primarily because the small city does not have the funds needed to relocate or rebuild its town hall elsewhere, Nichols Hills Councilwoman Sody Clements said.
“We don't have the money to do it, so there we are,” Clements said.
Chesapeake's plans for a company-owned grocery store in Nichols Hills Plaza have been scrapped and much of the southeast end of the shopping center where the grocery store was supposed to go remains empty.
Analyst predicts four scenarios for Chesapeake Energy after Aubrey McClendon leaves
A new report by Julie Anewalt, a research analyst with Grubb & Ellis/Levy Beffort, looked at four possible scenarios facing Chesapeake Energy after the departure of founder and Chief Executive Officer Aubrey McClendon. With all but one scenario, the forecast predicts tough times ahead for commercial properties and retailers in the Western Avenue corridor where the company and McClendon has invested millions in shopping centers, restaurants and shops.
Scenario: No changes at Chesapeake
“Even without ownership changes, Chesapeake's spending habits will change, and the purchasing frenzy that we have experienced will slow dramatically,” Anewalt wrote.
“Company leadership has made it clear to its shareholders that it will focus more on its core business of oil and gas.”
Anewalt's report suggests some impact to stores around the Chesapeake campus due to fewer employees and pay cuts.
Scenario: Chesapeake sold in whole, but some operations remaining in Oklahoma City.
Anewalt envisions employment being reduced through attrition, early retirement and some layoffs. Jobs would be absorbed by other area energy companies and would not significantly increase unemployment.
Area retailers would see some losses due to fewer employees and possible pay cuts.
Scenario: Chesapeake split up and sold to several companies.
“This scenario would have the most detrimental impact to Oklahoma City's economy and real estate markets,” Anewalt wrote.
“Significant layoffs are possible. Those still employed with the company could be forced to leave the metro to follow job opportunities. Some, but not all, of the positions would be backfilled by other energy companies in the area.”
The report predicts higher unemployment and reduced wages would be felt by the entire retail market under this scenario, with the brunt of the retraction likely to be suffered by merchants in Nichols Hills and near the corporate campus. High-end stores across the city also would see reduced sales.
Scenario: Aubrey McClendon creates a new oil and gas company and Chesapeake Energy remains based in Oklahoma City.
“Industry analysts believe it is unlikely that McClendon will leave the energy sector,” Anewalt wrote.
“The Oklahoman reported that Aubrey McClendon is unable to enter the energy industry until June 2017, after all of Chesapeake's severance payments have been made and the six month noncompete period has been fulfilled. However, we anticipate this timetable to be pushed sooner.”
Under this scenario, the report suggests the city could end up with five large energy companies: Devon, Chesapeake, Continental Resources, SandRidge and McClendon's new company. The impact on retail and commercial development with a new McClendon company and Chesapeake surviving is “unknown.”
CONTRIBUTING: Richard Mize, Real Estate Editor
The company initially had promised Nichols Hills that the store would be open by fall 2012.
A grassy lot sits empty at NW Grand Boulevard and Glenbrook Drive where Chesapeake once had plans for a five-story condominium development. Chesapeake purchased the aging apartments at the site and had the property razed in 2008.
After Chesapeake revealed plans to develop a five-story condominium complex to residents in Glenbrook neighborhood, neighbor and former Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority Chairman Stanton L. Young sued Chesapeake Land Development Co., which functions as the energy company's real estate arm. In his lawsuit, Young claimed that Chesapeake would be in violation of neighborhood covenants if it were to move ahead with the development.
Although Young lost his lawsuit to have the development halted, Chesapeake has never moved forward with the condominium project after having the old apartment complex torn down.
Young, through a representative, declined to comment on the lawsuit. Fellow area resident Sharon Polkinghorne, who signed a sworn statement outlining what a Chesapeake executive had told her about plans for the condominiums as part of Young's lawsuit, said things are more peaceful in the neighborhood these days.
But there is a definite uncertainty among Glenbrook residents about what will now happen to the grassy lot, she said.
“That's the big question mark — what are they going to do with it?” Polkinghorne said. “They've got plans, they're just not sharing them with us.”
Through a shell company, Chesapeake owns an entire block of now-vacant midcentury brick homes near NW 50 and Pennsylvania Avenue in anticipation of future development.
Some of the homes, all in the 5100 block of Barnes Avenue, were purchased for as much as two or three times their assessed market value, according to property records.
The last house on the block to sell was most recently valued by the county assessor at $92,685 and sold in January for $235,000.
The company would not discuss what it has in mind for Barnes Avenue. However, McClendon spoke of plans for Chesapeake to begin multiple Peake CNG stations, including a couple in Oklahoma City, at the company's last shareholder meeting in June.
Plans for such a CNG fueling station and retail store at NW 50 and Western Avenue have yet to move forward, although Chesapeake razed a Conoco station that stood on the spot and petitioned the city to close NW 49 at Western to appease residents in the area concerned about additional traffic in the neighborhood.
Shadid believes plans for the development at NW 50th and Western have since stalled.
While Shadid believes that Chesapeake's presence in Oklahoma City will continue, he has concerns about how new leadership will view McClendon's past zeal for real estate development.
“What I'm curious about,” Shadid said, “is whether the new board would have the same enthusiasm for Oklahoma City real estate that is tangential if not completely unrelated to the oil and gas industry.”