As one of the owners of three of the largest office buildings along Park Place, Mark Beffort is hoping that lessons learned over the past three years of Project 180 construction might spare his tenants at least some of the pain experienced elsewhere during the downtown makeover.
The start of the new year marks a crossroads for Project 180, the reconstruction of streets, sidewalks and parks funded through tax increment established with construction of Devon Energy Center. Revenue bonds are being issued by the city for the remainder of the work, major corridors are being converted to two-way traffic, and engineers are promising the next wave of work will be less painful for downtown workers, pedestrians and motorists.
Oklahoma City Public Works Director Eric Wenger admits too little effort went into planning detours and traffic patterns during design of previous street reconstruction with Project 180. During the past year, motorists and pedestrians alike were frustrated by closings along parallel sections of Walker, Hudson and Robinson Avenues. Streets were torn up without barriers providing protected outlets for pedestrians and drivers.
“Over the last year, there were a lot of lessons learned,” said Beffort, who leads an investment group that owns Leadership Square, Oklahoma Tower and City Place Tower, all located along Park Avenue. “What's great is with the next streets (including Park Avenue), they are going to do one street at a time.”
First phases near completion
City officials are celebrating what they see as an end to the first five phases of Project 180. They note a significant amount of work was completed, including the makeovers of the Myriad Gardens and Civic Center park, and the reconstruction and conversion to two-way traffic of sections of Walker, Hudson, Harvey and Robinson Avenues.
Long before Project 180 was launched, the six-lane, one-way Hudson Avenue between Sheridan Avenue and Park Avenue was highlighted by critics as an example of a road that was built to accommodate freeway traffic with no consideration for pedestrians.
But those successes were offset by controversies and agony for downtown business owners. Trattoria il Centro, The Lunch Box, the Olive Branch and Eden Salon all closed while surrounding streets and sidewalks were torn up with no secured access for pedestrians.
Contractors were criticized for tearing up streets and then abandoning projects for weeks or months. City officials said some of the delays were due to unexpected underground obstacles, including basements and old utilities. But on other projects, contractors simply chose to relocate manpower to other jobs and not return until deadlines neared.
When Maggie Howell, co-owner of the Trattoria il Centro, announced she was closing the restaurant at 500 W Main, she blamed her woes on what she called poor planning with Project 180.
“There was zero consideration for businesses already existing here,” Howell told The Oklahoman in a March 2012 interview. “Despite us going to meeting after meeting speaking to anybody we could go to, there was no real consideration for what they were doing to small businesses when they were tearing up Main and Walker at the same time, and then the Civic Center.”
Restructuring of Project 180 began in mid-2012. City officials first re-evaluated what work could still be done within the remaining available funding, which also was experiencing a shortfall in revenues.
Brent Bryant, economic development coordinator with the city's manager's office, reports the financial picture is a bit rosier than expected following approval by the city council to issue up to $155 million in bonds that will be paid off from revenues received from the Devon Energy Center tax increment financing district.
While the sales tax component of the financing district fell short by $10 million, ongoing discussions with Devon Energy officials and the county assessor have led to the city looking a valuation for the property that is higher than the initial $750 million estimate.
“We anticipate the total development cost to be in excess of $800 million and we anticipate finalizing that number by the end of this month,” Bryant said. “The financial picture is much better. It's a combination of things; the value of the property coming in as it is … Market conditions allow us to borrow more. Interest rates are at an all-time low for us.”
The bond funding will allow the city to pay off money borrowed from Devon to start Project 180 before the headquarters was built. With interest and money drawn on the loan, the city will pay $91.2 million.
“A year ago when we did our budget, (we) had to live within 95 million borrowing constraints,” Bryant said. “Now, we live within the constraints of the cash flow of the appraised property.”
That cash flow, along with a federal grant, is allowing the public works department to add back in some projects they looked at eliminating last year.
A $750,000 federal grant is being combined with Project 180 funding to rebuild E.K. Gaylord between Reno Avenue and Main Street. The city also will proceed with improvements to the City Hall park between Couch and Colcord Drives just west of Hudson Avenue. Both projects were in jeopardy.
Other work set to begin over the next two years includes reconstruction of Park Avenue — considered to be the most complicated of the street projects because it is lined with skyscrapers.
Improvements also are planned for seminar space at the Myriad Gardens, and pedestrian passageways that weave between Corporate and Oklahoma Towers, Robinson Renaissance and Devon Energy Center.
Looking forward, Wenger promises that barrier walls similar to those set up around the Myriad Gardens will be used to create protected pedestrian and motorist corridors on torn up streets. Detours are being contemplated as part of design work, and contractors will be allowed to work on only two to three blocks at once.
“This will help area businesses, and it will help contractors stay focused on particular blocks,” Wenger said. “We look to be a lot more phased approach to future packages, which we didn't in the past. It may require that construction take a bit longer than in previous packages.”
Beffort said he's happy with communications to date with Project 180 planners, and is holding off on repairs to the plaza outside Leadership Square so that it can be rebuilt in a manner that complements the adjoining street and sidewalk improvements along Park Avenue.
Cathy O'Connor, president of The Alliance for Economic Development of Oklahoma City, appreciates the pain experienced with Project 180, but also believes the end result will boost downtown redevelopment.
“It's a much easier place to navigate once the streets are finished,” O'Connor said. “The two-way streets are easier to navigate whether you're on foot or traveling by car. And the change in appearance makes for a very attractive downtown. It's put downtown Oklahoma City on the radar screen for developers and commercial Realtors looking for space for national companies, and I believe we'll start to see the benefits of that.”
What is a TIF?
A tax increment finance district, also known as a TIF, allows a city, town or county to use tax money generated by a new development to pay for public improvements in the development area. Improvements associated with redevelopment projects can be supported by bonds, with the debt to be repaid by money generated within the TIF district. The TIF for the new Devon Tower will last for 25 years and projects were started three years ago through a $95 million loan from the company to the city that will be paid back from assessments and longer-term revenue bond financing.