Sunday, March 28, 2010

Doing a world of good in the inner city

A lot of times, I seem like a pretty critical guy--especially when it comes to the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority, the Downtown Design Review Committee, the Central Oklahoma Transit & Parking Authority, the Mayor's office especially, and virtually everyone that's not the Chamber of Commerce. But here's the reality guys: OCURA, DDR, and COTPA are all doing an alright job. They deserve to be questioned, and hopefully all the constructive criticism I endlessly lavish on them can help them raise the bar. Here's some examples of each agency doing a world of good in the inner city.

Starting with OCURA. OCURA has kind of become the whipping boy for crappy development on this blog, and the scapegoat that I like to blame everything on. That's not fair to them, and to paint an accurate reflection of the complete picture, I want to write about something REALLY, REALLY GOOD that OCURA has done, and that is where they have made a world of good in the inner NE side of OKC with the redevelopment of the JFK area. I sort of assume that this is one of the reasons why the new Douglass High School has been infinitely more successful than the new John Marshall High School gang-central, and the brand new U.S. Grant High School which is so gang-infested that OCPS decided last week to just close down. Douglass has shown how a high school and a neighborhood redevelopment project can go hand in hand and raise an entire community to a new level.

The JFK redevelopment project is a huge city area bounded by M.L.K. Ave. to Stonewall Ave, and NE Fourth St to NE Eighth St. Since 2003 the neighborhood, in the heart of a blighted ghetto area with some of the city's highest crime rates, has seen more than 100 new homes built since 2003. 20 years ago the entire area was leveled, and now OCURA is hoping to gain some neighborhood retail that people can walk to along the east end of the neighborhood. OCURA started out in the right direction by marketing the land to spec builders and giving them the land practically for free, but things really took off when they did the unconventional, and let single home buyers (rather than developers) purchase plots and build their own dream homes on the site--including that of Oklahoma Highway Patrolman Wayne Linzy, who has become a community pillar along with his big, oversized 3-car garage house. Word of mouth in the community among friends, family, and church members has turned the redevelopment project in Oklahoma City's African American community into OCURA's best mixed-use redevelopment project. Right now OCURA has agreements with builders to develop 39 more new homes in the next year. The new homes in JFK range in price from $100,000 to over $300,000, and the lower-end houses offer more value than homes in Moore or Edmond due to tax credits the builders have utilized.

In the heart of Oklahoma City's African American community, OCURA has done a world of good in the inner city that everyone in OKC can be proud of. By stepping in and facilitating the development of a true community centered around community churches, the new Douglass High School, new retail to come, and respectable friends and family who would have otherwise contributed to the inner city exodus, OCURA has helped lay a foundation for social change in the inner city. By turning the tide of failure and neglect into momentum of success and change, OCURA is truly helping strengthen an important community in OKC.

Another much maligned agency that's been doing very well lately is COTPA. And what a difference a year makes in the case of COTPA, although they've got their work cut out for them in terms of restoring their reputation. A year ago the criticism was that COTPA has ran its parking garages into the ground (to the point that they're eyesores), ran out any retail tenants, running the worst bus system in the nation, embarking on these laughable "transit" projects like the Spirit Trolleys and the Oklahoma River Cruises, and so on. COTPA was by all means an embarrassment. NOW though COTPA has gotten serious about fixing some of its down falls. There's been a lot of discussion about reforming the bus service and switching to a grid system, where routes just follow the street grid instead of complicated turns here and there. COTPA, from what I hear, is also about to renovate the Santa Fe Parking Garage, which is a start. They hope to give it a less offensive facade, and move in the Red Earth Museum to its ground floor space.

Most importantly with the new COTPA is getting serious about streetcar, since it looks as though whether or not COTPA gets it together, they will be overseeing the streetcar part of the project. But the good news is that COTPA is now taking a proactive role in the formation of the project, years after the Fixed Guideway Study was released. Unfortunately the FGS is still going to be guiding a lot of the discussion in the beginning, but it's a start nonetheless. What I'm talking about is the Let's Talk About Transit public forums. These will be a series of public forums, much like the Core 2 Shore meetings, that will shape the streetcar project. The focus will be on alternatives analysis, route selection, and educating the public..although I feel like the public is already pretty familiar with streetcar given that the item carried the MAPS 3 ballot for the most part.

The Let's Talk Transit movement is well underway, with the launching recently of the new website here. On the website you can give your input on the pending streetcar system. The 7 public meetings will take place over the course of March, April, and May. I'm also excited about these forums personally, as COTPA's PR firm contacted me about covering the meetings as an independent guest blogger. I'm excited to be able to help out however I can in contributing to a turnaround in COTPA's handling of transit. Here is the meeting schedule:

March 29, Noon -- Council Chambers
March 29, 6-8 pm -- Council Chambers
*April 13, 6-8 pm -- Hall of Mirrors
April 29, 6-8 pm -- Hall of Mirrors
May 11, 6-8 pm -- Hall of Mirrors
*May 27, Noon -- Council Chambers
*May 27, 6-8 pm -- Council Chambers

The star denotes meetings I will be covering. But I would encourage readers to make as many of these as they can and to speak up and make your ideas and concerns about transit heard. If you have a route suggestion, any opinion on streetcar, etc--it's all fair game, and that's the point of these forums. You can read about the other guest bloggers here, and also there will be an online message board soon where you can join and post freely about OKC transit. Your ideas will be heard and taken into account.

Another downtown agency that's doing a good job, although they haven't necessarily been doing a bad job in the past, is DDR--the Downtown Design Review Committee. DDR is the committee that oversees building permit applications in the city core and analyzes the design merits of each application. It's board consists of volunteers who have a high level of expertise in Downtown, including architects such as Anthony McDermid, and developers such as Chuck Ainsworth. A lot of times it seems as though crappy property owners and their works slips through the cracks in the system, but sometimes Brewer projects in the past were just given permits without even being processed. And even Brewer projects have gotten remarkably better.

DDR is also the group that recently evaluated the contentious SandRidge proposal. They evaluated the arguments from both sides and tried to make sense of it all..they decided that the SandRidge people saying the India Temple can't be saved were pretty persuasive and the urbanists saying that the KerMac Bldg can be saved were also pretty persuasive. The solution, they decided, was to defer the decision on SandRidge Commons and take a field trip to the SandRidge site and evaluate the buildings for themselves. I am also glad that I had a chance to help the urbanist camp, as a letter I emailed to Scottye Montgomery that morning was read at the meeting earlier this month.

