Not so long ago, the downtown areas of Oklahoma’s two largest cities both faced an identity crisis.
Both were shining examples of modern business and government hubs by day. Then came sunset. At the stroke of 5 p.m., both downtown Oklahoma City and downtown Tulsa transformed into utter ghost towns. And in short order. By six o’clock, an eerie silence and stillness reigned supreme over both.
It was a frustrating reality that many lamented but few knew how to address. Twenty years ago, the desire to transform downtowns into destinations for entertainment and reverie was on the minds and lips of planners in both cities. But there was also the notion that these areas could become something more than a nighttime proposition for those willing to take a risk. If downtowns were going to return to life, it only made sense that life should return to downtown.
In the early 1990s, Tulsa’s urban core wallowed in the ashes of a time forgotten. With the shopping district along 71st and Memorial serving as Tulsa’s de facto Main Street, the once-bustling downtown districts were veritable no-man’s lands.
But it hadn’t always been that way. For Tulsa, downtown’s early days were a time of unbridled optimism. From its humble beginnings along the banks of the Arkansas River, the nearby discovery of what promised to be an endless oil reserve was the first light of the dawn of Tulsa’s golden age.
Early oil barons, captains of industry and enterprising developers set about throwing up buildings with no expense spared, giving Tulsa skyscrapers and a skyline in record time. From the beginning, this real estate was what we call “mixed use” today – residential, retail and office space all housed together.
Oklahoma City’s rise is a similar story. Floating on its own bed of oil, the city’s geographical location also gave rise to a flourishing cattle industry and, most notably, its distinction as Oklahoma’s capitol city in 1910.
Though the story is more complicated, involving shifts in the oil market and global politics, the beginning of the end for downtown Tulsa began with the conclusion of World War II. As happened in many urban centers after the war, a newly empowered population began an exodus to new suburban developments.
“Main Street began a slow decline after World War II, as suburban shopping sapped the strength of its flagship stores,” says Melissa Milligan, marketing coordinator at Wiggin Properties.
Lives in Metro at Brady, Tulsa
For Oklahoma City, the initial road to perdition was paved with good intentions. In 1965, the city unveiled an urban renewal proposal designed by famed architect and urban planner I.M. Pei. The comprehensive plan intended to breathe new life into a then-languishing city center, including new residential development. While the Pei Plan did have a measure of success, most notably the construction of the Myriad Botanical Gardens and the Myriad Convention Center (now the Cox Convention Center), the plan failed to realize the optimistic predictions set forth at its adoption. The plan also brought about the destruction of many historic structures – a key sticking point with citizens.
No sooner had Oklahomans come to miss their favorite downtown lunch counter or department store than a slow and steady rumbling began to see the once-vibrant city centers revitalized.
For Oklahoma City, the map to urban renewal was drawn with the 1993 passage of the Metropolitan Area Projects (MAPS) Initiative. A comprehensive, $350 million public works and renewal proposal, MAPS was comprised of a variety of projects designed to appeal to an array of citizens. Since its approval, MAPS has been instrumental in transforming the formerly blighted Bricktown District into one of the state’s most prominent entertainment districts. Additionally, the project funded the construction of the Ford Center (now Chesapeake Energy Arena, home of the Oklahoma City Thunder), the construction of the Bricktown Canal and the development of a portion of the North Canadian River into the Oklahoma River, an upgraded and modernized riverfront recreational area, among other key projects.
Help for Tulsa came a decade later when Tulsa voters passed the Vision 2025 package in 2003. While not specifically designed to upgrade Tulsa’s urban areas, the tax package breathed new life into downtown with funding for the BOK Center, while also financing badly needed upgrades to Tulsa’s outdated convention center. It also included funding for downtown and neighborhood improvements, which eventually benefited development.
With downtown Tulsa and downtown Oklahoma City in the throes of a sustained renaissance by the end of the 21st century, growth emphasis transitioned forcefully from infrastructure renewal to cultural renewal. And for that cultural renewal to be fully realized, full-time residents would be required to complete both cities’ respective downtown rebirths.
“The 1990 census indicates there were 2,613 people living within the IDL (Inter-Disbursal Loop), with a population density of 1,904 persons per square mile,” says Denise Tomlinson, executive director of downtown development for the Tulsa Regional Chamber. “In 2000, population jumped to 3,506 with a population density of 2,554.6 persons per square mile.” This surge occurred before the approval of Tulsa’s Vision 2025 package.
“At that time, Tulsa welcomed its first new residential developments in many years,” she adds, pointing to both new construction in the form of The Renaissance Uptown, and renovated property in the form of the Tribune Lofts, formerly home of the Tulsa Tribune. Tomlinson explains that 2010 census estimates place inter-IDL population at 3,995. “With the opening of Metro at Brady and Teach for America teacher housing in the Brady (District), I suspect we could be closer to 4,150.”
