In early 2007, Chris Girouard began looking for a site in or near downtown Tulsa from which to operate an "urban winery," as new small, boutique wineries located in cities have become known in recent years. Girouard had a list of criteria in mind while searching for the perfect spot, but mostly, he thought, he'd just know it when he saw it.
Girouard commenced that search not by getting behind the wheel of his car with a real estate agent at his side, but by hitting the asphalt with his feet. A serious runner training for the Route 66 Marathon, Girouard began looking for a future home for his company, Girouard Vines, during his daily runs that typically stretched for five miles.
"Jogging is a good speed for such a thing--not too slow, not too fast, and easy and a pleasure to stop [running]," Girouard said, explaining his reasoning.
Girouard's feet carried him all through the midtown and downtown areas. It quickly became evident to the Oklahoma City native that downtown was the place to be. The Brookside and Cherry Street districts were great urban winery-like locations, he said, but they were also areas in which a business is expected to be open to the public with regular hours, which didn't fit into Girouard's business plan. He was considering several locations around the BOK Center, still under construction then, and in the Blue Dome District when a friend gave him a tip on what he called the "Micha area"--an out-of-the-way neighborhood in east downtown centered on the intersection of E. 3rd Street and South Lansing Avenue.
Intrigued, Girouard charted the course of his run through the area the next day and couldn't believe what he found.
"I had missed it in all my criss-crossing," he said. "I had lived in Tulsa for 25 years and never seen it, or at least noticed it. There was a little construction going on, and, of course, rumors of the ballpark possibly coming into the area. A place with a future, but not yet there."
Girouard's description of that area--commonly known as the East Village--still fits the district today, though development there has advanced in important ways since Girouard's fateful jog that day in March 2007. And yet the East Village remains largely unknown among Tulsans -- even those who office just a few blocks away and tout the virtues of downtown to anyone who will listen.
In fact, the East Village--a 115-acre plot of land bordered roughly by Detroit Avenue, Lansing Avenue, East 2nd Street and East 7th Street, as it was defined by the AECON Leisure Group in a spring 2001 land use plan for the Tulsa Development Authority--may be better known for what it doesn't have. A plan to locate the new Tulsa Drillers ballpark there a few years ago was scrapped, with the stadium site moved to nearby Greenwood. Before that, a Wal-Mart location was in the works, but that project never reached fruition, either. In the minds of many residents, the East Village may have morphed into a place where ideas go to die. To others, it is simply a blank canvas, as Downtown Tulsa Unlimited president Jim Norton described it.
"The East Village is one of the more puzzling parts of downtown," said Jack Crowley, adviser to Mayor Kathy Taylor on urban planning and development, who has spent the past 15 months developing a plan for downtown's redevelopment. "From a land-use signal, what needs to happen there is not there yet."
Even the district's biggest champion--developer Micha Alexander, whose first name spawned the informal site moniker that Girouard referenced--doesn't deny the East Village doesn't register with a lot of folks. But he doesn't regard that as a negative.
"We've kind of been forgotten," Alexander said. "I'm not going to all these meetings bitching about this and bitching about that and trying to create a buzz. Why should I go to my city councilor and complain? I'm perfectly happy doing what we're doing."
A Personal Approach
To Alexander, that means developing the area on a relatively modest scale, especially when compared to such glamorous, multi-million-dollar projects as the BOK Center and ONEOK Field, or even the Mayo Hotel and Lofts or First Street Lofts. Alexander, 28, bought his first building in the East Village seven years ago during his undergraduate days at the University of Tulsa. That property would become the home of his machine shop, Maverick Machine.
"My dad and I got in there and worked on it," Alexander said. "We used it as an excuse to spend time with one another."
That acquisition proved so successful that Alexander began buying all the property he could in the area. But he never lost the hands-on feel that marked his first purchase.
"It seems like every building I've purchased, I've had to move the owner out myself or store their stuff," he said. "It's always been a very personal type of transaction."
Maybe that's why Alexander has succeeded in establishing a cozy, neighborhood-type atmosphere among his holdings in the East Village, where modern, airy loft apartments reside above street-level businesses and everyone seems to know everyone else. Many of those who have leased retail space from Alexander also have opted to rent an upstairs apartment, including Nate McPherson, co-founder of Spexton, a contemporary jewelry company at 222 S. Lansing, resulting in a work commute that can be counted in steps instead of miles.
"We have a loft upstairs, a machine shop and our home all in one building," McPherson said of himself and Greg Shelton, Spexton's other founder. "It cuts down on expenses, and there's no driving. It's all about affordability. We couldn't afford to do this on Brookside."
