Oklahoma City’s Wheeler District

If I were to ask you what a 90-acre former airport, the old Santa Monica pier Ferris wheel, and an Instagram-friendly sculpture had in common, you might be hard-pressed to find an answer. If I told you that all those items make the framework of one of the coolest new urbanist developments in the country, I’d understand if you simply didn’t believe me. I may even lose you altogether once I told you that this development is in Oklahoma City, just south of the city’s center along the banks of the Oklahoma River.

1961 aerial of former airport (illustrated with yellow overlay). Photo courtesy of The Oklahoma Archives.

But that’s precisely the case, and I’ll say it once more to let it sink in. Oklahoma City is home to one of the best new urbanist developments in the entire United States.

The purchase of the airport property happened back in the mid-2000s, a few years before the Great Recession — not surprisingly, it sat for a while as housing as lending took years to rebound. Shortly thereafter, the Ferris wheel was bought by one of the project developers and has since become the centerpiece of open space that sits against the river, giving unmatched skyline views. The straight-as-an-arrow residential boulevard follows the former landing strip.

I’ve been following the Wheeler District for years — and was likely drawn in by the story that I just recounted — wondering how someone buys a former airport (with nary a tree to be found) and a ferris Ferris wheel and creates a meaningful community steeped in quality placemaking? UDC staff had an opportunity to tour this master master-planned community at CNU OKC, and I was stoked. After the tour, I certainly believe it is a mixture of a whole host of things (a shared vision, patience, a great team (one of the developers has an urban planning and design background), and pent-up demand for a community experience) but ultimately rests solely on the fact that the folks behind the Wheeler District prioritize design.

Here are a few examples of attention to detail to make the Wheeler District a great place.

1 | Color

The first homes built in the Wheeler District are a kind of Scandinavian-inspired three-story homes (that the developer refers to as “detached townhomes”). That term makes sense as only a few feet are separating each unit’s sidewalls. The building material and roof pitch are reminiscent of something you might see in Iceland or Norway, but the whimsical blocks of color (with each level having a different saturation) on these first six homes are what really lets you know that you’ve arrived at the Wheeler District.

2 | Commerce

As Wheeler District is still in its beginning phases, the population lacks the density required for significant retail investment. A few creative things happened to supply the District with some neighborhood services as subsequent residential phases start construction. First, the original airport terminal building was kept and is, at the time of touring, a taco shop. The terminal building also has a green space for children at the rear of the building. Second, they constructed a signature brewery space and meeting space building near the terminal building that is reminiscent of both a prairie barn and church. Lastly, they constructed three-story live/work units along a partial block of a street that is planned to be their main commercial street — some units with micro retail at the ground level while some served as three levels of office space (we toured a law office space that took up the whole building). The street is constructed to operate like a woonerf, a curbless lane with no distinction between the building materials that one would typically assign to pedestrian or vehicular traffic.

3 | Construction Materials

One of the first things you’ll notice when touring the Wheeler district is the incredible palette of construction materials. Rusted metal siding at the brewery, a beautiful selection of brick making up the main street, galvanized metal gates enclosing outdoor storage spaces, and an abundance of concrete. What makes the brickwork even more lovely is that although the units largely keep the same form, the repetition of the form is offset by different colored bricks and attention to the façade’s detail through various recesses and projections in the brick bonds and coursings. The application of concrete is one of my favorite details in the Wheeler District because it isn’t just used out of necessity but used almost as an artistic medium. Wood-formed walls and porches (a process that imparts a woodgrain relief on the surface of the concrete) are pockmarked throughout the site and much of the sidewalks are finished with rock salt (a process where salt is spread and pressed into the wet concrete and then washed away). Attention to details like those mentioned are items typically not found with mixed/multi-use.

4 | Community

Sometime during the middle of the 20th century, a usable front porch fell by the wayside as a dominant design feature for homes as folks socialized in rear yards and sunrooms — essentially locations within the home that allowed for more privacy. This likely occurred in tandem with the auto mobilization of America, as smaller residential lots were left behind for sprawling, outer-ring suburbs. Sidewalks were often provided but were narrow and largely situated on one side of the street. The interaction between the front door and the streetscape became less important and was often separated by a vast front yard.

It’s been re-discovered, over the past 30 years or so, that the provision of usable front porches is an exercise in community building. As a matter of fact, a core tenant of the New Urbanism Charter, however, is the attention placed on the Block, the Street, and the Building. More specifically, it mentions that “streets and squares should be safe, comfortable, and interesting to the pedestrian. Properly configured, they encourage walking and enable neighbors to know each other and protect their communities.”

True to New Urbanist values, the Wheeler District has provided usable front porches on nearly all their residential units. The deepest porches (around 7-feet deep) are found along the signature residential boulevard that follows the pathway of the old landing strip. Mid-block residential pedestrian alleyways are similarly situated — with smaller porches facing pedestrian traffic. As the community grows in tandem with the continued construction of future phases of the District, these front porches will activate the street and promote interaction between neighbors that, in turn, sustains community.

So, if you are ever in OKC and have an afternoon to burn, take a 5-dollar Uber ride from your hotel and visit the Wheeler District. Pay attention to the purpose-driven design details, the colors, the textures, and the community that is being built. Take some pictures to remember what you’ve seen. And when you finally head home — no matter if you are a developer, designer, or policy person — get busy figuring out how you can recreate the elements of the Wheeler District in your next project.

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Advances the quality of the built environment, creates public awareness, and communicates the importance of urban design in Charlotte, NC.

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Charlotte Urban Design Center

Advances the quality of the built environment, creates public awareness, and communicates the importance of urban design in Charlotte, NC.