Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Bricktown says "stay tuned"

See headline.. "Bricktown says 'stay tuned.'" Question: When isn't Bricktown saying, "stay tuned"? The answer is never. There has always been a collective murmur coming from the general direction of Bricktown telling us that all of Bricktown's woes and inadequacies will soon be solved by the next influx of development.

So why haven't all of Bricktown's woes been solved by now? The answer is that a lot of the development proposed fails to come to fruition, a lot of new businesses are owned by entrepreneurs who aren't prepared for Bricktown, and there may be larger overriding concerns that supersede quick fixes. It always seems like these very impressive developments are constantly cropping up from developers with strong, solid track records, so it's a real head scratcher how so few of these developments have gotten off on the right foot. It's almost as if Bricktown is the place where strong track records go to die.

For those who haven't figured out yet, this is going to be a somewhat bitter post. Why? Because over a year after the fact, I'm still really disappointed that the Cotton Exchange never happened. To me there is no reason this project shouldn't have gone through, but it couldn't get financing..banks wanted nearly every unit preleased before it could begin (unrealistic in downtown development). Developer Gary Cotton had sold off other Bricktown assets to have more capital to put into this project, and also hired the sales manager from The Centennial development, hoping to get a few names off of The Centennial's wait list (that project filled up with dozens of people missing out on units). Had this project gone through, it would have given the canal some new energy. It would have anchored the canal with residential as well as some viable retail, and closed in some of the undefined space in the area of Mickey Mantle and Reno (where buildings do a poor job of defining the public realm). If this project had gone through it very well could have solved some of Bricktown's woes.

Another project would have helped do wonders for adding density in Lower Bricktown. Stonegate Hogan's proposed Centerpoint Market, or "Building 8," was a go two years ago and then never broke ground. Rendering signs went up on the site, and they may even still be there, but one thing seems certain -- this project is going nowhere. Bummer, because it would have added a significant amount of retail along the canal (35,000 sf). I also wonder why this project never got off the ground, with Stonegate Hogan (the primary developers of Lower Bricktown) behind it. Are they also having trouble getting projects off in this economy? Retail projects (as opposed to CONDO projects)? Weird..

A new hotel around Main and Oklahoma would have been nice too.. especially if it had around 100 rooms, promised to preserve the facade of the existing historic structure, and would have adhered to good urban design. Such a hotel would have been the Holiday Inn Express proposed for Bricktown, that I also happened to mention in the last post..

Then there was the Bricktown Village, proposed by local rich dude, Bob Funk (also owner of the RedHawks and several local businesses). Bricktown Village would have had..are you ready..a massive $250 million mixed-use development with 400 residential units, 100,000 sf of prime retail, a 150-room upscale hotel, a 1,900 space garage, and more.. basically a Lower Bricktown that actually follows principles of urbanism. Imagine that? Then out of all of the incredibly exciting and disappointing ways this project could have died, it had to be the City putting the kibosh on it. Why? Mayor Mick did not want to sell the land backing up to the Bricktown Ballpark to Bob Funk, many estimate it's all about bitter tensions between Bob Funk and the business establishment of the city. So they snuffed him, and Bricktown missed out on this, or at least another exciting "crash and burn" case of a project that couldn't get financing..

Another interesting project, a renovation of a small historic building along Main Street..adding some interesting architectural features. I like it. It features a metal roof, but I don't think it's done to be cheap, I actually kind of like the contrast it poses between new and old and how it's used attractively. Dunno what happened with this one either to put it so behind schedule, I just know it's only just now..possibly starting.

There are more dashed plans from the last round of development, but those are the most prominent ones. Now, that's not to say that the last round of development didn't bring a lot to Bricktown: Candy Factory office renovation, Banjo Museum, a McDonald's that's actually urban, ACM School of Rock, renovation at 222 East Main, Hampton Inn, Stanley Systems renovation on Main, and new businesses here and there, along with some that we lost. And I won't go into failed Bricktown proposals before the most recent wave of development, including the heartbreaking failure of The Factory and going way back to Neil Horton's original vision for Lower Bricktown, but I digress. What did end up coming to fruition from the last round of proposals isn't bad at all, especially the Hampton Inn. One thing that's important to note however: the canal has lost a lot of steam. There are now more vacant spaces along the canal, businesses there doing less business, less people in general on the canal. Bricktown is growing, but the canal is losing some of its luster at this point.