Sara Kaplan and Matt Runkel
Owners, Native Roots Market
Live in LEVEL, Oklahoma City
In Oklahoma City, the rise of business property promoted by the Pei Plan would eventually prove a launch pad from which MAPS’s residential innovations were launched. With such heavyweights as Devon Energy anchoring Oklahoma City’s downtown business environment and the establishment of MAPS-funded Oklahoma Spirit trolleys, both national and international expatriates have given rise to Oklahoma City’s burgeoning downtown residential explosion. A.J. Kirkpatrick, director of operations for Downtown Oklahoma City, says 2005 was the beginning of downtown Oklahoma City’s residential growth.
In 2005, the downtown residential scene in Oklahoma City was primarily a for-purchase proposition. Upscale properties, such as Block 42, Central Avenue Villas and the Brownstones and Lofts at Maywood Park sprung up and sold briskly.
“That all kind of came to a halt in 2008,” Kirkpatrick says. The force of the national economic recession that began in 2008 resulted in a change from a buyer’s market into a renter’s market. To Kirkpatrick’s surprise, the 2012-2013 interchange has also proven a time of robust activity for Oklahoma City’s urban residential sales. “If you had asked me six months ago about the for-sale properties, I’d say it’s not happening.”
Where Oklahoma City’s Pei Plan resulted in the demolition of some of Oklahoma City’s historic structures, Tulsa’s urban residential resurgence has planted deep roots in some of the city’s oldest and most cherished buildings.
“We’re into being visionaries and seeing something other people can’t see,” says Macy Amatucci of Brickhugger. And what Amatucci’s company has seen in Tulsa’s formerly blighted Mayo Hotel has proven a power source for the city’s downtown residential dynamo.
When the Mayo Hotel closed in the early 1980s, the building stood as an empty symbol of grandeur lost. That grandeur began its return when Amatucci’s company bought the building in 2001. “We saved it from being torn down,” she explains.
After an extensive, $40 million renovation, the Mayo Hotel was reborn as a combined hotel and rental property that Amatucci says is a one-of-a-kind concept not only in Tulsa, but the entire state of Oklahoma.
Richard Winton, director of new development at River City Development, points to a building’s history as a selling point for downtown dwellers. Managers of Tulsa’s Philtower Lofts, Winton’s company oversees operations in a building that doubles as both office space and living space. The addition of living spaces in one of downtown Tulsa’s most identifiable buildings happened completely by accident.
“Initially, it was a project we fell into,” Winton explains. And when Winton says “fell” into, he means it quite literally. In 2003, the Tulsa Fire Department condemned the upper floors of the Tulsa icon due to a rusted fire escape. Left with a single fire escape to service the entire building, the top floors were vacant for the first time since the building’s 1928 construction. Winton says the forced relocation of the upper floors’ tenants put his company at a crossroads where the building’s future was concerned. They began to look at other uses for the space and engaged the local architectural firm Kinslow, Keith & Todd to develop plans for converting the space for residential use. Three years later, Philtower Lofts opened for business. “We didn’t start construction on the lofts until late 2004, early 2005, and the lofts didn’t go into service until 2006,” Winton says.
Despite sharing space with businesses located on the Philtower’s lower floors, Winton says occupancy rate for residents working inside the building is remarkably low. “We have a couple of tenants who work in the building, but most do not.”
The rebirth of Tulsa’s venerable Mayo Building was made possible in part by a change in traffic flow, says Milligan. By the dawn of the 21st century, Tulsa’s 1960s-era experimentation with pedestrian-only areas resulted in the opposite of what planners had initially hoped. “In 1968, the city created the Main Mall, hoping that a pedestrian street would bring back shoppers. It did, for occasional festivals, but it was not enough to save area businesses. With downtown struggling, the Mayo family sold the Mayo Building in 1978, and it was closed and vacated in 1994.” In the early 2000s, the pedestrian-only Main Mall was reopened to vehicular traffic. In 2005, the dilapidated building underwent a massive renovation, with Kinslow, Keith & Todd architects once again providing the blueprints. The result was the mixed-use Mayo 420 building, featuring luxury apartments, a restaurant and a YMCA.
With the simultaneous renaissance of downtown Tulsa and Oklahoma City combined with residential development springing up in both, formerly derelict buildings that seemed ripe for the wrecking ball have been granted a new lease on life. Furthermore, new construction, which could barely be imagined not so long ago, is now abundant.
Manhattan, in all of its glory, has proven for many to be the ultimate expression of what it means to live in a hip, happening, urban area. As cities nationwide have invested in making formerly maligned areas of their respective centers into showplaces of art, entertainment and life in general, it cannot be denied that the walkable convenience of New York City’s best-known borough has stood as an urban high-water mark. In Oklahoma’s two largest cities, convenient access to the things that make life livable has figured into each area’s residential ambitions.
