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City Staff: Core to Shore Park Designers Never Sought to Save Film Exchange Building

by Steve Lackmeyer Modified: September 24, 2013 at 6:15 pm •  Published: September 24, 2013

When the MAPS 3 citizens park subcommittee meets on Wednesday, will they be told the truth?

Several weeks ago I began posing some questions about whether a genuine effort had been undertaken to see whether the Film Exchange Building on the Core to Shore park site could be saved or redeveloped. At the time, the message back from designers was that all that could be done was done.

The truth, apparently, is a complicated matter when it comes to planning of the MAPS 3 projects. Recall that for months, members were told that “city council” instructions dictated that the MAPS 3 Core to Shore park be built in 2014 when no such council decision had taken place. Ditto for “city council” instructions that $30 million of the MAPS 3 money had been dedicated to buying an OG&E substation in the Core to Shore area.

Now we have another questionable truth: whether a sincere effort was undertaken by park designers to save the old Film Exchange building or incorporate it into the park before pushing for it to be destroyed.

Mary Margaret Jones, project coordinator with Hargreaves Associates, and Hans Butzer, a local architect for whom I have great respect and consider a friend, both argued they sought to see how the building might be incorporated into the park when pressed about it during a series of meetings in late July.

They said non-profits were invited to tour the building, and none were interested in making it home. They said they sought someone who might determine if it could be redeveloped, and found none. They indicated a redevelopment was not feasible. When pressed for details, it turns out those tours didn’t have many in attendance, and the development community was not represented, though a contractor was there for the tour that felt the buildings were not feasible to save (I’ll note similar advice was offered to Steve Mason by a contractor, and if it were followed, the Ninth Street we know today would not exist).

But advocates of saving the building have argued otherwise. Indeed, I’ve been approached by multiple parties, including some very prominent developers, who would love to have a shot at restoring the building.

Now, here’s my dilemma; Hans Butzer, who I’ve known for a long time and is the local partner with Jones, and who has continually shown brilliance in his approach to design and planning, insists a genuine effort was made to see if the Film Exchange building could be saved.

Yet a conversation with Planning Director Russell Claus, former Assistant City Manager and current Urban Renewal director Cathy O’Connor, and MAPS 3 coordinator David Todd have all told me the planners have continuously, since the very start, sought and assumed that the building would be torn down.

This rendering was generated by Hargreaves Associates during the 2009 MAPS 3 campaign. Notice the east edge (shown left) does not show any hint of the Film Exchange Building being saved.
This rendering was generated by Hargreaves Associates during the 2009 MAPS 3 campaign. Notice the east edge (shown left) does not show any hint of the Film Exchange Building being saved.

This assumption, Claus said, dates back to when Hargreaves was hired during the MAPS 3 campaign to draw up renderings and a model to show how a park might be developed.

When Hargreaves was hired again for actual park design, Todd said the city gave no instructions concerning the fate of the Film Exchange Building.

“They were told to give us a good park design, within budget and the timeline,” Todd said. “We never said save this or save that, other than everyone being on board with saving Union Station. She (Jones) went with a design, and that’s how it worked out. It didn’t fit with that park.”

Todd also noted the city never commissioned a structural analysis on the buildings.

Claus said a historic building analysis indicated the building was not individually eligible for placement on the National Register of Historic Places. I asked, but was this not true also for other buildings that were once in similar shape?

Absolutely. It’s here that Claus adds an important clarification; this is only the conclusion based on the building’s current condition, and it could be eligible if the boards were removed and the building were restored.

Exactly. So situation normal.

Another person joining this discussion is Urban Renewal attorney Leslie Batchelor, another person who I greatly admire, and who has also been involved in the legal work for acquisitions. What drove the proposed demolition, she acknowledged, was the design of the park, and what the designers were recommending.

“Their answer to me is there was not a real structural issue with the Film Exchange building,” Todd added. “The one to the north is in very sad shape.”

But the one to the north? The more notable one shown in the historic photo at the top of this post?

“It’s fine,” Todd said. “There are more penetrations to the floor, but there’s nothing from a visual standpoint that is wrong with it.”

Yet another rendering of the park, released in January, again shows no hint of the Film Exchange building being saved.
Yet another rendering of the park, released in January, again shows no hint of the Film Exchange building being saved.

The MAPS 3 office never gave instructions on whether the building should be torn down, Todd said. Batchelor concurred, adding “all along, it’s a design decision to tear it down.”

Then came a bit of surprising news to me – Todd, O’Connor, Batchelor and Claus all seemed to concur that it was not their place to question or challenge the designers. Hargreaves and Butzer, they noted, were world renown designers.

Who is really qualified to challenge them?
But the designers don’t own the land, aren’t paying for the park, and Jones will remember the park only through photos in a portfolio book from her far away office when all is said and done.

And there are local folks who seem to disagree with whether the designers know what is best.

After talking to those involved, reversing this situation won’t be easy. For whatever reason, the city, and not Urban Renewal, acquired the building, making redevelopment more challenging. But time and time again, I’ve seen the city overcome such challenges when motivated to do so.

To sum up, question what you’ve been told, and assume the designers are not friendly to challenging their ideals for a new Core to Shore park. Ultimately, this call will await a final vote by the city council – who are, by city charter, given the sort policy making on this kind of debate that we’ve sometimes seen assumed by designers and consultants.

And city council? They work for you.

by Steve Lackmeyer
Business Reporter
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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