On OKC Talk I brought up the age-old suggestion that Bricktown should consider a public parking solution, and I was met with the typical swarm of posters telling me that there is no parking problem in Bricktown or anywhere downtown. The problem with that is that I agree with that line of thinking, however most of OKC doesn't, and believe me, you don't have to sell the idea of shopping and dining downtown to me. It's the rest that you have to pitch the idea to, and they believe that there is a parking problem in Bricktown, so for all intents and purposes, there IS a parking problem in Bricktown. And I don't blame them -- when it's $5 to park in the old part of Bricktown (never pay, just park at Lower Bricktown and walk 2 blocks, you'll live) and $10-15 if there is an event going on at the Ford, Cox, or Bricktown Ballpark. The fact that a lot of people are still operating profitable surface parking lot enterprises gives off the impression that parking is tight.

Here's two downtowns with free public parking: Wichita's Old Town and Sundance Square in Ft Worth. Bricktown has a total of 5 retail tenants (count em: Red Dirt, The Store, Painted Door, Firefly, and candy shop). Wichita's Old Town is a similar area with 28 retail tenants, total. Is it not insulting that Wichita has so much more shopping in their historic districts--they're half our size, not as economically robust, and much lamer in every way. Sundance Square kicks our butt too with 17 retail tenants, including Barnes & Noble, as well as a more urban AMC Theatres and dozens and dozens of restaurants, including a P.F. Chang's on Throckmorton Street. What is different here? They have free public parking. Wichita's is free all day, Ft Worth's is free after 5 (the solution I would recommend). Who knows, maybe they didn't even have a parking problem before, they just wanted to make the parking problem even more convenient for FW residents that are supposed to be enjoying Sundance Square.

But Bricktown doesn't say it needs public parking. Instead, Bricktown says the next round of development will solve its problems. One Bricktown retailer who posts at OKC Talk as Urbanized, had this to say about the development in Bricktown:
I don't think many of the people on here grousing about empty space have paid much attention to all of the places recently renovated in Bricktown, projects currently underway, and of course can't know about several of the game-changing deals working down here.

The comment came as a response to my suggestions to cure some of Bricktown's ailments, so essentially it's the same answer we've gotten all along: more development is what will eventually solve Bricktown's woes. Steve Lackmeyer later corroborated Urbanized's suggestion, and I would never once doubt in the first place that at any given time there are some very exciting things being talked about for Bricktown. I'm just very skeptical about how much of this will actually end up sticking. I think in order to get a good idea on what might be to come, I can offer some educated guesses, of course sheer speculation, but nonetheless I think I have a pretty good gut feeling about some projects myself, too. Jim Cowan made a post over on Steve's blog also alluding to future developments.
I think many of you will be excited to see some developments along the Canal in the first 6 months of 2010.
Restaurants, Retail, and a couple of other surprises are coming….and long overdue!

Despite being just as vague, he sort of corroborates the same thing Urbanized said. We anticipate more retail and restaurants trickling in as smaller projects, but as Urbanized put it there will be some game-changing proposals that come out soon, or as Cowan called them, surprises that are long overdue.

Well we know of some of the retail planned. We know that Sammy's Pizza is coming back to Bricktown, being resurrected by descendants of the original owner. It will be in the Hunzicker Building right along the Canal, on the Canal-level. There will be more retail and restaurants coming, too. Brent and Brett Brewer have been renovating the Hunzicker Building on spec, which is different from how renovations are typically done in Bricktown where owners like to line up a prospective tenant before ever beginning work (build-to-suit). Spec construction is also what's known as taking the bull by the horns and making something happen, something that other Bricktown property owners should be inspired by. Yeah right, nevermind it's just the Brewers..I'm sure we'll wake up one day and be scratching our heads at how they usurped design guidelines yet again..

