As Tulsa expands to the limits of its suburbs, there is one direction open for development that has been stymied for nearly nine decades.
The natural beauty and proximity of the Osage County hills, just northwest of downtown, is being cited as the next area for major development for the city.
The factors needed to open up the roadblocks to development are falling into place at an increasing pace, and the people and entities tied to the area see nothing but long-awaited opportunity for Tulsa.
“The idea with the northwest quadrant – with the way it looks and with the (Gilcrease) Expressway – is that this is one of the most prime areas that would be next to be developed,” said Paul Zachary, deputy director of the City of Tulsa Public Works Engineering Services. “There is no other land like this in our area.”
Tulsa attorney and Osage County rancher Gentner F. Drummond sees the area as a key to the rebirth of downtown.
“Logistically, it is a natural segment of the community that would support a downtown as we focus money into low water dams and an enhancement of downtown venues,” Drummond said. “It is right there – it would be the infrastructure and population base to support the revitalization of downtown.”
Drummond, whose land group Persimmon Ridge LLC started with 1,200 acres in the area and donated 160 acres to the Oklahoma Centennial Botanical Gardens, said, “I would like northwest Tulsa to become what Tulsa should have done with it in the 1920s and ‘30s.”
At that time, most of the land north and northwest of downtown Tulsa was owned by oil profiteer and physician Dr. Samuel Kennedy. Kennedy is often cited as responsible, although probably unintentionally, for Tulsa’s growth to the south and east of downtown.
Darell Christopher, who with his wife Fran√?oise, purchased the Kennedy Mansion and operate the 1920s home at 506 W. Fairview St. as a bed and breakfast, has found himself an oral traditionalist for the story.
The bed and breakfast Web site, www.kennedymansion.com, relates: “According to the story, after a dispute with city leaders over the expansion of utilities and streets, Kennedy refused to sell his land that now makes up most of north and northwest Tulsa. His refusal to sell his land delayed development north and northwest of downtown.
“As a result, Tulsa moved south and southeast – away from the major highways and downtown. His own family owns up to the story that Dr. Kennedy inserted a clause into his will insisting that the land not be sold for 20 years. Dr. Kennedy died in 1941 and it was not until the mid 1960s that the Gilcrease Hills housing addition was started northwest of downtown.”
“Everything pretty well confirms that it was his last will and testament that nothing would be sold for 20 years,” said Christopher, who is the Domestic Violence Education Coordinator for Tulsa Metropolitan Ministry and teaches sociology at Tulsa Community College.
An active proponent of the community, he sees the doors opening for northwest Tulsa development.
“We are looking at something fantastic for this part of the city,” he said.
Even after the stipulations of Kennedy’s will expired in the 1960s, other factors have remained a barrier to growth to the northwest.
The lack of adequate roads and utilities has left the area foreign territory to most Tulsans.
But recent improvements, with ongoing expansions and upgrades, is opening opportunities in the area (see map, page 27).
In the past year:
? The City of Tulsa, The Osage Nation, Osage County and the Oklahoma Bicentennial Botanical Garden have all pitched in on road developments that are opening northwest Tulsa to numerous visitors who have been unaware of its potential and raw beauty.
? The City of Tulsa has continued to develop sewage and water utility access to support future growth in the area.
? The extension of the Gilcrease Expressway to the L.L. Tisdale Expressway has shortened the commute time to the Tulsa International Airport to a short five minutes from the intersection of Apache Street and Osage Drive, and the front door of the BOK Center is less than three minutes away. The city is moving ahead with plans to continue the Gilcrease Expressway to West Edison Road and eventually to I-44.
? The beginning development of the Oklahoma Bicentennial Botanical Garden and the continued influence of the Post Oak Lodge are attracting growing numbers to the area.
? The purchase of the Tulsa Airpark by the Osage Nation is expected to offer additional opportunities for business development by the recently formed Osage business entity Osage LLC.
? The opening of the BOK Center and construction of ONEOK Field, the new home of the Tulsa Drillers, along with other announcements and developments in downtown Tulsa is opening the way for northwest Tulsa to become a part of the revitalization of downtown Tulsa.
