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The Wheeler District’s Starting Line

Building a better development on OKC’s south side



 


E.B. White, the author of Charlotte’s Web, once wrote that the view from a Ferris wheel was the most promising thing in space. That is either hyperbole or White was only looking in one direction.
 

Construction is underway to install the Ferris wheel that may become the signature symbol of the Wheeler District. Situated along the south bank of the Oklahoma River, the nine-story carnival ride will provide a remarkable view of the entirety of the proposed $1.2 billion development, as well as an admittedly spectacular view of our cityscape. A passenger in one of the 20 gondolas will have an utterly different view to the west, though.

Douglas Avenue is the point of demarcation – the bright line, so to speak – between Wheeler and its nearest neighbors. Metaphors abound in any development, especially one that juxtaposes poverty and wealth as starkly as Wheeler is likely to, but along the western edge of the Downtown Airpark, the roads that would normally cross Douglas all dead-end at a fence.

Blair Humphreys hopes to bring an end to that particular visual metaphor. Humphreys, the driving force behind the Wheeler District, talks of creating “dignified access points” for people who wish to drive or walk into the new district. In other words, this will not be a gated, white enclave adjacent to a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood, the two largest features of which are the Will Rogers Courts – a WPA project that is now subsidized housing with monthly rents as low as $100 – and Rotary Park, a plot of ground marred by crime and graffiti.

Developer Blair Humphreys


Bristling with idealistic energy (that’s a compliment, by the way), Humphreys speaks candidly about the challenges the district will face. He is at once likeable and believable, and a brief conversation with him provides understanding of why the Wheeler District has the imprimatur of the Latino Community Development Association.

“We are the first development south of the river that is an extension of downtown and Core to Shore,” Humphreys says. “We have a responsibility to serve as a bridge between the two communities, to create connections and new access points.”

The MIT-educated Humphreys hopes to apply the lessons learned in his city planning and urban design graduate program, and when the son of a Republican politician who grew up middle-of-the-road evangelical lands in Boston for graduate school, lessons multiply in and out of the classroom.

“I was in a real estate economics class when I became aware of how difficult this type of urban development really is,” Humphreys says. “What jumped out at me, though, was that we have a responsibility to address the issue, and a realization how difficult it can actually be.”

That point was etched more firmly in his mind when the Wheeler team offered its week-long charrette in summer 2014: Interested and potentially affected parties were invited to participate in planning sessions that allowed input into the final design of the district. Humphreys estimates approximately 1,000 people showed up across the course of the week. A painful realization set in at some point that week, though – the district’s Latino neighbors were visibly absent, in spite of what appears to have been a good-faith effort to distribute invitational fliers printed in Spanish.

Humphreys took the setback as a challenge that simply required further effort. To be fair, he had only been heading up the district planning for six months at that point, so the team was still getting a picture of what the plan to integrate the communities would mean. What do you do when you invite people to participate in civic leadership and they pass? Humphreys’ time in Boston taught him a valuable lesson that could help answer questions along this particular axis.

“We were dealing with a population who had never been integrated into our city’s civic leadership structure,” he says. “We thought we had done above and beyond what we should have, but we figured out that an extra level of effort would be required, and the good news was that we could be a positive part of the solution of integrating the community into that leadership structure.”


Urban planning on the East Coast includes a long history of gentrification – a nice way of describing displacement of the poor – and discussions about economic justice, tax structures and community services for the poor are part of any urban planning education. Creating an affluent community alongside a poor community raises questions about how the surrounding neighborhoods will be affected. The Wheeler District is a potential exception to the pattern of re-whiting urban neighborhoods, primarily because no one is being displaced.
The airpark is brownfield land, a designation for land that previously was used for industrial or non-residential purposes. There are no houses to be razed, no businesses to be pushed to the perimeter of urban renewal and no homeless communities or campsites. In many ways, it is a best-case scenario for urban development, but the challenges still exist, and our state’s sketchy history with our Latino neighbors is not the least of those challenges.

“We will always appeal to the best in people,” is how Humphreys addresses the challenge of dealing with entrenched racism and legislation that targets immigrants.

Thanks in part to his candor about these issues, Humphreys has secured the assistance of important allies in the Latino community, including the aforementioned LCDA and Calle dos Cinco in Historic Capitol Hill. Raul Font, the executive director of the LCDA, is optimistic about some of Wheeler’s potential.

“It has the potential to attract people who would never have thought of moving here,” Font says. “If everyone gets along, this could be a very good thing, but there will likely need to be some cultural sensitivity training.”

Donna Cervantes, director of Calle dos Cinco, said she sees Wheeler as a potential boost for retail in Capitol Hill and along SW 29th. “There is not one magic bullet to bring the communities together,” she says, “but I see it happening already in Capitol Hill. People come down here to try our shops and restaurants. This could attract even more retailers to the district.”


The district has always planned on having a school, and Humphreys would love to see a dual-immersion (Spanish and English) public school in the Wheeler District. It’s a model that has worked in other cities, and according to Font – a career education administrator – Shidler Elementary had a nationally recognized pilot program in the 1980s.

