Welcome To Boomtown
The Oil Capital of the World has finally found its vision for the future.
Photo by Duane Fernandez.
In 1907, the year Oklahoma achieved statehood, the little town of Tulsa had a population of 7,298 – roughly the size of modern day Ponca City. If nothing else, Tulsa was a well-positioned town located along the railroad with water transportation options via the Arkansas River.
After a small oil deposit was discovered in Red Fork – what is now west Tulsa – people took notice of this unremarkable town. When a large deposit of oil was found in Glenpool, people started pouring into Tulsa in search of new riches.
“When Tulsa’s first boom occurred, Tulsa was in the right place at the right time,” says Maggie Brown, director of exhibits and education with the Tulsa Historical Society. “Basically, what these two occurrences did was catch the attention of individuals and businesses that had oil wells across the country. They began flocking to Tulsa in search of more oil.”
Because of the already established infrastructure and location on the railroads, Tulsa was prime real estate for those seeking to cash in on the region’s recently discovered liquid gold. From the time oil was initially discovered, the population began doubling every few years. As such, Tulsa truly embodied the word “boomtown.”
In 1898, the population was 1,100. After the Glenpool discovery, the population was nearing 4,000, and by 1920, Tulsa was home to 72,075 residents.
Oil Capital of the World
And so it was that the small town along the railroad tracks boomed, more than quadrupling in size during a very small window of time. “At one time, basically every major oil company in the country had an office here,” explains Brown. “That’s one of the reasons Tulsa became known as the Oil Capital of the World.”
With the growing population came growing wealth. It was during this time of great prosperity in the oil industry that Tulsa’s skyline started to take shape. Many of downtown’s benefactors, including Waite Phillips – founder of Phillips Petroleum and of Philbrook, Philcade and Philtower fame – wanted his buildings to reflect the most modern architecture at that time. Enter Art Deco.
“Here’s this new city with all these new millionaires and they’re working in an industry that is developing new technology all the time,” Brown says. “Maybe they’ve moved here from New York City or the coast, and they wanted to establish Tulsa as the place to be. They wanted this city to reflect the technology and their wealth and that it was new.”
While other cities, such as Oklahoma City and Kansas City, are experiencing similar booms during this time, the lavish scale on which the cities’ patrons doled out on their buildings doesn’t compare to the ostentatious Tulsans.
“There is so much money in Tulsa and the standards are so high,” says Dr. Bob Blackburn, president of the Oklahoma Historical Society. “These people are used to spending large amounts of money.”
It was because of this “money is no object” attitude that Tulsa today has one of the largest collections of Art Deco real estate.
“Tulsa’s buildings are generally of a higher quality of architecture styling, ornament, form, beauty, function and space,” Blackburn says. “There are churches and retail and hotels, and suddenly you have that classic skyline that’s there by 1930.”
By 1931, the Philcade Tower, Waite’s second skyscraper, was complete, but as with all booms, there comes a bust, and it’s during this time that the country was in the throes of an economic depression.
“What happens in the 1930s and ‘40, is that the first Great Depression freezes the skyline,” Blackburn explains. “Even people like Waite Phillips are donating their buildings because they are getting out – he gives Philtower to the Boy Scouts of America.”
After experiencing substantial population growth since the early 1900s, the Depression all but arrests the influx of people, and Tulsa fails to increase more than one percent between 1930 and 1940. What was once a roaring downtown has started what would turn out to be a slow decline.
According to Blackburn, as the depression continued into the ‘40s with the war, Tulsa experiences a burst of suburban highway construction with the Broken Arrow Expressway. Most of the new construction in the 1950s is concentrated more in midtown and the suburbs. While there is a resurgence of traditional oil companies and their building offices, they’re not necessarily in downtown.
Slowly, businesses began moving out toward the suburbs, and there was not as much incentive to make the way to downtown to go shopping. It was now all in everyone’s backyards. The culture of downtown began to change. After the 1980s oil glut and the city’s biggest industry took a massive hit, downtown Tulsa was a shadow of its once former glory.
The teardowns of the Art Deco buildings began in the 1960s and ‘70s. No longer a symbol of wealth and often considered tacky, many ornate theaters, Deco gas stations and office buildings were demolished to make room for new office buildings and, in many cases, surface parking.
“There would have been a time that many hated Art Deco because it was old,” Brown says. “It’s a cycle that cities go through. You build buildings, and sometimes you tear them down and sometimes you just hope that some of the things that are left are great.”