Room to Grow
Standing on the hill above the intersection of Apache Street and Osage Drive, it is easy to see why hotels would be interested in the property represented by NAI Commercial Properties agent Bill Richert.
At your feet are the western most end of the Gilcrease Expressway, heading east toward Tulsa International Airport, and the L.L. Tisdale Expressway stretches south the two miles to downtown Tulsa.
Representing the New Mexico owners of Northwest Passage, about 800 acres of property planned for residential, multi-family and commercial uses, Richert said the acreage at that location is seen as having retail, hospitality and restaurant potential.
“Sitting on top of that hill, you have fantastic views,” he said. “You can be close to the BOK Center – less than three minutes from that – and less than five minutes from the airport. It would make a real convenient site for that type of use.”
He said he has been approached by out-of-town hotel developers looking at the property for “more of a limited service type as opposed to a full service, more of a Hampton Fairfield Inn-type development,” because the headquarters hotels and full service facilities will probably be downtown.
“This can certainly have 200-300 rooms out here, in two to three hotels that would help service the BOK need,” he said.
Northwest Passage is comprised of about 800 acres starting at the northwest corners of Apache Street and the Tisdale Expressway, running two miles west to 41st West Avenue and about three-quarters of a mile north of Apache almost to 36th St. North. The planned unit development was formed six to seven years ago from what was left of the 1,600-1,700 acres originally planned for the Gilcrease Hills development.
“The first phase of Gilcrease is all sold out, so this was going to be the next phase,” Richert, who listed the property in 1996, said.
A 90-lot subdivision at the north end of Gilcrease Museum Road is the only portion of the property that has been developed.
He cited insufficient roads and sewage as early barriers to development.
“When my guys bought it in ‘99, there was no sewer in the area,” he said. ”The city extended the Flat Rock Creek interceptor out to a little bit west of 41st West Avenue, and my owners worked with the city to extend that interceptor south into their property as well.”
“The roads have been improved, which helped the access,” Richert said. “Prior to ‘99 it was just rural, almost cowpath type roads. There weren’t even section line roads out there.”
He sees retail development as the greatest need to trigger growth.
“We did a demographic study, and there is basically a community of about 80-85,000 people north of downtown in an underserved retail area,” he said. “I have had a couple of mutli-family developers looking in this area, and they said if we just had a little more general shopping, grocery store, drug store type stuff, they would be comfortable putting 200-300 unit apartments out here – the same with single family homes. We need some retail out here plus some residential – kind of a chicken and the egg thing –which comes first?”
Farther west, the Post Oak Lodge, 5323 W. 31st St. North, exemplifies “City Close, Country Quiet,” on the Persimmon Ridge LLC property controlled by Drummond.
North of the secluded facility, with its 11,000-SF Executive Conference Center and 60 rooms in two executive lodges and six smaller buildings, are the Botanical Garden and Holmes Peak, the highest point in five counties, at one point, the planned site for a 217-foot tall bronze statue called The American.
Drummond’s vision for the area revolves around the garden.
“Very candidly, we bought the property primarily so the garden would have a home,” he said. “Secondarily, our intention was to be able to service the property and the debt associated with the acquisition through the activities of Post Oak Lodge, and then have a very slow and purposeful pattern of development after.”
Plans are under way to extend water, wastewater and electrical services to the property.
“We are putting those in place to support the garden, let the garden continue its development, and then as the garden develops, but before its maturity, we will add residential to the mix,” he said. “I would envision that it would be a lightly developed oasis around the garden. We enjoy Post Oak Lodge and what it adds to the community. It will not loose its character and nature, and we will develop consistently around it and the southwest portion of the property, enhancing Post Oak and its mission as a corporate, wedding, family and church retreat center.”
Plans for capital improvements include larger banquet facilities, additional housing in the form of a small hotel and continuing the lodge theme with additional lodges. I see us putting a spa on one of those taller hills and a restaurant that caters to the camp. We will reserve around the garden, and I can see perhaps commercial development that will support the garden and some light residential. If the city ever wanted to expand its school district out there I can see giving the city some land for a school. I think the time is ripe.”
