Looking at the $1 billion in construction underway, you’d never guess that 20 years ago, downtown Oklahoma City was practically a ghost town.
The streets were devoid of life after 5 o’clock each day. Many of the area’s historic buildings had been razed to make room for urban renewal projects in the 1970s that failed to materialize. Once one of the top convention destinations in the nation, downtown was home to nearly as many vacant lots as it was to offices, and the city was passed over for lucrative contracts when companies balked at the wasteland at its center.
By 1993, the citizens of Oklahoma City had had enough. By a hairsbreadth margin, the Metropolitan Area Projects initiative, or MAPS, was approved by voters to kick-start a makeover that continues to this day. Among the construction paid for by the first MAPS were what would become some of downtown’s most popular destinations, including the Ford Center (now the Chesapeake Energy Arena), the Bricktown Canal and Ballpark, and much-needed public services, such as the Ronald J. Norick Downtown Library.
“One of the most exciting elements of MAPS is the concept of building a strong urban core that can support the suburban areas,” says Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett.
The boom in business, tourism and the arts spurred by the original MAPS initiative forever changed the face – and fate – of downtown Oklahoma City. And with the recent passing of MAPS 3, development in downtown is far from over. It’s a momentum that Cynthia Reid, vice president of communications and marketing for the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, hopes will continue.
“The additional visitor attractions that have occurred since MAPS 1 have made a big difference,” says Reid. “It’s important to those who live here to attract businesses. We want a high quality of life, and we want to retain and attract the talents needed for business today. These changes have played a big role in that.”
In less than two decades, downtown Oklahoma City has become home to a thriving culture of businesses, nightlife, sports, entertainment and the arts, spread throughout districts that each have taken on unique personalities of their own.
The very phrase “business district” can be misleading when it comes to downtown Oklahoma City; despite the addition of the 50-story Devon Tower to the skyline, this area is much more than the sum of its office buildings. Some of downtown’s most compelling attractions can be found in this section, including the Chesapeake Energy Arena, now home to the Oklahoma City Thunder professional basketball team. While the acquisition of an NBA team was initially a subject of much contention, few would argue that it hasn’t helped revolutionize Oklahoma City’s image.
“Nothing pushes the city’s brand more positively than our NBA team,” Cornett says. “The idea of that team representing Oklahoma City on a global scale will be extremely valuable going forward.”
Another favorite business district lure for visitors and residents alike is the renovated Skirvin Hotel. Once the retreat of everyone from U.S. presidents to local bank robbers, this landmark teetered on the brink of ruin multiple times throughout its 100 years of history. Now owned by Hilton Hotels, the Skirvin’s years of languishing are now a memory. Along with some of downtown’s other luxury hotels, like the historic Colcord, the Skirvin has become a destination in and of itself.
Citizens and city leaders together are determined to transform the downtown Business District into a worthy setting for its popular attractions, as well as for future economic development. In addition to the third MAPS initiative – which will fund, among several other developments, a streetcar system for downtown and the building of a new convention center – one of the most revolutionary plans to renovate downtown is Project 180. The project is funded by a tax increment finance district made possible by the building of the Devon Tower. Plans include redesigning park spaces, sidewalks and street lighting; converting local streets into two-way roads; and providing an attractive, pedestrian-friendly downtown that will serve as a beacon for visitors and businesses.
“Project 180 is already making a difference in just our basic appearance,” Reid says. “The curb appeal is much greater where you see completed projects. It’s changing the downtown atmosphere.”
Steve Mason is the president and CEO of Cardinal Engineering, which has worked closely with several other companies on numerous Project 180 initiatives, including a recent multimillion dollar renovation of the Myriad Gardens. He emphasizes the importance of downtown Oklahoma City putting its best face forward.
“When a person goes out for a job interview, or when they go out to sell a product, he or she will dress to impress,” Mason says. “What Project 180 is doing is dressing OKC to impress. And it helps sell the city. When you dress to impress, there’s a reason you take time to look nice. When you take the time to do so, it boosts your confidence. The physical city is the same as a person.”
