Editor's note: Today's regular OKC Central column has been refocused for a weeklong series looking at Oklahoma City's revival. The next column will be Sunday.
For a half-century, Kerr-McGee literally led the development of downtown Oklahoma City. Company co-founder Dean A. McGee helped shape the I.M. Pei-envisioned Urban Renewal makeover of downtown and by sheer will made the Myriad Gardens a reality.
Even after McGee's death in 1989, shortly after the gardens opened, the company's workforce of several hundred continued to keep downtown alive at a time when many other companies faded away or moved to the suburbs.
Then, in 2006, just two years after celebrating its 75th anniversary, Kerr-McGee Corp. was swallowed up by Houston-based Anadarko Petroleum Corp.
The company vanished, and its 500,000-square-foot, 29-story tower soon went dark.
Such a departure almost certainly would have been a deadly blow to downtown a decade earlier. But in 2006, the loss of Kerr-McGee barely caused a ripple in downtown's ongoing renaissance.
Momentum is a funny thing. It takes so much work and patience to get something going. Yet when the ball starts rolling, it's difficult to stop.
When the Metropolitan Area Projects ballot was passed in 1993, civic leaders predicted it would spur $140 million in private investment, yet in 2006 alone downtown development exceeded that figure. It was a wonderful time for downtown, with banks lending money on generous terms and housing being built in almost every part of the urban core.
Some housing consisted of new construction, with dozens of new for-sale homes built as part of The Hill, The Brownstones at Maywood Park, The Centennial and Block 42. Older buildings, including the old Sieber Hotel and the Park Harvey Building, were converted into apartments.
A year after Kerr-McGee's departure, the question over the future of the tower was resolved with a purchase by SandRidge Energy Inc., which announced plans to redevelop the entire complex.
A group of local investors led by Clay Bennett, meanwhile, announced plans to move their recently acquired Seattle SuperSonics to Oklahoma City. Mayor Mick Cornett easily persuaded residents to pass a temporary tax to expand the arena and complete upgrades necessary for permanent hosting of an NBA team.
In early 2008, Devon Energy confirmed planning was under way for a new skyscraper that would become the company's corporate headquarters.
It seemed as if Oklahoma City could do no wrong. Each risk taken since the advent of MAPS had paid off handsomely.
Some fell short
But as with all great ambitious efforts, the perfect tale spun over the previous 20 years isn't without some cracks as it's presented to more than 500 visiting journalists from around the world.
Bricktown, while far livelier than it was in the early 1990s, still has too many surface parking lots and empty buildings according to various planning experts who have visited in the past couple of years. A renewal of the downtown business improvement district passed last year virtually offers incentives for such surface lots by charging higher assessments for developed properties.
Planning consultants also note that too many gaps exist between the Central Business District, Deep Deuce, Bricktown, Automobile Alley, the Arts District, MidTown and Film Row. Those gaps are seen as preventing downtown from truly being one cohesive, densely developed area that might allow area residents to enjoy a walk from one area to another.
That lack of walkability, meanwhile, is seen as the reason housing isn't as well developed as anticipated a decade ago when planners suggested Oklahoma City would see the addition of 4,000 or more new housing units. The actual development at this point falls short of that prediction by half.
But it should also be noted that city planners and the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority aggressively promoted development of for-sale housing over rental housing through 2008 — a tactic that has been reversed due to disappointing sales and tightened lending for condominiums.
Not backing down
Downtown Oklahoma City wasn't immune from the 2008 economic crash that devastated the country. Two announced hotel projects in Bricktown and several housing projects were scrapped when financing disappeared. But Devon Energy plowed ahead with construction of its $750 million headquarters, SandRidge continued with the $100 million redevelopment of SandRidge Commons, and redevelopment continued along Film Row — once considered the city's skid row — and along Automobile Alley and in Deep Deuce and MidTown.
Civic and business leaders could have concluded that with the economy faltering and Oklahoma City barely escaping the national recession, 2009 would have been a good time to sit back and enjoy the city's renaissance.
But at this point, the idea of doubling up one's bet was too ingrained in the city's collective consciousness. The question this time around, as before, was whether these bets would again pay off as handsomely as they had before.
Steve Lackmeyer is an award-winning business reporter and columnist who started with The Oklahoman in 1990. He has covered downtown development since 1996. He authored three books on the history of downtown Oklahoma City: “OKC Second Time Around,” “Bricktown” and “Skirvin,” and a third book on the construction of Devon Energy Center is due for release in the fall. His OKC Central column appears in The Oklahoman business section every Tuesday.