We also know that the Bricktown fire station is finally going to be built, just 10 years after the bond election that paid for it. The arch firm selected to do the design kept submitting woefully inadequate preliminary work, and in my opinion, the design that they're going with is still a disgrace, but you almost just want to pass it just to move on from it and get it through after 10 years of this firm submitting crappy work on the project. I just don't think LWPB has much experience in designing new construction that fits in with a historic district, but I could be wrong, and it could just be a bad rendering. But the rendering we have shows a building with an inappropriate setback, a plain facade, and no evidence of $3 million being put into it. Maybe we need a slogan, "Don't Edmond my Downtown" (a spin off of Norman's unofficial slogan)? Here Steve gives an account of the design process for the project that provides insight into how this project was just so poorly designed to the point that Bricktown Urban Design just got tired of dealing with it and passed it through.

A much more interesting proposal that will likely surface in more detail soon is the "Bricktown Gateway" project that will involve the entire block between Reno and the canal, Oklahoma Ave and the BNSF tracks. The historic buildings along the south side of the Upper Canal (Zio's) are all going to be renovated, with a handful of new retail/restaurant spots, as well as 8 lofts on the upper level and office space for Harding & Shelton (a small oil and gas company). The plans also call for renovating the old Rock Island Building at the corner of Reno and Oklahoma--lofts and retail, to my knowledge.

Where things get more interesting is with Phase 2 of the Bricktown Gateway project. The gray structures only illustrate massing studies on the maximum size of development that the site can take and how it may interact with the space, but I would definitely say some pretty major infill development is proposed.

Oh, and looks like another Bricktown owner finally found a replacement tenant for Uncommon Grounds. That site sat unprofitably for 2 years after Gary Berlin raised the lease of the popular former Bricktown coffee shop (hope everyone likes Starbucks) too high for them to afford. The new business that can afford the $1300/mo rent, CoCo Flow, is a chocolate confectionary shop relocating from N. Western Avenue.

Another possible sleeping giant of a proposal is The Steel Yard, which Bob Meinders has been behind..albeit moving very, very slowly on (for years). Demolition is moving forward on the buildings on the east end of Bricktown, which means development could begin sometime early next year. Will we hear an announcement on that soon? Possibly. This could be a very exciting development, especially if there were to be a residential component added into the mix.

The rest, if anything, is pure speculation..

I can tell you that Randy Hogan has long-term plans to build out the west end of Lower Bricktown, between The Centennial and the BNSF tracks. The back portion of which site includes the U-Haul building, which is basically an ugly metal facade covering up a historic brick warehouse. The warehouse could be restored and renovated as lofts, with more development in front. To my knowledge, the site may or may not include a canal extension in the future..

Of course before Hogan develops anything, he might consider the project he still hasn't finished--Building 8, or Centerpoint Market. Could this building be back on in the near future? I doubt it.. I doubt Hogan moving forward because they seem more interested in Jenks right now, which they're also unable to move forward on at the moment.

It would of course also be nice to see some of these hotel proposals come back. If people in the know are hinting at big things to come, perhaps this is one of them. There was the Holiday Inn Express, a possible boutique hotel on the upper floors of the Mercantile Building, and the Candlewood Suites proposed against I-235.

Who knows what the future holds for Bricktown. I think that at some point you're going to start seeing spin off from bigger projects. Obviously we haven't seen it yet. But at some point soon I think that we'll start seeing the effect of MAPS 3 passing. MAPS 3 is, in a way, the entire city backing up the private revitalization of OKC, so it's passage has to add to downtown's appeal as well as add confidence in the future of downtown. I think that at some point you're also going to see Devon Tower adding intrinsic speculative appeal to downtown in general, especially including Bricktown. But only time will tell the tale.

I think this is just one of those open-ended things for now. What do you readers want to see in Bricktown? Whole Foods? Urban Outfitters? etc etc.. so basically more retail, probably. The old adage is that retail follows rooftops, so if downtown can amass more residential, that will easily help attract more retail to downtown. Retail is also easier development to get financing for than residential, esp for-sale residential.

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