MidTown housing development wins approval from design committee

By Steve Lackmeyer

[JANUARY 20, 2012 – OKLAHOMA CITY] – Plans for a $34 million apartment complex set to be built later this year in MidTown won unanimous approval Thursday from the Downtown Design Review Committee despite ongoing protests from more than two dozen residents of nearby Heritage Hills that the project is too dense for the area.

Thursday’s action represented what was seen as protesters’ — mostly Heritage Hills residents — last chance to stop the development. But a divided Heritage Hills appeared at the meeting, with almost an equal amount of area residents expressing support for The Edge, which is planned for NW 13 and Walker Avenue.

The meeting followed a series of meetings between Gary Brooks, who was selected to develop the site by the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority, and about two dozen Heritage Hills residents who have sought to have the project scrapped or downscaled.

Marc Tolson, an architect with GTF Design in Bedford, Texas, said The Edge represents one of the most ambitious housing projects drawn up by his firm. He said the firm worked with Brooks and RTKL, an international architecture and planning firm hired by Urban Renewal, to upgrade the original designs. Upgrades, he said, included increasing the project’s brick surfacing to 80 percent of the facade, creating front stoops and patios at ground level, moving the garage entrance and designing its openings to resemble windows.

Attorney Robert Sheets, hired by Historic Preservation Inc. — the Heritage Hills neighborhood association — told the design committee his clients wanted a one-month deferral to discuss concerns with Brooks.

“We have concerns,” Sheets said. “This is supposed to be a buffer and transition from the Plaza Court and 13th Street retail area into the historical residential area,” Sheets said. “One thing you should be considering is how it will affect noise, lighting and traffic. You’re transitioning from an area with high use to an area with low use. Already we have parking situations without this project.”

Those concerns were dismissed at the start of the discussion by committee chair Betsy Brunsteter who reminded the protesters that traffic, noise and density are not questions addressed by design ordinance. Such issues were considered by a committee convened earlier this year by the Urban Renewal Authority — a committee that included Historic Preservation Inc. board President Steve Jacobi.

Jacobi told the committee he kept board members informed of plans for the development, but also asked for more time to address concerns with Brooks.

“We’re rather slow on the uptake,” acknowledged Heritage Hills resident John Nichols. “You don’t worry about taxes until you’re ready to file your tax return. We got worried about this in the last 30 days after meeting with Gary Brooks.”

Those speaking in favor of the project included Chad Reynolds, who grew up in Oklahoma City, moved to Boston in 1995, and then returned with his wife to buy a home in Heritage Hills in 2009.

“In that time Oklahoma City matured and became a very dynamic and interesting place,” Reynolds said. “I wanted to be in a place like Heritage Hills. Why? It represented a dynamic, urban neighborhood like the one I enjoyed in Boston, where it has sidewalks and I can walk to restaurants, where you have Wilson School.”

Reynolds argued the neighborhood had the chance to voice its concerns when the project was being considered in public meetings of the Urban Renewal Authority and disputed opponents’ claims it would drive down property values. “It will make it a better neighborhood and drive up property values because it will provide us more to do,” Reynolds said.

Another supporter of the project, Gatewood resident Blair Humphreys, argued a delay would increase costs for Brooks and reinforce preconceptions that public urban redevelopment is undesirable because it involves extra time and expense.

Several protesters argued they wanted more time to talk to Brooks about their concerns about the project’s ground floor retail space that will front Walker Avenue, with one even suggesting in future years such storefronts could include a “sex shop.”

Brooks’ attorney, Dennis Box, assured the committee he will work with residents to address their concerns about the retail tenants. Those assurances, and a city staff report recommending project design approval, were cited by committee members in voting “yes.”

“I trust Gary and the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority will continue to work with Heritage Hills,” committee member Chuck Ainsworth said. “I can’t imagine he’s going to put a sex toy shop in.”

Ainsworth, himself a resident of Heritage Hills, said he expected some unpleasant reactions from his neighbors to his vote, but reiterated the warning that their arguments could not be addressed by the city’s design ordinance. “It’s been said 14 times, this committee can’t make decisions on parking, density, usage, and impact on the area,” Ainsworth said. “Our goal, our charter is to decide whether the design meets the intent of the city’s guidelines. I’m hearing some folks say the overall design is excellent, the quality is great and the overall project will have a good impact on the neighborhood. I agree with that.”