Spexton is typical of the neighborhood's businesses. Its eclectic offerings -- one-at-a-time, hand-fabricated titanium and stainless-steel rings, bracelets and necklaces -- have found a national and even international market via the Internet, from which it derives half its business. Their neighborhood's off-the-beaten-path status suits McPherson and Shelton just fine, as it limits drop-in customers to those who are already serious about buying.
"We are a niche product you can't get anywhere else," McPherson said. "We don't need a high-traffic area. We do fine on referrals. Our customers come here specifically and explicitly to buy something."
Another of Alexander's tenants, Duane Fernandez, operates the LFP Gallery at 819 E. 3rd St. He's also planning on moving into an upstairs loft soon.
Fernandez moved to Tulsa two and a half years ago from Scottsdale, Ariz., after growing up on the West Coast. He said he fell in love with the East Village as soon as he saw it.
"I like the idea and the opportunity," he said. "We're going to see this neighborhood develop from start to finish ... I love being down here and seeing the passion people have. Everyone down here is extremely passionate about the area."
Fernandez, who handles publicity for the East Village, has plans to jumpstart public awareness of the neighborhood in April with a series of block parties outside his gallery that will correspond with openings. He's also going to be launching a Web site soon.
Fernandez won't be lacking material. Much of the East Village may still look like a pretty forbidding place -- weedy, mostly empty parking lots dominate the landscape, along with dozens of one-time industrial or manufacturing sites featuring structures now in various states of disrepair -- but Alexander is well on his way to transforming the block of East 3rd Street between Kenosha and Lansing. Along with the projects he's already completed, he's got five more in the works, including one named The Bend in honor of the abrupt turn to the east that 3rd Street takes on that block.
Alexander likes the name so much that he's taken to referring to the entire neighborhood that way. It's a fitting tag, since the business owners and residents who populate the area more or less pride themselves on being different not just from the rest of Tulsa, but even the rest of downtown just a short walk away. Collectively, the group would probably balk at any description of the environment it has created as trendy or chic, but The Bend clearly has an atmosphere of catering to a discerning, hip and creative crowd.
"What sets this neighborhood apart from everything else going on is we're on the outer edge," Alexander said, speaking metaphorically as well as literally. "Honestly, for me, this is more of a neighborhood feel. This is urban living without living in the middle of downtown. We're just outside of it, but you can still see in."
There's also an abundance of local pride.
"This ball is rolling," McPherson asserted flatly. "Five years ago, all the buildings on this street were boarded up. Micha has done more in a small amount of time than anybody."
Fernandez knows the district is battling some outdated perceptions about safety, but he still doesn't understand how the East Village can be regarded as a lifeless place.
"It's a surprise to me why more people haven't heard about the things going on down here," he said.
Now one of Alexander's tenants, Girouard, 51, is also an unabashed fan of the area. He was so impressed by his initial visit to the district in 2007 that he met with Alexander the next day, during which the developer expressed his general mixed-use vision of the area and some of his specific ideas. Girouard quickly decided to open his headquarters in the space Alexander showed him at 817 E. 3rd St.
"I knew then it was a perfect fit. We both did," he said. "There was even room for a demonstration vineyard and entertainment area in the courtyard out back. We did the deal with Micha's company building out the space."
Girouard, whose primary vineyard is located on the 2,200-acre Dunkin Families LLC Farm three miles west of Wagoner, has never regretted that decision. Girouard Vines does not feature a tasting room or gift shop yet, but if he ever decides to add those features, Girouard believes he's in the right place, especially with the momentum the BOK Center and other projects have added to the entire downtown area.
"I couldn't be happier with the site selection," he said. "Some of the East Village may still be a blank canvas, but The Bend in East Village is starting to take shape, actually a lot of different shapes: light manufacturing, retail, commercial, cultural and residential.
"It is in initial stages, but that is what I like about it. The development of my business and the area can grow in sync. Some areas you go into are essentially finished, and you look at them and say, 'OK, this is what this is.' In East Village, you think, 'OK, this could be that, and that this.' It is a place to dream about the future and participate in shaping that future."
Alexander's personal relationships with his tenants allow them to feel just as invested in the future of the district as he is. The dozen lofts he has right now (rents range from $500 to $2,000 a month) are full, with a waiting list, and he relies strictly on word of mouth when he does have a place he needs to fill. He regards his tenants as an important element in the success of the neighborhood.
"If you don't have the coolest, most unique tenants, it's all for nothing," he said of his revitalization efforts. "The only reason we're able to do it is because there's a market for it. We only build what people will allow us to build."
The area now features a diverse and interesting collection of businesses -- along with Spexton, LFP Gallery and Girouard Vines, it includes a barber shop, a hair salon, a bar, a photography studio and a kickboxing studio. But the project that is likely to draw the attention of the rest of Tulsa is the upscale condominium project called The Bend that Alexander is now working on for the southwest corner of 3rd and Lansing.
