Weather permitting, it is likely many of you will be excited to see some activity at the long vacant Rock Island Plow Building at Oklahoma and Reno Avenues in Bricktown.
Don’t celebrate yet.
Let’s get into some background first; the building, built in 1909, has been vacant since the early 1980s when it was targeted for redevelopment by original Bricktown developer Neal Horton. During research for my book OKC Second Time Around, I learned that Horton was bewildered when he first walked into the building and found all the desks, paperwork, equipment and furnishings still in place even though the final operation in the building had ceased years earlier. It was, as his architect Don Beck noted, as if the employees left on a Friday and simply never returned.
The building was eventually boarded up, and has remained empty ever since. Avis and Phil Scaramuci bought the building a few years ago, spent quite a bit of money to prevent the building from collapsing, but have done nothing in the years since.
As time passed, the rest of Bricktown has continued to move forward and Avis Scaramuci has been singled out for criticism by the online community and others.
Richard McKown, who worked with the Scaramuci’s son Wade, a respected London architect, on the Level Urban Apartments in Deep Deuce, confirms he is now doing some exploratory work on what it will take to bring the Rock Island Plow Building back to life.
The boards will be removed from the building Tuesday and Wednesday, weather permitting. Then, on Thursday, a historic surveyor will inspect the building’s window openings. And on Friday, the boards will go back up over the windows.
There is no deal yet. But this also is cause to have hope.
OKC Central Live Chat, 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. today @newsok – start logging in questions at 9:30 a.m. on the NewsOK business page.
“Clearly I remember pickin’ on the boy …”
Council backs move for city planner’s exit Members say official became ‘lightning rod’
By Steve Lackmeyer
Tuesday, June 13, 2000
Edition: CITY, Section: NEWS, Page 3-A
Oklahoma City Council members agreed they support City Manager Glenn Deck’s decision to remove Garner Stoll as the city’s planning director.
Council members are divided, however, on whether Stoll is a victim of challenging the status quo or an outsider who never understood the dynamics of the city.
In interviews with The Oklahoman on Monday, both Mayor Kirk Humphreys and Ward 2 Councilwoman Amy Brooks lamented that Stoll became a “lightning rod” in the battle over urban sprawl and a proposed ordinance aimed at combating sign clutter.
Meanwhile, Ward 1 Councilman Frosty Peak and Ward 3 Councilman Jack Cornett, leaders of a failed attempt to oust Stoll six years ago, declined to comment on Deck’s decision last week to reassign Stoll to a “special projects” position.
“I was surprised,” Humphreys said. “But at the same time, I understand. I think Garner is firmly committed to good planning, and he has done some wonderful things for Oklahoma City. But I think there are times in which… he has become the issue instead of the issue being the issue.”
Brooks, describing herself as a “big Garner supporter,” said he was caught in the mire of trying to promote new sign ordinance laws and a new master plan to guide the city’s future growth.
“He is paying the price,” Brooks said. “We as a city seem to be so satisfied with the status quo. We will have to have a change of leaders and heart, or we won’t make any changes.”
Brooks concludes the opposition to Stoll and his proposals for better planning far outweighed supporters.
“We just haven’t heard enough from those who would support the plan,” Ward 7 Councilwoman Willa Johnson said.
Both Johnson and Ward 6 Councilwoman Ann Simank said they believe the debate over Stoll’s seven years as planner is tied directly to the fate of the city’s master plan.
Johnson noted the costs of sprawl on policing, fire protection and street maintenance is being debated across the country as evidenced at meetings of the National League of Cities.
Johnson said she regrets that critics attached perceived problems with the master plan with Stoll.
“Work has gone into the plan by literally thousands of people,” Johnson said. “And now that we’re trying to get down to the final draft, and some are trying to point at anything or any person on this… well, that’s really interesting to me.”
Ward 4 Councilwoman Frances Lowrey and Ward 8 Councilman Guy Liebmann, meanwhile, argued Stoll was wrong in assuming growth on the city’s fringe couldn’t be sustained without damaging efforts to revive the inner city.
“I didn’t dislike him,” Lowrey said. “But he couldn’t separate Boulder, Colo., (Stoll’s former employer) from Oklahoma City. He had a real disregard for the suburbs.”
Liebmann argued builders should be allowed to build where they want, and the city should not use zoning to increase or decrease land values.
“There is no area that needs more attention than another,” Liebmann said. “The city can support growth anywhere because wherever new homes are built, you’ll have more people there paying taxes.”