DDR decided to defer the SandRidge decision to a special meeting April 8, 2010 at 8.30 in the Council Chambers. Props to DDR, whatever they decide to do on the matter, for doing due diligence and getting to the bottom of the issue: whether the buildings can be preserved or not. DDR has a strong track record of reinforcing historical integrity issues and their members are highly responsive to citizen letters. DDR, just like OCURA in JFK and COTPA in turning itself around in general, is a city agency that is truly doing the work of the people.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Downtown development: OKC v. Tulsa

It's really funny, how we talk about these incredibly exciting times for Downtown OKC..and they are incredibly exciting times in Downtown OKC. The level of public investment underway in Downtown OKC is unprecedented in our history, and quite possibly in any other city aside from NYC/LA/Chicago/etc. Indeed at once we are building our landmark green space, a new convention center, one of the nation's largest streetcar systems, rebuilding every one of our public schools, investing in Oklahoma River recreational facilities, moving a highway away from downtown, redoing our NBA arena, rebuilding every downtown street, renovating the Myriad Gardens into a second landmark green space, adding one of the nation's best law schools to downtown, and more. At a break neck speed we have raised the bar for how a city does public investment in its downtown.

So what private development is currently underway in Downtown OKC? Pause. Answer: Not a whole lot, actually. There's Devon Tower, of course.. you can't overlook that. There's SandRidge Commons, which has definitely been blown into proportions much larger than the actual scale of the development thanks to the controversy its stirred. There's NW 9th smallscale renovations that were just finished. MidTown Renaissance is moving along at a crawl on their historic restorations. And that is it. There is virtually no residential currently underway in Downtown OKC, so in effect probably around 30..down from 3,000 units underway or proposed just two years ago. We just finished a huge, huge wave that included a lot of that 3,000 (the initial wave of residential/mixed-use infill) that included the Brownstones at Maywood, Lofts at Maywood, Central Ave Villas, Block 42, Legacy at Arts Central, The Centennial on the Canal, Park Harvey, Seiber Hotel renovations, and more..too bad The Hill was the disaster we all foresaw it being. We also saw 4-5 hotel projects (Residence Inn, Hampton Inn, Colcord, Skirvin, et all). We doubled our hotel count, in fact.

So you can't say there hasn't been development in Downtown OKC and that it hasn't been booming, but when you remove our two major corporate projects.. there's nothing going on right now aside from the painfully slow restorations in MidTown..projects that began before the Maywood stuff even broke ground, and projects that still aren't even close to being finished yet. That's the reality of historic preservation, not that the extra work involved isn't by far worth the trouble.

And I can also give you a long rundown list of all of the projects that should be underway right now but aren't for whatever reason, such as The Carnegie, Bricktown Holiday Inn, Overholser Green (lol), and more..but what's the point in doing that? At this point it's just semantics and it's irrelevant, just going to get me upset anyway.

There is also a fair amount of public investment occurring in Downtown Tulsa, although existing only as a fraction comparatively to OKC. Probably comparable (maybe) to MAPS 1, but definitely pales in comparison to the overall picture here.

First you've got the BOK Center, currently ranking as the #12 highest-grossing entertainment venue in the world. The Cesar Pelli-designed Tulsa landmark cost $196 million and 3 years to build, and seats just under 18,000 for most sports. I think the design is a huge homerun for Tulsa, because it gives them something to be known for that's not Art Deco or 50s modern, and it incorporates a lot that's "uniquely Tulsan" on the interior, such as an Art Deco terrazzo floor in the lobby, and possibly the best skyline vantage point looking through the sweeping glass wall that defines the entire edifice. Interesting fact..Cesar Pelli went to great pains to find a way to suspend the glass wall column-free so as to not block any of the skyline view from the lobby. "This is Tulsa," Pelli said of his building.

And then next-most mentionable after the BOK Center, the new ballpark: ONEOK Field. It's kind of difficult to identify just what downtown neighborhood the new ballpark is in. They're calling it the Brady Arts District in promotional material, but I always thought of the Brady Arts District being more over by the Brady Theater and Cain's Ballroom. I would call it Greenwood, but for some reason I don't think people are saying "the new ballpark in Greenwood" because more people know about the Brady Arts District..or people are more comfortable talking about Brady than they are Greenwood, but either way, it's funny how those things pan out. And then there's the Blue Dome District which is also just a block away, in fact I would say calling the ballpark borderline between Blue Dome and Greenwood is accurate, but for promotional reasons, it's in Brady. Fair enough.

I won't go into the controversy surrounding it because I did that in the last post, and this is a positive post. (See smiley face: :]) The overall ballpark cost the taxpayers, or whoever is actually paying for it, $39.2 million, and it has seating for 6,200 to watch the Tulsa Drillers, Bedlam Baseball, and probably some college tournaments. Once you add in the cost of land acquisition planned or underway to raffle off to developers willing to take part in "complimentary infill development" the total project cost is $60 million. Compare to $34 million for the 13,000-seat Bricktown Ballpark.

Another public project is the downtown Tulsa H.A. Chapman Centennial Green (or just "the Centennial Green), which is a small pocket park at the corner of 6th and Main amidst all the skyscrapers. The new park cost $5.1 million, $2 million of which came from Vision 2025, the rest from private donors including the H.A. Chapman foundation for which it is named.

The Centennial Green even has people, so at the end of the day, going off of that you have to assume that it was a successful project. I also feel like it's successful because it avoids issues that could relegate it to some kind of a "plaza feel" -- with the regular street frontage on both sides and the space definition from buildings that border it in the back, it feels like a proper urban space.

They also did a complete renovation of the Tulsa Convention Center, sort of isolated from downtown in the SW corner of the IDL. The $50.5 million renovations, funded by Vision 2025, expanded the convention center--with 102,600 sf of exhibition space, 23 meeting rooms, an 8,900 seat arena, a 30,000 sf ballroom, and 227,000 sf total space.

Why is there nothing currently active infill-wise in Downtown OKC right now? Everyone says it's because of the economy. That's bunk.. and that brings us to the purpose of this post, a look at all of the development currently underway up the turnpike in Tulsa. There is no way you can tell me it has to do with the economy, because the majority of people in Oklahoma are still doing just as well as they were before the so-called recession, if not better. Maybe Downtown Tulsa is "too big to fail" and Downtown OKC isn't, who knows. Maybe all of the new residential units in DT Tulsa are being marketed towards the enormous Tulsa homeless population who will qualify for Obama's first-time homebuyer welfare, but that doesn't change the fact that Tulsa is under the exact same economic conditions as OKC.

