When Melodie Garneau sought a spot to open a combined coffee shop, wine bar and small independent theater, she instantly thought of Film Row along the west fringe of downtown.
What she didn't expect was the spot she chose, the Paramount Building, at the corner of Lee and Sheridan avenues, already had a 75-seat theater that dates back to when Paramount Pictures gave advance screenings to cinema operators throughout the region.
“Oklahoma's film industry is really taking off. It took some years for it to happen, but filmmakers are getting into the work scene, getting recognition,” Garneau said. “We hope to be a venue for deadCENTER Film Festival next year. … it's great for people as they learn what this area used to be.”
What it used to be depends on the age of those with the memories. Old-timers will recall the days when the area around the 700 block of W Sheridan Avenue, known as Grand Avenue through the 1960s, was home to dozens of Hollywood studio outposts and theater supply companies.
From the 1970s through just a few years ago, however, it was better known as “skid row” — a place most residents avoided. But developer Chip Fudge saw promise in the old Art Deco-style buildings. Fudge joined up with designer David Wanzer in 2004 in drafting a redevelopment plan for the area, that ultimately would include an ambitious streetscape that preceded the Project 180 makeover of all downtown streets.
Fudge, sitting in a packed Joey's Pizzeria in his Film Exchange Building for lunch on Wednesday, sees those streetscape improvements as a big contributor to the current flurry of development and new tenants.
Upcoming building renovations include the Main Street Arcade, built in 1922 and long known as the Downtown Baptist Church mission until it was sold in 2009 to Corsair Real Estate. Plans filed with the Downtown Design Review Commission show the building is about to undergo a makeover that will include a new paint job, doors, windows and canopies.
Wanzer and Hans Butzer, both partners in Butzer Gardner Architects (Butzer is also a professor at the University of Oklahoma School of Architecture), are planning their own building project that will turn a nondescript one-story building at 718 W Sheridan Ave. into the strip's only piece of modern architecture.
Their plans, also being reviewed this week by the Downtown Design Review Committee, call for the addition of a second story running east and west that overlap the parking lot. That overhang, Wanzer said, is designed to help make the parking lot a community space and potentially an outdoor viewing spot for the deadCENTER Film Festival.
“We're looking at it more as a public space, the front door to our building, and as an urban connector to a new urban landscape, parking area and an alley that was once railway right of way that will now be a park shared by buildings all along it,” Butzer said.
An influx of people
Similar efforts are being taken by Fudge as he continues renovations of the Hart Building at 726 W Sheridan Ave. and Douglas Sorocco/Dunlap Codding, an intellectual property rights law firm, as it turns an empty warehouse at 609 W Sheridan Ave. into its new headquarters.
Fudge estimates the Hart Building renovation is about 40 percent complete with steel installation set to be finished next month. A new parking lot being constructed to the south of the building includes extensive landscaping and a lot made with crushed asphalt to give up less heat. The parking lot, Fudge said, is designed to tie into the same alley turned parkway that will connect with the future home of Butzer Gardner Architects.
DeeMah Ramadan, designer with Design Build Group, which is overseeing the renovation at 609 W Sheridan Ave., said plans call for a green space at the entrance to an adjoining parking lot. When reviewing historic photos of the property, Ramadan said she was delighted to see a decades-old photo showing a garden in the very same spot.
“It's purely ironic we're putting green space in the same exact spot that it used to be in the early 1900s,” Ramadan said.
With the continued redevelopment of long-neglected buildings comes an influx of people. Ramadan said 35 people are expected to move into the new Douglas Sorocco/Dunlap Codding headquarters. About 175 people will work in the Hart Building when it becomes home to Claims Management Resources; Credit Collections Inc. and Ferrell Oil.
‘The next hot spot'
Negotiations also are under way for a third location of the Health Nut Cafe to open in the Hart Building, while the Oklahoma City Coworking Collaborative opened this week at 704 W Sheridan Ave. Garneau, meanwhile, is banking on the growing buzz of Film Row to fill up seats at her Paramount OKC when it opens next month with nightly (except Sundays) independent film screenings, poetry readings and history presentations.
With all this activity, and Devon Energy Center in the foreground, friends are no longer mocking Fudge for plowing his money into “skid row.”
“Life is good,” Fudge said. “My friends who thought I was nuts for doing this initially now think I'm brilliant. Really, I'm just lucky. We're continuing to buy property in the area. And if the boulevard (planned along the alignment of the old Interstate 40) goes in at ground level as I expect, I think the area south of here will be the next hot spot.”