Though it may be small -- only two units -- The Bend development nevertheless is bound to make a splash. The four-story, steel-and-glass residences will total approximately 2,800 square feet each and will be priced in the neighborhood of $500,000. Each will be wired for solar panels, boast underground parking and feature 10-foot ceilings. Each unit will have three bedrooms and 3.5 baths, and the living room in each one will feature a wall of accordion glass that slides open to the elements. There will be a roof deck, and one of the units will even have a glass-enclosed observation room.
Demolition work has been completed, and Alexander obtained his building permits in mid-February, with construction slated to start as soon as the weather permits. He anticipates the build-out taking a little more than a year.
After that, Alexander plans on renovating an adjacent property into more units. The sale of those properties, and the addition of more residents, will do wonders for the city as a whole, he believes, as young people come to understand, "This is cool, this is here in Tulsa, and you don't have to go somewhere else to live like this," he said.
In the meantime, he's eager to get started on The Bend development, adding that he's entertaining the idea of moving into one of the units himself.
"I've kind of gotten emotionally attached to these," Alexander said. "This is a little more elaborate than what I set out to do ... When I set out to do it, I wanted to do affordable housing for young people. This is definitely not that. These are a piece of art. They're very unique, like something you've never seen before."
Pulling in the Same Direction
If Alexander has a kindred spirit in his effort to create something unique and inviting in downtown Tulsa, or at least his corner of it, it would likely be developer Jamie Jameson. A self-described New Urbanist, Jameson, a native of England who relocated to Tulsa about 10 years ago, helped create The Village at Central Park in 2001, a development of approximately 50 upscale condominiums located about a half-mile east of the East Village.
But Jameson isn't just Alexander's neighbor. A frequent visitor to City Hall, where he goes to lobby on behalf of his efforts to promote pedestrian-friendly projects in the Pearl District, Jameson travels on foot through the East Village several times a week.
"Their futures are symbiotic," he said of the two districts.
But Jameson's regular strolls though the southern half of the East Village along 6th Street, well south of The Bend, don't fill him with enthusiasm.
"As it is now, it's pretty awful," Jameson said. "Abandoned buildings, asphalt parking lots with weeds growing out of them, rusty metal, broken-down vehicles -- from a pedestrian's point of view, it's about as blighted as it gets. So we've obviously got to do something about it."
He supports the idea proposed by various others during the years that the East Village would make the perfect home for a new downtown library and some sort of accompanying open space.
"A pedestrian-focused, family-friendly east end of downtown with creative, functional parkland around it that meets the needs of all age groups," he said, describing his notion. "I would like it to be not just a festival park where once in a blue moon people gather to listen to a rock concert. I see it as several different spaces knitting together."
The addition of tennis courts, a playground and perhaps even a children's museum or an elementary school would be equally important, he said.
Jameson's vision for the area comes with an important caveat. He said open space doesn't necessarily have to be green space, so long as there's a plentiful supply of shade trees.
"They don't have to be massive spaces, and that's my point about the idea of a festival park," he said. "That would be a waste of an opportunity -- not quite a waste of space, a waste of an opportunity -- to do something more subtle and something that complements the daily life of the people and the built environment nearby."
Crowley believes the East Village might lend itself to that kind of development simply because of its location on the outskirts of downtown.
"People can get to it without going to the central business district," he said. "They can get off the expressway ramps and get there from 7th or 8th Street. It's easy to see and easy to find. It's got great gateway potential."
Crowley believes the East Village might be especially well suited for a park.
"I like the idea, although it's kind of an old idea that's been kicking around for awhile," he said, crediting the nonprofit group Land Legacy for leading that movement.
District 4 City Councilor Eric Gomez, who represents the East Village, agrees the district has great potential for development, but he is considerably less excited than Jameson about its possibilities for a project like a new library, which he believes should be embedded in a high-traffic area.
"The worst thing you can do is put a big development in a sea of asphalt," he said. "What happens then is people come to an event and then drive away."
As Tulsa continues its efforts to revitalize downtown as a whole, Gomez believes city officials have to make sure those developments are built in the right place at the right time, with an eye toward achieving a "critical mass."
"The danger of isolated developments is that you're not able to leverage them with each other," he said. "You don't generate the momentum you could generate if you had them all working together."
Still, Gomez doesn't rule out the idea of a new library coming to the East Village.
"But it will probably take the spaces in between the East Village and the (downtown) core to be developed before that occurs," he said.
A Not-so-Tiny Addition
Alexander doesn't give the impression he was ever waiting for someone to come along and validate his personal and financial investment in the East Village, but he couldn't have been displeased when Elliot Nelson decided to open Tiny Lounge (formerly 818 Bar) at 818 East 3rd St. in 2007.