A Vision for the Future
After the oil crisis in the 1980s, the city tried to diversify and rely more heavily on other industries, such as aerospace, but the old spunk and vitality wasn’t there. Many offices still maintained their locations downtown, but many moved out farther in the city, closer to the suburbs, or left the state entirely for larger cities, such as Dallas.
Aside from the 9-to-5 office operations still residing downtown, there was very little going on to encourage people to stay after work. Regional counterparts, including Oklahoma City that had passed its MAPS capital improvement program, were surpassing Tulsa, and morale was low. Young professionals left to pursue opportunities in greener pastures that offered more of a nightlife and urban culture.
The writing was on the wall for the once-upon-a-time Oil Capital of the World. City and county leaders noticed this “brain drain” trend and put their backs into developing what would become known as Vision 2025 in an effort to boost the economy and bring business back to downtown.
“The greater Tulsa region was at a crossroads in early 2002,” says Mike Neal, president and CEO of Tulsa Metro Chamber. “Economically, things were bad and community leaders realized the region needed to adapt quickly to the post-industrial, global economy or face a long, slow slide into economic turmoil.”
According to Neal, the city was ranked second in the nation in terms of high unemployment and had lost approximately 17,000 well-paying jobs in the years leading up to the introduction of the package. Additionally, the region’s aerospace, energy and telecommunication sectors had all suffered serious financial setbacks. Public facilities, such as the Tulsa Convention Center, were falling apart, and city sales taxes were sharply down. Schools were facing major decreases in funding, as well.
“There had been some previous efforts and some recognition that the downtowns in some of our peer cities were flourishing and being revitalized, yet downtown Tulsa had been struggling,” Julie Miner, principal economic development planner with INCOG, says. “Yet we knew it was the heart of our city and where we began, and so there was some pent-up frustration that we needed to do more.”
Miner, who at the time of Vision 2025 served as the development director for the City of Tulsa, believes it was the integrated approach of bringing together Tulsa’s citizens and leaders by Mayor Bill LaFortune that gave Vision 2025 the leg up over previous plans that were floated to voters.
“(The previous efforts) seemed to be more top-down, rather than ground-up,” Miner says. “One of the first things that Mayor LaFortune did was to invite everyone who was interested to the Convention Center. Outsiders were brought in to discuss how their cities had done the revitalization efforts. This process drew in people from all walks of life.”
During this time, there was also a federal tax credit focused on urban renewal that provided monies for restoring and rehabbing historic buildings, and Oklahoma had a very limited version of the tax incentive as well. Miner says that Tulsa was able to initiate an expansion of the historic tax credits to renovate historic buildings.
“We were able to provide a tax credit that just blossomed and gained a tremendous amount of momentum. The state tax credit was expanded to mimic that of the federal credit. The city started getting people from all over looking to invest in these buildings,” she says.
Unlike the past efforts, Vision 2025 had the backing of Tulsa County commissioners, regional mayors, INCOG and the Tulsa Metro Chamber. According to Neal, each party was active in the planning process and organization of the package, while Bob Dick and Mayor LaFortune were the public champions of the package. Step Up Tulsa was another backing organization that was comprised of industry and business leaders.
“There were some naysayers, though,” Miner says. “I remember one gentleman showing a slide of downtown that he’d taken from Oakland Cemetery and said that ‘we need to get over this – downtown is dead.’ He felt that we didn’t need to spend any money or put any public investment in these projects. Thankfully, there were enough people who did not share his sentiment and wanted to make this work.”
The collaborative effort proved successful and Vision 2025 passed. Undoubtedly, the biggest impact of the tax package on downtown was the funding for the BOK Center. Striking in its spherical shape and iconic glass curtain wall, since the opening of the BOK Center in 2008, there has been a flurry of construction activity in downtown, bringing retail, restaurants and patrons back to the city’s business center.
“Since that time, there has been between 20 to 25 major projects that have occurred in addition to the Vision projects,” says Miner. “The John Hope Franklin Memorial, the Hardesty Arts Center, ONEOK Field and the Mayo Hotel. There’s a geothermal park that’s being built right now in the Brady district.”
Adds Neal, “More than $350 million in private development has been constructed, is under construction or is in the pipeline – this is being induced by the highly successful BOK Center, revitalized historic buildings and continued growth in residential construction downtown.”
