Native Roots Market at NE 2 and Walnut Avenue quietly opened Friday night. Yes, it’s a big deal. And indeed, those discovering the paper was off the windows and the door was open were quite excited.
But during my visit Sunday afternoon, I noticed something else. Just as owners Matt Runkle and Sara Kaplan predicted, the grocery was quickly becoming a community gathering spot. And outside, the Spokies bike share station found itself cleaned out – the last bikes left were checked out and being enjoyed along NE 2 as I left. This, folks, is a true restructuring of downtown. And though Native Roots is simply a 2,300-square-foot store compared to the $750 million Devon Energy Center, have no doubt, this little grocery will have its own big impact on downtown. Get ready – downtown is about to get exciting.
Construction is set to begin next month on The Edge, perhaps the most ambitious downtown housing project to date in terms of scale, amenities and finish. This video can only be seen online right now via NewsOK.
Sometimes the cuts are brutal. And that’s the case with my Sunday story on families moving downtown.
Ah, gotta love the news biz.
So for those of you who follow my downtown coverage closely with this blog, I urge you to read this version of my Sunday story:
BY STEVE LACKMEYER
Richard McKown feels no pressure to advertise his newly opened Level Urban Apartments at NE 2 and Walnut Avenue. He doesn’t have to; the complex was fully leased when it opened last month.
Down the street, also along NE 2, construction plans are being readied for the next phase of “for sale” housing at The Hill after the once slow-selling units were grabbed up by a mix of empty nesters and young professionals.
Families, long missing from the equation, also are now in the mix.
McKown and other developers say they’re seeing a shift in the downtown population as housing picks up steam with the upcoming opening of Native Roots Market, downtown’s first grocery, and planning for a charter elementary school and streetcar system.
New residents include the owners of Native Roots, Matt and Sara Runkle, who along with their infant daughter, Stella, live full time in an apartment over the grocery. Two blocks to the north, Kurt and Charla Gwartney and their 12-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, are looking forward to when they can walk to get their groceries from their home at the Block 42 condominiums.
Similar aspirations are shared by Kyle and Kate Jones, who along with their 10-month-old daughter, Ramsey, are living at The Hill.
“The sense of community that is downtown is stronger than anything I’ve ever seen in any of the suburban communities I have worked in,” McKown said. “The opportunities are so tangible and real, and the housing choices are growing.”
Those housing choices were key to Kate Jones agreeing to move downtown — a move she admits she only contemplated after her husband bribed her with a new car.
She was worried about what opportunities would be lost for their daughter.
“Where is she going to learn to ride her bike?” Kate Jones recalled worrying. “Where will there be other children for her to play with? I wasn’t even willing to give it a chance.”
With the offer of a new car, the soon-to-be mom searched online. She rejected the first two for-sale housing projects she found because they were multilevel with living areas on the second floor. But she quickly warmed up to The Hill, which she said “felt homey,” and had amenities, including a two-car garage, to which she was accustomed.
When the couple bought their home on Russell Perry Avenue in Deep Deuce in 2011, it was the seventh one sold. Now all 32 units built at The Hill have sold, and developer Bill Canfield is moving forward with further development of what will ultimately be a neighborhood with 157 homes overlooking Bricktown and the downtown skyline.
Kyle and Kate Jones say they are happy to have the option of enrolling their daughter at the future John Rex Elementary, which will be built at Sheridan and Walker Avenues. Kyle Jones also is excited about the prospect of someday traveling to work via a streetcar system that is set to link Deep Deuce and MidTown.
Kate Jones admits her entire attitude about living downtown has shifted. She sees children enrolled in activities daily at Boathouse Row along the Oklahoma River, playing in Myriad Gardens, and frequenting other downtown venues. The couple routinely enjoy walking to the park, restaurants, shops and to Thunder games at the Chesapeake Energy Arena.
“I was very judgmental of downtown living,” Kate Jones said. “But I will never move back to Edmond. The traffic is terrible there. And I love where we are. I’m very glad he talked me into moving here.”
Friends who once mocked their choice of leaving the suburbs, Kyle Jones added, are now envious of their decision after visiting their new home.
