An ambitious project to make over one of Oklahoma City's most depressed areas has upset a few property owners who said they will not give up their land without a fight.
Garland Hope Jr., 69, who lives in Purcell, where he and his brother co-own a hardware store, said a condemnation lawsuit filed in May by Oklahoma City on his downtown property won't change his mind.
“They've got these big, grandiose ideas about things that would look good only in a science fiction movie, but you've got to have some sense,” the Hopes said. “We don't want it stolen, and that's what the city is trying to do.”
The $130 million urban renewal project is part of MAPS 3, a major capital improvements plan backed with a penny sales tax approved in 2009. Plans call for a 70-acre park and boulevard to be installed just south of downtown, stretching from SW 3 to the Oklahoma River, and split nearly down the middle by the new Interstate 40.
Since condemning the land in 2010, the city has spent $8.7 million on the acquisition process for northern half of the park, said Dan Brummitt, assistant city attorney for Oklahoma City.
Work to secure the southern half, as well as properties that line each side of the zone, will start in 2014.
Brummitt said of the 27 properties the city put on its initial acquisition list, 21 were settled without going to court.
Two eminent domain lawsuits filed last year have since been settled, and the Hope property is one of four now in litigation.
“We've really worked hard to try to come to an agreement with these people,” Brummitt said. “Six or seven condemnations out of 27 is a pretty good success story, and I'm encouraged we could settle some more. It's been a relatively peaceful and agreeable acquisition process so far.”
Claimed two lots
In 1889, D.W. Chandler — the Hope brothers' maternal grandfather — along with their great uncle and aunt, claimed two lots on the block that now comprises the far northwest corner of the planned municipal park.
The family moved from Texas, and Chandler opened a saloon on a business lot around the corner, current site of Myriad Botanical Gardens. A photo hanging in the brothers' Purcell shop depicts Chandler, the great uncle, and two unidentified men standing at the entryway of the pool hall that later replaced the saloon.
Ample grocery stores and movie theaters, as well as a corner ice cream parlor, were in the immediate area when Garland Hope Jr. was growing up here, he said, not to mention the amenities of the budding downtown area just a few blocks to the north.
Hope's late father, who worked as a district judge in Pauls Valley, ultimately acquired 27 lots on the city block Chandler settled, he said. The family moved away when Hope was in the second grade, but he and his brother, David, helped manage them as low-income rental properties until the last of them burned in the 1980s.
Now, a single magnolia tree is all that remains on the property.
“When I was in grade school, I could walk down through there and not have any problems with people, and that was at night,” Hope said. “I wouldn't walk down there now in the daytime.”
Midcentury urban flight followed by a zero reinvestment in the 60 years since has pushed the former Riverside neighborhood to the top of the city's blight list. But still Hope sees his old stomping grounds the way it was: A community of middle-class workers, the sons and grandsons of pioneers, looking to make something of life in a growing metropolis.
Until a few years ago, the neighborhood was home to the city's main post office facilities and a couple nonprofit organizations. Now The Salvation Army headquarters is the last major tenant within the proposed park's footprint; its land sold to the city last year, and the organization will move into a new building by January 2014, said Jeff Lara, director of operations and programs.
Otherwise, the 10-block zone is a wasteland.
“There is a smattering of probably some of the oldest residentials in Oklahoma City, because anything that would have been older would have been in the central business district and replaced by skyscrapers,” said A.J. Kirkpatrick, primary downtown planner for the city. “The issue is they have been held by people with lower means or by speculators that had no interest in investing in them for such a long period of time. Yes, they're historic — but are they even salvageable at this point?”
The neighborhood was an important immigrant hub during early statehood days and was later popular for settling Hispanics, Kirkpatrick said. The slide into blight started in the 1960s, he said, when the river was channelized and the interstate highway was constructed overhead.
“As land prices really started to bottom out, you saw a lot of the nonprofits that were catering to low-income or homeless people started moving in about the '70s or '80s,” he said.
Louis Morgan, who has lived or worked on the same property just west of the proposed park site for 73 years, said the neighborhood was ruined when The Salvation Army set up its main headquarters here in the 1950s.
He said he agrees the area needs a serious makeover but said he's disappointed in the process by which the city has sought to achieve it. Morgan, who sells and tests compressed air cylinders, said the city lied when it told him not to be concerned about eminent domain.
Though he doesn't work within the proposed park's footprint, he now understands the city council's 2010 vote to declare the entire 692-acre area as blighted was a motion to secure additional land adjacent to the park for private developers.
“They wasn't truthful to the people when they did MAPS; they didn't tell them about the redevelopment of downtown Oklahoma City — all they told them was a beautiful park, rapids in the river, a new convention center and street cars like San Francisco,” Morgan said. “They did not tell them they were going to come in here and force everybody out.”
Morgan said he doesn't want to leave his current site because of his family history there and because it's centrally located for his business, which has clients from border to border across the state. Despite the apparent ease of the acquisition process with most property owners in the area, Morgan and the Hopes both said the city is offering “bottom dollar” for the property.
The most recent offer on the table for the Hopes' vacant property — appraised about $709,000 by the Oklahoma County assessor's office — was $1.2 million, according to Brummitt.
Citing the location and potential for real estate development there, the Hopes are asking for at least $2 million.
The city hasn't made an offer on Morgan's property, he said, but he will not budge for less than $2.5 million.
Cathy O'Connor, executive director of Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority — the agency tasked with acquiring the property for the downtown MAPS projects — said the properties were appraised and then reviewed a second time by separate entities. The city also has agreed to pay relocation costs for any business operating in the area, she said.
Each property is taken on a case-by-case basis, considering location, improvements and need. Once the negotiations become litigious, the property will be reappraised by a three-person board of commissioners and then put before a judge for final approval.
“I think it's going the way we anticipated it would,” O'Connor said. “Most people have been very cooperative and easy to deal with; others have not agreed on our appraisal for what fair market value is.”