City’s strategic neighborhood plan takes planning to new level

When Shannon Entz sees a homeowner or private developer invest money to build a new home or rehabilitate one that had previously been vacant, that’s when she knows the city’s Strong Neighborhoods Initiative (SNI) program is working.

Three urban neighborhoods have been selected by the city to receive special attention and funding in an effort to establish a systematic neighborhood renewal program that has not been done before in Oklahoma City.

“A lot of times in planning departments, we have large, beautiful plans but there is not an implementation component to it just yet,” said Entz, the lead planner overseeing SNI. “This program is different because it actually has the implementation part with it.”

The selected neighborhoods are Classen Ten-Penn, located northwest of downtown, North Highland Park and Culbertson East Highland, two historic neighborhoods on each side of University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.

The targeted revitalization includes park enhancements, new sidewalks, business facade assistance, home construction and buying assistance and neighborhood grants. The program has also seen the city assist with after- school programs in an effort to help the schools that serve each neighborhood, Entz said.

OKC’s planning department spent several years studying hundreds of neighborhood datasets, economic statistics and social indicators before selecting the three neighborhoods.

“This was not about seeing what neighborhoods are the worst; that’s not the threshold for this program,” Entz said. “It’s for neighborhoods that are at the tipping point to becoming great.”

A drive through each neighborhood offers a tour of hundreds of boarded-up homes, empty lots left over from the federal government’s urban renewal program decades ago and properties that have been neglected for years. However, there are also images of new homes under construction — some connected to neighborhood grants, others private development projects — city investments of new sidewalks and sewer lines and residents making needed improvements to historic homes.

“These neighborhoods have the right mix of need and opportunity,” Entz said. “It’s not meant to just go in and clean up the worst neighborhoods in Oklahoma City. These are neighborhoods that have a lot of assets.”

Shannon Entz, left and Naomi Leipold at 1616 N. McKinnley in the Plaza District. (Shannon Cornman)

Shannon Entz, left and Naomi Leipold at 1616 N. McKinnley in the Plaza District. (Shannon Cornman)

Brighter futures

OKC has successfully leveraged tax breaks and large capital projects to revitalize commercial neighborhoods like downtown, and high-traffic communities like the 23rd Street corridor are seeing an influx of private development.

But residential neighborhoods with high concentrations of old homes and poverty can be harder to revitalize. Beyond the glamor of new buildings downtown and in Midtown, OKC’s next era of renaissance might come from the systematic revival of inner-city neighborhoods like the three selected by SNI.

There is a push by many to move to the urban core of OKC, but buying or building a home on a street with numerous vacant properties and a feeling of neglect is a hard sell.

“It does make it easier to make this type of [investment] when you see that the city has already done new sidewalks and they are getting ready to do street light improvements,” said LaDonna Gilliam, a sales representative with

Ron Walters Construction Services, which is building several new homes in the Culbertson East Highland neighborhood.

Gilliam said home buyers in the urban core don’t necessarily need to find a perfect neighborhood, but many want to see that a community is making progress and there is a hope for a brighter future. It can be risky building homes in a neighborhood like Culbertson East Highland and Gilliam admits a profit might be hard to make in the near future, but investments by the city make it far less risky.

“To see things start to change is important,” Gilliam said.

Entz said the homes are receiving funding assistance from the city and will be priced below $120,000.

“These developers take a huge risk in doing this because of all these other challenges,” Entz said. “Strong development partners can be hard to find, but a few have taken our offers to help with funding.”

Entz realizes some of the newly built homes might not sell quickly, but she is OK with that.

“It’s a start, and we have to start somewhere,” she said.

1509 N.W. 14th in the Plaza District is currently under construction. (Shannon Cornman)

1509 N.W. 14th in the Plaza District is currently under construction. (Shannon Cornman)

Tracking progress

Many of the programs offered in the three SNI neighborhoods are available in other communities, and the city is undertaking revitalization efforts in other neighborhoods across town. However, by creating boundaries for three specific neighborhoods, the city can better track its progress.

Naomi Leipold, an urban planner with the city, regularly reviews data on building permits in the three SNI communities to determine if the program is working, which could take years before an ultimate label of success is given.

However, even just a few months into the program, there are success stories visible on each street as new investments are made in old neighborhoods.

“Every city should be focusing on their old neighborhoods, but it’s hard,” Entz said. “For us, it’s about realizing that if we want things to improve, we have to do something about it.”

Print headline // On the verge, City planners are taking a strategic approach to revitalizing older neighborhoods on their way to being great

Ben Felder

Ben is an urban affairs reporter covering local government and education in Oklahoma City. He lives in OKC with his wife, Lori, and son, Satchel. Ben holds a masters in new media journalism from Full Sail University and is an OKC transplant from Kansas City, Mo. Twitter: @benfelder_okg

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