Gerald Gamble, a prominent city real estate broker, said Monday his recent criticism of the plan should not be confused with Stoll’s ouster.
“I’ve really not even worked with him,” Gamble said.
Gamble said his problems had to do with proposals to add funding for new programs.
He also said he was concerned that the plan’s calls for actions could create unexpected controversies.
“There are only a couple of references to the sign ordinance in this plan, and yet look at what we’ve been through on that topic the past few weeks,” Gamble said.
Public interest, politics can blur in council’s view
By Jack Money, Steve Lackmeyer
Tuesday, July 18, 2000
Edition: CITY, Section: NEWS, Page 1-A
PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE?
When does a proposed city regulation or law go beyond protecting the public’s interest and harm an industry or other special interest group?
The question takes center stage as Oklahoma City Council members continue grappling with a comprehensive zoning and development plan that would restrict the number of new homes in outlying areas.
The debate is classic, pitting common good against an industry’s needs. In this case, it’s about keeping the cost of police and fire protection and other city services from escalating too rapidly vs. the desires of homebuilders, who want to build where land is cheap, development costs are low, the schools are good and the demand is high.
Purists would argue that public interest should always win. But it isn’t that simple.
To council members, the public also is homebuilders, other manufacturers and restaurant owners. The public is beautification supporters, real estate brokers and merchants. It is statewide organizations such as the Oklahoma Municipal Contractors Association and local groups such as the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce.
Among these groups are some of the city’s most powerful individuals, people such as Bill Braum of Braum’s Ice Cream and Dairy Stores, homebuilder David Yost and commercial real estate broker Gerald Gamble.
These groups and individuals, armed with political donations at election time and well-organized letter-writing campaigns, can successfully influence City Hall politics.
Consider Councilman Frosty Peak’s statement that he couldn’t support an effort to actively enforce business sign laws because it would jeopardize his re-election chances. And consider Councilman Guy Liebmann’s remarks earlier this year about homebuilders’ concerns on the proposed comprehensive plan.
“We have a group here who has probably 10,000 employees, and they have some economic forces behind them. As an elected official, I feel like they are entitled to their say,” Liebmann said.
The “economic forces” referred to by Liebmann are not just felt in the community. They also can affect the election war chests of every council member.
Liebmann lists the following donations from developers for his 1998 mayoral campaign:
- Homebuilder Bill Mincey, $1,000.
- Homebuilder Gary Johnston, $1,000.
- Real estate broker Gamble, $1,000. (Gamble recently reviewed the proposed comprehensive plan at Liebmann’s request. )
- Homebuilder Earl Austin, $1,500.
Kirk Humphreys, Liebmann’s chief opponent in that race, also received donations from development interests, including Gamble ($1,500) and Austin. Homebuilder Tom Hoshall contributed $2,500 to Humphreys’ successful campaign, and the local Realtors’ political action committee also contributed money.
The mayor, like Liebmann, said he believes interested groups are entitled to their say. And Humphreys also said he isn’t accusing any campaign donors of wrongdoing or any improprieties. But he is concerned that council members could put the desires of these organized interests first because of Oklahoma City’s political realities.
“The average citizen isn’t coming to the party with as many checks at election time,” Humphreys said.
He said that organized interest groups are constituents, too, “and they have every right to see their views are heard. But, we need to not just do what’s best for business and the development community, but what’s best for the city as a whole,” Humphreys said.
Jay Johnston, Gary Johnston’s son, said their company’s donation was intended to help elect the person they believed would do the best job of leading the city.
“Sure, we would want a guy who is most on our side – would share our views about how we think the city should be run. And there is nothing wrong with that,” he said.
The politics of zoning
Zoning is a naturally political process, said attorney Eric Groves, a former city council member. Groves now works both for developers and for groups that oppose developments proposed in their neighborhoods.
He calls the battle over a comprehensive plan, such as one he went through when he served on the council in the late 1970s, “the ultimate political debate.”
Groves said zoning questions are the same today as when he served on the council 20 years ago: When does the common good of limiting growth cause too much harm to the development industry?
“Let’s face it: There are people who profit from that growth and people who subsidize that growth – whether they want to or not. As a city, we need to debate what is in the best interest of all. That is what comprehensive planning is all about. It has to do with fairness, the availability of infrastructure, resources, and it should be debated every few years,” Groves said.
Pete White, another former council member, tends to view developers as constituents.