Nelson, whose penchant for operating successful bars and restaurants in areas of Tulsa where other business owners have feared to tread is well documented, just wanted a place that was funky and eclectic. The keys to success for such an establishment, he believed, were a great jukebox, a couple of TVs and a lot of cheap canned beer.
"I wanted to have a place that could function as a neighborhood bar," he said. "I know this is not a destination place for most people."
Nelson, best known for his flagship property James E. McNellie's Public House at 409 E. First St., leased a space from Alexander in August 2007 and had the Tiny Lounge open by Halloween. He was particularly attracted to the Main Street-like, homey feel of the area.
"I think Micha's done a good job of getting people down there, plus the finances made sense," he said. "It was the right-size space, and it was just funky enough."
Not everything Nelson has tried has been a success. His original side bar at McNellie's, the Continental, was a failure, but it provided some good lessons about what he needed to do to make the aptly named Tiny Lounge work.
"I think we learned some things about scale," he said. "It's got to feel full all the time. Obviously, that place (the Tiny Lounge), with 10 people, it feels full."
The Tiny Lounge has already established itself as an East Village fixture, and not just because of the jukebox and the plentiful cheap beer. Again, it just seems to fit seamlessly with its surroundings in The Bend.
"It's the only real neighborhood in downtown, working like a true neighborhood would," Nelson said.
That need for a neighborhood feel is something many city officials have spent a lot of time talking about in recent years as part of their effort to promote downtown redevelopment. Almost universally, they agree that downtown sorely needs several thousand new residents if that make-over is to really take hold. No wonder, then, that projects like the Mayo Hotel and Lofts were seeded with Vision 2025 funds.
And yet, as Alexander noted earlier, the neighborhood he built mostly from scratch, and without any public assistance, has gone all but unrecognized. The irony of that isn't lost on him, but he doesn't dwell on that lack of attention.
"Everything we're planning on doing here, we're planning on doing with private funds," he said, noting that willingness to risk his own money without outside help isn't something a lot of developers share.
"A lot of people put their hands out, expecting something to be done for them," he said.
Alexander did apply for Vision 2025 funding several years ago, but his bid was rejected. "They said it was not in the right location, it was too modern and people wouldn't buy it," he said. Alexander now believes that's just as well, since the organic nature of his neighborhood's rebirth has allowed him to proceed according to his own vision, without any interference.
"If I was to go ask for this or ask for that, there are certain parameters I'd have to follow," he said. "The way we're doing it, our limit is nothing more than what we decide to do. I like that."
Alexander's efforts haven't gone entirely unnoticed. He said the mayor has been very supportive of the neighborhood, and Crowley was very much aware of everything Alexander has done.
"It's certainly on my radar," he said.
Crowley has a personal affinity for areas like the East Village, he and his wife having lived in one during their days as young newlyweds. He regards people like Alexander and Nelson as urban pioneers who are helping give rise to a creative class in Tulsa. And he especially likes Alexander's do-it-yourself ethic.
"Organic is good," he said. "He's growing a perfectly legitimate garden, and those are gardens you anchor other ideas to."
By Any Other Name
Alexander doesn't expect the East Village--or the The Bend, or the East End, as Jameson calls it--to remain a secret for much longer.
"After we build these five units, we'll be right back on that radar," he said. "You do need some sort of publicity, but I don't need to be beating down people's doors. I want more people just like the ones living here now."
Even that 2001 land use plan put together for the Tulsa Development Authority, probably long forgotten, positively gushed when it considered the East Village's potential as a neighborhood.
"The East Village will be one of the most prized residential enclaves anywhere in the greater metropolitan Tulsa area," its authors wrote.
Count Nelson among the believers. He bemoans the fact that too many Tulsans are interested only in looking out for their own territory, and he believes that crowd is making a mistake by not acknowledging what the East Village has to offer.
"I think it could be the best residential neighborhood in downtown pretty easily, if it isn't already," Nelson said. "It's really isolated from downtown, which I think gives it an advantage. It'll change, but hopefully, it won't change the character too much."
Jameson also applauded Alexander's efforts and believes others are making equally valuable contributions in other parts of downtown.
"It's already happening organically, and the beauty of it is, it's a local entrepreneur, it's somebody with fire in his belly about his place and his neighborhood," Jameson said of Alexander. "There are others like Micha, apart from me here. There's Michael Sager doing something similar in the Blue Dome District. You do need people like us as, relatively speaking, in terms of Tulsa, we're pioneers. Relative to most other cities, whose downtowns are 20 years ahead of us, it's not rocket science. It's business as usual.
"But maybe the important thing is, it's already underway, and what we've got to do is foster that creativity, that entrepreneurial spirit, that latent pride in Tulsa's downtown," he said. "It won't take much to unleash it."
downtown," he said. "It won't take much to unleash it."
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