POSTED ON APRIL 25, 2007:
On-again, off-again plans, long-term timelines and indecision delay downtown developmentBig plans, and lots of them, are in the works--but we'll all have to live longer than our grandparents to enjoy them
The view from 1st street and the new location of City Hall.
"Hope deferred makes the heart sick . . . " wrote King Solomon about three millennia ago.
With the hope of widespread downtown development always seemingly just around the corner but never quite materializing, many Tulsans might have some idea of what the Israelite monarch had in mind.
To complete the citation above, " . . . but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life."
It seems that a proverbial "tree of life" has long been anticipated through the prospect of the depressed heart of the City of Tulsa becoming an engine for economic development and prosperity. That hope has also long been disappointed as Tulsans continue to wait for many of the announced plans to finally take root and grow.
Mayor Kathy Taylor might be taking a page out of Solomon's book, so to speak, whose own dominion began to flourish into a world-renowned center for trade and learning when construction began on the political and religious capitols of his kingdom.
Likewise, Taylor hopes a new, 21st century City Hall will be the nudge that does the same for the City of Tulsa by converting from potential to kinetic all the bound up energy of downtown development.
"We think this will tip the scales and be a catalyst for all that," said Don Himelfarb, the mayor's director of economic development, when he and Taylor recently announced that the process has begun for relocation of City Hall and consolidation of city offices within the One Technology Center building on the northwest corner of 2nd and Cincinnati, depending on the outcome of an ongoing feasibility study.
"This is an opportunity to dramatically extend economic development without asking taxpayers for a penny," said Taylor.
Himelfarb said he believes all the expected benefits of the move (tightening up the downtown real estate market by reducing vacancies at OTC, selling off former city facilities for private development, etc.) will amount to a deciding "pro" in the minds of prospective developers as they look at downtown Tulsa and weigh its benefits and drawbacks.
In the meantime, Vision 2025 funds are making the ground more fertile for that anticipated Tree of Life, and hints of an emerging sapling might be seen in the form of numerous public and private projects that are now in various stages of development.
The flagship project for Vision 2025 is the BOk Arena, which is well-known to most Tulsans. The 550,000 square-foot, 18,000 seat, $183 million structure is expected to open in September 2008. It's also expected to look infinitely cooler than the Ford Center in Oklahoma City (think "George Jetson").
Life Comes from The Living
In the meantime, ground was recently broken on the first downtown residential project of Vision 2025. Construction has begun on what will be the First Street Lofts in the building historically known as the Jacobs Hotel, located at 310 E. 1st Street in the Blue Dome District.
The five-story building envisioned by developer Michael Sager is expected to offer 19 units ranging from 650 to 2,000 square feet, which will rent for about $1 per square foot when construction is complete in about a year.
Sager said he expects about half of the units to be single-occupancy and the other double, so its capacity will be about 30-35 people.
The Jacobs Hotel was constructed in 1916, but since he purchased the building in the 1970s for about $150,000, Sager said he's spent up to $800,000 to improve and update it.
He received $1.3 million in Vision 2025 funds to go toward the $3 million cost for the final renovations.
"This has been a dream of mine for about 30 years and now it's coming true," said Sager. "It's always been of special interest to me to convert the warehouse building into unique, studio-type living spaces," he said.
The First Street Lofts project is one of four downtown residential projects approved to take part in $10 million of Vision 2025 funds. The others are the Mayo Hotel on 115 W. 5th Street, the Mayo Building on 420 S. Main Street and the Transok Building on 2 W. 6th Street.
For the Mayo Building, "architectural plans are nearing completion" and groundbreaking scheduled for June 2007, and initial occupancies are expected in June 2008, said Emily Rohleder of Wiggin Properties LLC.
"We are very excited about this project," she said.
Excitement over the Transok project has fizzled, on the other hand.
Kanbar Properties recently turned down the $1.5 million in Vision funds it was awarded for the project, and no specific reasons were given other than that it's "not ready."
