By Jeff Harrison
Midwest City residents packed the City Council Chambers last week to hear about the future of the Heritage Park Mall.
City leaders are seeking to revitalize the area using the process of urban renewal. Under the Oklahoma Urban Redevelopment Act, municipalities have tools to prevent the spread of blight in their communities by encouraging redevelopment and rehabilitation of properties that are blighted.
The city is in the process of approving an urban development plan that includes authorizations, relocation policies and procedures and implementation of the plan.
The approval process goes through the Midwest City Urban Renewal Authority, Planning Commission and City Council. The Council must hold two public hearings before adoption of the plan. The first of those public meetings took place March 28. A second meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. April 25 at City Hall.
Last week’s meeting was informational and did not require any action by the city council.
Emily Pomeroy, an attorney with the Center for Economic Development Law, has been partnering with the City of Midwest City on the urban renewal. She gave an overview of urban renewal, state statutes and where Midwest City is in the process.
Midwest City started the urban renewal process in August when the city council declared the mall property as blighted. City staff created the proposed Heritage Park Mall Area Urban Renewal Plan.
The Midwest City Urban Renewal Authority, which consists of residents who are appointed by the mayor and approved by the council, recommended approval of the plan in December. The planning commission also reviewed the plan.
Pomeroy said the city’s urban renewal plan must provide authorizations, relocation policies and procedures and how it will be implemented. The plan must also define the area, objectives and actions, and land uses.
The urban renewal area is located on the northwest corner of Reno Ave. and N. Air Depot Blvd., primarily consisting of the former Heritage Park Mall, Sears, Montgomery Ward, A to Z Outlet as well as the former Thunder Burger.
The mall, Montgomery Ward, A to Z Outlet and Thunder Burger are owned by Ahmad Bahreini and ABAB Inc. Midwest City’s Economic Development Authority purchased the Sears building in 2019. Life Church, Pelican’s Restaurant, and Becker’s Auto Service are not included in the blighted area nor the urban renewal efforts.
Midwest City’s objectives include removing blighted conditions, creating redevelopment sites, building on the investment that has been made in the area, addressing environmental issues that exist on this site and to support the city’s comprehensive plan.
To meet those objectives, the city seeks to acquire properties and make it available for redevelopment.
“The urban renewal plan specifically states that the property may be acquired by negotiations or through use of eminent domain,” she said.
Before acquiring any properties, the city must obtain fair market value appraisals and any offers must be based on that. The city cannot purchase properties for less than fair market value.
Any development will be subject to design review and consideration by the urban renewal authority.
Pomeroy said the urban renewal authority has relocation policies and procedures. She said the city should review the policies and make sure they are current.
The authorizations will allow the city and its public trusts to help fund the effort.
Pomeroy said that after the urban renewal plan is approved the city will evaluate the needs of the community and solicit proposals that can meet their objectives. She said the city does not have a specific plan at this time.
“It’s a really good time to see what the market is and what the city wants,” she said. “It would be beneficial to gage community desire for this site. It’s a large site so there is a ton of opportunity to see the property back on the tax rolls.”
Several members of the public spoke about the mall and the urban renewal plan.
Bahreini, the property owner, spoke against the city’s urban renewal efforts. He said he has several plans for the mall which have been stymied by the pandemic and run ins with city staff due to building and fire code violations. Bahreini argued the building is worth saving and pleaded for more time.
“If you give us a chance within the next couple of months you’re going to see a work in progress, however if you go the other way it’s going to take a long time to purchase it and break down the buildings,” he said.
A few other people also spoke in favor of keeping the mall. Some of Bahreini’s employees and business associates said the demise of the building has been overstated and believe they have viable business prospects for the former mall.
Other residents supported the city’s efforts. Frank Wade, a resident, said he has lived in the area near the mall for more than 50 years.
“I have seen it before when it was just dirt and trees. I went and played there when I was a child. That place has not been dilapidated for a few years – it’s been dilapidated for decades,” Wade said.
Wade said the property owner doesn’t take care of the building or the grounds. He said the mall property is littered with broken fences, overgrown trees, and weeds.
The city council will again revisit the urban renewal plan at the April 25 meeting.
Brian Black, a Midwest City resident, said he moved back to the neighborhood six years ago and has been frustrated by a lack of progress at the mall. He said he originally believed the city was being too heavy handed with
Bahreini, but changed his mind after seeing the lack of progress and photos of the inside of the mall.
“If someone is wanting to make a difference and make progress, but they’re having trouble in other areas, they can still mow the lawn,” Black said. “But the lawn doesn’t get mowed. And the fence doesn’t get fixed. To me that would go a long way for the neighbors.”
Black said he’s tired of hearing about business ventures that never pan out.
“We’ve heard that businesses were coming but they didn’t,” he said. “It’s just been one story after another. As a resident, I think it’s time that something changes.”
Bahreini deflected criticism about the landscaping and fences. He said he’s repaired the fence, but it is routinely vandalized by neighborhood kids.
“If you would take care of things and not have kids damage the fences and the mall maybe there is something we could do,” he said.
Bahreini said he’s invested about $10 million into the mall from 2010-2022. He said they have repaired the roof and replaced sheetrock inside the building.
“We did spend the money in there,” he said.