The Bricktown Canal, at first ridiculed as the most frivolous of the nine Metropolitan Area Projects approved by voters in 1993, is now a top tourist draw that has spurred more than $109 million in development since it opened a decade ago. With Bricktown set to celebrate the canal’s 10th anniversary on Thursday, those involved with the project say it has fallen short of expectations in terms of development even as it has become a source of civic pride. The project required excavation of California Avenue between the BNSF Railway viaduct and Walnut Avenue, and creation of a waterway that would flow to just south of Interstate 40. "I couldn’t envision it,” said Kirk Humphreys, who began a six-year tenure as mayor just as construction of the waterway began in 1998. "I didn’t have a clear picture of how it would be as cool as it is.” Humphreys wasn’t alone. Jim Cowan, then owner of the Bricktown Brewery and now director of the Bricktown Association, watched as the waterway transformed the city’s self-image. "It just blew my mind to think that what I knew to be a city street would become a waterway,” Cowan said. "When it opened, we operated satellite locations along the canal because Chelino’s was the only restaurant open. And I was blown away by the comments I heard — people instantly had a sense of pride I didn’t hear before whenever speaking of living in Oklahoma City.”
Boosting businessThe $109 million represents just the development along the waterway. But Cowan argues that other major developments — the Bricktown Hampton Inn, the American Banjo Museum, various projects along Sheridan and Main Street — can all be indirectly linked to the canal. Add those numbers into the mix, Cowan says, and the development attributable to the canal hits at least $140 million — the spin-off originally predicted for all of the MAPS projects. "I think the canal has influenced development throughout Bricktown, and not just along canal,” Cowan said. The canal opening, he said, boosted business for everybody. "There were just so many people coming to Bricktown to try it out,” Cowan said. "We saw a 30 percent increase in business in those months after the opening.”
Some disputes ariseThe canal’s 10-year lifespan hasn’t been without controversy and disappointment. Developer Randy Hogan fought off legal and political challenges by an unsuccessful rival for more than five years before he was able to start construction along the south part of the canal. The resulting development, Lower Bricktown, has more offices than originally planned and has little resemblance to early renderings. The area does have the mix first pitched by Hogan — a theater, entertainment venues, shops, restaurants and condominiums. Several buildings remain boarded up and some key lots remain undeveloped. And for every long-term success story — Mickey Mantle Steakhouse, Chelino’s, Bourbon Street Cafe, Zio’s, Maker’s and Hooters, dozens of failed restaurants and shops have come and gone. "The public side of the canal is outstanding,” Humphreys said. "On the private side, there have been hits and misses. I don’t think it’s a good use of land to have surface parking on canal frontage. It’s some of the best land in Oklahoma City, and that’s not the highest and best use.” Hogan and the Brewer family are the only owners of canal-side parking. Hogan was permitted to build his canal-side parking by the Urban Renewal Authority, which oversaw the development of the Lower Bricktown area. Cowan agrees that despite plenty of success stories, he had hoped to see more development after 10 years. He blames speculation and property owners who, not knowing what to do, thought sitting and doing nothing would simply result in increased property values. In response, Cowan said the Bricktown Association is working with a master plan consultant and has developed a retail recruitment brochure in an effort to bring more diversity into the area. "It’s less than I expected, but I’m encouraged that in a couple years, it may become a lot more than I ever expected,” Cowan said. "It’s very encouraging we’ve had two businesses open up in the past week — one on the canal (Coyote Ugly), one just barely off the canal (The Bricktown Candy Co.). That shows there is still a strong interest among entrepreneurs to be on the canal.”
Canal Trivia→The only restaurant on the canal when it opened was Chelino’s, where patios were added in the rear to face the new waterway. Chelino’s faced constant food shortages during the opening weekend due to high demand. →Other veteran businesses along the canal include Mickey Mantle Steakhouse, Bourbon Street Cafe, Maker’s Cigar Lounge, Zio’s and Hooters. →The first business to open as a direct result of the canal was My Place restaurant. The cafe opened in what is now home to Coyote Ugly just as canal construction started. Access to the restaurant was impeded by construction and it closed before the canal opened. →Bricktown 54 was the first big successful nightclub to open along the canal. →Failed concepts along the canal included an art gallery, Mexican crafts gift shop, pizza parlor and a flag store. →Do you remember: Lotus? Daddy Hinkles? Othello’s? All three restaurants were ambitious upscale restaurants that failed to win a following on the ground floor of the Kingman building. The space was also briefly home to a Banana Joe’s nightclub. →Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Cafe and Planet Hollywood both once expressed an interest in opening restaurants along the canal. →The first boat to cruise the canal was not a water taxi; a contractor acting on a bet sped through the new waterway with his motorboat.
COMING UPMAIN STREET With only weeks remaining before the July 2, 1999, opening of the Bricktown Canal, city officials enlisted Bob Bekoff and his Water Taxi company to start boat operation on the waterway. Tuesday Page 4B
Anniversary Celebration→Thursday: City leaders will gather at 11 a.m. and will unveil tributes to the late Bricktown developers Jim Brewer and Neal Horton and discuss future growth plans for the area. →Friday: The Oklahoma City Philharmonic will perform in the parking lot east of the AT&T Bricktown Ballpark. Gates open at 7 p.m. with the concert starting at 8 p.m. The show will end with a fireworks display. →Saturday: Brewer Entertainment’s holiday festivities return to Bricktown after a two-year stint along the Oklahoma River. The night will end with a fireworks show at the AT&T Bricktown Ballpark.