The Gwartneys had a longer transition that started with buying a condominium at Block 42 as an investment while they lived at a parsonage provided to Charla Gwartney while she worked in Choctaw. When her job was moved to a church in Edmond without a parsonage, the family decided to make Block 42 their full-time residence.
Kurt Gwartney said when they first bought their condominium in 2007, downtown was still relatively quiet – the Deep Deuce apartments were open, but street-life was minimal.
“You see people living here now,” Gwartney said.
For Elizabeth Gwartney, who is enrolled in a “virtual school,” downtown is a vast classroom.
“When we were just here part time, it was a place we came to relax,” she said. “But now that I do virtual school, I can go to the Myriad Gardens or the art museum for my classwork. It’s all around me.”
Kurt Gwartney said the family loves to walk around downtown and observe the ongoing development. Owner of a dog, Sox, the family also discovered a thriving population of dog owners who congregate at the new dog park added to the Myriad Gardens.
Gwartney is rooting for transit advocates trying to extend the streetcar system along NE 4 through northeast Oklahoma City. The KGOU news director dreams of a day when he can hop on a streetcar to cover legislative sessions at the State Capitol.
McKown, meanwhile, is set on developing more housing just to the east of Level Urban Apartments along Oklahoma Avenue.
“I think we’re going to see a lot more people wanting to put down roots in downtown Oklahoma City,” McKown said. “I’m very optimistic and I think it’s a watershed moment for this generation.”
I’ve covered Downtown Oklahoma City Inc. since its inception a dozen years ago, and by far the effort and talent going into promoting downtown are the best I’ve seen to date. After making great inroads on social media this past year, the folks at DOKC created the following video about downtown living. Note, it contains only one outdated video or images of businesses or downtown street scenes as we see way too often in videos created for other organizations (darn that pesky decade-old image of BancOne!).
So how did we get here? How did we get to January, 2012, and residents of Heritage Hills are surprised that a housing development is about to go up on the former site of Mercy Hospital?
First, let’s go back one decade. Mercy Hospital abandoned its downtown home and opened a new complex in the mid-1970s in what was then the sticks – Memorial Road just west of May Avenue.
The old Mercy hospital ended up boarded-up blight on the neighborhood for a quarter century.
In the late 1990s the city finally got around to securing control of the block and the Urban Renewal Authority was tasked with finding a developer for the site.
Nicholas Preftakes made the first pitch in 1998. The $11.8 million proposal, the first downtown area housing attempted by Urban Renewal in 20 years, called for 16 two-story town houses, 72 city villas and 52 apartments. A rendering from the project shows the apartment building would have been six stories high.
The project was canceled in 2002 after Urban Renewal commissioners refused a request by Preftakes to acquire a duplex just south of the site. That duplex, once criticized by neighbors as a public nuisance, was later renovated into law offices.
The Urban Renewal Authority made another request for proposals for the site in 2006. By this time downtown housing was gaining momentum with the success of the Deep Deuce Apartments and other for-sale and rental housing popping up throughout downtown.
Two developers stepped up on this second go-round.
Marva Ellard pitched a plan dubbed Mercy Park, a $48.3 million development that would include 111 apartments, 22 for-sale condominiums, restaurant and retail, and a 72-room hotel. The Mercy Park proposal called for a restaurant, deli, shops and a grocery to face NW 13 between Dewey and Walker. Condominiums would face Walker while apartments would be built along NW 12 and Dewey. A hotel would be built in the center of the development, with underground parking serving the entire complex.
Chuck Wiggin, meanwhile, pitched Overholser Green, a $61.3 million development consisting of four buildings, four- to eight-stories high, with 109 upscale for-sale condominiums built above underground parking.
Wiggin’s proposal was chosen, only to fall through due to the economic crash of 2008. Wiggin attempted to persuade Urban Renewal board members to keep his contract in place and allow him to adapt his proposal into apartments. The board instead decided in 2010 to put the project back out for bid. And this time they received five responses – though one, pitched by Home Creations, was deemed significantly out of line with what was being sought by Urban Renewal due to its mix of office space and low threshold of investment.
