The City Council of Oklahoma City convened for the first time in 2021 on Tuesday for a five and a half hour meeting.
Among other less significant business, the Council unanimously approved the establishment of an emergency winter shelter to be operated by local non-profit organizations. The Council also deferred an application to demolish the old City Jail building.
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Jerrod Shadid, Oklahoma City Homeless Services Program Planner, presented a proposal to the Council for the approval of a special permit to allow a Use Unit for an Emergency Shelter and Feeding Site. The proposed site is an empty school building at 1400 NW 3rd Street in Ward 6.
In previous winters there have been robust plans for overflow shelter for several hundred individuals on nights when the temperatures would be dangerously cold. However, this year most shelters are not offering overflow shelter due to the pandemic.
This winter the Homeless Alliance has converted their Day Shelter to an emergency overnight shelter on those nights. They offer space for 75 adults and children, with kennel space for companion animals. Salvation Army offers emergency shelter on those nights in their above-ground storm shelter. There is room there for 24 women and children.
According to Shadid, the new proposed emergency shelter would be able to hold approximately 150 people. The shelter will be operated by Mental Health Association Oklahoma and Homeless Alliance.
This will double the amount of emergency shelter space the Homeless Alliance is able to provide.
Three members of the community who own property in the area around the proposed site came to voice their opposition to the shelter. None of the three said that they lived in the area, but each had concerns about litter and crime in the area where they had invested in property.
One, Richard Greenly, owns a business nearby. He said that his employees are afraid to go for a walk at noon in the neighborhood. He suggested that for his safety he may have to wear a gun while in the area.
Another local business person, Courtney Hurst, worker/owner at Fertile Ground just a block away from the proposed shelter, said that she walks through the neighborhood often and never feels fear for her safety.
The Council approved the proposal unanimously.
The shelter is being made ready by contractors now, and will open after code inspection. That should happen in the next couple of weeks. The shelter will stay open through the end of March.
The old city police headquarters and city jail building, part of the original Public Works Administration slate of art deco buildings in downtown Oklahoma City, came up for discussion yet again on Tuesday.
Since the City stopped using the building in 1997, the building has been very poorly kept up. Windows are missing, which has allowed rainwater and pigeons into the building for years.
The City has issued RFPs for the possible use of the building several times over the years, but nothing has come to fruition.
The City’s notion is to demolish the old building to make way for a surface parking lot for the police department to use.
One local developer, Marva Ellard, has ideas for the building, but has not yet had success in putting together the necessary parts to make her plans work. However, she still claims to want to purchase the building and rehabilitate it after the city’s poor stewardship has left it in disrepair.
At Tuesday’s meeting, local civic leader and real estate agent Allison Barta Bailey, spoke to the Council as both a local arts advocate and as a real estate agent focused on downtown Oklahoma City.
She explained an idea that has been successful in other municipalities wherein a not-for-profit real estate organization can own properties like the old jail, and use them to offer studio and office space for Arts nonprofits. She has been in talks with Ellard and with Ward 6 Councilwoman JoBeth Hamon about this idea and how it could be implemented in Oklahoma City.
Bailey went on to point out that the cost of demolition plus the cost of amelioration at the demolition site, would end up making the surface lot cost approximately $45,000 per spot, far outside of market rate, certainly for a city that has–according to the City itself–far more parking downtown than is needed.
Others at the meeting talked about the history of the building. It was built through the New Deal along with the Civic Center, City Hall, and the County Courthouse.
During the Civil Rights Movement, the jail was where leaders like Clara Luper and E. Melvin Porter were jailed for sit-ins and other demonstrations, including the Sanitation Workers Strike in 1969.
Some stirring stories were told to the Council.
However, Ward 8 Councilman Mark Stonecipher said that he was tired of waiting for something to happen with the building. He told his peers that he thought applying to demolish the building would turn up the heat on “these people” to do something.
Nikki Nice, Councilwoman of Ward 7 gave an emotional explanation of how important the history of our city is. “This is the last fabric of Clara Luper that we have left. Katz is gone. Brown’s is gone. We have this and the Freedom Center,” Nice said.
While Hamon had moved to deny the application, Nice offered the compromise of deferring the item until the end of the year so that some of these newer discussions about saving the building could continue, but with a timeline.
The deferral was passed by a vote of 5-4, Greiner (Ward1), McAtee (Ward 3), Greenwell (Ward 5), each joined Stonecipher in voting against the deferral.
The City Council will meet again on January 19, at 8:30 a.m.
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