Like many areas of downtown, the wholesale and warehouse district was once a blemish on the map of Oklahoma City. Vision, money and a healthy dose of luck began to turn that around throughout the 1990s, culminating with the opening of the MAPS-funded Bricktown Canal in 1999.
From The Melting Pot to Spaghetti Warehouse, riverboats to rock music, Bricktown has become one of the most diverse of downtown Oklahoma City’s ever-growing list of destinations. Families from across the state travel to visit the American Banjo Museum, home to the largest collection of the instruments on public display in the world; ride a water-taxi down the canal; or watch the Oklahoma City Redhawks take a swing in the ballpark. Shoppers flock to the Bricktown Red Dirt Marketplace on the canal, home to 50 shops in one location, and to Bass Pro Shop for anything and everything “outdoors.”
And if there’s one thing at which Bricktown truly shines, it’s nightlife and entertainment. The Biting Sow blues bar and the Wormy Dog Saloon are favorites with locals with a taste for live music and cold beer. Bricktown also is home to the performance lab of the Academy of Contemporary Music of the University of Central Oklahoma. In two short years, the all-ages venue is becoming known for luring famous indie acts like The Mountain Goats, Wye Oak and Man Man. For those who like their nightlife options a bit more adult, Skky Bar Ultra Lounge and the 30,000-square-foot City Walk complex are some of the most popular clubs in the city.
Bricktown has become downtown’s premier hotspot for both tourists and Oklahoma City citizens. Cornett says the change has been thrilling.
“The biggest difference is after 5 o’clock,” he says. “In the ‘80s and early ‘90s, there wasn’t much going on. Now, even on the slowest of nights, there are people walking around. I remember a night last summer in Bricktown. I had just eaten dinner, and it was beautiful out. Bricktown was just crammed with people. It looked like Disneyland. I remember thinking that we have come so far, so fast, literally in 10 years.”
In the 1920s and ‘30s, the Deep Deuce district, just north of modern-day Bricktown, was the most thriving African-American neighborhood in Oklahoma City. This small but vivacious area saw the likes of such musical luminaries as Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington in its jazz clubs and theaters, as well as civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., who was turned away as pastor of the historic Calvary Baptist Church because he was too young.
Each fall, the neighborhood honors its history with the Deep Deuce Music Festival. But in addition to having one of the richest cultural traditions of any Oklahoma City district, Deep Deuce is fast becoming the face of residential downtown. Upscale apartments and condominiums have sprung up rapidly in the past few years, making this part of downtown true to the term “neighborhood” – and so far, an exclusive one.
One of the most cutting-edge residential developments in Deep Deuce is LEVEL Urban Apartments, which will boast such amenities as four-story parking; an onsite bar and grill; a bike-share station; and even a courtyard forest with sculptural aspects. State-of-the-art meeting space will be able to serve as everything from a conference room for businesses and nonprofits, to a cyber café or a place to gather and watch a basketball game. The pool and patio area, according to developer Richard McKown, will create “an oasis in the middle of the city.”
He calls LEVEL’s home in the heart of Deep Deuce, scant blocks away from virtually every lure in downtown, “a once in a lifetime location.”
“It doesn’t get any better than that,” he says.
McKown says one of the most highly anticipated developments at LEVEL is the new branch of Norman’s popular Native Roots Market. Co-owner Sara Kaplan and her family, who will shortly become LEVEL residents as well as retailers, are excited about the opportunities arising in the Deep Deuce area.
“We’re about being part of the neighborhood,” she says. “When we were approached, we thought, ‘This is the opportunity we’ve been waiting for.’ We’ve always envisioned ourselves not as a supermarket, but as your corner, neighborhood grocery store. And Deep Deuce is a fantastic neighborhood… it’s such a vital, fun area. We’re thrilled to be down there, and be the neighborhood market for that community.”
Cornett hopes that residential development will not only continue to thrive, but also that downtown living can become a reality for more people in the near future.
“What I think will happen downtown is you’ll see a number of new housing opportunities, hopefully at entry-level pricing,” he says. “The demand for housing downtown is very strong, but because it has to be new construction, the price point is pretty high. As homes can be delivered at lower and lower price points, I think we’ll see a strong market for people living downtown.”