In its initial stages, the Oklahoma Centennial Botanical Garden is already drawing visitors and having an impact on surrounding property, said Pat Woodrum, executive director.
With $2.2 million in Centennial funds, the physical development of the garden has begun with the construction of an entrance road, a seven-acre lake with an island that will house an oriental garden and a temporary visitors center.
“We have already had a number of out-of-town and out-of-state visitors,” Woodrum said. “We have had people from Texas, a busload from Kansas who came in and stayed overnight at Post Oak Lodge specifically to see how the garden was developing and 60 people from Leadership Oklahoma from all over the state. We even had a couple from England.”
With the garden only open on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., “can you imagine what it will be like when it is up and going?” Woodrum said. “I understand that neighboring property values have already increased.”
She said studies show the garden will need 290 employees when complete and will attract 300,000-400,000 people a year. During construction it is expected to have an economic impact of $107.6 million and a continuing impact of $10 million a year when up and running.
The Osage Nation, with its Osage Million Dollar Elm Casino at 36th St. North & Tisdale Expressway, and road improvements on 36th Street North in front of the casino and about a two mile stretch of 41st West Avenue is also impacting northwest Tulsa.
With its purchase of the neighboring 80-acre Tulsa Airpark late last year, there is more to come, said Osage Nation Principal Chief Jim Gray.
“We spent at least $20 million on the casino and the property and improvements,” Gray said. “We have spent about 8 million on roads the past two years, and we have spent about $5.5 million on renovations and acquisition of the air park property.”
“There has been a lot of investment capital put in by the tribe. We are not the only ones doing it. The city and county and state have been investing heavily in the roads. Without those new construction investments, this area was never going to be developed.”
Although he is prevented by Osage law from talking about specific projects before they are announced, “obviously you see from the investment the tribe is making that we expect to pay off for not just the tribe in the long run but for the whole area,” Gray said. “With the creation of 600-700 jobs by the tribe alone in this area, it is going to create an opportunity for residential development and with that comes the possibility of retail.”
The Osage Nation has turned over development of the airpark property to its recently formed business arm.
“Osage LLC is the developer of that property, not the casino,” Gray said. “It’s non-gaming business enterprises the tribe is creating. The Osage LLC is reviewing its first draft of their best use policy plan for that whole area. We just acquired that property a few months ago so we are just now looking at what are the best possible uses of it. There are 80 acres there, and the airpark is only using like five so there’s lots of room to develop there.”
Gray said the business developed could includes defense contracting, retail operations, industrial work, “everything under the sun that is potentially there.”
“I think the long-term benefits can be, if this LLC can grow and reinvest and grow and reinvest, it can be as strong an economic engine for the area as anything the gaming people have done with the casinos,” he said. “I am excited about the potential there.”
He also believes the location of the casino close to downtown can offer a benefit in attracting conventions and visitors.
“What I think we want to do is get a better definition of what is downtown Tulsa. It’s not just where the skyscrapers end anymore,” he said. “The proximity of our casino and all the amenities we have here along with the good roads that bring people here three minutes away from downtown, creates a potential for any convention business bureau to use as an attraction that they can add to their mix of things that they use to attract conventions and business events to take place downtown.”
“I am optimistic that this story is not over yet,” Gray said. “There will be lots more going on in the next few years that are going to make this area even more attractive.”
On the Road
A major part of that story will ride on the continuation of the Gilcrease Expressway. While the city is involved in a number of street and utility projects in northwest Tulsa, it is also in the process of buying right of way for Gilcrease West, which will ultimately reach all the way to I44, Zachary said.
That extension is divided into two segments, one north of West Edison Street and one south of Edison, he said.
“The thought is to build counterclockwise and build down to Edison, and then one of the major hurdles we have is crossing SH412 and the Arkansas River,” he said.
Zachary said the plan is to start advertising in the fall of 2009 and build from Tisdale over to 41st West Avenue.
“We really believe that as we come around and make this connection to Edison, as the right of way becomes clear, it will become extremely attractive land to develop and redevelop,” he said.
As Tulsa expands to the limits of its suburbs, there is one direction open for development that has been stymied for nearly nine decades.