I am going to start a new series of Q&A with the very people who are behind the scenes building up the inner city as we speak. Last year I first got the chance to meet Steve Mason after a post I wrote (that was featured in the Oklahoman's Monday Morning Quarterback) caught his attention. Steve, the CEO of Cardinal Engineering, is highly involved in the community, from serving as president of the OKC Community Foundation, president of the Boy Scouts Last Frontier Council, and is currently serving on the boards for the Junior League, Automobile Alley, the Downtown BID, First National Bank, the Greater OKC Chamber of Commerce, the OKC National Memorial, and more. He is also a major supporter of the arts in OKC, including deadCENTER Film Festival, and the OKC Arts Council.
His decision two or three years ago to think twice about demolishing a few "decrepit" buildings on 9th Street has turned that block into one of downtown's most vibrant hotspots. Read on to learn more about what has made his developments and his vision for an urban resurgence a smashing success, where there was only blight 3 years ago. To me, the most interesting thing in this dialogue is how Steve Mason originally intended to just flip the building 1015 Broadway and then got sucked in and developed a passion for restoring life to the inner city.
Q1: What was it that first led you to get involved with Automobile Alley, and how has it compared to what you expected when you decided to get involved?
A: 1015 Broadway was purchased as a good deal with the plan to sell it again for 25% profit in 6 months. I had planned to sell 1015 Broadway and never invest in Automobile Alley so the outcome is not what I expected.
Q2: How have you been able to continue the redevelopment of properties around 9th and Broadway during the recession, when other developers can't get financing?
A: Strong personal credit, my passion, strong demand by tenants. Mickey Clagg has had similar experience in Midtown in that what he develops rents easily. Oklahoma City and other cities' urban cores have very limited land areas vs the suburbs which make these areas very valuable when there is demand. Today there is consumer demand for the redevelopment of the core of American Cities.
Q3: Why did you choose to save old buildings that everyone advised tearing down?
A: My fall, 1978, freshman environmental philosophy course at Vanderbilt University learned about Tragedy of the Commons and read Aldo Leopold’s “A Sand County Almanac.” Sand County discusses how we should value our resources and surrounding environment which we are part of. The old buildings were such a resource. Also, 4 remodeled homes on an tree-lined street are more appealing than a new red concrete box building.
Q4: Was the uniqueness of the buildings along 9th Street what attracted the diverse range of tenants?
A: Yes. Also, the initial diverse tenants are beginning the attract more diverse tenants. The group is meeting monthly which will result in incredible synergistic outcomes on 9th street. The August block party to celebrate the opening of Shop Good was a tremendous example of what is occurring. Much like a neighborhood block party, every business participated to celebrate the opening of Shop Good.
Q5: How did Rawhide become interested in the building at 1007 Broadway?
A: Ask Angie Bailey, the owner of Rawhide [for more info]. I believe that Angie understands and wants to be part of the collective vision of approximately 60 owners, tenants, and members of government with the same shared vision for the communities of Automobile Alley and Midtown. She also likes the easy access from the Centennial Expressway for her customers and the beautiful 80 year old building. Since opening in July, her sales have far exceeded her expectations.
Q6: What do you see for the potential of adding more mixed-uses (residential and retail) to Automobile Alley?
A: I hadn’t planned to have the second floor of the homes on 9th street occupied by the same person who operates the shops on the first floor but it happened. In large cities this is typical because it is more economical and provides for a very very short commute time to work or mid day naps.
Q7: What is next for your development plans in this area?
A: Rooftop patio above rawhide which is stunning. Biff Sturgess (Office of James Burnett) with assistance from J.P. Craig (Hornbeek Blatt architects) provided a quality design.
Q8: With the likelihood of North Broadway being a streetcar route, what will that do to Automobile Alley?
A: A streetcar route would add to the vibrancy of the district and strengthen the community feel. It would encourage a guest at the Skirvin to ride the streetcar to McNellie's for lunch and Rawhide to shop.
Q9: As a supporter of local events such as deadCENTER, what does that bring to the community?
A: Diversity is very important to a successful community. DeadCenter produced 2 events in Automobile Alley in June, 2010 which added to the vibrancy of our community. The Cinco de Mayo, Shop Good parties, and Tuesday taco events have similar impacts.
Q10: What could the city do to better position Automobile Alley to be successful for others?
A: The City has been wonderfully supportive by fixing the former potholes and providing two minute police response time when an occasional harmless vagrant frightens a guest. We are fortunate that the leadership of the City of Oklahoma City understands the private sector needs, are risk takers and supportive of our needs. I expect the City will continue to listen and be supportive. Parking is a challenge which will require public and private sector cooperation, creativity, and ingenuity. I estimate that without additional parking, the north end of Automobile Alley will only be ½ built out. Diagonal parking on Broadway and adjacent streets from the YMCA to 10th street will provide 200 additional, inexpensive parking spots.
Q11: What do you think is the best edible thing currently available in Automobile Alley, including 9th Street?
A: I have 3 children, Travis, George, and Marie. I love my 3 children equally on most days. I have four current children on 9th street which I cherish equally. Depending on my mood, I vary my intake on 9th street. I think happy hour food and prices quality are wonderful at Red Prime and Pachinko. The response to Tuesday Tacos at Iguana and Wednesday burgers at McNellie’s continues to amaze me. I never expected that dollar tacos on Tuesday at Iguana would result in 30 to 60 minute waits from 6 to 8pm on a street that was empty and ugly three years ago. Taco Tuesday and Wednesday McNellie burgers are important to our districts as we continue to develop our sense of community. Both events provide an opportunity for our neighbors to socialize on a consistent basis and see our friends. Within 5 years, I expect Automobile Alley and Midtown districts to become continuous so each district is important to the other district.