And yet, here's some ACTIVE development going on within the IDL (Inner Dispersal Loop) in Tulsa:

Just last week, veteran Tulsa developer Bob Eggleston struck a deal with the TDA to purchase the former Towerview site across from the BOK Center for his new One Place development. Eggleston was actually the construction manager for the BOK Center, so he's intimately familiar with that area, not to mention he has worked with one of the world's premier architects. Eggleston is also one of the guys behind the Village on Main down the river in Jenks. One Place will be a mixed-use development, at a total of $38 million. The NE corner of the site will incorporate a 120-room Hilton hotel. The rest of One Place will consist of shops, restaurants, galleries, and other mixed-uses on the ground floor--and 40 upscale residential units on the floors above. In the middle of the development will be a landscaped courtyard offering a tasteful oasis from the concrete jungle. The plan is to break ground within a year, Eggleston and hotelier Nick Massada (who built DT Houston's new high-rise Embassy Suites) are currently working on building documents and are making the determination of whether to do the hotel and mixed-use together or stagger the construction timetable, which Eggleston anticipates will be complete in 3 years.

Also announced in the last two weeks is the purchase of the 9-story, 140,000 sf Enterprise Building at 5th and Boston. Kanbar sold the building to David Sharp for a mere $700,000 (compare to Bricktown asking prices), enabling Sharp to do a complete redevelopment of the building. The plan is to have affordable lofts on the upper floors and a complimentary retail mix on the ground floor. Sharp is working with Tulsa loft developer Will Wilkins (whose had a lot of projects in the Brady District and the Blue Dome District, and butts heads frequently with TDA). In this post on TN, Wilkins actually outlines the pricepoints and features of the loft units. The total loft units is undecided, but Wilkins estimates likely around 60 total.

Another recently announced project is a proposal by veteran downtown developer Tori Snyder to redevelop the old City Hall site into a boutique hotel. Snyder, with wealthy family backing for her Brickhugger LLC, has redeveloped the landmark Mayo Hotel (Tulsa version of the Skirvin), the Detroit Lofts, among other historic preservation projects. Two weeks ago from today Mayor Dewey Bartlett announced that the City got a $1 million offer from Snyder for the abandoned City Hall (Tulsa recently just moved their City Hall to the post-modern One Technology Place office building, commonly called the "Borg Cube"). The old City Hall is a great piece of 50s modernist architecture that could make a really interesting redevelopment. Last year the City paid an international real estate firm to market the site to developers, which turned up zero results at the time. Along with recommending the sale, Bartlett also envisions that the adjacent Tulsa Police HQ and separate Municipal Courts complex could also be sold to private developers. Snyder's plans for the City Hall bldg involve using the tower for 120 boutique hotel rooms and utilizing the former council chambers for a restaurant space.

On a side note, if the former government district on the west edge of DT Tulsa ends up getting completely redeveloped following the precedent of deals such as this, it will need a catchy district name.. I don't think "Government District" is really that marketing, not even in an edgy sense. How about SoBOK (South of BOK)? Just a random thought..

One interesting idea is that of local architect Matt King to redevelop the old boarded-up YMCA building. King, with the Tulsa Foundation for Architecture, lacks investors but has drawn up 3 separate proposals out of his desire to restore the building, which he says is a great piece of 50s modern architecture, which he goes on to say evolved directly out of Tulsa Art Deco. The main plan is to turn it into a 64-suite boutique hotel, another is to convert it to residential lofts, and another is to use it as a downtown high school. The renovation project would highlight the glazed terra cotta panels lining the street level and the terrazzo floors on the interior.

One of Tulsa's most historic Art Deco treasures may soon become residential lofts. This exciting venture, proposed by ZigZag Development, has been underway for about a year although it's unclear where it stands now in the wake of being scandalized out of TDA financing. The 80-year old, 10-story, 64,000 sf zig-zag Art Deco style building sits at 6th and Boston. Some reports say that ZigZag has shifted their priority to a 4-story infill project in the Brady Arts District near ONEOK Field, and is waiting to see how the 150 or so units coming online in the combined Mayo 420 and Mayo Hotel renovation projects are absorbed into the market. This will help them formulate their market approach for the ONG Building based on these existing examples.

Downtowners also await the verdict in the city's condemnation proceedings over the Tulsa Club Building, owned by an out-of-state ghost property owner in California who has let the building deteriorate. The building, an Art Deco icon, would make great potential lofts..imagine the suspicious deal that the TDA could get into with this site.

Tulsans also await to see what will come of the Abundant Life Building, which is also involved in the condemnation process (which involves a trumped-up $1,000/day fine for every day a building is not up to code). The Abundant Life Bldg is a different situation though because the City is working with prominent Tulsan David Horton on a project to redevelop the bldg into the Diamond Lofts, which I mentioned in the last post as well as in this post I wrote a year ago.

Another project is a retail opening in the Blue Dome District. The space underneath the London Underground-spin off sign is for a new t-shirt store called BoomTown Tees. This will be a welcome addition to a block that's seen a lot of new tenants, including Joe Momma's Pizza further to the right, and El Guapo's Mexican Cantina on the corner. El Guapo's, a restaurant by McNellie's owner James Elliott, features Tulsa's online rooftop bar which overlooks this new t-shirt store. There are TONS of businesses opening in downtown Tulsa, particularly restaurants that are taking advantage of the new after-5 business base (thanks to BOK)--I just chose to highlight this one because it exemplifies an entire block that's come to life, and also because it's retail. COOL retail, that sells edgy clothes..just the kind of thing that could do well in a downtown that aspires to be a destination, as well as a neighborhood.

Another new business coming to the Blue Dome District that I have chosen to highlight is Lee's Bicycles. I chose to highlight this one because it reminded me a lot of Automobile Alley, which suddenly became the home of 2 or 3 bicycle shops--all of which have thrived on N. Broadway in OKC, largely benefiting from the dense downtown environment. Lee's is relocating from Brookside, where they got bought out by QuikTrip, now going in at 2nd and Frankfurt.

