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Debate over Midtown tower is about far more than design

The eight-story Elliott includes a two-story garage that will be seen across the street from a proposed hotel at the former Villa Teresa School. [Rendering by Elliott Associates]
The eight-story Elliott includes a two-story garage that will be seen across the street from a proposed hotel at the former Villa Teresa School. [Rendering by Elliott Associates]

Architect Rand Elliott and developer Marva Ellard may be among the most recognizable people in the urban core when it comes to showing up at design review meetings to protest projects needing approval to proceed.

Elliott’s most recent objections were against designs for the Broadway Park building now being built at NW 11 and Broadway and to the recently completed addition to the Oklahoma City Community Foundation at NW 9 and Broadway. In both cases, the project architects were forced to go through one revision after another as those on the design committee were swayed by Elliott's numerous arguments.

Ellard, meanwhile, is active in Midtown where she rescued the Sieber Hotel and then bought the former Villa Teresa school after being a part of a neighborhood effort to warn the previous owner against clearing the historic buildings to make way for apartments.

Neither Elliott nor Ellard are new to this process, so their positions against each other when it comes to The Elliott (named after the developer’s grandparents and not Rand Elliott), reveal a mix of conflicting views and interpretations that might not be grasped by a Downtown Design Review Committee whose membership has mostly turned over in the past year or so.

Let’s start with the design itself.

When designs were first unveiled by developers Grant Willoughby and John Ridley, they noted they tried to be sensitive to Villa Teresa, which Ellard is redeveloping into condominiums and a boutique hotel. Elliott said he designed the 41-residence tower so that a modern, glass facade faced the downtown skyline while a more traditional brick facade faced the neighborhood, including Villa Teresa.

The designs presented last week include a new feature — canopies similar to those at car dealerships — on the second floor of a two-story garage. Ellard, already unhappy with the height of The Elliott, told the design review committee the garage and the canopies were a poor fit with the neighborhood and that they would be viewed from the proposed boutique hotel.

So we have two issues, the height and the design of the garage.

Elliott, who successfully demanded changes at the two Automobile Alley projects he protested, is not known for welcoming similar feedback. Elliott and David Box, attorney for Willoughby and Ridley, correctly pointed out Midtown has long been a mix of larger dense buildings that include St. Anthony Hospital, the Physicians and Surgeons Building and the Sieber.

They could have mentioned that historically the neighborhood also was home to the 10-story Plaza Tower Hotel at NW 10 and Shartel from 1960 to the early 1990s when the then-dilapidated hotel was torn down by St. Anthony Hospital. The hotel stood next to one- and two-story homes and commercial structures, just like the Sieber and the Physicians and Surgeons Building.

And this is where it gets interesting. In attempting to get The Elliott proposal rejected or dramatically altered, Ellard sought to use the downtown framework guidelines that suggest buildings be within context of the height of surrounding buildings. Those guidelines are newer than the review ordinance, but Box argued the ordinance takes precedence over the guidelines.

This is a conflict we’ve seen before, one the city planning department acknowledges and is working to address. We saw a similar conflict along Automobile Alley when a protester attempted to use guidelines to trump the design ordinance to argue the five-story Broadway Park was too high when compared to adjoining structures, even though other buildings nearby were just as tall or taller.

That protester was Rand Elliott.

Elliott lost on the height argument, and as design review committee members successfully sought to delay a vote, they made it clear they are more interested in the concerns shared by Ellard and others about the garage and the second-floor canopies.

Ellard, at least, is consistent in her protests, having objected to more dense development in Midtown, most notably The Edge, which is a mix of apartments, shops and restaurants at NW 13 and Walker.

Almost 20 years have passed since St. Anthony considered abandoning Midtown, which at the time was blighted and seen as a lost cause.

That era is history, and now two people admired for their work in the urban core are battling over whether the future of Midtown will be much as it was in the mid-20th century with a dense, diverse mix of development, or a quieter neighborhood with lower-lying structures as advocated by Ellard.

Some of the newer members of the Downtown Design Review Committee are hoping more discussion might bring agreement over The Elliott. But this debate is about far more than one building and the combatants are not known for easy surrenders when it comes to an urban core where they’ve invested years of work, creativity and passion.

Steve Lackmeyer

Steve Lackmeyer is a reporter, columnist and author who started his career at The Oklahoman in 1990. Since then, he has won numerous awards for his coverage, which included the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, the city's... Read more ›