This time Wiggin proposed a five-story complex with 24,000-square-feet for restaurants and retail, a 375-car garage, featuring 200 rental units with monthly rates between $600 and $1,900.
Ellard pitched a proposal again as well, this time submitting plans for a 150-unit, four-story complex that would have included enough parking to share with the nearby Unitarian Church and a daycare center.
This time around, the competition was joined by Richard Tanenbaum, whose previous residential downtown development included the Park Harvey Building and The Montgomery. Tanenbaum and his son Stephen proposed a four-story, 268-unit apartment complex with a pool and courtyard.
The Edge has undergone some changes since it was first proposed (as shown in the above rendering). In response to a push by the Urban Renewal board and neighborhood advocates, a retail mix was added along Walker Avenue. The amount of stucco facade was reduced, and garage was relocated to where it will be far less visible to the street.
These deliberations were open to the public; I even did live blogging and in-depth evaluations of each proposal.
Building permits are being sought, financing is apparently set, zoning is in place. All that remains, really, is a routine replatting of the block and approval for the exterior design by the Downtown Design Committee, which meets on Thursday. One variance is being sought – for a three-foot parapet to screen rooftop equipment. The Mercy site has never been this close to development – and after 13 years of similarly-sized developments being pitched and attempted for the block, it now has the attention of the Heritage Hills neighborhood one block to the north.
Let’s examine a bit more closely the 10th Street Medical Corridor Plan, prepared through the 10th Street Medical District. This was a private organization founded after the city and county agreed to address problems in MidTown that had St. Anthony Hospital pondering a move away from the urban core.
It’s a group that has done a lot of good for MidTown. But it’s a private group – one that denied me access to its deliberations as it considered housing proposals for property it controls at NW 10 and Hudson (the deal ultimately went to a hospice group, though we’ve yet to see any work commence).
The Heritage Hills residents opposing The Edge repeatedly quote from a study done with the 10th Street Medical Corridor, in which one section is devoted to the former Mercy hospital block. Planning Director Russell Claus noted the study was a snapshot in time, one that was written to address the area as it existed in 2005/2006 – before the emergence of the Walker Avenue shops and revitalization of several former flop houses in MidTown into upscale apartments. It is a document that was intended to be guidance, but not a statutory restriction, to development of the area. Note that within the language of this section is its own description – “design recommendations.” No more, no less.
The section of the study addressing the Mercy hospital block, set to be developed as The Edge, is presented for readers to decide for themselves the significance of the document six years after it was written:
Opportunity Area “A” comprises a single vacant parcel two blocks north of St. Anthony and directly adjacent to the residential neighborhoods of Heritage Hills and Mesta Park. The block has great access and visibility from both 13th Street and Walker Avenue. This 3.2-acre site is ideal for new moderate-density residential development to serve the needs of the hospital employees and others working in the area and downtown.
New residential uses south of 13th Street will advance the broader objective of developing this area as a transition zone between the neighborhoods to the north and downtown to the south. Medium-density housing would be most effective in tying these areas together. Because the site is already vacant and owned by a single entity—a city agency involved in redevelopment—this area is well suited to be developed early, as one of the first major residential construction projects in the district.
Given the proximity of this site to the southern boundary of Heritage Hills, the character and scale of the architecture should address the edges of the site in different ways. At 3.2 acres, the site is large enough to accommodate a range of housing configurations. Several housing types can be dispersed on the site, with smaller footprints facing 13th Street and larger buildings oriented to the south and 12th Street. This variation in scale will help to create the desired transition from the residential scale of northern neighborhoods to the institutional scale of St. Anthony.
Access to parking for the new development should be located off of Dewey and Walker streets so that additional curb-cuts off of 13th Street are not required. The parcel is large enough for surface parking to be in the middle of the site surrounded by buildings that shield the parking from the street. In addition to parking on the interior of the block, on-street parking should be encouraged.
Urban design recommendations for Opportunity Area A:
Surface parking for new residential development should be kept to the inside of the block, shielded by buildings that form its perimeter. Direct driveway access to the site from 13th Street should not be permitted; parking access should occur from the north-south streets of Dewey and Walker.