There is also a proposal along Cheyenne, between 14th and 15th on the edge of downtown, to add about 20 new townhomes. It's kind of a weird site plan with the townhomes facing an interior street inside the development and not Cheyenne, but the elevations have been altered with more windows facing Cheyenne and they should be breaking ground soon. Good project on a formerly unsightly vacant surface parking lot. The developer is the same guy proposing to redevelop a boarded-up historic synagogue across the street. Although still standing, the synagogue recently sustained some fire damage during the most recent Snowmageddon so it remains to be seen if it can really be restored or if it will have to be razed in the end.

This is a recently announced development, still unnamed, for the ONEOK Field area. The project located at the corner of Archer and Brady will be broken down into two phases, with the NE corner first. That building will be 3 or 4 stories, and feature 67 residential units as well as retail on the ground level and structured parking in the back. The corner across Archer will be developed after that, and specifics and numbers have not been generated yet.

Also nearby will be another new park, the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park--named in honor of a legendary Tulsan who was one of the forefront academics behind the Civil Rights movement. It's been nearly impossible to find any kind of renderings online for the $5 million park being funded mainly from the State of Oklahoma, and by some City of Tulsa grants as well. According to this Urban Tulsa Weekly article the State initially offered to front the entire cost as part of the Greenwood rebuilding movement, but has since fallen back on the offer only paying $3.7 million. The new park will be along Brady between Boston and Cincinnati avenues.

The 12-story Art-Deco Atlas Life Building on Boston Avenue is being converted into a 120-room Courtyard by Marriott hotel. The $15 million redevelopment has retained a ground floor restaurant (the Atlas Grill) and has been underway throughout all of 2009, and set to open in a month. SJS Development, the company behind the project, bought the building in a deal arranged by Kanbar..SJS has experience in developing hotels out at the Stonewood Hills lifestyle center in Broken Arrow.

A really cool just-finished project, exemplifying contemporary architecture, is the TCC Center for Creativity at 10th and Boston between downtown and uptown. The $10.5 million features 56,000 sf, was designed by Matrix Architects. The Tulsa Community College project offers to fill a niche for a downtown college campus that Tulsa is looking to fill, although that niche is more likely to be respectably filled in the future by OSU-Tulsa in Greenwood.

The new Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame has recently opened up in the old Union Depot in Downtown Tulsa, behind the 667 ft-tall BOK Tower. The museum, relocating from its longtime home inside the Greenwood Cultural Center, to the old Union Depot on 1st Street between Boston and Cincinnati. The renovations were made possible with a $4 million grant from Vision 2025. The project is now finished and hosts jazz concerts every week, and on some nights jazz music spills out onto the surrounding streets in the Blue Dome, Brady, and CBD areas. It is true that New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz music, but other cities such as Kansas City, St Louis, Houston, Chicago, as well as Oklahoma City and Tulsa were very also jazz hotspots.

Another planned addition, out of many, many awesome projects about to kick off in the Brady Arts District, is the Cain's Ballroom Museum--planned next door to the landmark ballroom at the intersection with Cameron Street, and set to open doors in 2012. The $2.5 million project is currently in the fundraising process. The Cain's Ballroom is where Bob Wills got his start, is considered the birthplace of Western Swing music, and these days frequently hosts up-and-coming bands such as a show I saw with Peter Bjorn & John. The ballroom has also had the Sex Pistols, Eric Clapton, The Police, George Harrison, and more. A list of the next month's shows is highlighted by G. Love & Special Sauce, the Arctic Monkeys, Bone Thugs N Harmony, and Blue October (and yes, these are bands you should have heard Cain's has been named one of North America's favorite live music venues, and you had better believe it is on the National Register of Historic Places. It was built in 1924.

Yet another Brady Arts District project in the schematic phase at the moment is the planned renovations to the historic Brady Theater. The theater located at Brady and Boulder, affectionately known by locals as the "Lady on Brady," was originally built 96 years ago. So it's on the register. Since then, two renovations have compromised the historical integrity of the building--which these renovations aim to restore. The Brady is an active performing arts center, and still hosts events each week--with guests such as Cyndi Lauper and even U2. The renovations will be a $17 million project.

Another really awesome Brady Arts District is the Oklahoma Museum of Music and Popular Culture. The Oklahoma Museum of Pop Culture (shorter version of the title) will pay homage to the ridiculous amounts of pop culture that Oklahoma exports to the rest of the nation, most likely more per capita than any other state. Planners argue that Tulsa is the ideal host for the museum, claiming that Tulsa is the cultural capital of Oklahoma. The $33 million project anticipates $25 million in state funding, and the rest from private sources..they've already landed a $1 million donation from the Kaiser Foundation. Bob Blackburn is also behind the project. A specific site for the 45,000 sf facility hasn't been located yet, although Blackburn has said he wants it in Brady.

And of course, this post would be incomplete without mentioning the $40 million renovations of the historic Mayo Hotel--considered the pinnacle of recent private development projects in downtown, and easily on par with the Skirvin in OKC if not grander. The Mayo Hotel, not to be confused with the Mayo Building, was a mixed-use preservation project by Tori Snyder's Brickhugger LLC. Macy Snyder and the rest of the Snyder family is also heavily involved in Brickhugger projects. A photo gallery of the building can be viewed here. The project, now finished within the last month, features 76 upscale apartments and 100 boutique hotel rooms. It also added a coffee shop, Topeca Coffee, on the ground floor. It was one of the projects receiving Vision 2025 housing loans, getting the largest piece of the pie at $4.9 million. Leasing went off with a bang, as they signed over 60 units within a week of opening.

Another renovation almost finished, building off of the Mayo Hotel which I just mentioned, is that of the Mayo Building located on Main at 4th, across from the Mayo Hotel. The address, 420 Main, gives it the developments name..Mayo 420, which is a redevelopment project by Wiggin Properties. You OKC readers know Wiggin Properties, right? They're the guys who floundered on Overholser Green. Obviously all of their focus was in Tulsa, because this isn't a bad project--a $30 million renovation project, crafting 67 FOR-RENT apartment units out of the old 10-story building. Why couldn't Wiggin apply their rent formula to OKC, or was it so obvious to Chuck Wiggin that we would fall for the condos and he would get the bid over a better proposal that way? The Mayo 420 units start at $800 a month, around 750 sf--a pretty reasonable deal for downtown. The ground floor features the relocated Downtown YMCA facility and Billy's Restaurant. The 67 units will be finished in April.

