The Oklahoma City skyline is set to grow again with plans set to build a high-rise tower topping 20 stories on the current site of the long-troubled Stage Center theater.
Rainey Williams, president of Kestrel Investments, is set to buy the 3.15-acre property Friday morning from the Kirkpatrick Center Affiliated Fund of The Oklahoma City Community Foundation for $4.275 million.
The tower, which will front the Myriad Gardens to the east and the new John W. Rex Elementary to the west, will likely include retail on the ground floor and space for an anchor tenant and potentially other occupants on the remaining floors.
Williams said that the tower does not have a lease signed yet with an anchor tenant, but that negotiations are ongoing. Williams also could not say whether he might seek tax increment financing or other public funding to assist in the development of the tower or an adjoining parking garage.
“Our goal is to in 90 days be able to announce the anchor tenant and release the preliminary site design work,” Williams said. “We are very excited to announce our plans for this property, which we think has tremendous potential.”
Stage Center demise
Williams, a lifelong Oklahoma City resident, acknowledged the development is being pursued at the expense of a property he knows is treasured by the architectural and preservation communities.
Stage Center closed after it was damaged by extensive flooding in June 2010. The building was designed by the late John Johanson, an architect who studied with Frank Lloyd Wright. The building is designed “inside out,” and won accolades in the international architecture world and is featured in architectural textbooks.
The Oklahoma City Community Foundation gave the Central Oklahoma Chapter of the American Institute of Architects five months to find a buyer able to acquire and renovate the theater. That effort failed to result in any parties stepping forward that had financing for any rescue effort.
Williams said he would not have been interested in redeveloping the site had the foundation not completed extensive studies on preserving the theater and allowed the architecture community a chance to find a party that could renovate the landmark.
The theater is in worse shape than it was three years ago due to the theft of wiring and more flooding that occurred on May 31.
“As a native of Oklahoma City, I personally put a great deal of thought into the property and the Stage Center facility, and unfortunately, it's just not a usable space,” Williams said. “Removal of Stage Center is simply the next logical step in the evolution of making this property usable again. There is a well-defined process to remove the structure, and we will work with the city to make sure we follow all the necessary steps to obtain approval and safely remove it from the property.”
The announcement is a sad turn for civic leader Jim Tolbert, who spent 35 years overseeing efforts to keep the theater open. One of the auditoriums was named in honor of his mother, Mary Noble Tolbert, and Tolbert personally hosted a return of Johanson for a return visit in 2008.
“I think it's a tragic loss the community,” Tolbert said. “It's a loss of a very architecturally significant statement. It's a very interesting performing arts space we don't have enough of. I've done a lot, I've participated in a lot of efforts to find a financial solution, and I'm disappointed that wasn't possible.”
Stage Center's legacy, Tolbert said, is that it fostered the growth of a thriving theater community while exposing the city to the creative potential of good design.
Tolbert said he hopes the Downtown Design Review Committee, which must approve the demolition before a permit is issued, will thoroughly review the demolition application, ensure the project is viable and has a tenant lineup that will ensure the project is completed.
Williams promised he will not pursue a demolition permit without an anchor tenant tied to the development.
Impact on Festival of the Arts
Williams also said he will be sensitive to the needs of the annual Festival of the Arts, which uses the adjoining former Central Fire Station complex for its food and entertainment plaza during its annual spring event.
The development required an application by the Oklahoma City Community Foundation to have the city formally close the former stretch of California Avenue between Stage Center and the arts plaza.
Williams said construction likely would not interfere with the 2014 festival, but could cause inconveniences during the 2015 event.
Williams said he plans to meet with the Oklahoma City Arts Council to identify opportunities to improve and advance the festival, and also with the Myriad Gardens Foundation to ensure the property's development complements the surrounding areas.
“The proximity of the site to the Oklahoma City Arts Festival is one of the primary reasons we were attracted to the property,” Williams said. “Further, we see the engagement of the arts community being a vital part of this new development. Our project will not only build on the site's rich history, it will greatly aid in the continued revitalization of an important area of downtown Oklahoma City.”
More older buildings may fall
Mayor Mick Cornett is predicting Stage Center won't be the last older building threatened with demolition as downtown development continues at a pace unmatched in the past half century.
“Intellectually we understand it, but emotionally, it is harder to let it go,” Cornett said. “The larger context, I'm afraid, is that we are entering an era here where we have to swallow hard and consider what buildings may have to go to make way for new development.”
Cornett said he realizes such demolition may remind residents of the 1960s/1970s era Urban Renewal when hundreds of buildings were torn down, leaving large empty blocks that remained undeveloped for years if not decades.
“It seems to me the difference is we have a plan for what we're going to put in that space,” Cornett said. “Before it was a weed-and-seed kind of thing, and the seed didn't come.”
The tower announcement coincides with the final day of the American Chamber of Commerce Executives conference, which is being attended by 900 delegates. The theme is “momentum.”
“What's continually interesting is we are building things when others are not,” Cornett said. “Generally you might think a city is having a building boom while other cities are, but that's not true right now. There is just a small list of places seeing this economic activity. We are very fortunate.”
Office space lacking
Cornett said the addition of Class A office space for lease is addressing a desperate need with the downtown market narrowed down to almost zero percent vacancy. Leadership Square, built 30 years ago, was the last such addition of leasable Class A downtown office space.
Roy Williams, president of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, said the tower adds to the story being told to companies nationwide; Oklahoma City is on the rise, and is an attractive candidate for corporate expansion and relocation.
“We've been able over the last five to ten years to craft a story based on reality about the transformation that we've talked about; it's occurring,” Williams said. “You see it with the city being shown by all these third parties with rankings. There is a great deal of momentum going on in Oklahoma City, and this tells that story.”
Roy Williams also recalled how skeptics worried that the downtown Oklahoma City office market might crater when the 50-story Devon Energy Center was announced in 2008.
“They thought there would be a glut in office space,” Roy Williams said. “But it created even more demand. We ended up with more companies wanting to be downtown.”
Rainey Williams, meanwhile, is promising that his development won't disappoint.
“I'm very excited to be doing this project,” Williams said. “I've been in this community my entire life, and we've seen where out-of-state owners didn't work out as well. We're going to build a high-rise that will be world class in every way.”