Residential density on the site should range between 25 to 40 units per acre. Some small-scale, ground-level commercial uses could occupy the corner of 13th and Walker, drawing pedestrian activity from the restaurant and commercial uses beginning to cluster on Walker Avenue to the south.
Release the Request for Proposals (RFP) for developers to redevelop this site calling for new residential
Initiate a site survey and subsurface exploration to identify any potential obstacles to development such as utility lines and abandoned foundations from the former Mercy Hospital.
In today’s paper we got to see the case presented by some Heritage Hills residents against The Edge, the 252-unit apartment complex about to be built in MidTown. Note, it’s not in Heritage Hills – it’s in MidTown. As with any complicated story, it’s challenging to get every detail into a daily news story. But this story represented my best first shot at delving into this debate.
Let’s start with some basic information first:
- Gary Brooks was selected in what was an open and transparent competition with three other well respected developers. When potential unfairness was noted on this site, including the prospect that some of the developers wouldn’t get to make a presentation to the Urban Renewal board, the board quickly reversed course. I also witnessed first hand a board membership that seemed to sway back and forth between three of the four proposals (for the life of me I can’t figure out why a rather wonderful proposal by Marva Ellard didn’t gain any traction). From information I was gleaning before the final Urban Renewal vote, it appeared possible that Richard Tanenbaum was going to win the contract. Even Brooks himself appeared resigned to losing the vote when I encountered him 30 minutes before while fueling our vehicles at a downtown convenience store. I then witnessed a vote that almost seemed to swing toward Chuck Wiggin before ultimately coming down on the side of Brooks.
- This project was covered extensively in The Oklahoman, on OKC Central, in the Journal Record and in The Oklahoma Gazette. You couldn’t escape it on the popular online community forum OKC Talk.
- As I reported in today’s story, Heritage Hills was represented in a committee review of the development proposals by Steve Jacobi, board president of the neighborhood association Historic Preservation Inc. It was during this process that issues of density and design were delved into and settled (a discussion that took place a year ago).
- This site is zoned for apartments.
- This site falls into an area represented by the Urban Neighbors residents association. I’ve heard from multiple members, including an officer, who are VERY unhappy that the Heritage Hills residents have tried to dictate terms in an area that is not in their neighborhood and did not bother to bring their concerns to Urban Neighbors, which does represent MidTown.
Now, that all said, let’s look at the emails that got people talking:
First up – a January 11 email from Alicia and Scott Champion, who live on NW 14 (there is a half-block buffer zone of office buildings separating The Edge site from Heritage Hills. Midtown is south of NW 13, Heritage Hills begins at NW 14):
Subject: The edge – PLEASE REPLY – AGREE
Heritage Hills residents
Have you been made aware that there is a new 68 ½ foot at the tallest point or 5 story apartment complex in the works to be constructed on the south side of the street at 13th& Walker? This is a 252 unit project that will have 232- 1 bedroom units, 10- 2 bedroom units, and 10-3 bedroom units and the “asking” rent price for a 1 bedroom is $1,000.00 a month. The Edge apartments are supposed to be “high end” and I do not doubt that they won’t be but, the scale of the project is enormous! If you are concerned about what an apartment complex will do for your property value in the next 20 years please read on.
A height of 6 stories (at the tallest point and a common green space area) is a big invasion of privacy for those resident that not only on the “border” the south side of 14th but all of 14th street. If you are walking along the street on 14th you will indeed be able to see the complex cascading over the roof tops and trees. While we earnestly are passionate about development in and around our neighborhood a lot of us are not excited about a complex. Most of the neighbors would envision for housing
· Ownership of condominiums
· No more than 3 stories in height
· Gradual sky line transition along 13th street into downtown
If you think this is a great idea for our neighborhood to have so many transients across the road then please read no further but if you are concerned about
· Increase in classroom size at Wilson School
· Foot traffic and pet traffic along our streets and parks (we pay for the upkeep!)