The First Street Lofts, a $2.8 million project financed in part by a $1.3 million Vision 2025 loan, is a Blue Dome District project. This building has actually been in some form of redevelopment for the last 30 years, interestingly it's finally coming to fruition. The building had to be structurally rebuilt, as very little of the shell's structural integrity would suffice after the decades of redevelopment attempts. The project by Tulsa resident Michael Sager will have 18 high-end lofts, and on the ground floor will be a grocery, deli, and restaurant..dunno about the restaurant, but I seem to remember something about Sager landing a lease for a grocery tenant, which will be a boon to Blue Dome.

Another project of the Snyders' Brickhugger LLC is the Detroit Lofts, located in the Brady Arts District at Archer and Detroit Ave. The Detroit Lofts will feature 16 apartments, ranging from 680 to 1,200 sf..starting at $800/mo. The project, estimated at $5.5 million, got a $769,000 million loan from the Vision 2025 downtown housing fund, the last of the fund until the account is replenished. Macy Snyder said it was the availability of the Vision funding that changed their plans, as they had just planned to use the building as warehouse space--even after the announcement of the nearby ballpark. They report that they're in negotiations with a restaurant and bar for an 8,000 sf space, and with a grocery tenant for a 10,000 sf space.

According to this Tulsa Whirled article, a fourth Brady-area housing project applied for funding but was turned down, in favor of Snyder's Detroit Ave project. The turned down project was a proposal by a University Development Group (couldn't find anything on the web..) for the Lofts on Frankfort, a $4.8 million, 20-unit project located in the East Village, between the ballpark and the east leg of the IDL (US 75/64). The group is in discussions right now with the TDA to purchase the site where they would build a 3-story mixed-use building with the 20 residential units, plus 7 ground-floor office spaces. The group has declined to discuss specifics with the media, but luckily the $769,000 would have only been used to secure parking for the development, rest of which they have financing in place for.

It's everyone's favorite corrupt development deal: American Residential Group's Tribune Lofts II. The TDA pulled $4 million in loan money out of nowhere without announcing a request for proposals, discouraging other inquiring downtown developers who heard word of the money--gave all $4 million to ARG to do a mirror project for the Tribune Lofts. The Tribune Lofts are on Archer at Main. The first project was a rental project of modest success for 35 overpriced units which they failed to convert to condo at the incredible price of just $90,000.. now TDA wants to give ARG $4 million to fail again. This project will include 63 units, no ground-floor retail. It will be "affordable" supposedly. It's really an awesome project, all shenanigans aside. They are currently under contract to purchase the site from TDA as well for $495,000--an incredible deal, especially if you compare to Bricktown parking lot prices. Sheesh. Hmm..

Last, but not least..

And this brings us to my favorite DT Tulsa project, which is underway, and will probably be doing fundraising for at least another year or so--although it's halfway to its goal. This is the Living Arts Center/Visual Arts Center, which is a huge arts-based project for the heart of the Brady Arts District. It started as a proposal to take the individual Matthews Warehouse and turn it into an artist community, with artist lofts, gallery space, a coffee shop, studio space for the artists, and more. Then it grew with a portion for the Philbrook Art Museum, then Kaiser got involved with a $50 million donation to the Gilcrease Art Museum that they had no room for, and then Kaiser got more involved by purchasing nearby land to the west of the development for an outdoor amphitheatre. The current project is a mix of historic preservation (Matthews Warehouse), new construction (museums), as well as green space. Kaiser has agreed to fund half of the project, but no more..the current construction date for the Living Arts Center is 2011. The total project construction cost is $18.3 million. Website here.

Friday, March 26, 2010

"Pullin' a Tulsa"

This was going to be a post about all of the tremendous volumes of development starting to take off in Downtown Tulsa. I don't know about you all, but I've been following this and I'm just so impressed that indeed T-Town is beginning to hit a critical mass level that can sustain a growth curve of new development--especially considering what a skeptic I was a few years ago. Now it's OKC where recent downtown development has failed majorly to live up to the reinvigorated expectations and Tulsa that seems to be on fire.

But as with any good news up the turnpike, it's not without tons and tons of bickering, politics, shady back room deals, corruption, and public media wars. If anyone had difficulty understanding how a schmuck like the Anti-Obama Candidate for Mayor, Dewey Bartlett could resoundingly win office--this is how. Tulsa's powers that be have just degenerated to joke status. It's gotten bad, and I know some people in OKC are marginally familiar with how divisive and fragmented Tulsa can be, especially when a downtown deal is at stake, but this is shocking. It all has to do with the Tulsa Development Authority, which has effectively done everything in its power seemingly to squelch new development downtown, distribute millions of dollars to its cronies, spend months and months going through process tying up developments that would compete in the market against their cronies, and so on..

Virtually every time the TDA gets their hands within a mile of any prospective development deal they do everything possible to make it go sour. Sometimes buildings in the way of contentious proposals even mysteriously catch fire. And then a few years after the historic Towerview Bldg burned down, the TDA finally let a developer with a great plan (and financing) purchase the land for $1.5 million--after a year of being tied up in complicated processes and wait periods that never made any sense to veteran Tulsa developer Bob Eggleston.
Eggleston said he's been a little frustrated by the time it's taken to get the project moving and by the complicated nature of the approval process.

"In Jenks, we don't have to do that," he said, comparing the One Place development to the Village on Main. "It's a lot more simplified. I love meeting with the city of Jenks. They open every meeting by saying, 'What can we do to help you?'"

Perhaps it is no coincidence, or mystery, after all why Jenks is booming--with 3 major, major mixed-use developments underway (giving the Antique Capital of Oklahoma a competitive advantage in real estate over anywhere else in the state).

If the TDA would allow such a thing, Eggleston's development will be a $38 million mixed-use masterpiece, centered around a 120-room Hilton urban hotel, 40 upscale residential units, and street-level retail and addition to 160 structured parking spaces.

Then we get to the downtown ballpark deal--assuming that building a public consensus behind the project would be impossible in Tulsa's political environment, then-Mayor Kathy Taylor slapped an involuntary ad valorem tax funding district on DT Tulsa to pay for what private benefactors wouldn't cover for the $60 million ONEOK Field--now the deal is biting them in the butt, with 18+ downtown property owners engaged in a class-action lawsuit with the City of Tulsa. That is one of at least 3 development-related lawsuits that the City of Tulsa is engaged in with its own citizens (not counting the dozens of non development-related lawsuits).

