The ambition was admirable, but the dream, to some folks, seemed unrealistic and unattainable.
The transformation of the 700 block of W Sheridan Avenue is almost complete. Crowds are gathering for monthly art walks, tables are filling up at Joey's Pizzeria and Chopt. Arts patrons make regular visits to the IAO Gallery. The Paramount has established itself as both a popular coffee shop and film screening room. And a few hundred people now office in what was once derided as “skid row.”
On Jan. 18, 2006, I got a glimpse of the vision that has become reality. The area of interest was in such bad shape that no building was suitable to host a meeting of civic leaders and planners attempting to figure out a way to fix this long-blighted stretch of Sheridan Avenue west of the Central Business District.
Developer Chip Fudge had just started buying some of the early 1900s Art Deco buildings after being pitched on the area's potential by designer David Wanzer. It was Wanzer who studied the history of Film Row and learned how the stretch was once one of 35 film-distribution centers across the country, home to branches of Paramount, Warner, RKO, 20th Century Fox and other studios.
But by the 1980s, the area was derelict, most of the buildings were boarded up and transients were sleeping on doorsteps along Sheridan Avenue.
Ann Simank, then a city councilwoman, and city planners bought into the vision of changing the area's fortunes. But as I listened to the ideas exchanged that January evening at Fudge's office building on Classen Boulevard, I struggled to see how such a transformation could take place.
The City Rescue Mission was a block to the south along California Avenue and wasn't going anywhere. The Union Bus Station was at the east entry to Film Row, and efforts over 20 years to relocate the operation had proved fruitless. The Jesus House, Salvation Army and other shelters all formed a circle around this cluster of attractive old buildings.
The vision, however, had a core of true believers. Fudge worked with the city to establish not just a streetscape to rebuild the street, but also agreed to rally support for the area to join the downtown business improvement district to pay for irrigation required to support enhanced landscaping.
Historic tax credits provided Fudge the gap financing needed to restore some of the area's most important buildings. He heavily recruited tenants to move into the area, seeded it with his own companies, and then did deals with DEADCENTER Film Festival and KOSU to ensure the area had its own artistic niche.
Other property owners, most notably Ron Smith, owner of the Paramount, followed suit with their own redevelopment efforts. The creative rights law firm Dunlop Codding bought an old, nondescript warehouse at 609 W Sheridan and turned it into a showpiece. A new, three-story elementary school is now being built on an empty lot at the east entryway to the district.
City Rescue Mission, meanwhile, proved to be a valuable contributor in improving the area's appearance by helping on clean up and security. Both the Salvation Army and Union Bus Station are relocating outside of downtown as redevelopment continues to heat up.
The bet has paid off. Fudge is extending his investment. He is about to start renovations on a building he recently bought west of the Hart building, and is looking to acquire more nearby properties.
Film Row shows that no area is beyond redemption. With the right mix of vision, dedicated investors, public participation and community buy-in, there's hope yet for other blighted old neighborhoods throughout the urban core.