POSTED ON JULY 20, 2011:
Has Tulsa's angel investor, Maurice Kanbar, left our graces?
Lately, anxious Tulsans have noticed signs of a possible pullback from Tulsa's angelic investor, Maurice Kanbar.
In 2005 and 2006, Kanbar Properties, headed by then-partner Henry Kaufman, bought up buildings downtown. By the end of 2006, Kanbar owned at least 21 properties in Tulsa worth a combined $108 million, court records show.
Kanbar has repeatedly promised he is committed to the revitalization of downtown. Fans of Tulsa's historic buildings were hopeful that this investor, a Mensa member sharp enough to see what the city could become, would reanimate downtown Tulsa.
Kanbar, a charming inventor, investor and creator of Skyy Vodka, certainly has the means to wave his magic wand and fill Tulsa's echoing Art Deco buildings with a bustling mix of hip restaurants, interesting boutiques and posh lofts.
But hope has flagged in recent months, and the actions of Kanbar Properties might speak louder than his flattering words. Since the booming buy-up of 2006, Kaufman was let go and then Kanbar sued him, according to court records. Kaufman returned the favor by counter-suing. Litigation is still wending its way through the courts.
But Tulsans remained optimistic. Business relationships sour all the time, and Kanbar continued to express his commitment to Tulsa.
Four years later, promised renewal hasn't materialized. Kanbar Properties has sold off a couple of its holdings, demolished another two buildings, and returned a grant for the creation of lofts inside the TransOK Building.
Things happen. Times change. An overhaul takes patience.
Recently, however, tenants in two of Kanbar Properties buildings have been told to vacate. Soon, the Oil Capital Building and the Avanti Building will go dark.
Now, fidgety downtowners are whispering about a possible pull-out or sell-out, and fears surround the other 16 buildings Kanbar owns downtown.
Evictions Are Part of the Playbook
The evicted tenants from the Oil Capital Building on Main Street include Impressions Restaurant, a popular downtown eatery with steady business and a long history in Tulsa. Impressions owner Tom Butcher is recuperating from major back surgery.
Barthelmes Conservatory, which instructs young musicians on the third floor of the Avanti Building, is also packing up. Local writer Michael Bates reported on his BatesLine blog that the conservatory's president, John L. Hull III, sent a letter to the school's community. Hull indicated that Kanbar Properties is "attempting to sell its entire Tulsa portfolio at once, rather than one building at a time."
The conservatory was refused when it offered to buy the building rather than find a new home, Bates wrote.
Maurice Kanbar, the grandfatherly man who holds the heart of downtown (at least its buildings) in his hands, is no stranger to handing out eviction notices. In 1999, he told the other tenants in his pricey eight-story Pacific Heights apartment building they had 60 days to leave. He wanted the crisp, white building with breathtaking views of the ocean all to himself. And he got it.
Kanbar told the San Francisco Examiner he wanted more space for himself and his brother and nephews, should they desire it.
"I'll have the freedom of doing what I want with my own building," Kanbar told the paper in 1999. "I may want two floors. I may want three floors."
119 Downtown Project Abandoned
Evidently the push for renovation and the creation of lofts has waned. Kanbar Properties is now focused on leasing existing office space.
Construction for the luxurious new lofts in the Arco Building on the corner of Sixth Street and Cincinnati Avenue, dubbed the 119 Downtown project, has stopped. The phone number listed for the project's sales center is disconnected. The website is empty and displays only one cheerful (though ominous) line, "New website design coming soon!"
River City Development, the company that was handling construction on 119, boasted on its website the luxury lofts would offer "Pohlenz kitchens, extreme sound-deadening between units, underground parking, workout facility, common patio with bocce court and living rooftops."
Now, Arco Building is locked and empty. A window cling that once announced information on 119 is almost entirely torn off. Urban Tulsa Weekly's calls to River City were not returned.
I Don't: Wedding Mall Has Moved
In December 2010, Clay Clark, the marketing director for Fears & Clark Realty Group (at the time, responsible for leasing and public relations for Kanbar Properties), announced that a "wedding mall" inside the Executive Center at Fifth and Cheyenne would open soon. Clark said six vendors had signed on and two others were in negotiations.
As part of Kanbar's plan for redeveloping downtown, the new permanent bridal fair would be a place where Tulsa florists, DJs, limo services and photographers can converge to offer one-stop wedding shopping.
When the mall debuted in January, Clark showed KOTV News on 6 around what appeared to be fresh renovations, paint and signage on the third floor of the Executive Center.
Now, only six months after its grand opening in the Executive Center, the collective of wedding vendors has moved to a new location. Al Hornung at Omni Lighting cited "problems with the landlord" as the reason the mall had to find a new home. Clay Clark, media director for Fears & Clark Realty Group, said the location was awkward and parking was difficult.
Epic Photography, Cherished Traditions and DJ Connection now office at 1609 S. Boston Ave., while Omni Lighting, Icing on the Top and Galaxy Limousines remain involved but without permanent offices, Clark said.
Plans for Deco District Continue Without Kanbar
Last October, plans for the development of a fabulous new "Deco District" were announced. The idea was to create an entertainment hotspot with hopping nightlife and new restaurants and retailers in Kanbar's buildings on Boston Avenue between Fourth and Sixth Streets.
About a dozen business owners jumped on board the Deco District Association, according to a press release from Fears & Clark.
"Our goal is to show people the Deco District is happening, so people are coming outside of the neighborhood to see us," Elote owner Libby Auld said in the release.
Recently, when Auld was asked how the district is coming along, she didn't want to talk about it.
However, Auld said she remained hopeful.
Clark said Kanbar has had "a little bit of a vision shift," though he didn't know "exactly what their plans are for the immediate future."
While our angel investor may have had a change of heart, Tulsa's small business owners are charging ahead with plans for the Deco District.
Phone calls to Kanbar Properties were not returned.
"The secrecy of it all is quite disturbing"
Bates is about the only one who is talking. These latest disappointments, he said, "add more pieces to the puzzle."
"It's disappointing because these buildings are going to sit idle or under-utilized, and aren't going to be available for some of our local entrepreneurs," he said.
Bates said he made some calls to Kanbar Properties himself, while investigating for his blog and ended up in its voicemail maze.
"The secrecy of it all is really quite disturbing," he said.
In May, the grandfatherly investor was in town promoting his latest offering, Blue Angel Vodka, and sat down with Tulsa People.
In the interview, Kanbar said the problem with developing the downtown area was figuring out how to get locals there.
He also said that Kanbar Properties hasn't been profitable, though he sounded optimistic. He told the magazine, "This can become a very sound and solid investment. It'll just take time."
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