The developers also are in discussions with the city of Oklahoma City about possible TIF funding; Humphreys said he believes public spaces and accessible services in Wheeler should be eligible for some TIF support.

Finally, a formalized plan is near completion. By the time this article is on newsstands, the PUD (Planned Unit Development) will be filed. Humphreys said he expects it to go before the Planning Commission in April.

And then as the days get longer, the sun will rise on a new neighborhood in OKC. 

 

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Calendar

April 2019

Men and women from across the American West played critical roles - both “over there” and on the home front - in helping the Allies win World War I. The National Cowboy & Western...

Cost: $12.50

Where:
National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
1700 Northeast 63rd Street
Oklahoma City, OK  73111
View map »


Telephone: 405.478.2250
Contact Name: Jenni
Website »

More information

Celebrate Easter with a trip to Andy Alligator’s Fun Park! On Saturday and Sunday, get $5 off an All-Day Pass with our Eggcellent Easter Special. All-Day Passes include Go-Karts,...

Cost: $23.95

Where:
Andy Alligator's Fun Park & Water Park
3300 Market Pl
Norman, OK  73072
View map »

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Men and women from across the American West played critical roles - both “over there” and on the home front - in helping the Allies win World War I. The National Cowboy & Western...

Cost: $12.50

Where:
National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
1700 Northeast 63rd Street
Oklahoma City, OK  73111
View map »


Telephone: 405.478.2250
Contact Name: Jenni
Website »

More information

Show More...
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The Annual Mentorship Exhibition features pieces from Oklahoma City high school students that visit the Artspace studio each month. Throughout the duration of the program, the students engage with...

Cost: Free

Where:
Artspace at Untitled
1 NE 3rd st
Oklahoma City, OK  73104
View map »


Sponsor: Artspace at Untitled
Telephone: 405-815-9995
Website »

More information

Men and women from across the American West played critical roles - both “over there” and on the home front - in helping the Allies win World War I. The National Cowboy & Western...

Cost: $12.50

Where:
National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
1700 Northeast 63rd Street
Oklahoma City, OK  73111
View map »


Telephone: 405.478.2250
Contact Name: Jenni
Website »

More information

The OSU Symphony Orchestra will conclude the 2018-19 season with Schubert's monumental and majestic Symphony No. 9 in C ("The Great"). The concert opens with The European Anthem,...

Cost: General Admission: $10; Students & Seniors: $7

Where:
Oklahoma State University Department of Music
132 Seretean Ctr
Stillwater, OK  74078
View map »


Sponsor: Oklahoma State University Department of Music
Telephone: 405.744.6133
Contact Name: Dr. Thomas Dickey
Website »

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The Annual Mentorship Exhibition features pieces from Oklahoma City high school students that visit the Artspace studio each month. Throughout the duration of the program, the students engage with...

Cost: Free

Where:
Artspace at Untitled
1 NE 3rd st
Oklahoma City, OK  73104
View map »


Sponsor: Artspace at Untitled
Telephone: 405-815-9995
Website »

More information

Men and women from across the American West played critical roles - both “over there” and on the home front - in helping the Allies win World War I. The National Cowboy & Western...

Cost: $12.50

Where:
National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
1700 Northeast 63rd Street
Oklahoma City, OK  73111
View map »


Telephone: 405.478.2250
Contact Name: Jenni
Website »

More information

Potbelly Sandwich Shop is giving back to the local neighborhood with Feed Your Smile, a fundraiser supporting Concordia Life Care Community.  Show this flyer on your smartphone or...

Cost: Free

Where:
Potbelly Sandwich Shop
8500 N Rockwell Ave
OKC, OK  73132
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Sponsor: Potbelly Sandwich Shop
Telephone: 405-792-5112
Contact Name: Katy Fabrie
Website »

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The Annual Mentorship Exhibition features pieces from Oklahoma City high school students that visit the Artspace studio each month. Throughout the duration of the program, the students engage with...

Cost: Free

Where:
Artspace at Untitled
1 NE 3rd st
Oklahoma City, OK  73104
View map »


Sponsor: Artspace at Untitled
Telephone: 405-815-9995
Website »

More information

RexFest will feature an interactive art exhibit called a luminarium created by Architects of Air. From April 25-28, visitors can walk through the inflatable sculpture, which disperses light and...

Cost: $8 for kids; $10 for adults; $30 for families of four

Where:
Together Square
400 W Sheridan Avenue
Oklahoma City, OK  73102
View map »


Sponsor: Delta Dental

More information

Men and women from across the American West played critical roles - both “over there” and on the home front - in helping the Allies win World War I. The National Cowboy & Western...

Cost: $12.50

Where:
National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
1700 Northeast 63rd Street
Oklahoma City, OK  73111
View map »


Telephone: 405.478.2250
Contact Name: Jenni
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

The Annual Mentorship Exhibition features pieces from Oklahoma City high school students that visit the Artspace studio each month. Throughout the duration of the program, the students engage with...