Blackburn believes that Tulsa is at an important crossroads with the current momentum moving forward in the direction of progress and is looking to make a home for the Oklahoma Museum of Popular Culture in the Brady District at Cincinnati and Archer.
“What is happening right now, in both Oklahoma City and Tulsa, is the re-emergence of the spirit of the city that we had before 1930. Urban planners in the 1960s were saying that downtown is not relevant and looked at ways to develop the suburbs. That generation is gone and now we have a new generation. The baby boomers that grew up in the suburban flight era are hungry for the excitement of an urban center.”
“Local enjoyment of downtowns is a national trend,” Neal says. “The younger generation is demanding a more urban experience, one that puts work, entertainment, recreation and other amenities all within walking distance of home. For this group, there is less emphasis on having large homes, yards and cars and more interest in a community lifestyle.”
In answer to these demands, One Place – a mixed-use office, retail, hotel and residential space, is currently under construction. Situated in a prime location across from the BOK Center, the first phase of One Place’s office tower will be newest addition to the city’s skyline.
One Place Developer Bob Eggleston, who also was on the Tulsa Vision Builders team that built the BOK Center, has called downtown home since the first shovel of dirt was turned on the arena.
“When I leased the building at Second and Cheyenne for the Tulsa Vision Builders office, it was always in the back of my mind that a developer would come in and would want to buy this block,” Eggleston says. “It makes absolute sense. Near an arena or an off-ramp, that’s where you want to develop.”
As luck would have it, no other developers came calling, so Eggleston and One Place Development partner, Hank Pellegrini, decided that they would develop the land themselves. Negotiating with the Tulsa Development Authority, Eggleston and Pellegrini were able to acquire one square city block for their mixed-use development, and the gamble has paid off.
With initial plans excluding office space due to a 23 percent vacancy in Class B and C office space, it was felt that there would be little interest in more of the same space. However, when oil company Cimarex came looking for a new place to base their headquarters, there was a noticeable deficiency in Class A office space in the area. Enter One Place.
“Once we secured the Cimarex deal, we had an overwhelming interest in office space,” says Eggleston. “We have just short of 600,000 square feet under construction. Northwestern Mutual, a south Tulsa company, came along – and they wanted to move downtown, so that was our next office. If we did nothing else on the project, we’ll have about 700 people in those two buildings.”
Fortunately for downtown’s current and would-be residents, they’re not just stopping at the two office spaces. The next announcement will be for the hotel portion of the development, followed by retail.
“We’re operating on the ‘park once’ mentality. You can drive to work and park once. You never have to get in your car and drive to something – everything is already here. For that young professional, within one city block, they can really live, work and play.”
Others share Eggleston’s point-of-view, and have put their hats in the downtown arena.
“With the tremendous amount of public investment through Vision 2025, I saw the opportunity within the Central Business District for a limited service hotel and a Marriott brand,” Jeff Hartman, operating partner with SJS Hospitality, says. “We actually have two hotels downtown – Courtyard by Marriott in the Deco District and Fairfield Inn & Suites in the Brady Village. Both locations are booming with growth but cater to a different market.”
With Vision 2025 wrapping up in 2016, Tulsans can expect to see another package on the horizon.
“We would assume a similar package will be proposed at the appropriate time as future needs are predicted to maintain the current momentum established by Vision 2025,” says Neal.
“As a historian, there’s got to be a public/private partnership,” says Blackburn on the importance of continuing public investment in downtown. “Sometimes, you think you could do away with the public side and everything would be fine. Vision 2025 was a great example of a public/private partnership. It was critical, and without it, what’s happening probably would have happened, but it would’ve been a lot slower, it would have looked differently and with less central coordination.”
In addition to bringing the urban culture back to Tulsa, downtown is a vital component to any major city and its surrounding communities.
“As former Mayor Hudnut of Indianapolis has said, ‘You can’t be a suburb of nothing,’” says Neal. “Our regional partners understand the necessity of a vibrant downtown Tulsa to their own economic well beings. In addition to being the national and regional headquarters of several corporations, downtown Tulsa also provides a multitude of arts, attractions, entertainment venues and restaurants which contribute to the quality of life and attractiveness of our overall region. And an exceptional quality of life is key to keeping and attracting new businesses and a talented workforce.”
Adds Miner, “Our downtowns are really our collective memory. It’s where our founders began. You can’t really distinguish a town by its suburbs. It’s your downtown that gives you that uniqueness, that sense of place. It’s really a visceral response.”