Residents of the targeted 20-block area had fought the rezoning application until the city’s turnabout late last week. Still, many residents in the predominantly African-American neighborhood believe the city will try again.

J.J. Chambless, head of the city’s development services department, told Oklahoma Gazette that the rezoning application officially will be withdrawn when the Oklahoma City Planning Commission meets Thursday.

The decision to pull the request, if only temporarily, was a collaborative one, according to City Councilman Ronald “Skip” Kelly, whose Ward 7 encompasses the neighborhood. He said the application was withdrawn because it could not be amended to satisfy all the parties.

The city had made the rezoning request because the OU Health Sciences Center did not own all of the targeted land.

Kelly, who sits on the board of directors of the Oklahoma Health Center Foundation and is a nonvoting member, defended the city’s actions throughout the process.

“I don’t normally make an issue of what I have done, but this is perplexing to me, calls suggesting the city has been underhanded in this instance,” he said at the Feb. 5 Oklahoma City Council meeting. “I think we’ve been over-fair.” Kelly cited several meetings that were held with residents of the neighborhood bordered by N.E. Fourth and N.E. Eighth streets.

‘Play fair’
But some dispute Kelly’s claim.

The JFK neighborhood
Credit: Mark Hancock

"I don’t think the city’s been fair at all,” said John Peoples, pastor of the Faith Memorial Baptist Church. “I know the city can do better.”

He said he thinks the OU Health Sciences Center has the funds to buy out the residents. “Don’t tell me they don’t have the money,” Peoples said. “That’s a damn lie.”

Dianne McDaniel concurs. She lives in one of the neighborhood’s small brick homes. “They should play fair,” she said. “They just don’t want to give us the money.”

Nor does McDaniel believe the withdrawal of the rezoning application is the end of the matter. “They’re not through with us yet,” she said. McDaniel vows to proceed with a rally scheduled for noon Thursday in downtown’s Bicentennial Park, just before the planning commission meeting.

Peoples predicted the city will soon come back with another rezoning plan to accommodate the Health Sciences Center. “I know the city has no regard for us,” he said, “but if you don’t fight it, they’ll run over you.”

Rev. Jesse Jackson
Credit: Mark Hancock

When told that Kelly was involved in the decision to withdraw, another critic of the rezoning, the Rev. Jesse Jackson Jr., pastor of East Sixth Street Christian Church, expressed surprise: “Oh, really? It is election time, isn’t it?”

The pastor of the 94-year-old church said residents have unfairly been targeted by the city and the Health Sciences Center.

“We’ve not had a great deal of honesty here,” Jackson said. “They’ve tried to hide their hand here, sort of like Pontius Pilate.”

What’s next?
But no one with the city has indicated what a new approach might entail and whether it means another rezoning application will be proposed.

No new residential development would be allowed under the rezoning originally sought by the city. Current residents, however, would be allowed to do what they wanted with their homes. And despite fears of residents that the Health Sciences Center would use the power of eminent domain to make sweeping purchases, city leaders said that was never intended to be the case.

Residents have long known that they could be in the sights of developers, the Health Sciences Center, the Urban Renewal Authority and the city. In September 2008, city council approved a 20- to 25-year master plan in which the JFK neighborhood would be renamed Center City East.

The people who make their homes in the neighborhood say they have an emotional attachment to the area.
Peoples recalled when, as a young boy, he could not attend a movie theater downtown or sit at the counter of the Katz Drug Store.

“I’m not trying to block progress,” he said, “but this is a historic area.”

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