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New Urbanism in Oklahoma

May 8, 2024

A major mixed-use project in Oklahoma City has taken 15 years to come to fruition and promises to bring a new urbanism concept to the state. Now under construction, the first phase of the 20-acre Oak development, across one of the state’s busiest intersections from the state’s largest mall — is set for a grand opening in September.

Phase 1 encompasses 14 acres and includes 135,000 square feet of retail; a 132-room Lively Hotel, part of Hilton’s Tapestry Collection and built with Gatehouse Capital; and 320 luxury multifamily residences built by Mintwood Real Estate. The site occupies the highly trafficked corner of Northwest Expressway and North Pennsylvania Avenue, diagonal to Simon’s 1.1 million-square-foot Penn Square Mall, which opened in 1960.

Phase 1 of Oak will open in September with 135,000 square feet of retail, a 132-room Lively Hotel and 320 luxury multifamily residences.

“Oklahoma City is going through a metamorphosis, and it is exciting to be part of it and Oak represents a retail analog to that,” said Oklahoma native Ryan McNeill, president and founder of locally based Veritas Development, which leads the project development and ownership team. Joining the project are Everett Dobson and the Dobson family, well known in Oklahoma business circles for their ownership of the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder.

Three major first-to-market retailers have signed leases, including a three-story RH Gallery prototype, Capital Grille steakhouse and Arhaus home furnishings. RH Gallery will feature a rooftop restaurant and garden, wine bar and in-house interior design firm. It’s under construction and scheduled to deliver in mid-2025. Other retailers include Williams Sonoma, Pottery Barn, Tommy Bahama and Mexican restaurant Mesero.

A stage on the 7,000-square-foot central lawn called Heartland Park will host about 100 annual events with a capacity for 1,750 people.

“Our leasing strategy at Oak has been to match the quality of the project itself by bringing new, best-in-class retailers and restaurants to OKC,” said Michael Nagy, who leads the Oak retail leasing team at Dallas-based Open Realty Advisors. “Oak is unmatched in its product type and attention to detail anywhere in the state, and our efforts have been centered around bringing high-quality local, regional and national tenants to the project. OAK is on the national radar, and we believe the interest in being a part of it will only continue to grow.”

Tommy Bahama is using the development to further test its Marlin Bar concept, according to CEO Doug Wood. “It’s been a great opportunity for us to work with the developers of Oak and build this location from the ground up. We were able to optimize the design of our signature Marlin Bar concept for this market and the climate. Our combined shopping and dining experience is one of the things that makes Tommy Bahama different from other lifestyle brands, so we wanted to create the best way to present that to our guests at Oak.” Complementing the store, bar and restaurant, the an enclosed patio will provide a year-round indoor and outdoor dining experience.

Oak derives its name from the abundance of oak trees in the area, and McNeill has been keen to create a community that is about more than just buildings, adding a central green space and encouraging walkability with more than two miles of sidewalks weaving through the property.

His background prepared him to lead such a project for his native Oklahoma. He grew up in rural, Western Oklahoma before his family moved to Oklahoma City, and his father dabbled in development in the growing northern suburb of Edmond. The family has been part of the Oklahoma community for generations and has interests in banking, oil and gas, and other real estate investments.

McNeill went to college in South Carolina before moving to Northern California, where he became a Sonic drive-in franchisee. He dabbled in development of smaller strip centers there in the early-2000s, soon becoming enamored with many of the state’s large mixed-use developments, including Santana Row, The Grove and The Americana at Brand. “It started to become a question in my mind: ‘There is this incredible placemaking aspect to these projects. What would it be like to do that in Oklahoma?’” said McNeill. Oak’s “intersection was always the answer to where the retailers wanted to be in Oklahoma City.”

McNeill and his wife moved back to Oklahoma in 2007, and when 1.5 acres became available at the site in 2009, he bid on the property. He lost to Chesapeake Energy, which at the time was developing properties all over the city. Ultimately, however, Chesapeake disposed of its land holdings, and McNeill acquired the initial three acres on Feb. 29, 2016. He eventually added two adjoining office properties and purchased another 40 properties to amass the total 20 acres.

His commitment to the site and the project was simple to explain. “When a retailer is first to market in Oklahoma — and I include the entire state in this explanation — they really should start their market research at this intersection. If they are going to do one unit or 100, this is ground zero for retail, and it has been benchmarked that way for 40 years or so because of Penn Square Mall.”

McNeill took a different approach to counter the mall format. “There is a lot of history with Penn Square Mall and its success that affords Oklahoma City to tell a retail story that outpunches its class,” said McNeill. “That mall has always outperformed relative to other markets similar in size to Oklahoma City, and I just knew from a retail standpoint that any new retail that would come to Oklahoma City would want to understand what was available here.”

What Makes It Work Here

The Oklahoma City area’s population growth has shaped the demand for a new urbanism concept. A recent Zillow analysis of U.S. Census data found that it ranks eighth among metros to which Millennials are moving. “Oak represents this retail coming of age in Oklahoma City’s coming of age,” said McNeill. “This is a really compelling place to live, and we are seeing that show up in the numbers and the Census information. COVID has reshaped a lot of what people value in terms of where they are living, and Oklahoma City apparently, based on the data, is really garnering a disproportionate amount of those folks. And that is exciting.”

Oak’s super-regional intersection draws from 1.5 million people within a 45-minute drive. Their average household income is $91,000. “It is a very strong story demographically, and Oklahoma City is really outperforming a lot of cities in terms of its appeal since COVID,” said McNeill.

Creating a sense of place through art has been a major focus, and McNeill is investing $2 million in three sculptures. Two will sit on a 7,000-square-foot central lawn called Heartwood Park, whose stage will host around 100 events annually to a capacity of 1,750 people. The artist team, which includes Brad Oldham and Christy Coltrin of Brad Oldham Sculpture, also is creating the Mighty Live Oak sculpture, which will become the arrival sign for the development. Additionally, Oak’s owners will work with local artists to create murals and other art installations throughout the property.

Oak’s developer is investing $2 million in a pair of sculptures on the central lawn — Cloud Trees and Cloud Puncher, rendered above — and a large sculpture at the property’s entrance. All three are by artists Brad Oldham and Christy Coltrin.

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“Art is a key component to placemaking, and in my opinion, it helps to create an important transition from the massing of the various structures down to the human scale and allow human interaction with pieces that take placemaking to the next level,” said McNeill. “The best projects that I see around the country and around the world don’t just stop with great architectural focus, but they then go into parks and public places. And I asked: ‘How do we make the landscaping, hardscaping and art component the best in class?’”

Improved transportation access also is key. Oak will be served by the city’s Embark Rapid transit system, including access to the new Northwest Bus line from the Expressway and Penn bus platforms. As the area continues to develop, these transit options will prove even more valuable.

Phase 2 of Oak will include 85,000 square feet of office and about 15,000 square feet of retail. Plans are underway for a culinary district to come in Phase 3.

By Ben Johnson

Contributor, Commerce + Communities Today


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