Downtown destination: First steps of county development underway

Photo provided

A preliminary rendering of Cleveland County's masterplan, which includes the construction of a healthy living block and multi-level parking garage.

Cleveland County Commissioners have a plan: they want to do their part to make downtown Norman a destination.

The first visible step toward that goal is the demolition of two county-owned buildings north of Comanche. The former First National Bank/Chase/Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office building at the corner of Comanche and Peters was the first to go, and crews are working to complete the demolition of the former America-First Abstract Company building.

The two lots will eventually house a multi-level parking garage with retail space on the first floor. They will sit empty for a few years as the county works on its healthy living block west of the railroad tracks. The block will feature the county's farmers market, as well as indoor and outdoor educational space. Cleveland County Commissioner Darry Stacy said early architectural designs are being reviewed, and the block should be finished near the end of next year.

“We’re going to have an active street edge in our parking garage, and everything we’re doing with the healthy living block and the plaza, we want to create a place where people want to come and enjoy themselves,” he said. “The healthy living block will be an incredible space for the farmers market, education classrooms, a co-op clinic of some type; we’ve reached out to several partners already about doing some kind of commercial or demonstration kitchen. The Pioneer Library System offers several health-related programs they can bring as well.”

The county will work with the City of Norman on the healthy living block, as the project will be impacted by the James Garner Avenue expansion. The parking garage is slated to be completed near the end of 2021, and Stacy said the county is getting ready to hire an architect for the project in the next few months. Renovation work on the courthouse itself won’t begin for three-to-five years.

Building a higher density parking structure will encourage more businesses to open downtown and allow for existing parking lots to be redeveloped, Stacy said.

“The most excitement I’m hearing is from people in the downtown area for the parking garage,” he said. “There are business owners down there who haven’t been able to bring businesses downtown due to parking issues.”

The county is focused on ensuring communities throughout Cleveland County feel welcome and represented in the redevelopment.

“It’s not just a Norman project,” Stacy said. “We’ve reached out to Moore, Noble and other cities to see how they might want to be involved. We’ve talked with Moore Public Schools to see how their FFA can be a part of [the healthy living block]; we want to stress this is for all county residents.”

Jonathan Leavey, who served on the Norman City Council from 2003-2005, has lived in Norman for almost three decades. He views the county’s initiative as part of a downtown revival that began decades ago.

“I think your downtown says a significant amount about your community overall. With this being the county seat, and the downtown activity, one thing we’ll always need is parking,” he said. “That’s why what’s happening on Comanche Street is a wonderful step forward.”

Some have bemoaned the buildings’ demolition, but Leavey, who worked at American-First Abstract Co. for owner Harold Cox, views it as progress.

“There’s a difference between historic and old,” he said. “I knew Harold well enough to know he would look at it as, ‘Yeah, there were a lot of great times, but this is really what Norman needs.’”

The county’s masterplan for the three-phase redevelopment won the Urban Land Institute of Oklahoma’s Impact Award for outstanding public initiative in February, and Stacy said it’s exciting to see the long-planned project begin to come to life.

Caleb Slinkard was hired as the editor of the Norman Transcript in August of 2015. He is a graduate of Texas A&M University-Commerce and previously was in charge of several newspapers in northeast Texas.