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City, Consultants Never Invited Developers to Look at Film Exchange Building

by Steve Lackmeyer Published: July 31, 2013

Listening to last week’s debate over the fate of the Film Exchange Building at SW 5 and Robinson, a casual observer might have concluded that the city’s MAPS 3 staff and designers did everything they could to generate interest in saving the structure. My coverage of this matter began last week as I provided proof that the building was actually set to be preserved when the city stopped that effort with the prior owners. Frequent OKC Central contributor Will Hider, meanwhile, provided a better look at the building the city wants to destroy.

City staff hoped to get the demolition done fairly quickly. A casual follower of downtown development might have not even noticed the Film Exchange demolition was on the agenda of last week’s MAPS 3 citizens oversight board agenda (I didn’t see the name mentioned once in the document).

The demolition application by the city’s MAPS 3 staff was scheduled on a very busy docket that included topics that were sure to wear down the volunteer committee (streetcar routes, wellness center site selection, trails and river improvements), and also during what was known to be a very busy news cycle.

The plan was to get the MAPS 3 committee to approve the demolition, get the assistant city planner who oversees the Downtown Design Review Committee to provide a staff level approval instead of submitting it to the design committee, and then place it on a city council docket (were they also hoping to place it on yet another loaded up docket?) for final approval for the bulldozers to get started.

That didn’t work out as planned, as I reported last week. And I’ve since talked to members of the Downtown Design Review Committee who say that the plan to go with a city staff review and approval likely won’t happen – the committee will want to review this themselves (exactly how does a city staffer provide an unbiased  review and approval of a controversial building demolition being sought by the same city government? Can I start reviewing my own performance at work and setting future raises for myself?)

My experience over the past couple of years, however, has led me to dig a bit deeper on such assurances and not assume that city staff, politicos and consultants truly have all the answers and always know what’s best.

Consider that when it came to site selection for the MAPS 3 convention center, Mayor Mick Cornett instructed the citizens oversight committee that they had only two choices to consider – the Southwestern Producers Cooperative south of Harkins Theater and the one favored by Cornett, an OG&E substation east of the future Core to Shore park.

Funny thing happened along the way; the citizens oversight committee and consultants determined there were two better sites, one east of the Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark and one south of the Myriad Gardens.

The former Fred Jones dealership site south of the gardens was chosen.

Oops.

Let’s also recall that city staff (Eric Wenger) repeatedly told the MAPS citizens oversight committee was told repeatedly that the city council had instructed that $30 million of the MAPS 3 money go toward acquisition and relocation of that same OG&E substation.

That answer fell apart several months later when the majority of the council said they had made no such decision. I already knew that they certainly hadn’t made any such decision at any city council meetings, where such votes are supposed to be held in public.

Let’s also recall that the phrase “city council instructions” also was cited by Wenger in explaining that the Core to Shore park had to be done by 2014.

One problem; they had done no such thing. Again, I asked questions, the kind of questions that sometimes make a bit of an annoyance at City Hall.

I’m OK with that.

Finally, let’s remember that according to City Hall and ODOT, there was simply no way to change the design of the downtown boulevard set to be built in the path of the former I-40. Anyone who has followed this project knows that if enough common folks show up to protest, such rigid refusals to make changes to 14-year-old plans can and do fall apart.

So now we are dealing with more assurances concerning the Film Exchange Building that stands on the eastern fringe of the future MAPS 3 Core to Shore park.

The oversight committee was told by MAPS 3 program director David Todd all possible users were approached in trying to redevelop the property and that the building was deemed structurally unsound.

Oh really?

Again, I dig.

My inquiries about potential users being approached to tour the building were met with a list of invites, but no specifics about who actually took a look at the Film Exchange.

They include representatives of Science Museum Oklahoma, the Philharmonic, Shakespeare in the Park, Arts Council of Oklahoma City, the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, the IAO Gallery, and the Oklahoma City Ballet.

They’re all non-profits. And they’re great folks, but they know nothing about how to redevelop a 93-year-old building.

So, who does know about how to redevelop old buildings? We have experts. Preservation Architect Catherine Montgomery is recognized as perhaps the best in the state, if not the region. She wasn’t invited.

We have developers with great track records in historic building redevelopment; folks like Chip Fudge, Steve Mason, Nick Preftakes, Marva Ellard, Dick Tanenbaum, MidTown Renaissance Group partners Bob Howard, Mickey Clagg and Chris Fleming.

They were not invited, and I now know some were not even aware of this opportunity and are interested in possibly acquiring and renovating the building.

I’ll leave this to others to decide whether every effort was made to find a redeveloper for the old Film Exchange Building.

Architect Hans Butzer, teamed up with park designer Mary Margaret Jones of Hargreaves Associates, told the committee that he was sure the building was unsound.

Look at the following photos for the main building taken by Film Row historian Bradley Wynn:

Does that look structurally unsound? The first building is solid concrete.

The response, of course, is that the second, northern building is more problematic, that the inside is made of rotting wood, not the concrete we see in the main building.

OK.

Consider such conclusions also could have doomed buildings throughout Bricktown, Automobile Alley and MidTown that have since become preservation success stories.

But hey, what do I know? I’m not an expert. So I asked the city for a copy of the structural studies report done on the two buildings.

City staff say they know of no such report.

Oops.
I don’t know what the right answer is for the Film Exchange building the Core to Shore park. But I am skeptical as to whether the MAPS 3 committee and the public have been accurately informed as to what has and hasn’t been attempted. Once again, I am given no reason to take what is reported out of the MAPS 3 office and its consultants at face value. I will continue to second guess and demand proof as such debates continue, just as I did with the original MAPS program.


by Steve Lackmeyer
Reporter Sr.
Steve Lackmeyer is a reporter and columnist 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 Metropolitan...
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