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Oklahoma City’s new heart

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My frequent travels south from my house in Lincoln, Neb., to my home state of Louisiana take me through Oklahoma City.

In fact, Oklahoma’s capital city is precisely the halfway point in the drive from Lincoln to Shreveport, where my mother and sister live. But Oklahoma City has long passed the halfway mark in its quest toward economic recovery.

A development plan called “Core-to-Shore” is a compelling reason for Oklahomans to feel optimistic about the future of downtown Oklahoma City. The 750-acre project is a three-phase master plan to realign Interstate 40 and connect the Oklahoma River to the urban core, introducing a mixed-use boulevard, a convention center and hotel, a park system, residential uses and a lengthy pedestrian spine.

I talked with the city’s urban redevelopment division director, Robbie Kienzle (see related story), about the magnitude of the Core-to-Shore plan. “It came about as a result of ODOT’s realignment of I-40,” she said, “which will extend the downtown core to the river. We realized we had an opportunity to connect to the river and create a new downtown community.”

Today, there is very little urban residential. But that’s about to change. Core-to-Shore will build new urban neighborhoods, schools, services and retail. A pedestrian spine, leading north from the river to downtown, will traverse a series of park systems. A mixed-use boulevard will neighbor the sports arena (where the city’s professional basketball team plays), and just south will be a new convention hotel and center.

“Now is a great time for developers and retailers to look at the city,” said Kienzle. Her colleague in the chamber of commerce -- director of community redevelopment Alison Oshel -- has an urban retail hit list already compiled.

“I want a specialty grocer, and a bigger variety of department store chains,” Oshel said. “And a wonderful downtown bookstore, as well as specialty retailers such as Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters.”

Retailers and developers would do well to heed what Oklahoma City, and downtowns in general, have to offer. The city’s labor market was one of the strongest in the nation in 2008, according to a Marcus & Millichap report, as local employers added 3,700 jobs. About 860,000 sq. ft. of new construction is slated for delivery by year end, expanding Oklahoma City’s metro inventory by about 1.7%. And, generally speaking, downtowns have a plethora of offerings for forward-thinking retailers. Downtowns are positioned for a strong post-recessionary recovery, with their diversified mix of uses. They are walkable, and therefore ‘environmentally correct;’ they support entrepreneurship; and they appeal to younger and older demographics.

“We are going to attract young and old residents with our plans,” said Kienzle. “We know that two of the Top 10 trends that impact downtown development are that the younger set is attracted to the urban lifestyle, and so are the empty nesters. Our downtown will be geared to both.”

The development timeline for Core-to-Shore is 2008 to 2020, accomplished over the three phases, but the retail falls under the Phase 1, 2008-2014, timeline. I plan to see the site, from the seat of a helicopter, next time I’m passing through Oklahoma City enroute to Louisiana. I have a feeling it will be a sight, and a site to behold.

© 2014