“Oklahoma City lends itself to that perhaps because of its huge geographical area. Council members represent a wide, diverse population that lives in different ways.”
He said that includes not only residents, but developers and owners and operators of restaurants and major industries.
“So it is no stretch at all to think of those people as your constituents. It’s kind of the nature of the beast,” White said.
And these groups are good at dominating the time of council members, too. They can flood council offices with phone calls, letters, electronic and facsimile mailings when the need arises.
Such organized efforts can sway council members when only 10 percent or less of registered voters come to the polls in city council races.
Oklahoma City’s Planning Department wrote its recommendations for the plan after conducting surveys and holding dozens of public meetings.
But those efforts to include a broad range of interests now face a challenge from the organized interests that are most directly affected by the plan – real estate brokers, investors and developers.
“No matter how much public involvement you have… the vast majority of people don’t care as long as the water comes out of the tap, the sewage goes down the line, the garbage gets picked up and there are no holes in the streets,” said former Oklahoma City Manager Don Bown.
“Residents don’t want controversy, so they are not going to get involved when one comes up.”
Bown said council members are caught in bad situations when they are faced with controversial proposals.
“They are berated all the time, and they have to make these Solomon decisions that affect a lot of people. And they have to make them usually without all the facts or knowing all the needs or desires of everyone involved,” Bown said.
A comprehensive city plan is a perfect example, Bown said.
“It gets down to how well informed a council person is about a particular issue, and it is really difficult for them to get there with the time and effort involved,” Bown said, adding that he encountered this problem throughout his public service career.
Despite efforts, citizen involvement in local government continues in a four-decade slump.
“We all complain about the low turnout in local elections. But that goes back to what an old news editor once told me, ‘We get better government than we deserve.’”
Like it or not, members of the Oklahoma City Council are taking action on issues such as signs and the proposed comprehensive plan.
A majority of council members moved quickly to do away with the new sign law, for example, disregarding City Manager Glenn Deck’s request to wait until the council could be thoroughly briefed.
And although unsuccessful, a group of council members also tried in January to derail any density restrictions in the comprehensive plan. They started making their case even before work on the plan was done.
“The plan may not technically include any types of downzoning. But if it includes any limitations on how a person can develop their land, then that impacts the value of their property,” Councilman Jack Cornett said at the time.
There also was another proposed law, considered by the council in October 1998, that would have allowed the city to cut high weeds or pick up litter that blocks drivers’ views near rural intersections and then bill property owners for the work.
Council members Cornett and Jerry Foshee opposed the law, saying it would be unfair to rural property owners.
They told the city’s staff they could not support the law, and instead asked for additional money in the coming year’s budget to pay for the staff to address the issue. The staff never brought the matter back before the council.
Humphreys said the council’s action there bothered him. Accidents could be caused by weed-obscured stop signs, he said.
“But staff just beat a retreat, and it is laying out there in nowhere land,” Humphreys said.
“That is irresponsible. Is it wrong to listen to a special interest group, or people who might be negatively impacted by a proposed law? No. But when a council member is carrying someone’s water, you have to call it what it is.”
Cornett said Humphreys is wrong about his and Foshee’s concerns.
“We are talking about the average person who doesn’t have the means to be able to afford the equipment to keep some of those areas clean. Some of those bar ditches are pretty rough,” Cornett said.
He said there is no doubt sight-obscured stop signs create a safety hazard.
“And it is one that both Foshee and I are very concerned about,” he said.
But Cornett said he and other council members who represent rural areas work with county commissioners to take care of problem intersections.
Humphreys said voters should carefully consider the council’s actions on these and other issues at election time. He said voters also should monitor their state and national representatives.
“Pay attention. Get informed. What kind of city do you want to have?”
Humphreys said residents who want a city where they might get into an accident at a rural intersection because of high weeds should re-elect those responsible.
“But if you want a city where you can drive these roads safely without worrying about having that accident, then you ought to kick out those council members who are listening to a couple of farmers rather than worrying about public safety.
“Find out what the issues are, and hold them accountable,” he said.
Suburban sprawl upsets rural residents City plan would limit spread of some services
By Steve Lackmeyer, Jack Money And Meri Mcmanus
Sunday, December 12, 1999
Edition: CITY, Section: NEWS, Page 17-A
Pam Troup would not be disappointed to see Oklahoma City restrict growth in the area where she and her husband, Ed, moved about 10 years ago.
