The question of who owns downtown's underground pedestrian tunnels is once again becoming an issue as Downtown Oklahoma City Inc. is spending more than $24,000 to repair flooding damage that occurred during a torrential May 31st storm.
The water was pumped out within a day of the storm. Most of the repairs are being covered by the business improvement district, which is operated by the organization. But its staff also was surprised to learn this past month that such damage is not insured.
“It's not clear who owns The Underground,” said A.J. Kirkpatrick, director of operations at Downtown Oklahoma City Inc. “That's the response I get talking to a lot of people.”
Such confusion isn't new, even though the tunnels are used daily by thousands of downtown workers who go underground during inclement weather or extreme heat.
The tunnels' origins
The tunnels were built in the 1970s under the guidance of Jack Conn, chief executive officer of Fidelity Bank.
Conn and other major civic leaders worked out an agreement. Fifteen major property owners whose buildings connected to the tunnels agreed to pay for the system's maintenance and operation. Revocable permits were issued by the city to the Oklahoma Industrial Authority to build the system.
The agreement worked until the 25-year contracts and permits expired in 1998. At that point those who backed the creation of the tunnels, and most of the institutions they represented, had disappeared during the 1980s oil bust.
To make matters more confusing, portions of the tunnels cross under buildings and are owned by those property owners. Other portions of the tunnels pass under city, county and federal properties.
A couple of the tunnels, most notably one that crosses under Hudson Avenue and connects to the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, were never finished and opened.
Some representatives of the Conncourse Association argued the tunnels were owned by the city and it was obligated to take them over. Then Mayor Kirk Humphreys denied responsibility.
The solution was the 2001 creation of the downtown business improvement district, which also paid for a long overdue makeover, which was designed by architect Rand Elliott. It was then that the tunnels were renamed The Underground.
“The city took out insurance during the redesign, but then stopped sometime after it was finished,” Kirkpatrick said. “I'm not sure what went into that decision.”
Kirkpatrick said the city remains uninterested in claiming ownership of the tunnels.
He said research indicates that the responsibility to insure the tunnels belongs to either the Oklahoma Industries Authority, which is run by The Alliance for Economic Development for Oklahoma City, or the Oklahoma City Public Property Authority, which consists of the city council.
“I've asked several times ‘Why can't you guys insure it if we can't insure it?'” Kirkpatrick said. “‘The answer I get is they assumed that after it was redesigned, it was self insured.”
Cathy O'Connor, who oversees the Oklahoma Industries Authority, said Friday she's still uncertain about the ownership of the tunnels, but added if the authority's help is needed, it will do what it can.
“It doesn't have many resources,” O'Connor said.
Kirkpatrick said the time has come to resolve lingering questions involving the tunnels' ownership, insurance and operations.
Damage sustained during the May 31 flood affected flooring, security cameras, air conditioning and sign graphics.
“This has opened my eyes that there are contingencies we can't build into the business improvement district budget,” Kirkpatrick said.
“The business improvement district can't handle a catastrophic failure.”
A brief history of the tunnels
The Underground tunnels faced closure twice last time the ownership question was raised.
The first segment of The Underground dates back to 1931, when hotelier W.B. Skirvin built an underground connection beneath Broadway to link the Skirvin Hotel and what was then the Skirvin Tower, now the 101 Park Avenue building.
Jack Conn, chairman of Fidelity Bank, and Dean A. McGee, chairman of Kerr-McGee, led development of the tunnel system in the 1970s. Under Conn's leadership, the tunnels were expanded into a half-mile system that spans an area between NW 4, Sheridan Avenue, Broadway and Hudson Avenue.
Construction on the expansion started in 1972, and continued through 1984 when the last connection was built into Leadership Square.
Closing the system became a possibility in 1998 when an original operating agreement between the property owners and the Oklahoma Industries Authority expired. Closing also was discussed in 1999 when it appeared not enough funds were pledged to keep it open.
The tunnel's ongoing operations and immediate repair needs appeared to be settled when they were taken over by the downtown business improvement district in 2001.
It's not clear who owns The Underground. That's the response I get talking to a lot of people.”
Director of operations at Downtown Oklahoma City Inc.