Speaking of the ballpark, the 2nd of these development-related lawsuits against the City of Tulsa is from Will Wilkins, (former) developer of the mixed-use infill project known as 120 Brady Village/Lofts @ 120. Wilkins made the mistake of negotiating with TDA, spent thousands and thousands in legal, architectural, and other expenses on a project that had entered into a phase of contractual exclusive negotiating (that TDA preliminarily recognizes the deal underway with Wilkins and will stop fielding cronies to unload the site off on). After the legally binding exclusive negotiating phase had been initiated, the TDA broke the deal and broke ties with Wilkins, who had an excellent project in place with dozens of residential units and street-level retail. Wilkins is now suing for damages and TDA's shady dealings with this site are coming to the surface..the site, located across the street from the new ONEOK Field, was envisioned by Kathy Taylor as an area to be a "a beautifully woven fabric" of urban development, which in Taylor's vision, excluded the Wilkins' true mixed-use urban development. The affair has also brought to the forefront a secret meeting between Councilor Eric Gomez and the private donors behind ONEOK Field, who are now making plays to develop sites around the ballpark. The link above goes into the meeting as well.

Sounds like a Moshe Tal kind of deal if I ever heard one, but let's just hope for now that Tulsa doesn't get stuck with a Bass Pro in the Greenwood district, but if they did--it should at least offer some consolation that the highway visibility would be out-of-this-world. Even better than I-35/I-40 access to the Bricktown Bass Pro.

The third lawsuit involves building code violations. The City of Tulsa's solution for bad building owners is to fine buildings that are not up to city building code a fine of $1,000 a day for every day that it is not up to code. The buildings aren't systematically processed and required to meet a set of guidelines applied to every building in Tulsa, they are just arbitrarily chosen by the City and identified as downtown eyesores of particular merit. The building being litigated over, the beautiful historic Tulsa Club Building, is owned by Carl Morony of California (a huge number of DT Tulsa's building stock is owned by various CA investors actually). Morony was not even served his lawsuit papers by the City of Tulsa, although to Kathy Taylor's credit, out-of-state ghosts can be mighty hard to find sometimes. Morony's fines owed to the City of Tulsa are way in excess of $300,000.

Another building being held up by the enormous code violation fines is the ironically-named Abundant Life Building, which Tulsa businessman David Horton is struggling to renovate into the Diamond Lofts project, which this post is about. Horton is cooperating with the city and has allowed DEQ in the building to do whatever it needs to do, according to this article in the Tulsa Whirled.

There's nothing saying that Tulsa won't forgive the fines for Horton's situation, which they probably will (I can only assume, given that he is making attempts to improve the building), but the building still either has or will have liens on it which make it slightly unattractive as a real estate investment, sort of undermining Horton's genuine efforts. The only thing accomplished at the end of the day is that Horton is placed permanently at the behest of the city if he has to work with them in order to avoid 6-figures in trumped up city fines.

The good news is that we're not even done yet. We haven't even gone over the most corrupt deal that TDA was all over, without a doubt, the Tribune Lofts II project. For those that don't know, the 2000s saw the completion of very few downtown housing projects in Tulsa--one of them was the Tribune Lofts in the Brady District, where they restored the 6-story Tulsa Tribune building into lofts in an emerging arts district. The Tribune Lofts II project is to create a twin building next door and continue the marginal success that the developer, American Residential Group, experienced in leasing the units (and they failed to convert to condo, drawing from many downtown residences in Oklahoma). Although new infill construction, the ARG-provided elevations show a historic motif that closely mirrors the building restored next door. It is by all means an absolutely fantastic project.

Now enter into the picture the TDA, which was somehow placed in charge of distributing $4 million in housing upstart loans derived from a 1996 temporary third-penny sales tax. That's almost historic by now. Tulsa has a history of using city-issued no interest loans in order to stimulate private development downtown, and it really is a great idea--because the city gets the money back in the end. If we did that in OKC and charged a low interest rate set slightly higher than the projected inflation, the city coffers could even benefit greatly from downtown's resurgence, and why not? I've always thought governments should be investing their resources, not hoarding them until a "rainy day" and what better to invest in than your own damn community? Maybe we could even spend it all on police raises to get them over the $80,000 threshold.

Back to Tulsa, where so far we have no problem in this deal--the problem comes from the bidding process, which numerous developers were interested in a piece of the $4 million. However, there was never a request for proposals. TDA Chairman Carl Bracy insists that the TDA was not bound to be open and transparent, because after all, they're the TDA. Point taken. It is also very unprecedented, even in Tulsa, that the entire lump sum of loan money be given to just one project. They did the same thing with Vision 2025, with $10 million in loan giveaways to spur downtown housing, and each development had to find other sources for the majority of costs and the entire pie was broken down into 5 or so different allotments. They recently awarded the last of the loans, a total of $769,000 awarded to help finance a loft project on Denver being done by Tori Snyder (same person who led the Mayo Hotel renovations)--again, $769,000--NOT the entire $10 million. That was an above-board process, overseen by Vision 2025 which has citizen oversight much like MAPS in OKC.

However take away the empowered citizen oversight, and you have the TDA distributing stuff (or in OKC, we would have OCURA cutting these deals on the city's behalf if we don't have an empowered citizen oversight committee which Mayor Mick opposes). It is beyond fishy that the TDA didn't open the process up with a request for proposals (which I guarantee you, without even looking into it, is a legal requirement of a city entity throwing money around left and right), that the whole lump sum went to one developer rumored to be on the inside of City Hall, that 1996 sales tax money was being held onto and wasn't even used for its stated purpose until 2009 (what else is the TDA holding on to?), and especially fishy that other downtown developers who inquired about the funds were told by Carl Bracy to not even think about it. Pictured on the left is the 10-story, 80-year old ONG Building, which ZigZag Development wants to restore into residential lofts. ZigZag was one of the groups given the runaround by Bracy.

Answering to Councilor Bill Martinson Bracy sounded even more implicated:
During that meeting, a local developer said she was told by Authority Chairman Carl Bracy that a member of the mayor's office and other city officials presented the project as the viable one for downtown.

To which, Martinson's response was:
"It really disturbs me that you guys predetermined how the $4 million would be recycled into the economy downtown," Councilor Bill Martinson said during a council committee meeting last week.