The Mayo Hotel and the Transok Building are two among numerous downtown projects under the control of movie producer, inventor, entrepreneur and multimillionaire Maurice Kanbar.
Kanbar, who lives in San Francisco, owns 20 buildings in downtown Tulsa, including a few art deco gems, comprising 2.57 million square feet which translate into more than 32 percent of the city's downtown office space.
Some of the structures in the mogul's portfolio are the Atlas Life Building on S. Boston, the First Place Tower on E. 5th St., the Bank of America Center on W. 6th St., the Petroleum Club Building on S. Boulder and the Pythian Building, also on S. Boulder.
While neither the elusive Mr. Kanbar nor any of his numerous minions overseeing his interests in town have divulged any specific information about their progress or plans for the considerable swath of downtown Tulsa in his possession, Kanbar has previously said he plans to create a "Soho"-like arts, living and office area.
So far as the naked eye can see, though, Soho seems pretty far off, as the only visible progress made since 2005 when Kanbar started buying up property is that a new café has opened in the First Place Tower and a couple of smaller buildings have been demolished.
While he didn't divulge any specifics, when recently asked at what stage his various development projects are, Kanbar said, "We're moving as fast as we can, and we're meeting with Mayor Kathy Taylor today."
That was during the first week of April.
Tulsans' hopes and dreams for downtown development were once again teased last summer with the announcement of the coming Mayo Place--a cooperative development plan for a 12-block area involving Kanbar's properties and American Parking Services.
It was announced that the project would "further revitalize downtown Tulsa . . . with urban living, shopping and entertainment venues." It would be within walking distance of the BOk Center and would incorporate the Mayo Hotel and most of the properties owned by Kanbar.
Neither Kanbar's people nor representatives of American Parking Services returned telephone calls about the Mayo Place, so Tulsans are left with the non-information the two parties have provided to Downtown Tulsa Unlimited, which is published in their quarterly "In the Loop: An Insider's Guide to Development Within the IDL."
Status of the Mayo Place development? "In development," the insiders' "Loop" reads.
Heavenly Hospitality LLC, the development group who had city officials salivating with grand plans, but Urban Tulsa Weekly saying "Whoa, just a minute!" with its several stipulations--from removing the Central Bus Depot and several adjacent historic properties to re-routing the Centennial Walk and demanding it be deemed downtown's official hotel/residence destination--is once again back in the mix of downtown development with plans emerging to build a Westin Hotel across from the BOk Center on Denver between 2nd and 3rd streets.
Readers might remember the Arizona-based hotel development enterprise was the sole bidder last year for the property adjacent to the former Towerview Apartments.
The plan then was for a Westin Hotel, but the firm only wanted in on terms that would have given the establishment prima donna status in downtown Tulsa, but were apparently deal-breakers once reality sank in a few weeks later at the Tulsa Development Authority.
Those conditions included moving a much needed, expensively produced, well-designed and fairly new bus station, silencing all trains in the area, rerouting the Centennial Walk so as to pass by the hotel development, designating the Westin as the "premier headquarters hotel for downtown Tulsa" and demolishing a few surrounding buildings.
Now the developers are back with the same plan, plus a little humility in that they've dropped all of their previous conditions. However, they are asking for $10 million in tax incentives for the project.
Himelfarb told another publication that he's glad they've come back to the negotiating table, but that the city won't deal until they decide where City Hall is going to be.
The East End is another high-profile area that had been selected for potential development. Plans for this area have come and gone--from the first "downtown Tulsa Project" proposed in the mid-'90s to the formerly current plan that would have brought Drillers Stadium into the neighborhood.
Tim Kissler of Global Development Partners announced two years ago his company's plans to build a wide spectrum of mixed-use facilities within the 34-acre, 14-block stretch of land between 2nd and 8th streets and Elgin Ave. and U.S. Highway 75, which would include entertainment, retail, restaurant and residential components, situated around a new Drillers baseball stadium--something on the order of Brookside or Cherry St., but on a more massive scale.
