It's been the conventional wisdom for years: What downtown Tulsa lacks is a critical mass.
No, not hecklers at Holy Family Cathedral, but a concentration of development and investment that will give more timid business folk the confidence to renovate or build downtown.
While there are pioneers like Elliot Nelson, the Snyder family, Michael Sager, and Micha Alexander--all of whom are making things happen one building -- sometimes one floor -- at a time, downtown hasn't become the boomtown everyone expected by now, less than two years before the opening of the BOk Arena.
The big landholders downtown all seem to be waiting on someone else to do something big first. A cynic might get the impression that they all hope that some fool will take all the risk, create a sense of excitement, which would produce a gold-rush atmosphere that would drive up prices. Then they could cash out and head for the Bahamas.
Several major development plans have been announced to great applause and fanfare, but there hasn't been much visible progress.
In the summer of 2005, Maurice Kanbar, an inventor and multimillionaire, jumped into the downtown Tulsa real estate market in a big way, purchasing five older buildings, three of them Art Deco gems. Within a few months, Kanbar had spent more than $100 million and had acquired 20 buildings, including two skyscrapers (Bank of America and First Tower) -- nearly a third of downtown's office space.
We were told that Kanbar and his business partner, Henry Kaufman, planned to create a vibrant living, retail and arts district in the core of downtown, converting office space into residential lofts, art studios, nightclubs, shops, and theaters.
The initial hope was that here was someone not only with a vision -- and sometimes it takes an outsider to see the true potential of a place -- but also with the resources to make something happen, and soon.
Kanbar seemed to have deep enough pockets, an outsider's imagination and something up his sleeve that he wouldn't need to wait on lenders or taxpayers to begin to transform his collection of buildings.
What's happened in the year and a half since those initial purchases? Some buildings have been cleaned up a bit, but the most apparent development was the demolition of the two smallest buildings in the portfolio about a year ago, an event that engendered despair among preservation advocates.
Last summer, there was an announcement of something called Mayo Place, a cooperative development plan for a 12-block area involving Kanbar and Kaufman, the owners of the Mayo Hotel, and American Parking Services. The announcement was like a pebble tossed into a pond -- a few ripples, then nothing.
About a month ago, Kanbar relieved Kaufman of his property-management duties, creating a company to handle the portfolio. A new café has opened in the First Place Tower -- but, alas, only open during weekday office hours -- and another is due to open soon in the Philcade Building.
There are rumors that Kanbar's Atlas Life Building will be converted to lofts. The loft conversion of the Atlas' next-door neighbor, the Philtower, achieved 100 percent occupancy. But there are no signs hinting at rapid movement toward a grand plan.
Also in the summer of 2005, we heard the first rumblings about a major mixed-use development in the east part of downtown--an "East Village," or some such. The development would have incorporated some sort of a sports and concert venue -- a major league soccer stadium, rumor had it.
The specifics emerged about a year later. Last July, a Washington, DC, based group, Global Development Partners closed on its first parcel, the half-block west of Frankfort Ave. between 5th and 6th Streets.
GDP's local rep, Mitch Adwon, announced that they had contracts on an additional 28 acres and would be closing on the rest of the properties over the course of the fall.
The "East End" development would have had 800 dwellings, 450,000 sq. ft. of retail, 150,000 sq. ft. of office space, three hotels, and a minor league baseball stadium.
The bulk of the land in the area is under the control of two owners, Nordam, which vacated its old facility for a plant at the Cherokee Industrial Park north of Tulsa, and former Chevrolet dealer Bill White.
GDP had experience with a few mixed-use developments, including Gallery Place, just across the street from Washington's MCI Center, but nothing quite this large.
(Gallery Place has had problems, however: The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported in March 2005 that the tax increment finance district created for the development wasn't bringing in enough revenue to cover debt service on the bonds used to build it.)
On December 27, Nordam Group Inc. filed a breach of contract suit against Tulsa Partners I LLC, GDP's Tulsa affiliate. Tulsa Partners had a purchase agreement with Nordam but asked for three extensions of its closing date, agreeing to pay an earnest into escrow for each extension.
The $200,000 escrow payment for the third extension was never paid. Nordam has terminated the agreement and wants the earlier earnest payments released to them from escrow.
Word is that Tulsa Partners I LLC is also in default on its purchase agreements with other landowners. The bad news is that the GDP's East End plan just isn't going to happen.
The good news is that there are a bunch of landowners with contiguous properties ready and willing to sell, and they already have a price in mind. It's a situation ripe for someone with ready cash and some vision. (The area is almost as big as the islands that would have been created by "The Channels." Maybe the Tulsa Stakeholders could create their vibrant urban community there.)
So will anyone make the first big move?
In a sense, someone already has. As part of Vision 2025, Tulsa County taxpayers voted for a quarter of a billion dollars investment in downtown Tulsa, on top of tens of millions in sales tax and bond issue dollars approved by City of Tulsa residents for downtown.
Voters were told during the Vision 2025 campaign that the Oklahoma City's $363 million MAPS program stimulated a half billion dollars in private investment. We were told to expect similar results in Tulsa. If we build it, they will come, right?
The public projects are being built. The arena is going up. The downtown residential projects have received initial funding, design is underway and renovation of the Mayo Hotel, the Mayo Building, the TransOK Building, and the First Street Lofts should begin in the next couple of months. Streets are being scaped.
Perhaps the massive private investment really is coming -- just around the corner! -- but it's too early to make any announcements.
I'm sure there are good business reasons to keep mum about major development plans. But the people of Tulsa -- the people who spent all this public money hoping for private investment to follow -- could use some reassurance that their investment is paying off.
A request for Mr. Kanbar and anyone else who may be in the process of doing something big downtown: Don't keep the public in the dark. Feed us some news now and then about your progress. Keep us hopeful. And if you run into a snag with City Hall, let the public know so we can encourage our elected officials to deal with the problem.
Tulsa taxpayers made the first move. Now it's your turn.
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