Before the creation of Shields Boulevard, before construction of Interstate 40, Robinson Avenue south of downtown Oklahoma City was a heavily traveled U.S. highway that embarrassed civic leaders.
The stretch of road between Capitol Hill and downtown was lined with salvage yards, car accessory part stores and tire shops — a corridor known going back to World War II as “Hub Cap Alley.”
The affront was enough that long before the city attempted to use new urban renewal laws to rebuild downtown, officials first turned their attention to clear-cutting Hub Cap Alley. But business owners in the area fought back in court and at City Hall — and won.
With traffic rerouted to Shields Boulevard and Interstate 35, and a barrier created by the construction of the Interstate 40 Crosstown Expressway in the 1960s, the bad impression left by Hub Cap Alley was forgotten.
With the recent relocation of I-40, Robinson Avenue is again seen as a primary corridor, and civic leaders again don't like what they see.
But they also see its potential.
“South Robinson represents an interesting development opportunity for downtown,” said Jane Jenkins, president of Downtown Oklahoma City Inc.
“Links and connections are critical to downtown's vitality, and the Hub Cap Alley corridor is an important connection between Capitol Hill, the Oklahoma River and downtown. It is important that we address this strategically and get it right.”
As executive director of the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum, Kari Watkins has seen first hand how an increasing number of cross-country travelers are exiting the new highway at Robinson.
“It's important to make sure that even in this transition time, we have to look at the gateways we want, not just with Robinson Avenue, but all of them,” Watkins said. “They should reflect what we're trying to do as a city.”
Watkins, who also serves on the MAPS 3 citizens subcommittee overseeing development of a future Core to Shore park between Robinson and Walker Avenues, believes a better future is ahead for the area.
The park also will replace the west half of Hub Cap Alley between the Oklahoma River and I-40.
After some urging by Watkins and others, the city installed signs telling travelers about the upcoming park and other improvements.
Watkins, however, hopes more can be done.
“We need to be open and tell our visitors what we're doing,” Watkins said. “Visitors will be patient if we tell them our vision. But if they are driving through an unkempt area, they are quicker to judge.”
A large portion of Hub Cap Alley, meanwhile, is already cleared thanks to the construction of the highway. Watkins and fellow MAPS 3 committee members are discussing whether to ask the City Council to proceed on a faster timeline to acquire the remainder of the west half of Hub Cap Alley — a task now scheduled to start in 2014.
“Hub Cap Alley is pretty cool,” Watkins said. “It could become what Automobile Alley (Broadway between NW 4 and NW 10) has become. But it will be slow growth.”
City Planning Director Russell Claus agrees that Robinson Avenue — and two other new highway entries at Western Avenue and Shields — need help. The roads were only open a couple months when Larry Nichols, executive chairman of Devon Energy, asked at a meeting of the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority whether anything could be done to improve appearances.
“These entrances into downtown are not a good introduction into the city,” Claus said. “We recognize that.”
Planning for the area between Bricktown, the Oklahoma River, and Walker Avenue — an area dubbed “Core to Shore” — began several years ago anticipating the challenges created by the highway relocation, Claus said.
Unlike the Urban Renewal efforts of the 1960s and 1970s, however, Claus is not advocating clearance of every building along Hub Cap Alley. He notes some buildings have the sort of character and potential that led to revivals of Automobile Alley, Film Row and other downtown area corridors.
“Not all of it will be salvageable on either side of the road,” Claus said. “But it's important to integrate some of that into new development. I don't think we can do an entirely clean slate approach.”
Claus is hopeful the park, which will run along the full length of the west side of Robinson between the future boulevard and the river, will spur redevelopment of the street's east side.
Hint of the future
A hint of future interest begins with interior designer Vicki VanStavern and her husband, artist Don Narcomey, who two years ago bought an abandoned two-story building at 1100 S Robinson Ave. — the north gateway to Hub Cap Alley.
“I liked that it will be across from the (MAPS 3) downtown park,” VanStavern said. “It's a cool building anyway. It had been abandoned for 20 years; the roof caved in 10 years ago.”
Narcomey, whose work includes an installation inside the Crystal Bridge at the Myriad Gardens, is looking forward to using a one-story building behind the main property as his studio. VanStavern, meanwhile, looks forward to converting the main 5,000-square-foot building into their residence and an art gallery.
“It's a wonderful opportunity,” said VanStavern, who said she encountered some jealousy among friends and a worry by her son that she had lost her mind.
The view, she adds, is already spectacular with the south entry of the Skydance pedestrian bridge across the street.
“Things have changed in the last year since we bought it — with completion of Skydance,” VanStavern said. “For a while, with all the street construction, we couldn't even get there. We had to park somewhere else and walk to the building because the streets were so torn up.”
The couple gutted the structure but are awaiting the start of land acquisition and clearance across the street before they begin further renovations. Their plans for the building, built in 1926, include a green roof where they will enjoy an even more expansive view of the park and the downtown skyline.
Time to move on?
As VanStavern and Narcomey plan to make their home along Hub Cap Alley, some longtime property owners have resigned themselves to their own eventual move away.
Bob Massey's family has owned an automotive parts accessory store along Hub Cap Alley since 1927.
A dozen years ago, when talks first started bubbling up about turning their area into a large park, the Masseys were quick to remind city leaders of failed past efforts to wipe them out of existence.
Bob Massey's father and grandfather started the business at 311 S Robinson, and then when his father Jack Massey returned from World War II, he relocated the store to its current location, 1319 S Robinson.
A threat of Urban Renewal acquisition in the 1950s was accompanied by police raids and allegations of bootlegging and fencing of stolen hubcaps. But the Masseys argued Hub Cap Alley was never anything more than a quiet stretch where a rare sale of a property to an outsider involved a shop lost in a poker game.
In a 2000 interview with The Oklahoman, then 85-year-old Jack Massey argued he had always taken good care of his property. Yet he and other Hub Cap Alley merchants had to raise money to fight City Hall and the federal government. Even into the late 1970s, the area's property owners were fighting the city over an effort to prohibit issuing salvage licenses for any new businesses in the area.
These days, the fight is all but over. Bob Massey accepts that the days of Hub Cap Alley are numbered, and that his 30 acres — almost half of the 70 acres needed for the south portion of the Core to Shore park, likely will be acquired by the city starting in 2014.
The only question left, Massey said, is whether the city will pay him what his property is worth so he can successfully relocate his business.
“I understand what they're trying to accomplish,” Massey said. “We just hope that we don't get the raw end of the deal.”
In preparation for what he sees as an inevitable move, Massey pulled out old accessories from storage and put them out for sale — a move that has resulted in a surprising boost to his sales.
“We're selling four to five old things a day,” Massey said. “As with everything, you've got to look at the silver lining.”