The quiet, rural setting of lush trees, rolling hills, and plots of one or two acres attracted the couple to Apple Valley Road despite the fact that a grocery store is more than 10 minutes away.
“We don’t want any more congestion,” Troup said. “We moved out to the country to be away from the congestion and the city.”
Right now, however, more housing and congestion is possible if developers first agree to hook the area up to a main water line – an option that would be eliminated under a new Comprehensive Plan being drafted for Oklahoma City.
Planners are categorizing the city’s neighborhoods as rural, urban growth (neighborhoods developed after 1970) and traditional neighborhoods (older neighborhoods primarily developed before 1970).
The plan discourages premature urban uses, including “leapfrog” development, or higher-density development that requires urban services like water, sewer, police and fire protection.
It recommends limiting public services in rural areas to a level appropriate for rural living. Police and fire protection would be provided, but with slower response times.
With the exception of regional traffic arteries, the plan’s authors recommend not prematurely widening two-lane roads.
Nick Gales, chairman of the plan update’s steering committee, believes every effort has been taken to avoid repeating past mistakes where planners and developers ended up battling over the city’s future.
“We’ve kept all of the steering committee meetings open to the public. We’ve had public hearings and public work groups. We’ve had the industry people in virtually every element,” he said.
While some cities are still using sticks to fight sprawl, planning director Garner Stoll believes Oklahoma City has no choice but to use a carrot.
Stoll said Oklahoma City can’t really place curbs on fringe neighborhoods as long as residents can move to towns like Edmond, Mustang and Norman.
Incentives include promoting the inner city with street projects that include vintage lighting and extensive landscaping, business assistance programs, and Main Street programs that promote historic commercial corridors.
Stoll knows such efforts work. The city has witnessed a string of recent successes.
Dick Lee, director of the Capitol Hill Main Street program south of downtown, thinks his neighborhood has already rebounded from its darkest days when major retailers fled to Crossroads Mall.
Lee estimates public investment in Capitol Hill has resulted in more than $2 million in private investment the past two years. A bigger boost is expected to follow city-funded renovations of two old department stores that will become the new home for more than 100 employees of the Community Action Agency.
“In 26 months, we have had 16 new businesses open that have created about 60 new jobs. They are all relatively small businesses, but when Community Action comes… that should spark some more restaurants and more retail,” Lee said.
Adding incentives to zoning ordinances also is being considered.
“We need to look at set-back and parking requirements. For example, eliminating parking requirements in Paseo, Bricktown and Stockyards brought immediate development,” Stoll said.
An expansion of city services the past decade also allows planners to consider ways to steer development into areas that already have full city services. Stoll estimates the city’s supply of land serviced by water, sewer, police and fire can accommodate centuries of future housing growth.
With that in mind, the plan encourages developers to expand into serviced areas of town by allowing denser developments than is now allowed.
Stoll admits the plan is ambitious – but he also believes it is one that can lead the city into the next century. “We are trying to redefine our assets and make them positives instead of negatives,” Stoll said.
Council reopens zoning debate
By Jack Money, Steve Lackmeyer
Wednesday, October 27, 1999
Edition: CITY, Section: NEWS, Page 1-A
Linked Objects: (Click image for details)
Proposed zoning guidelines that would limit development in rural Oklahoma City reopened a decadelong debate between developers and urban planners during Tuesday’s council meeting.
The battle resumed with Tuesday’s arrival of a preliminary report about progress on the “OKC Plan Update,” which city officials will use to guide future zoning decisions within the community’s 622 square miles.
The proposed plan would restrict residential density but would continue to allow office towers higher than six stories in outlying areas. It drew praise from developers and criticism from council members concerned about growing urban sprawl.
Councilwoman Ann Simank, whose Ward 6 is predominately within the inner city, was the first to challenge retaining the status quo.
“Recommendations I heard today were to keep the same old guidelines. To me, that hasn’t worked in the past. They are good guidelines to keep, but I think we need more,” Simank said.
She said the plan doesn’t do enough to slow urban sprawl.
“We have a lot of development happening in the outer rim of our city. And developers are looking at building new commercial buildings and new housing additions, and I understand that as a business. But is that really good for our city in the long run?”
Developers have a lot at stake with the plan. Most remember an effort by planning commissioners in the late 1970s to ban new residential developments northwest of Lake Hefner.
That attempt was overturned in a lengthy and bitter council debate.
Tuesday’s presentation was the first of several that will take place over the next few weeks.