Global's hit a few bumps on the way to realizing its ambitions, though. Kissler and company experienced some delays in carrying out their plans and the Nordam Group, which owns much of the land in question, filed a breach of contract suit late last year against Tulsa Partners I LLC, Global's local affiliate, for extending their closing dates three times.
The lawsuit has since been resolved, but the delay opened a gap through which other developers managed to get their feet in the door. Nothing official has been announced, but word on the street is that Wal-Mart has its sites set on the area, and the rumors haven't been denied by any of the parties involved.
While Wal-Mart's involvement has effectively been confirmed by implication through the fact that none of the concerned parties have denied it--including representatives of the Mayor's office, Wal-Mart itself, Kissler, John Williams of Downtown Tulsa Developers LLC and Bill White, (who, along with the Nordam Group, owns most of the land in question), the precise shape and form through which the Walton Empire intends to colonize downtown is still a mystery.
Whether the East End will be seeing a Supercenter, Sam's Club or Neighborhood Grocery, or all or some of the above, or a smaller, less-obtrusive urban-style store has yet to be determined. While the grapevine seems to be pointing toward a more discreet Urban Wal-Mart, Global's local representative, Mitch Adwon of Adwon Properties LLC, believes the plan is for a standard-sized Wal-Mart and a Sam's Club.
Naturally, Adwon isn't happy about it.
"What is Tulsa going to look like in 30 years when there's an abandoned Wal-Mart downtown?" he exclaimed.
Something like Texas' HEB's Central Market concept, however, would be a true destination for the entire city. Of course, one of the major hurdles in getting such a grocery store is Oklahoma's antiquated liquor laws which don't allow the sales of wine or anything but 3.2 beer in grocery stores.
Adwon said Wal-Mart's efforts to set up shop in the area are he and Global's biggest obstacle to realizing their vision for the East End.
"I don't know if you can have Wal-Mart and a baseball stadium co-exist," he said.
In a downtown that apparently isn't big enough for the both of them, Adwon Properties has been in a land-grab war with Downtown Tulsa Developers, whose land-acquisition efforts are rumored to be preparation for Wal-Mart's immanent descent upon the East End.
Global closed on a tract of land last month on the northeast corner of 6th and Elgin, which was a parcel Williams was also hoping to purchase.
The $750,138 tract adjoins another tract already owned by Global, which puts 90,000 square feet in the developers' hands.
Adwon said he and Global are nearing final negotiations for another tract, and have three other tracts under their control.
Drillers owner Chuck Lamson said he still "remains optimistic" about a stadium in the East End, and he is still actively discussing options with the City of Tulsa and with Global.
Home for Arts
The Brady District also has some changes on the horizon in the form a renovated Brady Theater and the creation of the Concept 100 Visual Arts Center.
Brady Theater was constructed in 1912 and opened in 1914 and served as the original Convention Hall and events center for the city until the Tulsa Performing Arts Center was built in the 1970s.
After that, the theater fell into neglect and disrepair and was almost torn down before Peter Mayo breathed new life into it when he purchased the building in 1978.
In recent years, though, the Brady Theater hasn't been what it used to be, but a group of investors have been leasing with an option to own since 2005 and have announced plans to refurbish the historic theater.
"With the BOk Events Center coming in, the PAC popularity and the Cain's Ballroom reemergence," the investors hope the Brady Theater renovations will "complement all of the other wonderful event locales currently active in downtown."
Investors Johnny Buschardt, Tony Winters, Matt Livingood and Steve Alter of Matrix Engineering said their vision is to "not only add to, but to cash in on the notion that downtown will be a destination for living, events, dining and tourism."
"Plans are just coming together now--they'd like to do a private/public partnership and they've just applied for non-profit status for it," said Barbara Jobe of the Schnake, Turnbo and Frank public relations firm, which represents the investors.
Mayo, though, said no purchase has been finalized, but that he is excited for something to happen with the Brady Theater.