Cost: Free

Where:
Artspace at Untitled
1 NE 3rd st
Oklahoma City, OK  73104
View map »


Sponsor: Artspace at Untitled
Telephone: 405-815-9995
Website »

More information

RexFest will feature an interactive art exhibit called a luminarium created by Architects of Air. From April 25-28, visitors can walk through the inflatable sculpture, which disperses light and...

Cost: $8 for kids; $10 for adults; $30 for families of four

Where:
Together Square
400 W Sheridan Avenue
Oklahoma City, OK  73102
View map »


Sponsor: Delta Dental

More information

Men and women from across the American West played critical roles - both “over there” and on the home front - in helping the Allies win World War I. The National Cowboy & Western...

Cost: $12.50

Where:
National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
1700 Northeast 63rd Street
Oklahoma City, OK  73111
View map »


Telephone: 405.478.2250
Contact Name: Jenni
Website »

More information

"Deliberately silencing the internal chatter and not overthinking. Conscious, but not over-trying. With this approach, things just seem to happen—it’s where all the substance is...

Cost: Free

Where:
Individual Artists of Oklahoma
706 W. Sheridan Ave.
Oklahoma City, OK  73102
View map »


Sponsor: Individual Artists of Oklahoma
Telephone: 405.412.2541
Contact Name: David Smith

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Shop over 200 vendors at this indoor event with everything from vintage furniture, retro and mid-century decor to handmade goods, antiques, industrial finds and architectural salvage!

Cost: $5 at the door, 13 and under free

Where:
Heritage Place
2829 S. MacArthur
Oklahoma City, OK  73128
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Sponsor: Junk Hippy
Contact Name: Kristen Grandi
Website »

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A Sporting Chance will host the 25th annual Track and Field Meet at Branson Junior High in Branson, Missouri. A Sporting Chance provides year-round sports and recreation programs designed for those...

Where:
Branson Junior High
263 Buccaneer Boulevard
Branson, MO  65616
View map »


Sponsor: A Sporting Chance
Telephone: 404-314-2188
Contact Name: Hannah Schachinger

More information

RexFest will feature an interactive art exhibit called a luminarium created by Architects of Air. From April 25-28, visitors can walk through the inflatable sculpture, which disperses light and...

Cost: $8 for kids; $10 for adults; $30 for families of four

Where:
Together Square
400 W Sheridan Avenue
Oklahoma City, OK  73102
View map »


Sponsor: Delta Dental

More information

This one-day festival is rooted in the printing of large-scale woodblocks carved by local Oklahoma artists. We bring in a 5-ton steamroller and print pre-carved blocks throughout the day on Tyvek...

Cost: Free

Where:
Artspace at Untitled
1 NE 3rd st
Oklahoma City, OK  73104
View map »


Sponsor: Artspace at Untitled
Telephone: 405-815-9995
Contact Name: Evan
Website »

More information

Men and women from across the American West played critical roles - both “over there” and on the home front - in helping the Allies win World War I. The National Cowboy & Western...

Cost: $12.50

Where:
National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
1700 Northeast 63rd Street
Oklahoma City, OK  73111
View map »


Telephone: 405.478.2250
Contact Name: Jenni
Website »

More information

The Annual Mentorship Exhibition features pieces from Oklahoma City high school students that visit the Artspace studio each month. Throughout the duration of the program, the students engage with...

Cost: Free

Where:
Artspace at Untitled
1 NE 3rd st
Oklahoma City, OK  73104
View map »


Sponsor: Artspace at Untitled
Telephone: 405-815-9995
Website »

More information

Andy Alligator's is celebrating teachers! On Saturday and Sunday, teachers with a valid ID will receive a FREE All-Day Pass and $5 off for each family member! An All-Day Pass includes...

Cost: Teachers receive a FREE All-Day Pass; family members get $5 off

Where:
Andy Alligator's Fun Park & Water Park
3300 Market Pl
Norman, OK  73072
View map »

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America’s largest interactive comedy murder mystery dinner show is now playing at the Skirvin Hilton Hotel. At The Dinner Detective, you’ll tackle a challenging crime while you...

Cost: $59.95

Where:
The Skirvin Hilton
1 Park Ave
Oklahoma City, OK  73102
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Sponsor: The Dinner Detective
Telephone: 866.496.0535
Website »

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Get a sample of the nightlife of Spain at Tulsa Botanic Garden's "Viva La Vida." The Garden is bringing star chef Jamie Bissonnette (Toro restaurants in Boston, NYC, Bangkok and...

Cost: $250

Where:
Tulsa Botanic Garden
3900 Tulsa Botanic Dr
Tulsa, OK  74127
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Sponsor: Tulsa Botanic Garden
Telephone: 918-289-0330
Contact Name: Lori Hutson
Website »

More information

2nd annual gathering of "The Big Lebowksi" fans at The Dude Abides OKC All Oklahoma City Urban Achievers, Abiders and Coen Brothers fans are invited to join us at Fassler Hall OKC and...

Cost: Free, contests have entry fee

Where:
Fassler Hall
421 NW 10th
Oklahoma City, OK  73103
View map »


Sponsor: Revolve Productions
Telephone: 405.810.6977
Contact Name: Tobi Coleman
Website »

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