Lake Hefner Reservation

Development of Lake Hefner Reservation

The lands that were reserved for Lake Hefner (originally the Bluff Creek Reservoir) almost seventy years ago included not only an area for the water supply lake itself but also a natural buffer zone around the lake for the protection of that water supply. The land around the lake at the time it was built was undeveloped open space, primarily used for agriculture and spotted with streams, ponds and woodlands. The almost five mile long dam was completed October 23, 1942, and the lake started filling in early 1944. On October 18, 1945, the name of the lake was changed to Lake Hefner to honor Judge Robert A. Hefner, who in 1939 as the newly elected mayor of Oklahoma City, had made the improvement of the Oklahoma City water system one of his primary goals.
The greatest displacement of natural areas is due to the construction of The Lake Hefner Parkway, which eliminated all natural shoreline, grasslands and wooded areas along the east shore. It is significant to note that the east shore appears dead. For the most part, human and wildlife activity has been displaced. Only the area south of the South Lake Road from The Lake Hefner Parkway to Meridian, north along the shoreline to the Marina, west between the shoreline and golf course, plus a small part of Prairie Dog Point and the area north of the rip rap on the east shore is left in a wild state.

After the development of the first golf course in 1951, the south shore, west of the golf course, the area east of the marina, and the east shore remained the most accessible and natural areas of the lake. These areas were heavily used for fishing, boating, walking, jogging, nature watching, kite flying, and bicycling.

The development of Stars and Stripes Park and Lake Hefner Trails in the late 1970s and early 1980s provided a more structured environment for some of these activities and are highly valued today. The history of the development of the south shore of Lake Hefner is the story of small desirable projects nibbling away at the “natural” areas of the lake.

In the early 1960s private developers launched the first concerted effort to pry away a piece of public property at the lake. By that time a tremendous amount of agricultural and uncleared land was being converted to residential and commercial use around the lake, and the Lake Hefner Reservation lands were considered a necessary buffer against urban encroachment on what was at that time our primary water supply reservoir.

Nonetheless, fifty eight acres, at Portland and Northwest Expressway were proposed for apartment buildings. A 50% split with the City of Oklahoma City was offered in return for that land to be developed. On May 18, 1962, the council voted 7-1 to sell the land to a group represented by O.A. Cargill, Sr. (later convicted in the State Supreme Court bribery scandal.) Responding to an invitation from the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, Curtis P. Harris, an expert land condemnation attorney, and the man who handled the land condemnation for Lake Hefner, explained to the council that a very disruptive legal precedent would be set if land, originally condemned for the protection of a city water supply, was then used for private development. On May 22, 1962, after hearing the legal arguments from Mr. Harris, the vote was reversed 8-0.

The land on the east and west boundaries of the Lake Hefner Reservation had, by this time, been developed into residential neighborhoods. While the city had grown to the north of the lake, development adjacent to the northern edge had not taken place. In fact, this land remains undeveloped to this day and the city has recently purchased much of the area for use as a city park. The land along part of the south edge of the reservation was partially developed for residential use. However, the Northwest Expressway was developing quickly as a commercial corridor, consisting primarily of shopping centers, restaurants, office buildings, medical clinics, and banking and financial services. This development was seen by some as a rival to the declining central business district of Oklahoma City.

In 1974, plans to build a highway along the east shore of the lake were revealed. The Public Hearing was held in October of 1975 concerning the building of The West Bypass. After years of controversy, during which the benefits of such a road were weighed against its negative impact on the lake, the United States Department of the Interior, for environmental reasons, denied permission to build the road. The West Bypass, however, was reborn in 1981 and renamed The Lake Hefner Parkway. Long and lively debates were heard in public hearings, in Planning Commission meetings and before the City Council. In 1985, the final Environmental Impact Statement was approved.

The result was a road which was to be depressed along the shore line. It was also to be provided with sound barriers, landscaping and was to be buffered by an area designated as a park for its entire length as it traversed the Lake Hefner Reservation’s eastern edge. Assurance to the citizens that there would be no commercial development on the east side of Lake Hefner passed as a planning commission resolution in 1986 and was later incorporated by the City Council in the Oklahoma City Master Plan.

In 1989, the pressure to “do something” with the lake
was renewed by the Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust who commissioned a planning group to provide a study for better utilizing the reservation lands. Explicit in their scope of work was the development of a commercial land use plan for the lake. That same year the initial Lake Hefner Recreation Master Plan was revealed as a “conceptual plan” for lake development and was reviewed by affected city boards and commissions. A public hearing was held and citizen opposition to the plan, as presented, was very strong. The final version of the Plan titled the Lake Hefner Recreation Master Plan and subtitled Creating A “Great Park”, was received by the Council in 1991. In 1992 the Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust commissioned a private consulting firm to prepare an East Shore Plan as an addendum to the Recreation Master Plan which essentially parroted 1991 plan.

In the final version of the 1991 Plan, development on the east shore at Brittain Road, called the East Wharf, allowed for 32,000 square feet of shops and restaurants on 5.5 acres that would “…support the recreational aspects of the lake…” Despite the restrictions inluded in the Plan, in 1996, Planned Unit Development 570 (PUD 570) was approved by the Council which increased the East Wharf to 35,000 square feet and 8.2 acres with offices added to the mix. Development started in 1998 and in 2001, PUD 570 was amended to increase the square footage to 43,750. In 2004, PUD 968 was approved increasing the area to 10.5 acres, nearly doubling the original area. This last action significantly extended the northern boundry of the development area and was met with considerable opposition by city citizens.

As concerns developed about the relative economic and recreational merits of East Wharf, the City Council, on April 13 2004, passed a resolution placing a moratorium on additional development while directing the Oklahoma City Planning Department to revise the 1991 Plan. The revised Plan was completed in mid 2007 and included input by many citizens who shared an interest in the recreational and environmental aspects of Lake Hefner as neighbors, users, and concerned community members.