POSTED ON AUGUST 17, 2011:
Re-Populating Tulsa's Downtown is on the fast track.
The recession of 2008??, a huge economic downturn occasioned by a convulsive housing market, has led to a genuine re-look at housing choices in America. What kinds of spaces we live in, whether we will buy or rent and how much we will pay are now upended. Traditionally, we have privileged conventional homeownership and single family detached houses. The big re-look is fueled by the much reduced value of housing as a nest-egg investment and much tougher home lending requirements. Millions of people are taking a second look at rental housing and lofts, townhouses and novel spaces like live/work units.
Add to this sea change, Tulsa's newly minted comprehensive plan, a citizen shaped roadmap that will tilt Tulsans toward a denser, more energy savvy, and more downtown centric community. Having sizable numbers of residents in downtown Tulsa is not a disneyfied, cool to do notion. It is now a critical driver for a dynamic city. It is also a hill climb. Dwight Eisenhower's great gift to America, our federal highway system, opened the floodgates to the depopulation of big city cores and sparked a vast retail/commercial exodus from downtowns as well. But the evidence, from urban economics and development planning, suggests that regions that have a stout, agile downtown stoked with plenty of residents, a dollop of creative/start-up firms and the support outfits needed to fuel them will own the American future.
If you had millions of dollars and were asked to help foster additional housing units for downtown Tulsa how would you go about it? The City of Tulsa Development Authority's (TDA) downtown residential task force is charged with sparking the repopulation of Tulsa's downtown. They award city sales tax money, in the form of 10-year-loans, ???to developers who have the chutzpa and skills needed to adopt existing buildings or create greenfield housing in Tulsa's city core. Last week, the Panel selected 3 new downtown housing projects supplementing the nearly dozen or so that they have blessed with public dollars since 2001. City/TDA funds are awarded to Tulsa developers who then secure most of the funding needed for projects via private loans and equity investments.
As it happens, almost every downtown housing project including the iconic Central Park twin towers near Tulsa's courthouse/police complex and the low-rise Ambassador/Uptown apartments in the vicinity have used some combination of city or federal development funds to get underway. This time, there is a singular excitement, mixed with a little anxiety, about the latest phase of the process. Some of the buzz comes from the downtown re-ignition spawned by the ONEOK baseball stadium, the strikingly successful BOK Arena and a wave of startup restaurant/entertainment ventures that came in the wake of these big kick-start projects.
Just now, and in spite of our epic national recession, it looks like a real repopulating of downtown Tulsa could happen very rapidly. too. Another part of the heightened interest in last week's award round stems from the continued success that Tulsa's Snyder family/and partners have had over much of the history of the program. This past week they were awarded a $1.75 million loan to covert the downtown YMCA building to 82 units of rental housing (a project with a full costs of $9.7 million) and $250,000 (on full costs of $3.7 million) to advance a hybrid rental/mix use project at the midrise Vandever store on 5th and Denver. The Snyder's have arguably done a spectacular job. They have produced dozens of units of additional housing for the downtown and successfully executed the Mayo Hotel's reanimation, a super-project, that combines new rental units, an array of hotel rooms, corporate offices, dance/meeting spaces, a rooftop bar and a top-flight restaurant. The Mayo is the most important adaptive reuse efforts in Tulsa's history.
The Snyder's Mayo project, their Detroit Lofts venture, an up-and-running residential/mixed-use project in the Greenwood area and their audacious plan for converting Tulsa's vacated city hall space to a nontraditional hotel and retail spot are transformative efforts. John Snyder is the principal of the Snyder family/partner companies. He is also president of Manhattan Construction in Tulsa. Snyder and his wife Tori, also a partner in the effort, argue persuasively that the torrid local interest in new housing types and in affordable, high quality rental units is central to their success and that this housing rethink will drive additional residential/amenity projects in Tulsa's downtown.
Historic Buildings or New Stuff/Rentals or Purchased Units?
Tulsa appears to be on a new downtown residential trajectory. Part of the debate on what to do next and how to augment our already very good prospects is the role that historic properties will play in downtown housing as opposed to new construction efforts. Most of the TDA's housing awards have gone to projects that are either authentic historic properties or close proxies. Some local planning/development pros argue that the next round of TDA's housing contest should be a bit more eclectic, a little more available to developers who want to do new construction and somewhat edgier projects. Patrick Fox Jr. is a Tulsa planner/developer who was a participant in last week's housing project round.
Fox's position is that the downtown housing effort was designed to help launch a very wide range of housing types and options, a range of options reaffirmed by last year's downtown housing demand study and by the publicly adopted downtown housing "plank" in Tulsa's much applauded comprehensive plan/PlaniTulsa effort. My view is that we need to find more money for seeding downtown housing, reuse???? existing buildings, and also do new construction. It shouldn't be a binary choice. We should also be rethinking rehab/reuse, borrowing from naval architecture, exploiting new materials and fabrication technologies and exploring modular assembly maybe via bold pilot projects. This could be a path that could turbo charge downtown development and make T-town a test-bed for frontier housing efforts.
Connectivity & Project Targeting
The extent to which Tulsa's downtown housing efforts should take place in already hot downtown "spines" as opposed to "orphan" spaces is another issue. The Snyder family's proposal to adapt the YMCA building is seen by some observers as not as strongly connected to active areas in the downtown as other Snyder efforts. It is some distance, for example, from the busy Brady area or the hyperkinetic Blue Dome district. Michael Sager is a downtown developer and the maven of Tulsa's bustling Blue Dome district. His still-to-be-completed 310 Project on 1st and Elgin is a heroic effort to turn a celebrated hotel property into an innovative residential/mixed use project (disclosure: I've worked on Sager's 310 project and he is a good friend). Sager's position is that the Synder/YMCA project is an orphan effort.
He has a point?. Careful clustering of city-seeded housing in active hot spots could amplify the impact of additional units in the downtown. But having said that, the denser Tulsa's city core becomes, the less the distance between new efforts and activity centers will matter practically. If things continue to go well, the entire city core will become a thicket of development "nodes."
Good to Go
We need an open, more imaginative, discussion about the future of Tulsa's downtown housing efforts. But unlike so many other topics we could discuss, this realm is moving rapidly in the right overall direction and this is an outcome we can all applaud.
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