Grant Willoughby remembers the day he left his music career in LA and drove home. He got in his car at 4 am to beat the notorious Los Angeles traffic. His grandparents and other family members occupied his thoughts and his feeling was simple: “My time here is done. I want to go home.”
As he pulled out of town, headed east, Willoughby looked over a lovely LA skyline and “it felt like a breath of fresh air. I thought, ‘I’m ready to write the next chapter.’ It was a good drive home."
As he listened to this story, John Ridley nodded his head from across the Willoughby | Ridley office building, perched on one of the last empty lots in Midtown. Between these two old friends hangs a framed drawing of an In-N-Out Burger, a memento of the Los Angeles commonality they share. Grant and John met in middle school in Deer Creek, and soon found kindred interests. As adults, they manifested similar dedication to the creative grind.
Grant went on to Arizona State to study real-estate development, the family business, and left school to tour with his band. Stints in Nashville and LA led to DJing and producing music. Ridley descends from a long line of Oklahoma cattle brokers, and his great-granddad was a founder of the Stockyards in the early 1900s. Ridley shared their adventuresome spirit, heading out to LA immediately after completing his film degree at OU.
Ridley attained a place high on the Warner Bros. executive ladder, and then within production companies for Leonardo DiCaprio and Casey Affleck. Most mornings, as he left his Brentwood home, Ridley chatted with family while he negotiated a brutal commute. When the time came to renew his contract, Ridley thought about his overworked, under-fulfilled colleagues. He decided he valued his personal life too much to stay.
"You just don't have time to do anything that genuinely matters to you," Ridley said. "You’re just working 80 hours a week.... Driving around LA, I felt like a stranger in my own town. I never had that sense of home. I couldn’t be around the people I like and the places I know. So I decided, 'I'm going to pull the rip cord and go back to Oklahoma.'"
Grant and John again share similar interests in this chapter of life. Both love the design and construction process of home building, likening it to creating a movie or album.
The Elliott name commemorates Grant’s grandparents, who recently passed. It’s a bittersweet affirmation of his decision to return home: “There’s a plan for everyone," said Grant, "and you don’t realize it.”
Sometimes the evolution of a city looks like a patch of grass very much in need of a higher purpose. Rather each bit of ground becomes a park, low-income housing, or a chic skyscraper will, when taken cumulatively, define the future Oklahoma City.
As residential developer Grant Willoughby reminds, “developers are dreamers.” To dream is an audacious act, one energized by a yearning for change and fear of vulnerability.
Such dual flames are setting off sparks in every OKC district right now, as residential developers compel us to reimagine how we could live Downtown. From Midtown’s Villa Teresa condo and boutique hotel development across from The Elliott to the Wheeler District’s New Urbanist vision across the river, Oklahoma City is undergoing a fascinating residential rethinking.
This spring, Territory undertakes a new editorial series called Swinging for the Fences. We’ll be looking at new models for living in the city core. Our inspiration: famed urbanist Jane Jacobs, who boldly stated in her iconic "Disturbers of the Peace" interview for Mademoiselle: “Suburbs are perfectly valid places to want to live but they are inherently parasitic, economically and socially, too, because they live off the answers found in cities.”
Answers: perhaps the most tantalizing notion of all, no? Those are in short supply at the moment—it’s simply too early to declare them. But there are some seriously cool questions being asked by Oklahoma City’s residential developers right now.
"This is a city growing. It is a city becoming a city, and we need people that are willing to make those early first steps." –Rand Elliott
It was approximately four years ago when Grant and John each felt a strong and soulful pull homeward. In this big small town of ours, the old friends quickly ran into one another again. Grant was starting a new career flipping houses, and John came to one of his open houses. That reunion soon led to Willoughby | Ridley Development, a custom home-building company best known for sleek, luxury residential in Nichols Hills.
"We were set in our nice little Nichols Hills pocket," says John.
That changes now. With the creation of The Elliott, Willoughby | Ridley have set in motion a future-facing vision for what Downtown residential can be in our city. Located at 1305 N. Classen Dr., near the corner of NW 13th, this concept seems intent upon drawing energy from Midtown's sparkly restaurants and bespoke indie retail. The luxury mid-rise also takes many cues from its creators' days in LA: a glittering glass elevation, concierge amenities, and a discreet pedestrian face that would fit well in an exclusive neighborhood in most any American city.
"A year ago we wouldn’t have tried this; everything felt so divided between city districts," explained John. "Midtown felt like an experiment, almost, until we realized, ‘No it’s here and it’s incredible. This is where we want to be, and this is the time and place."
In the Willoughby | Ridley office, near the drawing of LA's favorite burger, another clue can be found about the creation story of The Elliott. A red light beam shoots up the wall of the white container office, perched on the edge of one of the last, best empty lots in Midtown.
Any student of OKC architecture will recognize this signature light gesture of Rand Elliott Architects, the architect for The Elliott. In case you've been living under a cone of blindness for the last 15 years, architect Rand Elliott and team are best known for projects such as Classen Curve, the Chesapeake Boathouse, and the new Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center under construction on the northern end of Automobile Alley. Called Folding Light, the structure combines more than 55,000-square-feet of space with an exterior that's essentially a sculptural art piece designed to converse with the Oklahoma sky.
The Elliott pins a transitional place between Heritage Hills and Midtown's commercial district. Nearby neighborhoods previously have resisted a taller build on this lot. But as architect Rand Elliott reminds, land prices rise--thus higher-density projects are not only inevitable in Oklahoma City, but positive.
The Elliott is "increasing the encouragement to do vertical," says the architect. "This is the beginning of that shift. This is a city growing. It is a city becoming a city, and we need people that are willing to make those early first steps. That’s what we have with Grant and John.”
Michelle McBeath, manager of the Oklahoma chapter of the internationally esteemed Urban Land Institute, affirms the wisdom in this growing trend: “Cities like OKC are magnets for talent and hubs of new ideas and innovation. Reports suggest that ‘good density’—dense, well-connected development that is thoughtfully designed to promote a high quality of life—may be more sustainable and prosperous in the long term. It’s therefore more likely to provide more resilient risk-adjusted returns for investors.”
If we doubt the new identity of Downtown dwellers, consider The Elliott’s first tire-kicker: a doctor who zipped over from Heritage Hills atop a Lime scooter. An empty nester, the doc and his wife sought stylish luxury living even closer to downtown, but without big-house upkeep.
In the next installment: the story of one very thoughtful design.
The Elliott anticipates 34 units starting at $460,000 and a move-in of late 2020. Renderings by Rand Elliott Architects.