The Arts District
If there is one section of downtown that embodies “renaissance” in every sense of the word, it is the Arts District. Some of the area’s most visually stunning buildings and parks are located here and are shown off each spring during the Arts Council of Oklahoma City’s Festival of the Arts. This annual gathering of visual and performing artists – not to mention a mouth-watering array of culinary vendors – has become one of the most successful art fairs in the country and attracts thousands of visitors every year. Among the district’s other offerings are world-famous museums, such as the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum and the Oklahoma City Museum of Art; architectural wonders like the Stage Center building and the Crystal Bridge; and the elegant Civic Center Music Hall.
Deborah McAuliffe Senner, president and CEO of Allied Arts, marvels at the changes in the Arts District and their implications for downtown Oklahoma City.
“The arts have certainly affected tourism and economic development, with the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum and the Oklahoma City Museum of Art attracting visitors from around the world,” Senner says. “The renovations to the Civic Center have provided a state-of-the-art venue for such groups as the Oklahoma City Ballet, the Oklahoma City Philharmonic, Canterbury Choral Society and Lyric Theatre. The American Choral Directors Association also declared the Arts District as home, moving in across from the Civic Center. And one of the most recent improvements downtown – the renovation of the Myriad Gardens – has provided an even more beautiful venue for Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park, the Arts Council of Oklahoma City Festival of the Arts and Summer Concert Series.”
She credits local leaders for the vision and momentum that has made possible the continued revitalization of arts and culture in downtown.
“Oklahoma City has been fortunate to have forward-thinking leadership that recognizes the importance of the arts, and corporations and individuals who believe in supporting the arts as well,” she says. “The developments downtown have been transformational to say the least.”
“I believe that this is just the beginning and we will continue to see more artists and more arts organizations finding their way to downtown.”
Some of the most energetic and eclectic transformations in downtown Oklahoma City have occurred around a short stretch of Broadway Avenue between Northwest Fourth Street and West Park Place: Automobile Alley. Once home to the majority of the city’s car dealerships in the 1920s and 1930s, the area eventually declined into an industrial section of downtown before just declining, period.
That all changed when Steve Mason of Cardinal Engineering got involved. Originally, Mason says his plan was to buy the building at 1015 Broadway Ave. and sell it quickly for a profit. But he admits, “I didn’t stick to the plan.”
And the citizens of Oklahoma City are glad he didn’t. Thanks in large part to development by Mason and others, Automobile Alley is rapidly becoming one of the most famous districts of the city. In the seven short years since Mason purchased the 1015 Broadway building, the area has become home to everything from coffee and bicycle shops to Wayne Coyne’s eye-popping Womb Gallery and Red Prime Steak, recently voted one of the Top 10 Best Steakhouses in the country.
Deborah McAuliffe Senner, president and CEO of the Automobile Alley-headquartered Allied Arts, says it’s been exciting to watch the district thrive.
“There are constantly new neighbors moving in, which makes for a very exciting atmosphere of progress and community,” she says. “From Congressmen to coffee shops, from restaurants to retail – Automobile Alley is a great place to be.”
And Mason’s plans for the area are far from finished.
“My ultimate vision is a perfect walk from Broadway and Fourth Street, up Broadway, down 10th Street to Plaza Court – a wonderful walking experience due to the interesting development that is all around,” he says. “When we visit other cities, we walk their downtown. We sometimes go to urban areas where we walk for two hours … that’s the goal. Part of the urban experience is the downtown pedestrian experience.”
A Bright Future
Downtown Oklahoma City’s metamorphosis from urban blight into a hotbed of business and culture has made it a model for other struggling cities around the nation. For the first time in decades, Oklahoma City’s star seems firmly fixed on success.
“As the Skirvin Hotel has come back online, as Bricktown has become a magnet for tourists… where streets were empty at 7 at night, you see people walking, both visitors and residents,” Reid says. “That combination has made this a more vibrant 24-hour place.”
“I think we’re assured a positive environment here for 10 years or so,” says Cornett. “The construction already scheduled downtown assures the vitality of the urban core.
“Live, work or play, downtown Oklahoma City is now a regional destination for all of that.”