Public voices disapproval with proposed Lake Hefner development

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OKLAHOMA CITY - Oklahoma City architects wanted to hear from the public as it considered developing an area around Lake Hefner.

The public sure let them hear it.

Surveys showed the people who use Lake Hefner for sailing, cycling and running overwhelmingly disapprove of any development to a 92-acre expanse of land.

"Why would you want to take a perfectly good, natural area and put something commercial on it? That makes no sense at all," said Don Davis, who regularly sails on Lake Hefner. "It makes more sense to leave it for future generations to enjoy the natural beauty of the lake and the surrounding area. We don't need to figure out how to make money on everything."

The City paid Mass Architects, Inc. $363,148 to conduct a study to "determine the appropriate level and/or size of commercial development" in the area, so long as it could "remain compatible with water supply management requirements and recreational activities," according to an agenda item from the Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust.

Water Trust Spokeswoman Debbie Ragan said the city set up a series of meetings, called 'charrettes,' to gain public input.

"This is a different approach than what is normally done," said project manager Isaac Hines. "We're calling it 'Community-Based Design' because, to get something successful for our community, it has to be something that they want. So, we're showing up tonight without drawing a single box or doing a single design."

The architects said they did not have any preconceived ideas of what to place on the land, though it did bring examples of other commercial projects it had completed in other cities.

Hines did say many people these days want to see "cool districts" with brewpubs and retail space. He noted the Lake Hefner area was likely not a place for big box stores or big corporate office buildings.

Instead, he can more easily envision a small boutique hotel or small eateries.

"I see a great resource not only for the City of Oklahoma City but for the people who live around here and use the lake," Hines said. "It has potential to be something special and something nice."

Hines made it clear he wanted to do things the community approved of, making improvements to the areas they see fit.

"It can be a small improvement: clean up the trash pile, mow the lawn, cut the underbrush," he said. "People do immediately have a reaction and I think, if we can have the mindset changed, we'll end up with a better result."

But, most people at the meeting seemed to like things the way they are now. The audience frequently interrupted the architects during their presentation, criticizing their survey questions and intentions.

"We have enough development at the lake," said Guy Liebmann, a former city councilman. "It's developed. We don't need anymore."

Many people left their scrap paper blank as the architects asked for ideas.

Don Davis only wrote three words: "Leave it alone."

"It's hard to improve on nature," he said. "You don't need some kind of edifice to enjoy nature. Nature by itself is a beautiful, great place to be."

Others did come up with a list of improvements though.

Moni Bieser and Bill and Susan Schmidt were against any commercial development, but they did have other ideas.

Bieser had penciled in a community center with a kitchen and a system of cameras, both to watch wildlife online and to keep an eye out for any vandals.

Hines acknowledged the strong response to his presentation, calling the group "energetic."

"I like them to be engaged and involved because what it does is it drives quality development," he said. "The message we're going to craft and come back with is we're going to listen to these comments and try to show them that we're going to do what you want."

Oklahoma City leaders said there will be more meetings to discuss potential plans.

The dates are to be determined, but the architects estimate the idea period could last a year or two.

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