· Electrical Infrastructure i.e. more rolling brown outs. Especially if you are on Saint Anthony’s grid
· Plumbing Infrastructure
· Litter (Pet litter as well)
· Increase of potential crime
· Balconies without covenants
· Retail on Walker without restrictions
Then please join us and sign this petition. If you are against a complex of this size going into our backyards make your voice heard. We are in need of signatures for the Emergency Historic Preservation Meeting January 12, 2012.
We are not downtown and don’t need density we are midtown and need to protect what we and sustained all of these decades. We need all the support that we can get. HPI was created for this very thing! Our founders Watson, Coley, Nesbit all thought of the importance of our neighborhood and wanted to not only protect the interests and historical value of our homes but our boarders too! The South side of 14th, north side 22nd and all the streets along Broadway and Classen Boulevard are the true boarder s of the neighborhood and we must protect our area. We have collected millions in our endowment fund to help protect ourselves and our investments. Let’s face it, the developers wouldn’t be here if it were not for many of us pouring thousands if not hundreds of thousands of dollars into persevering our homes. We need to make sure the development will be good for the entire neighborhood and corridor between midtown and downtown.
We want to supply HPI a list of names of neighbors in Heritage Hills who are against the Complex. (Our neighbors in Mesta are joining in our efforts as well).
Alicia and Scott Champion
Now, let’s look at yet another email, this one sent out on January 10 by another resident on NW 14, Darci Schafer:
Subject: Re: “The Edge” Please mark your calendars and plan to attend the Downtown Design Review Committee (DDRC) Thursday, January 19 at 9:30am, OKC Municipal Building, 200 N. Walker, 3rd Floor
All concerned neighbors are encouraged to attend the Downtown Design Review Committee (DDRC) Thursday, January 19th at 9:30am, OKC Municipal Building, 200 N. Walker The Downtown Design Review Committee (Betsy Brunsteter, Gigi Faulkner, Mark Grubb, Charles Ainsworth, Richard Tanenbaum, Stan Carroll and Ike Akinwande) will review the design/overall scale and plans for the proposed 252 unit apartment complex *”The Edge.”
The Edge must be approved by the DDRC to become a reality. The meeting begins at 9:30, but the agenda will be posted online closer to the meeting if you want to check the order of business. Their website is www.okc.gov (Click on DDRC.) Parking is challenging there right now, so be prepared. Attendance is of the utmost importance. It is possibly our only chance to have the plans for “The Edge” apartments denied or at least “continued” (delayed). To date, attendance at this meeting is the most important action for concerned neighbors to take.
Any comments or concerns about the potential impact on surrounding neighborhoods may be e-mailed to staff member Scottye.Montgomery@okc.gov who will forward them to the seven-member DDRC.
You may be interested to know the following meetings are also scheduled:
Wednesday, January 11 Meeting of Mesta Park’s Executive Board
Thursday January 12 Special Meeting of HPI, Heritage Hills’ Board
Most of you are receiving this e-mail because of prior attendance and interest. If you are new on the mailing list, this is regarding the issue of the *Edge Apartments that are planned for the old Mercy site on the entire block between 13th and 12th Street between Walker and Dewey. This apartment complex would be a building four and five stories tall with balconies. There would be a minimal lot line (no external green space), 252 units (200 would be 1-bedroom; 10 two-bedroom and 10 three-bedroom), and at least at least 400 cars could be associated with this property.
Concerns include but are not limited to:
Overall scale of the project/compatibility of the design
Traffic impact (400+ cars)
Utility impact (water and electric power grid) (252 units)
3-4 Levels of balconies (covenants)
Project consultation with neighborhoods to the north/lack thereof
The following is a link provided by one of our neighbors. In 2006 OKC consulted with two firms (of Cambridge MA and St. Louis MO) regarding the City’s plan for NW 10th Street between St. Anthony and OU Medical Center. It spoke specifically about the old Mercy site as a “transition zone” and even recommended density (80-120 units) for a residential project. The Edge doubles (252 units) the recommended amount of units. Pages 20-25 are particularly worth reading as they provide solid recommendations and some helpful visuals.
Please feel free to pass this information along. Thank you all for your interest in this matter.
