Wednesday, December 9, 2009

NW 9th Street revitalization

Obviously we're all ecstatic that MAPS 3 passed. I feel like I've already said what would happen if we approve MAPS, and given a large scale vision for what could happen, and now it will happen. Instead today I want to focus on the revitalization of NW 9th Street, where Steve Mason has been quietly focusing on one building at a time, doing high quality work. Things like MAPS 3 are like throwing huge boulders into a stream, and they make huge ripples. Things like NW 9th, SoSA, and Plaza District and are like throwing pebbles into a stream, and they make smaller ripples, but with enough of them, the impact is just as great.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the transformation underway in SoSA, one of the many small areas of OKC that have been transformed. This post is about NW 9th and Steve Mason, who has been redeveloping properties on the north end of Automobile Alley for two years now. The original reason that Mason purchased the 1000 block of N. Broadway was for the offices of his company, Cardinal Engineering. He didn't think it would be difficult to find tenants to occupy the street level either. After he set about renovating the building and finding tenants, he came across his fair share of difficulties but persevered through the historic preservation and ended up with a great project. He found Bicycle Alley and Coffee Slingers, and I'm pretty sure he even loaned Coffee Slingers the money it needed to start up. He repainted the building a fresh coat of red paint.

After what a gutsy success the 1000 block was for Mason, you have to figure he was in the mood for some more adventure. So he crossed the other side of North Broadway and bought up several buildings along NW 9th, between Broadway and the tracks. The original plan was to renovate one building for a restaurant and tear down the rest so that the restaurant would have parking. So the restaurant, Iguana Mexican Grill (formerly on N. Western), opened up and has since been a huge hit -- known across the downtown community for its Tuesday drink specials.

Mason had a different idea with the rest of the block though. He thought he could save the boarded up old houses and put businesses in them, and just have parking along the street. After working to save one boarded up house that had sustained fire and flood damage, a desert shop, Sara Sara Cupcakes, has opened up in one of them.

Another building now houses a home decor store, BD Home. BD Home is owned by downtown dwellers Adam and Brittany Branscum, who live across I-235 in the OHC area. Adam Branscum was the contractor Mason hired for restoring the Sara Sara Cupcakes house, and ironically, Branscum initially urged Mason to just tear the building down (due to the extensive structural damage). Branscum still says that the building should have been torn down, but appreciates Mason's greater vision for the neighborhood. Now a portrait studio, Stella Photography, is opening above Sara Sara Cupcakes, and across from BD Home a new sushi restaurant is going in.

Eric Smith, the chef at the desert shop, is also working with Mason to open a new Asian fusion restaurant named Pachinko Sushi. Smith is one of many Okie expats (Chicago, in his case) who have moved back to OKC to get in on the urban scene that has cropped up, and despite deliberately moving back for the downtown scene, the last place Smith would have expected to wind up on is this particular stretch of NW 9th, between Broadway and the tracks.

Aside from Smith's new restaurants, several other projects are currently in the works. Mason is already in talks with another furniture store, restaurant, and a bar for other buildings on the block. For him, vision keeps rolling, as he says, "If we come back here one year from now it's going to look just as much different as it did a year and a half ago." While 9th Street is such a work in progress, with so much progress already visible, it's beginning to form another one of downtown's many smaller communities. It just goes to show that the overall city is moving forward, picking up steam, and all of that is manifested in people like Steve Mason being able to turn an abandoned, derelict block of gutted out buildings into a vibrant community with a half dozen new businesses in the span of a year. So yes it's exciting that MAPS 3 passed, and this is why -- for what it means to entrepreneurs who are taking risks on downtown neighborhoods everyday. When we went to the polls and answered the call, we were really just affirming what has already motivated these people to put so much effort into downtown; that is that anything is possible in OKC.

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