Guys, sound anything like Core 2 Shore? OCURA? Et all..

You've got to absolutely love how a city can just railroad whatever it wants through due process, and more often than not, it seems almost as if due process just gets in the way of the good guys and especially the citizens trying to just figure out what on earth is going on. If the good guys in Tulsa fall by the wayside of the system being streamlined for Kathy Taylor's vision of a "beautifully woven fabric" of urban development (and who knows what that even means, I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about urban spaces, and I'm at a loss), then who is to say Tulsa isn't giving our City Hall inspiration to steamroll all over downtown's established interests and make way for this Core 2 Shore thing?

Now I am GLAD as heck that Downtown OKC is nowhere near this corrupt. We've still got a long ways to go to catch up to Tulsa's level. That's not to say Tulsa is a bad town, because it's not, in fact it's an absolute treasure of a city and we all know it, especially now that its downtown is heating up again. New York and Chicago especially can also be tough towns, and look at all of their development, and what great cities they are. But at the end of the day, in order for Downtown OKC to be a "big league downtown" (and yes, DT Tulsa is already a "big league downtown"), we don't have to rise to their level of corruption to achieve big city-ness. This is a message that I seriously hope everyone at City Hall these days takes straight to heart.

I think I'll just stop there, although I could go on listing shady/TDA-related development deals, believe it or not..

Monday, March 22, 2010

An idea for Film Row..

An idea occurred to me recently.. What got Bricktown started? What got MidTown started? What got NW 9th started? What got Deep Deuce started (as an active area)? The answer: A single hot restaurant.

NW 9th is now most definitely on the radar, and it all began with Iguana Mexican Grill. The Spaghetti Warehouse ignited the spark that lit Bricktown on fire, although I'm not so sure Steve Lackmeyer will agree with my oversimplification of local history. MidTown became hot with McNellie's, and last time I went there they had an hour and 45 minute wait. Deep Deuce started becoming an active area with the Deep Deuce Bar & Grill, although it's been slower to get busy.

My thoughts on what is probably the "next MidTown" are that Film Row is looking really prime these days. Streetscape, two buildings renovated, some interesting existing business mix, a new art gallery with some new lofts, a fabulous new streetscape underway, lots of affect in the minds of locals as a result of all the construction, proximity to Devon Tower, and a strong group of dedicated fans. This area has all it needs to be big, and overcome any problems (like C2S, homeless, etc).

All it needs is a spark, and the time couldn't be better than now. At this point, by the time you finish scheming, develop a business plan, obtain funding and get architectural plans, get permits, and go through construction--the Film Row streetscape will be finished, and Devon Tower will be rising fast. So, what am I talking about, what is my idea?

What Film Row needs is a restaurant, and it needs to be a big hit..a hotspot, much like McNellie's, Iguana, etc. Just for fun here's my detailed proposal, without having any vested interest in Film Row aside from being a concerned onlooker. Maybe someone with more means will see this, who knows.

What if this building (that currently houses a cool screen printing company), or some other similar building in Film Row, could become a new restaurant with a bar. It would need to stay open until at least 1 am on weekend nights, it would need to capitalize on the area's unique history, and it would need to offer drink and food specials that attract attention, similar to Friday drinks at Iguana or Wednesday burgers at McNellie's (just $3!!). It will need a 2nd level, and it should have a rooftop bar with a skyline backdrop for the "place to be seen" in OKC. For capitalizing on the area history, howabout something like Oklawood's (or some Hollywood-spin nickname), or The Paramount (or something named after a film producer).

For food, it should be unique and stand out in order to be the next hotspot. The most unique restaurant I've ever been in was Antonio's Flying Pizza in Houston, my favorite pizzeria. At Antonio's, hence the name, the cooks were exposed to the rest of the upscale restaurant as you walk in, and they were known for throwing their dough up in the air and putting on a show. Every hour supposedly someone walking in gets hit with a raw pizza dough in the face, and their meal is free. Antonio's has been a Houston tradition since 1970, and I have many fond memories. Hopefully people will have fond memories of somewhere like McNellie's, and this restaurant--and it could be the spark that sets Film Row off.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

For NCAA fans: Yes, there's stuff in OKC..

The NCAA Tournament is in town, and OKC is hosting the first rounds--we've got Kansas, K-State, Northern Iowa, and BYU in town still. The funny thing about having both of the Kansas teams in town is that I constantly log onto the Kansas City urban forums and see countless stories of people's bad experiences in OKC. The premise that these "I had a bad time in OKC" posts are based on is that these people, from KC, want to see if all the good press about OKC is true, and they all end up having a horrible time in OKC for whatever reason. Some of the top things you see written about OKC on this site are..

1. I had to get a hotel room in El Reno or Norman (or some other ridiculously far suburb).
2. Bricktown was dead, and there was nothing to do on a Thursday night. No clubs, restaurants, retail, people, etc.
3. I got a parking ticket everywhere I parked. (this is no doubt the most believable reason)
4. I actually had a good time, but the Ford Center is a piece of crap..I missed the Sprint Center.
5. There were no hot chicks, which surprised me with the proximity to Norman.

This post on Steve's OKC Central blog is intended for all of the out-of-town fans, to give them a good suggestion of things to do. In the interest of diversity, and because I'm familiar with some "high-brow" places in KC, perhaps I can offer up my own suggestions that I think the KCers will enjoy (because let's be serious, the majority of fans here are going to be from KC).