Now this email brings up a report the neighbors have been citing – but is it truly relevant to the discussion or binding in this matter? Note they’re citing pages 20-25, which does indeed address the old Mercy hospital site that is now in contention. This is a study; it is not a zoning, design guideline or statutory document governing this property. It is, in fact, the reflection of efforts by a private group whose meetings have been closed to the public and with whom I’ve had difficulty in the past getting information in regard to efforts to redevelop land under its control at NW 10 and Hudson. They are not breaking the law with this lack of transparency – they are, indeed, a private group that has every right not to share every bit of their business with a pesky reporter such as myself. But that also would seem to diminish the importance of this document as being anything but a guide – one that is now six years old and pre-dated most of the development we’ve seen to date in MidTown. Popular restaurants such as Stella’s (where several of the Heritage Hills protesters met after their meeting Thursday night) were not yet in existence. That stretch of buildings, now occupied by shops and restaurants, were still a blighted mess.
This study does not, as I read it, suggest LIMITS on development and density, but rather shows potential outcomes. It is also eclipsed by much more recent studies on walkability, authored by Jeff Speck, and a downtown housing study authored last year that promote urban density and housing development, especially apartments, in MidTown. All three documents are studies, not binding requirements and limitations on development.
So at this point, we have a developer chosen through an open competition. We now know that Heritage Hills was invited to review and evaluate the competing proposals, and that its neighborhood leader did participate and according their records, he kept his board updated on the development discussions. We also know that the project does not conflict with any zoning or city regulations, other than a 3-foot variance being sought at Thursday’s meeting of the Downtown Design Review Committee for a decorative crown element at the rooftop that will screen various air conditioners, building systems, etc. We also know the study cited by Shafer is six years old and does not impose any limits on development of the site, other than to recommend how best to proceed with possible housing.
In terms of the development’s quality, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. At least one of those commenting that the design is substandard in comments posted here at OKC Central and at NewsOK, I know, is directly tied into one of the three losing development proposals.
For those who might think I’m in any way beholden to Brooks, hit “downtown housing” under categories on this blog and review the scrutiny I gave during the selection process and to the Brooks proposal.
I pick apart apparent mis-truths. It’s what I do.
Pssstttt….. want to hear a secret?
There are families living downtown. Real live families – mommies, daddies, kids in strollers, teens – I promise they’re out there. I’ve seen them. They’re not talked about much, but after reading a story about the “kid boom” in downtown Minneapolis, I wonder if Oklahoma City is prepared for a similar demographic shift in years to come.
After all, we’ve got a downtown elementary coming on line in a couple of years. We’ll have a streetcar system. We’ll have a more family friendly Myriad Gardens. And I estimate we have at least 1,000 new housing units coming online in the next few years.
What do you think?
The original plans – click on image to enlarge
I posted this in 2008. In light of recent discussions over the decision by the Urban Renewal Authority to award development of the MidTown Mercy site to Legacy apartments developers Gary Brooks and Mike Henderson, I am reposting this blog post:
From time to time I hear grumbling about the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority and whether it really holds developers to the plans that get them selected against other competitors.
What’s wonderful about The Oklahoman’s archives is we can see for ourselves whether there is any validity to this complaint.
Today we start this new series with a look at developer Mike Henderson’s original designs and compare them to what was built. I pick Legacy at Arts Central because it by far the one most mentioned by critics.
So now we know – Gary Brooks and Mike Henderson will be the next to take a shot a developing the highly coveted, but elusive Mercy site in MidTown. Time to step back and take a full view of it all. First, let’s take a look at initial renderings.
Now this is where things get interesting. After hearing initial critiques from Urban Renewal Commissioners and seeing proposals by competitors, Gary Brooks did what he needed to do to win the deal. He removed the “carriage” entry (similar to the one at Legacy) from the Walker side of the complex, moved the leasing office and club house to the front along Walker, and changed the ground floor apartments along Walker to retail.
So we go from this facade facing Walker…
To this one (don’t get too caught up in the difference in rendering quality):
There were also concerns about the appearance of the garage facing Dewey Avenue, across from the Unitarian Church and Villa Theresa school. This was the original design:
And this is the revised rendering: