Urban renewal, the publicly subsidized destruction of old inner-city properties and construction of new development, began nationwide with the Housing Act of 1949. The legislation authorized the federal government to pay cities at least two-thirds of the difference between the cost of acquiring and clearing a blighted area and the price the land brought when sold to a private development. The act's initial aim was to clear slums, but successive amendments broadened what cities could do with the money, allowing them to also authorize clearance of neighborhoods for office and retail, as well as for rehabilitation of old homes.
Although Oklahoma was barely a half-century old, cities and towns across the state began their own urban renewal programs. Tulsa was the first large Oklahoma city to form an urban renewal authority, which city commissioners approved in July 1959. Planning started in 1961 for the Seminole Hills Project, the state's first urban renewal project. Instead of bulldozing blocks of homes, the city pursued a program of clearing problem properties while rehabilitating others. In June 1968 the authority declared the ninety-one-acre project complete. Tulsa also initiated a downtown urban renewal program, declaring the heart of the district blighted. Dozens of properties were cleared and replaced with a new office complex anchored by the nine-square-block Williams Center.
While Oklahoma City did not have the decay found in the older cities, downtown business leaders were concerned that companies were struggling to acquire land to expand. Merchants were concerned about increasingly scarce parking for shoppers, who were beginning to discover open parking lots at suburban shopping centers. In March 1958 a proposal for an Oklahoma City Redevelopment Authority was first unveiled. In 1961 the city council authorized the mayor to appoint five commissioners to an urban renewal authority.
Despite the ambitious programs launched in the state's largest cities and the outpouring of federal money during the mid-1960s for inner-city redevelopment, many smaller Oklahoma towns refused urban renewal. Smaller towns that did pursue urban renewal included McAlester, which declared a twenty-two-acre section of downtown blighted, relocated businesses in the mid-1960s, and built a $2 million office building. McAlester also used urban renewal to replace what city leaders called "slum housing" with a public housing project.
In Lawton voters approved urban renewal to clear land around city hall for redevelopment. Lawton also used urban renewal to help expand Cameron College, a strategy also used by smaller Oklahoma towns to accommodate growth for local colleges. In Miami urban renewal was used for a 31.2 acre expansion of Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College that was completed in 1965. In Edmond town leaders used urban renewal to clear land for expansion of what was then known as Central State College (now the University of Central Oklahoma). Using $3.4 million in federal assistance, Edmond officials acquired more than two hundred parcels of property surrounding the campus to make room for new parking lots and buildings.
It did not take long for urban renewal to face opposition. Tahlequah residents voted at a ratio of three to one against a proposal to launch a program similar to those in Lawton, Edmond, and Miami to expand Northeastern State College. In Oklahoma City, Tulsa, and other cities with populations over fifty thousand, such votes were not required, and authority was relegated to city councils.
Oklahoma City's urban renewal program was the most extensive in the state, and by the early 1980s the city had cleared hundreds of structures in three areas. These were downtown, the two-hundred-acre Oklahoma Health Center, and the John F. Kennedy neighborhood. Because of urban renewal, downtown Oklahoma City had a new skyline that included the Kerr-McGee headquarters, Leadership Square, Liberty Tower, Fidelity Bank Tower, Sheraton Hotel, Mid-America Building, Oklahoma Tower, and Corporate Tower. By the 1970s urban renewal had lost the support of many Oklahoma City residents, who criticized the program for tearing down historic structures, including the Criterion Theater and Hales Building. The program was also blamed for forcing retailers, including the hometown favorite John A. Brown's department store, to leave downtown to make way for a shopping mall that was never built.
Oklahoma City's urban renewal program was mostly dormant during the late 1980s due to drastic cuts in federal funding, a depressed economy, and lack of public support. But with an improved economy in the late 1990s and renewed interest in downtown Oklahoma City, several new urban renewal projects were started. They included the Renaissance Hotel, apartments in Deep Deuce just east of downtown, development of the Presbyterian Health Foundation Research Park in the medical center, and construction of more than two dozen new homes in the Kennedy neighborhood.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City), 3 November 1961, 22 March 1964, 22 October 1967, and 16 April 2003. Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority Annual Report, 1984. James M. Smallwood, Urban Builder: The Life and Times of Stanley Draper (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1977). Tulsa Urban Renewal Authority, Seventeenth Annual Report, 1977.
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