David Yost, a housing developer who serves as a member of the rural task force, said rules now governing the development of rural-residential land work well.
“We couldn’t really find a reason why we need to change our current development policies,” he said.
The proposed plan examines root causes and gives solutions to the city’s urban sprawl problem – where residents move away from the inner city, followed by businesses, creating difficulties for inner-city neighborhoods and schools.
The new plan proposes dividing outlying areas of the city into urban growth, rural and rural estate districts.
Urban growth areas, primarily in the far north and far south, would allow the types of developments commonly seen there today because basic city services – water and sewer service and police and fire protection – already are in place.
But developers in future projects would be encouraged to bring in unified plans on residential homes, apartments and commercial developments for entire tracts, ending the practice of piecemeal zoning fights from residents about what should be allowed next to their neighborhoods.
In rural areas where water and sewer services aren’t available, developers would be restricted to a maximum of 52 homes on any 160-acre tract.
Developers could either build one home on every five acres, or they could build up to 52 homes with one home on every three acres if some land is left undeveloped. Developers also could set aside land for commercial activities in each development, like convenience stores that might serve the neighborhood.
In rural estate areas, developers would be restricted to 111 homes on any 160-acre tract. There would be incentives for developers who proposed denser developments.
Simank also challenged suggestions by developers that the plan place no limit on office towers higher than six stories being built outside of downtown.
“If we continue to build smaller cities within a city by building tall commercial buildings further out and encouraging hundreds of workers to be in those buildings, keeping them away from downtown, it hurts us all,” Simank said.
“When you don’t take care of the central city, the problems spread out.”
Bryan Coon, a coordinator of the urban development task force, told council members suburban office towers are a hot commodity among companies looking for new headquarters.
Mayor Kirk Humphreys, who appointed a special citizens panel to look at ways the inner city could be brought back, agrees he and other council members must admit at the outset they will never get everything they want in the plan update.
“I don’t see a fight brewing,” Humphreys said. “I see the different groups coming to a consensus. ”
If a fight is to start, Humphreys expects it might begin over sprawl in far west Oklahoma City, where the Mustang school district has protested city zoning for new apartment complexes.
“But from what I’ve heard of the northwest side of Lake Hefner, no growth of 20 years ago, I don’t see that kind of thinking in this,” Humphreys said.
Planning Director Garner Stoll also tried to downplay past disputes, saying he is seeing a much more cooperative effort to reach an agreement on updating the plan.
“We are trying to provide some flexible techniques developers could use to maximize assets in each of these different development areas,” Stoll told council members.
“But it won’t be until we draft a new zoning ordinance that the regulatory issues come into focus. And obviously, those have to come back to you.”
In recent weeks it’s been difficult not to notice the disparity in urgency used to finish the Project 180 makeover of Civic Center Park and the surrounding streets in time for the celebration Thursday of the 75th anniversary of the Civic Center Music Hall compared to the pace of work on other Project 180 streets.
At the Civic Center, crews with Wynn Construction have been seen working nights, working weekends, working daily.
Around City Hall, Rudy Construction is back at work after seemingly absent most of the summer. Streets were torn up early on … and then nothing for a long, long time. During such waits, businesses have suffered. Some closed their doors.
I asked City Engineer Eric Wenger – does such disparity in urgency signify that getting work done for a party is more important than ending the suffering of downtown businesses?
Wenger responded that in the case of Rudy Construction, it was the Oklahoma City Museum of Art that asked for construction to be put on hold while a delicate glass art installation took place. OK. But throughout downtown with Project 180, we’ve seen streets torn up …. and then more often than not, we’ve seen everything shut down for weeks on end before construction resumed.
Wenger admits this isn’t the best way to proceed. He promises staging of such projects will be done differently with the final two phases of Project 180.
My friend Will Hider once again proves himself to be an expert at finding obscure old photos – this time providing us a glimpse back at the 1100 S Robinson building that was featured in my story about Hub Cap Alley in Sunday’s Oklahoman.
Here’s a shot of it today, as it awaits renovation into a home, art studio and gallery:
And here’s what it looked like decades earlier (one of thousands of great photos to be found in the Oklahoma History Center archives):
I will be covering a press conference at 11 a.m. today at the Myriad Gardens, so I will be hosting OKC Central Live Chat early, from 9:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Most likely I will be seen on my laptop doing this at Nebu at Devon Energy Center, so if you’re nearby, feel free to stop and say “hi”.