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Uncomfortable Question: Why are Local Architecture Firms Losing Work to Out-of-Town Firms?

by Steve Lackmeyer Modified: June 13, 2013 at 12:45 pm •  Published: June 13, 2013
Paul Ryckbost
Paul Ryckbost

Paul Ryckbost, one of several very talented people who have left the Oklahoma City Planning Department in the wake of engineers’ dominance over City Hall, has a great blog that sometimes tracks his ongoing renovation of a historic home he and family have moved into in Lincoln Terrace. At other times he delves into the very questions and issues that makes one wish he was still at the city’s planning department (don’t worry, all the engineers are still at their desks overseeing everything from the MAPS 3 projects downtown, Project 180 and design of the new boulevard).
So in his latest post, Paul asks:

Why do many of the developers end up choosing out-of-town architects for their developments? I pose the same question for interior design projects, especially restaurants, and for landscape architecture.

Why indeed?
He notes that while TAP Architecture and Bryan Fitzsimmons have continued to snag some high profile downtown projects, the big buzz seems to be geared toward out of town firms like GTF Design of Bedford, Texas and AHMM in London.
So yes, Paul has a good question. He left a poll for folks to answer with as well.
He provides four options. Architects in OKC don’t know what they’re doing; Architects in OKC can’t handle this size of work; Architects in OKC are too busy; Architects in OKC aren’t in tune with current design trends.
Interesting. Paul quite cleverly throws in the option “architects in OKC are too busy” knowing very well this is a stalking horse. It’s simply not going to fly as a legitimate reason.
But does the truth lie in the other answers?
It wasn’t that long ago that other local firms were getting the work. And thanks to the Maywood development area in Deep Deuce, we can make comparisons.
Dear architects – I love you guys. And so many of you quietly suggest to me that what this town needs is an architecture critic. I’m not that guy. And I’m not going to pretend to be now. But I know just enough to be provocative even at the risk of angering folks who are great contributors and readers to this blog. I’m not trying to insult anyone. But I do think Paul has a good question – and I’m ready to turn the focus on the work that might suggest why work is shifting to outsiders.
Let’s take a look at the work of HSE Architects, a firm that got a shot at a couple of high profile housing projects early in the game – The Centennial in Lower Bricktown and the 2nd Street Lofts in Maywood.

2nd Street Lofts by HSE Architects.
2nd Street Lofts by HSE Architects.

The developer was Ron Bradshaw, in the days before he was teamed up with Texas contractor and developer Charlie Nicholas. I realize that architects are captive to their clients’ budgets and taste. But in this case, we have a project by the local and by the out-of-town firms two blocks away from each other, on similar steep grades, and with similar parking podium topped by apartments models.
2nd Street Lofts is now cited by folks I talk to as an example of how not to do a project. The answer to the incline with HSE was to create a large blank concrete wall separating the sidewalk from the raised first floor balcony entries to the building’s retail. Needless to say, other than a salon, this space has not worked as retail, but has seen some leasing as office space.
For his second project, the first phase of the Maywood Apartments, again, a couple blocks away, very similar grade, Bradshaw hired an out-of-town architect. Dallas architect Jack C. Irwin came up with this design:

Maywood Apartments at NE 4 and Oklahoma.
Maywood Apartments at NE 4 and Oklahoma.

That project is going up now.

Maywood Apartments being built at NE 4 and Oklahoma Avenue.

It looks different than the 2nd Street Lofts (originally called the Maywood Lofts). But a closer glance hints at an ongoing struggle with the incline.
So, why did developer Richard McKown hire a firm out of London? First off, let’s understand that long distance isn’t as expensive as it once was now that we’re in the digital age. Of course, that didn’t change the game here. Instead, a hometown boy, Wade Scaramucci, was seeking an opportunity to bring a new outside influence to downtown Oklahoma City architecture.
And guess what? He figured out how to tackle the incline that prevails throughout Deep Deuce:

Native Roots Market at Level.
Native Roots Market at Level.

It works. Through the use of stepped down store fronts, Level’s ground floor connects directly with the sidewalk, is home to a Native Roots Market and soon a pub-style Johnnies Hamburgers.
Level isn’t without some critics in the design community who question whether the white exterior will age well. But for now, it’s far better regarded than the 2nd Street Lofts. And Scaramucci’s firm is getting more and more work, including Level West that will be built this summer:

Bradshaw, teamed up with Charlie Nicholas, hired a new outsider for the second phase of the Maywood Apartments, which is set to be built later this year. The designs are far different than Bradshaw’s previous two projects, and I’ve heard a lot of praise for the renderings since I reported on the project on Tuesday:
Maywood Apartments, Phase 2, by GTF Design.
Maywood Apartments, Phase 2, by GTF Design.

I’m almost certain that Paul’s post is inspired by the sudden burst of work being done by GTF Design – work that is generally getting rave reviews.
Their first big project, to my knowledge, was The Edge, which is being built by Nicholas’ firm and developed by Gary Brooks.

The Edge, as shown at NW 13 and Walker.
The Edge, as shown at NW 13 and Walker.

This week they’ve got renderings coming out not just for the second phase of the Maywood Apartments, but also the east Bricktown development being done by Brooks and Andy Burnett. This rendering by GTF was presented today to the Bricktown Urban Design Committee – again to rave reviews:

This blog post is not meant to be a slam on HSE. There are other firms that were active downtown that have slipped a bit in their share of the work. And the locals can change. ADG Inc. was starting to lose out on some work – but got back into the mix with their often praised design for the Bricktown Holiday Inn Express:
Future Holiday Inn Express, Bricktown
Future Holiday Inn Express, Bricktown

I’ve got high regard for ADG Inc. I have friends in that shop, people I’ve admired for a long time. But whether they’re responsible or not, their design for Legacy at Arts Quarter was seen as a low point. Some other designs pitched for projects that didn’t move forward were seen, according to some observers I’ve talked to, as being too much rehash of prior concepts. Whether that’s a fair complaint of not, the Holiday Inn Express marked a dramatic change in how Bricktown hotels are designed – and I’m eager to see what they might do next. The ability and willingness to adapt, change, and throw out prior thoughts on urban design may not be the only reason for the influx of out-of-state firms – but an embrace of such qualities certainly won’t hurt the chances of our talented locals to stay in the competition.

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by Steve Lackmeyer
Business Reporter
Steve Lackmeyer is a reporter, columnist and author who started his career at The Oklahoman in 1990. Since then, he has won numerous awards for his coverage, which included the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, the city's...
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