Bids are in, and Karl Springer is hoping a years-long dream to reclaim the old Central High School for the administration of Oklahoma City Public Schools becomes a reality.
But as Springer, the city school district's superintendent, is making the landmark the only option for its new administration building, he is facing competition from Oklahoma City University, which argues its law school is a better fit and will do far more to promote the development of downtown.
“I would like for our law school to be very identified with the power and growth of Oklahoma City,” said Valerie Couch, dean of the OCU Law School. “We need to be in the heart of Oklahoma City. It would be the first time we put a big university presence downtown.”
OCU's interest caught Springer by surprise when he was informed of it by The Oklahoman. It sets up a potential bidding war for a building deemed one of the city's top architectural landmarks.
The 102-year-old building, designed by legendary architect Andrew Solomon Layton, was given up by the school system 30 years ago when it was sold to Southwestern Bell Telephone. The company won accolades for its use of tax credits for a renovation that kept the historic building intact while adapting into office space.
As superintendent, Springer sees no other alternative for a new headquarters and notes the district's current building at NW 8 and Klein is falling apart. The former middle school's foundation is so shaken that he has to keep paper wedged into drawer openings to prevent them from spilling out.
Springer admits he was eager to bid for the former Central High when it was listed for sale in 2010 by American Farmers and Ranchers Mutual Insurance, which bought it from SBC Oklahoma in 2005.
“We started talking about Central High more than three years ago, back when Cliff Hudson was board chairman,” Springer said. “He wanted us to look at this back when AT&T was first selling it to the insurance company.”
Former Mayor Ron Norick, chairman of the OCU Board of Trustees, is calling on Springer and his school board to reverse course and look at other options.
“What they need is an administration building — office space — where an office building is not going to work for a school like the OCU Law School,” Norick told The Oklahoman. “If they work with us in finding them an alternative location, this could be a win-win for everyone.”
If the old Central High is ideal for the school administration, Norick insists it's even more ideal for the law school — one of only three law schools in the state.
“A lot of our students are working downtown, many in law offices, and they want to further their education,” Norick said. “Having our facility downtown, two blocks from the federal courthouse, county courthouse, all the law firms, it's a great fit, and of course, there's ample parking.”
Norick argues a sale to OCU would result in bigger boost for downtown with the prospect of students and professors choosing to live nearby. He reasons the students and faculty would also seek recreation downtown, frequent area restaurants and businesses, and spur more development in the surrounding area.
The move of OCU's law school, he adds, would also give downtown its first full-fledged major college presence and free up much-needed classroom space for growing pre-med offerings and relieve parking shortages on the university's main campus at 2501 N Blackwelder Ave.
Springer, meanwhile, sees a move into the old Central High as an opportunity to raise the profile and image of Oklahoma City Public Schools and improve overall efficiency and operations.
The desire by OCU and Oklahoma City Public Schools to join the downtown renaissance is not a new development.
In 2008, former Oklahoma City Public Schools Superintendent John Porter looked at the old Masonic Temple, best known as the former Journal Record Building, 621 N Robinson Ave., as a home for the school's administration. A year later, OCU President Tom McDaniel announced he had signed a letter of intent with the owners of the former Fred Jones Ford Model T plant at 900 W Main to convert it into a new home for the university's new law school.
A deal never commenced for the Journal Record Building, which is owned by the Oklahoma City Industrial and Cultural Facilities Trust, and the agreement on the Model T plant was scrapped less than a year after it was announced and shortly after McDaniel's retirement.
Both groups had their reasons for not going with their earlier picks.
When Springer was hired, shortly after consideration of the Journal Record Building was abandoned, the school administration employed about 250 people. That work force is now at 200, but Springer desires a building that will also house the teachers union, the Oklahoma City Public Schools Foundation, adult education classes and other programs.
The Journal Record Building is split in half. The west half is controlled and occupied by the Oklahoma City National Memorial. The east half, with the more ornate and historic front entrance, spans 100,000 square feet, of which 15,000 square feet is leased to the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism.
Springer estimates the school administration needs a minimum of 100,000 square feet. The Journal Record property also lacks adequate parking and accessibility for patrons, he said.
“We are a service organization, we have people we provide services to, and we need significant parking,” he said. “With the old Central High, the parking is there.”
Norick, meanwhile, notes that the former Model T plant was a bigger challenge than anticipated.
“It really got to be more of a budget issue and a timing issue with the university,” Norick said. “It was a bigger project and remodel than what we could afford. It was going to be a lease, and we think the university ought to own the asset.”
Dollars and cents
Terry Detrick, president of American Farmers and Ranchers, and Cordell Brown, a broker with Price Edwards representing the seller, declined to comment on competing offers or when a bid might be approved.
A listing on the Price Edwards website shows the asking price is $11.5 million, with amenities including a cafeteria, large conference spaces, two private parking lots and a covered parking area.
When the property went up for sale in 2010, executives with American Farmers and Ranchers said the building, spanning 177,000 square feet, was simply “too much” for a company with fewer than 200 front-office employees.
Springer said, “It's a conservative decision for us to go after a building that is in close to move-in condition. Oklahoma City Public Schools does not have the capability or desire to go out and build a new building (which by some estimates would cost $20 million).”
By consolidating operations, Springer believes the district also would save money by no longer leasing space for its research division and adult education classes. Joining up with the teachers union and schools foundation, he says, also will result in better efficiency.
“People seem to work better together when they are close and have daily access to each other,” Springer said.
It was Norick, as chairman of the tax increment finance committee, who helped the school system move closer to making its bid successful by recently approving an application to add $1.5 million in funding for the project. The district's school board also approved an additional $3 million for the project, which already had $4 million in funding from the MAPS for Kids sales tax.
That brings the approved funding for the district's bid is $8.5 million, $3 million short of the $11.5 million asking price. Springer wouldn't disclose the district's bid, or whether additional money would be needed to buy Central High. He would not rule out the possibility of tapping into remaining MAPS for Kids contingency funds.
Norick, likewise, wouldn't disclose the amount bid by OCU, a private university.
Couch, the law school dean, sees Central High as both a solution for existing problems and the way forward to enhancing the law school's prominence and attractiveness to potential new students.
“This is an iconic landmark building right in the heart of downtown,” Couch said. “We are the city's law school. And it's time for the city's law school to be in the heart of downtown.”
Couch said the law school's enrollment is about 600. Classes, faculty offices and clinics are spread across four buildings on the OCU campus. She sees the former school's auditorium being returned to that use for seminars and community events.
“It is a beautiful landmark building that was originally a school, designed for a school, and we think we could renovate it as we want it to function,” Couch said. “It gives off a sense to me of the traditions and values of our profession. I think our students would love it, and it would be a symbol of the purpose they have in going to law school.”
Springer sees similar opportunities and symbolism for the district acquiring the former school.
“I believe the reasons they have are compelling for their organization,” Springer said of OCU's bid. “I have no doubt about that. We want to buy the building because we want to move closer to downtown, consolidate our operation and reclaim our history.”