"If the lease holders are able to complete their purchase option and renovate the venerable Grand Old Dame, I would support them. Tulsa and the Brady District would be the better for it," he added.
The other big Brady District prospect is Concept 100. Originally called simply the "Tulsa Arts Loft plan", it will be a visual arts center located in the Mathews Warehouse at 200 E. Brady.
The first floor of Concept 100 would serve as galleries exhibiting the work of local, regional, national and international artists "reflecting new directions in the visual arts."
The second floor is to house studio workspaces for professional visual artists, as well as resident spaces for visiting artists.
"The floor plan will create a communal atmosphere yet allow for artists to retreat to their work," said Kathleen Page of Consynsus, the architectural firm designing the center.
Page is working on the project with Sager and Ken Busby, director of the Arts and Humanities Council of Tulsa.
They said the purchase of the building should be finalized by summer and groundbreaking is expected in 2008.
Finally, a Statue of a Human Being on Riverside
While private developers are making plans for the future of downtown Tulsa, public officials are looking to build on its past.
With Oklahoma's centennial in view this year, the historic "Mother Road" is getting some improvements and attention.
Using Vision 2025 funds, installation of alternate historical marker signs for the original Route 66 alignment has been completed, and construction has recently begun on the Cyrus Avery Centennial Plaza at the east entrance to what was formerly the 11th St. Bridge, now the Cyrus Avery Memorial Route 66 Bridge.
Avery, "The Father of Route 66," was a Tulsa County Commissioner who promoted statewide road improvement efforts in the early 20th Century, and eventually lobbied Congress to create Route 66 as well as to establish the U.S. Highway 66 Association, responsible for paving and promoting the highway.
The plaza honoring Avery (a triangular-shaped parcel of land where Riverside Drive begins at its north end intersection with the old 11th St. bridge) will be landscaped and connected to the River Trails, and will contain a bronze statue depicting him driving a Model-T, confronting a horse-drawn wagon coming from the west Tulsa oil fields.
Paul Zachary, project manager for the Tulsa Public Works Department, said the statue will be created by Robert Summers, and is expected to arrive in February next year. It will be 1.3 times life scale.
Zachary said there is also some cosmetic restoration in the works to the 11th St. Bridge, which includes the addition of lights, restoration of the parapet wall and the replacement of railing, which he said should be complete by this coming fall.
A longer-term project is construction of the "Route 66 Experience"--a building to be located across the street from the Avery Centennial Plaza.
Zachary said it will have a Route 66 museum on the first floor, and will also house the city's River Parks Authority.
He said $5 million from Tulsa's 2006 sales tax will fund the project, along with "a couple hundred thousand" in Vision 2025 funds. Zachary said he doesn't expect to get design money for the project until 2010, though.
Along with Route 66 improvements and commemorations, Zachary said his department is also "tearing up 50 blocks of streets" for improvements within the IDL, using a combination of money from a bond issue and sales tax revenue.
Another project in the works is the Quiet Zone Project, which is comprised of three railroad crossing improvements for the creation of a "quiet zone." Those who rather like the sound of train whistles might be disappointed.
The improvements will be located at Greenwood, Elgin and Cheyenne Avenues and First and Second Streets near the Brady District.
The improvements consist of crossing guards and gates that would restrict crossing of rail lines at the streets during train crossings, thereby eliminating the need for horn warnings.
"We anticipate getting something going this spring--we want this complete before the arena opening in September of '08," said Zachary.
Zachary and company are also working on the Centennial Green project at 6th St. between Boston and Main using Vision 2025 funds, and they've also recently awarded contracts for phase 1 of the Centennial Walk, he said.
"We're trying to get that done before Statehood Day," Zachary said of the Green project.
Will Tulsa's long deferred hopes for an economically vibrant, livable, walkable, afforadable downtown finally be fulfilled? Only time (and a few developers with the vision and the courage to invest) will tell, but the ground seems fertile and the moment ripe for that longed for Tree of Life.
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