Retail center and offices planned in Oklahoma City


Jun. 6--Chesapeake Energy Corp. plans a retail shopping center along Classen Boulevard, to rebuild the Nichols Hills Shopping Center and slowly is releasing more details about its next projects, including more offices and housing.

Company officials say the plans will make the area around its home campus, east of Western Avenue and south of NW 63, a better place to live and work for its employees -- and for everyone who lives or works in that part of town.

But Oklahoma City Planning commissioners say they are tired of seeing the company's individual zoning applications and want to see a more complete picture.

Neighbors also are upset about ongoing construction and the disruptions it has caused.

"We've repeatedly asked for communication," commissioner Nick Gales said. "The Chesapeake people have flippantly said we're working on it, later, with a wink. I think that later is now. We need more information."

But it's unclear how much of that information really exists.

Dan LeDonne, Chesapeake's director of facilities and construction, said the company's rapid growth has left it unable to commit to the long-range plan being sought by its neighbors and planning commissioners.

"The plan changes every day," LeDonne said at a recent planning commission meeting. "We grow by 200 employees a year on our campus. We don't know what direction our campus may need to grow. We may need to grow east, we may need to grow west."

New details are beginning to emerge

Some new information is emerging because of recent zoning applications and a meeting company representatives had with merchants at the Nichols Hills Shopping Center.

With that project, company officials say the "greatest likelihood" is that the southwest part of the shopping center will be rebuilt, starting no sooner than about two years from now, but no firm plans exist. Residential development may be part of its mix -- at least on land to the west of the shopping center, which already is residential in use -- and the company may seek to close Avondale Drive as part of its plans.

But Henry Hood, Chesapeake's senior vice president of land and legal, said plans for the property remain conceptual, for now.

He said Chesapeake has negotiated five-year leases with tenants in the shopping center, but added the company negotiated two-year kick-out clauses within the lease for a handful of tenants in the center's southwest corner.

Hood said the company included the clauses to give itself the ability to clear the buildings if it decides to tear them down.

"Now, as to whether that will happen, we aren't sure," he said. "It may be at the end of two years, they will be allowed to stay on a month-to-month basis. Or, they might get a new lease, depending on the status of our development plans. The only thing that is certain is that it will not happen in less than two years."

In January, the company obtained permission from the planning commission to rezone property directly south of the shopping center, along a creek just west of the office campus between Western Avenue, Grand Boulevard and NW 63.

The planned unit development zoning allows Chesapeake to rebuild the creek with a "terraced look" with landscaping that would match the appearance of the creek as it flows through the company's campus. The plan also calls for an open space corridor that could be developed into offices and retail.

Planning commissioners also approved a separate request to rezone a stretch of land on Classen Boulevard's east side, between Grand Boulevard and NW 56.

The land is being developed as a shopping center called "Classen Curve."

Company officials say they anticipate the project, designed by architect Rand Elliott, who also has overseen the campus development, will include multiple single-story buildings. Dirt work is under way at the site now.

"We are talking to potential tenants for a project that we intend to be retail in nature, with mixed uses, having stores and restaurants," Hood said. "We don't have any firm tenants yet, but we are interested in exploring the possibilities for finding some. There are ongoing discussions."

Company officials also say they plan additional construction on high ground east of the company's main campus.

Residential and office properties are possibilities for that land.

Officials refused to confirm rumors they are considering building a hotel as part of the company's expansion.

Why voting was delayed

Planning commissioners' frustration with Chesapeake bubbled up at an April 24 meeting, when they delayed a request by the company to close a street east of its campus to make room for a child care center for its employees.

Then, they unanimously agreed Chesapeake must be more forthcoming about its master plan.

"Some comprehensive plan needs to be put in place by the developer that permits those who choose to remain to live there to not have streets torn up, their homes and gardens covered with dust, and have noise keep them awake at night," Planning Commissioner Janis Powers said.

"It's time for us to see the bigger picture here. It's time for Chesapeake to work out a way to peacefully co-exist with the people who will continue to be a part of their world."

But Hood's response is that the company is being as forthcoming as it can.

"We have long-term plans, conceptually speaking," Hood said. "We want to modernize Nichols Hills Plaza.

"It hasn't changed in 40 years, and we see it as a potential Class A venue where we can create a wonderful shopping environment for our employees, for Nichols Hills residents and for others in the surrounding community.

"We want to develop the Classen Curve area into retail for the same reasons. We also want to develop land east of our campus, east of Classen, into a residential, retail and office development," he said.

"But a lot of it is up in the air. It depends upon property acquisitions, and what the cities will allow. We want the environs around our campus to be a place where Chesapeake employees and other city residents can enjoy being at. Beyond that, we just can't get too specific."