In OKC, Wheeler neighborhood takes flight
Planes are no longer landing along the Downtown Airpark runway, but the spirit of the landing strip itself remains with the first group of residents now living in the new urbanist Wheeler neighborhood being built along the south shore of the Oklahoma River.
Blair Humphreys, whose family purchased the airpark out of bankruptcy in 2006, first launched planning for the neighborhood with a community charette five years ago.
Gathering at Grill On the Hill in nearby Capitol Hill, area residents, business owners and civic leaders marked up aerial maps, heard from planners and gathered in small groups to share what they wanted to see in what is the first new neighborhood in old south side in decades.
The once barren runway is now at the heart of that neighborhood, lined with new homes, trees and a bike lane that runs in the middle of “Runway Boulevard.”
“The charette was essential,” Humphreys said. “There are a number of key elements of the master plan introduced as a direct result of those discussions and now we’re seeing those ideas come to life. We are turning the historic terminal building a focal point, we have a lot of green space, and we’re using the historic lines of the runway. And we’re focusing on creating truly walkable and bikeable infrastructure.”
Sixteen homes have sold, and several families have moved in over the past three weeks.
“My wife’s family is from Canada, and they have a neighborhood there with similar design elements,” Girma Moaning said. “And after checking that out, we knew this is where we wanted to move to.”
Both Moaning and future neighbor Amanda Cope said they were attracted to moving into a community that brings back a feeling of historic vibe and mix of housing sizes, retail and gathering spaces prevalent in Oklahoma City’s early history.
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They also appreciate being within walking distance of a Ferris wheel, park pavilion, play areas and hammock plaza between their homes and the shore of the Oklahoma River. In the next year, they will be within a couple-minute walk of a new brewery and taproom being built this summer and an all-day cafe planned for the former airpark terminal.
Cope is set to move in later this summer with her husband Chris, an engineer at Devon Energy, and their two sons. They started looking at Wheeler while they were living in an apartment in Norman.
“It’s hard to get to know your neighbors where we are now,” Cope said. “This is exciting to us. And we hope it will be a vibrant community with shops and places we can walk to.”
The couple wanted a neighborhood close to downtown, but didn’t want to buy a 100-year-old house.
“We want to be in the urban core,” Cope said. “My husband works downtown, we go to church downtown.”
While waiting for their home to be completed, the Copes have frequented the Ferris wheel, patronized nearby businesses and walked the trails that link Wheeler to Wiley Post Park, the Boathouse District and the future Scissortail Park.
Josh Kitchen, vice president of Wheeler Homes, said 35 homes are under construction and the 16 families already residents of Wheeler are among 32 homebuyers. Another 24 lots remain available in the first phase with sizes ranging from 600 to 3,200 square feet and sales prices ranging from $145,000 to $700,000.
The homes are designed with front porches, sidewalks and garages that face the alleys and not the streets. A mix of 300 sycamores, maples and oaks line Runway Boulevard along with irrigation systems designed to ensure Wheeler will take on the same shade canopies that are beloved in Heritage Hills and Mesta Park just north of downtown.
And when ice storms hit, the trees will be spared the damage done by power lines with utilities all located underground. Even the metal roofs are designed to withstand hailstorms that often arrive with spring in Oklahoma.
Moaning and his neighbors started moving into their homes just as the Ferris wheel opened for the 2019 season and he daily sees visitors making their way from the ride to the new neighborhood.
“There is such a momentum,” Kitchen said. “When the Ferris wheel was installed three years ago, there has always been the buzz of what could be and what is it going to be. For us, today, we’re no longer sharing the vision of what Wheeler is — people can now walk it and see it. They can go up on the Ferris wheel, and they see all the new construction to the south and they are intrigued.”