“We are seeing a lot of people walking to work,” says Kirkpatrick.
Not only does he see the increase of people that live and work downtown, he’s also seeing a big reversal: People are living downtown and commuting to the suburbs for work. Kirkpatrick says “reverse commuting” has proven an attractive draw for professionals when considering taking up full-time downtown living. “My wife does that,” Kirkpatrick explains, adding that the opposite flow of traffic volume can cut commute time in half.
Amatucci says she sees a different type of reversal benefiting Tulsa, citing what she calls a reversal of the so-called “brain drain” of college-educated native Oklahomans to other urban areas throughout the country. She points to the job market in downtown Tulsa as a motivating factor for new graduates to jump into Tulsa’s downtown residential surge. “As long as our downtown is continuing to grow, we will have people wanting to move back.”
Rodney Bryan Pratz
Lives in The Mayo Hotel, Tulsa
Both cities’ downtown residential dwellings enjoy high occupancy rates, with some developments even having a waiting list of up to a year for prospective occupants looking to feel the downtown vibe firsthand. Tomlinson says the growth is driven by members of Generation Y and a “creative class” looking to live in places with personality and meaning. “These people were among the first to move into the old warehouses and underused spaces and transform them into interesting and desirable neighborhoods,” she says.
Kirkpatrick agrees. “Whenever you talk about urban housing, you’re talking about the two ends of the (demographic) barbell.” On one side, there is the young professional experiencing the world for the first time. “The fact that rental did so much better in the early going, we felt that young people just want to experiment,” he says. The vivacity of a downtown meshes perfectly with the wants and limited needs of a comparatively carefree, single urbanite. Marriage and children seem to be the game changer.
Winton agrees. “What we don’t have much of is people in their 40s raising families. People with kids tend to want to have backyards.”
The other end of Kirkpatrick’s barbell are empty-nest Baby Boomers seeking a more compact existence. With children raised and the need for excess space or lawns no longer an issue, the convenience of borough-style living has proven desirable for the more-experienced end of the social spectrum, as well.
It’s the empty-nester demographic that Amatucci says is an oft-overlooked segment of a downtown population so often associated with a younger crowd eager for the open community of an urban setting. Yet despite the sense of openness associated with youth and a denser population area, Amatucci adds that downtown living can be whatever a downtown dweller wants it to be. “If you want, it can be super private. But if you want it to be not-so-private, it can be that, too.”
With the phenomenon of downtown residences springing up in a comparatively short period of time, it’s easy to wonder if the newfound affinity for all things urban is a flash-in-the-pan fad, or if it is here to stay.
The short answer? It’s here to stay. The long-term upside has led Amatucci’s company to move forward with development of downtown Tulsa’s old Vandever’s department store building and former YMCA building into new residential opportunities, while also developing Tulsa’s former city hall into a chic Aloft hotel. Kirkpatrick says the staying power will be rooted in each area’s ability to maintain its momentum in attracting practical retail opportunities. “We’re making slow progress in the retail,” he concedes. “We just don’t have the (population) densities to justify it.” Kirkpatrick adds that local, pre-established businesses have been among the first to embrace this new, urban-dwelling class and have adjusted their business models to accommodate it. “Early on, what I think you see is restaurants,” Kirkpatrick says, adding his assertion that soft good providers would filter in as the area becomes more established.
Lives in Classen Glen, Oklahoma City
“My personal observation on the growth of residential downtown is that although residents would love to have a grocery store and drug store downtown, that hasn’t prevented them from moving here,” Tomlinson says.
The numbers of would-be downtown dwellers speak volumes, as well. As the modernizing movement has gained steam in each city’s downtown area, the word has gotten out. And with each new construction, the momentum grows stronger. Kirkpatrick points to Oklahoma City’s Level Complex as an example, explaining that prospective tenants now face up to a one-year wait to move in. In fact, the building opened 100 percent occupied, and the developer has already launched expansion phases of the project.
It’s no different in Tulsa. “For single bedroom units, it’s 99 percent to 100 percent occupied with waiting lists,” Tomlinson says. “For two bedroom units, it’s 97 percent to 100 percent occupied. Basically, be prepared to wait if you want to move downtown.”
With a population growing younger and demographic trends that suggest an increasing age for first-time child-bearing, the move toward downtown living looks to continue for the foreseeable future. As quality of life in downtown areas continues to improve and opportunities to become full-time participants in downtown life continue to spring forth, the draw looks to remain strong for those eager to experience it.
Although a newer living concept for the state, and one that is still writing the first pages in the new chapters of both downtown Tulsa’s and Oklahoma City’s history, the state’s new urban dwellers have proven willing to overlook the missing elements and embrace the new face of each city’s center. “I think that people living downtown are happy to be living downtown,” Amatucci says.