Bar-b-que that's almost as good as Kansas City..
1. County Line, NE 63rd and MLK
2. Earl's Rib Palace, Bricktown
3. Mr Sprigg's BBQ, Midwest City (since that's probably where your hotel is..jk)

The current local hotspot
1. Iguana Mexican Grill, NW 9th
2. McNellie's Irish Pub, Midtown
3. Nonna's Euro-American Restaurant, Bricktown

Where the locals eat
1. Big Truck Tacos, NW 23rd Uptown
2. Irma's Burger Shack, Midtown
3. The Wedge Pizzeria, Deep Deuce

Where the locals hang out
1. Full Circle Bookstore, 50 Penn Place
2. Cuppies and Joe, NW 23rd Uptown
3. Sage Gourmet Market, Deep Deuce

True-blue establishments
1. Cattlemen's Steakhouse, Stockyards City
2. VZD's Restaurant & Club, Western Ave
3. Mickey Mantle's Steakhouse, Bricktown

If you must leave the inner city..
1. UCO Jazz Lab, Edmond
2. Cafe Plaid, Norman
3. The Opolis, Norman

Best new upscale restaurant
1. Red Prime Steakhouse, Automobile Alley
2. Trattoria il Centro, Arts District
3. Soleil Restaurant, Downtown CBD

Best downtown-area nightlife
1. Sapphire Bar & Lounge, Bricktown
2. Maker's Cigar Bar, Bricktown
3. Cafe do Brazil (Bossa Nova at the Top), Midtown

Best north side nightlife
1. VZD's Restaurant and Club, Western Ave
2. 51st Street Speakeasy
3. Prohibition Room, NW 23rd Uptown

Best coffee places
1. The Red Cup, Classen Blvd
2. The Beatnix Cafe, Midtown
3. Coffee Slingers, Automobile Alley

Best urban areas to just check out
1. Automobile Alley
2. The Paseo
3. Western Ave.

Best value hotel downtown (to book early for next time)
1. Hampton Inn, Bricktown
2. Skirvin Hilton, Downtown CBD
3. Sheraton Hotel, Downtown CBD

This post must be read and taken with a grain of salt in light of the fact that a good experience can be had at virtually any locally-owned establishment in OKC. Unlike in some other cities perhaps, locally-owned places in OKC are almost always nice, and almost never "scary."

Development potential

Sometimes you hear a site proclaimed as having the most development potential in downtown. There was even a survey back in 2005 that identified the intersection that would be the most important development site in the growth of downtown. This 2005 survey, way ahead of its time, predicted that Midtown would become a resurgent hotspot area, and recognized the fantastic building stock still standing along North Broadway in A-Alley.

That site, identified as the most important piece of the puzzle for downtown redevelopment, was the intersection of NW 10th and Broadway. Imagine the potential it had; it could have been anything..a corporate headquarters, a large mixed-use development, a condo mid-rise, an NBA practice facility, and so on. What ended up going on that site, the OKC Community Foundation, while underwhelming from a development standpoint, ended up being as good as we could have hoped for. The community foundation, a respected community institution dedicated toward helping the inner city poor, is a great thing to have's a shame they have to bulldoze adjacent buildings for extra parking. The EIFS entrance is tastefully done, so we can surely forgive the dreaded "fake stucco," and I think their facility fits in well with the surrounding environment, even if it isn't the pinnacle that North Broadway could have hoped for.

So since there is no condo mid-rise at NW 10th and Broadway, in the interest of jinxing another site to be underutilized, let's ponder the NEXT best development potential. And it's worth considering that things such as potential change each year as downtown continues to evolve and revitalize. I think that the progress since 2005 makes NW 10th and Broadway even more vital, especially as we anticipate that 1101 and 1100 N Broadway get restored soon.

But the progress since 2005 also makes other sites pop up on our radar. Those sites will be around the Devon Tower site, sites that connect downtown and "Core 2 Shore" taskforce lands, key sites in Bricktown and Deep Deuce, as well as the city initiative to develop a particular site in Midtown.

I like the potential of the NW 10th and Harvey-to-Hudson block to be a "perfect" development, although I don't think it's the "most vital" to the city's continued evolution. I think it is important however for Midtown, in fact, it's not hard to imagine the site's development being a prerequisite for the further development of Midtown, which is currently a collection of separate hotspots, mainly the Walker Circle area. There is also the area around the Sieber, Beatnix, Packard, Church Row, etc etc.. The one site that will connect it all, to lay the path for Midtown to evolve into the next Bricktown, will be this site that the city is taking action on. The ideal development is not anything that might be much larger than the scale of surrounding buildings, but it's important to realize that anything that doesn't completely fill the site out would be underutilization. Something very similar to Marva Ellard's former Mercy Park proposal would be ideal. Something around 4/5 stories max, but more than 2/3, and try and package as many different uses as possible. The key with residential, in order to be assured success, is to appeal to the pent-up rental demand downtown and not buy into the utter fallacy that we need more high-end for-sale units. We all fell for that one..and most of us regret it today.

The site with the most importance, by far, for the city's continued development, given the current Devon Tower development underway--is the city block owned by Nicholas Preftakes to the west of Devon. It is safe to assume Preftakes has plans because of his history as a downtown developer, being involved in many, many past downtown projects, and now given his acquisition of this entire city block at such a convenient time. The important thing to realize here, in order for this city block to realize its full potential, is that every building must remain standing. This block already comes with an exciting stock of buildings that have a ton of potential, not to mention many unique architectural features, ranging from Art Deco to Brownstone. It's a very urban, diverse, and colorful block, not to mention a sadly underutilized block. The potential uses for these buildings, once redeveloped, should take an arts-based focus. The site is surrounded by the Myriad Gardens, Devon World Headquarters, Stage Center, the Civic Center Music Hall, the OKC Museum of Art, City Hall, and Trattoria il Centro. The uses here should reflect truly being in the center of it all. Here, an art gallery could thrive, as well as upscale restaurants, law offices, perhaps a bodega, a winebar, etc etc..

The potential for new development, even large-scale new development, is going to exist across the street between the Arts District and the planned boulevard. (I would be dismayed to see large-scale infill, any time soon, proposed on the south side of the boulevard.)

Many people have their own eye on sites in Deep Deuce and Bricktown. Because of the inorganic way in which Bricktown developed, you see vastly important sites just sitting there in the middle of Bricktown. Many of these include the festival site/parking lot across from the Brewery at Sheridan and Oklahoma, the surface parking next to Tapwerks at Sheridan and Mickey Mantle, and especially the canal-front sites along Mickey Mantle. And I could go on and on about the canal. Nevermind development sites along the east periphery of Bricktown, such as Candlewood Suites and The SteelYards, there is so much work left to be done at Bricktown's core. I know that people behind the scenes are still working diligently to attract the development Bricktown will need to be successful, and there are several deals in the works. Let's hope some of them are successful! What Bricktown needs, at this point, are rental units. It needs "rooftops" in order to pave the way for more retail, and also to take some of the seasonality out of its business cycle (which has been difficult for some "pro retailers" to grasp).

NW 9th Street pictures

Stumbled across some old pics of NW 9th from earlier this year that I meant to post. Here they are.. I'm sure it's progressed some since then. This is as of January. This is becoming such a cool area.