After roaring back to life in the 20 years since the 1993 passage of the original Metropolitan Area Projects, observers expect to see a growing skyline and an even more vibrant community in the next two decades.
Mark Beffort, a downtown broker who represents the ownership of Leadership Square, City Place, Oklahoma and Corporate towers, foresees a time in the not-far-off distance when downtown, especially the Central Business District, is fully developed.
“I’ve been in the office market in Oklahoma City for 27 years,” Beffort said. “It’s never been healthier. I’ve never seen office occupancy where it is now.”
Beffort notes that just two years ago, Leadership Square, the last speculative office tower built downtown, still had unfinished “shell space” dating back to the property’s opening 30 years ago.
“It’s all gone,” Beffort said. “We are 98 percent leased at Leadership Square.”
Beffort sees just three challenges left downtown: Century Center Mall, 100 W Main, empty for the past 25 years; Chase Tower, 100 N Broadway, and First National Center, 100 Park Ave.
Century Center is set to be redeveloped this year with new tenants, including The Oklahoman and an upscale restaurant. Chase Tower, meanwhile, is the one building vacated by Devon Energy Center when it built a new headquarters that has yet to see much of the space leased to new tenants.
Beffort predicts fortunes will improve First National Center, which has experienced high vacancy rates since Boatman’s Bank, successor of the anchor tenant First National Bank, abandoned the property in 1992.
“I do hope and expect there will be announcements in this next year — not grand plans — but at least in moving forward where people will be involved in moving it forward,” Beffort said. “I think there’s a good chance First National will be redeveloped into not just office, but parking and other uses.”
Jane Jenkins, president of Downtown Oklahoma City Inc., is stunned just by the progress she has seen downtown since she took over the organization four years ago.
In that time, the $750 million, 50-story Devon Energy Center was built and opened, Project 180 — the makeover of downtown streets and public spaces — was substantially completed, and voters approved spending millions for a new downtown convention center and streetcar system.
Construction of three new hotels, meanwhile, is underway in Bricktown, with several more planned to be built this next year. And hundreds of new rental and owner-occupied housing units are being built in Deep Deuce and MidTown — both downtown neighborhoods.
Retail has also taken off with the opening of Native Roots Market in Deep Deuce, home goods store Plenty, clothing, furniture and accessories store Raw Hide, Shop Good, a gift shop, and other merchants opening up along Automobile Alley.
Such retailers, Jenkins said, who create “experience” shopping are part of what’s ahead for downtown.
“It’s not the same game as when we had John A. Brown’s Department Store down here,” Jenkins said. “Macy’s is closing in downtown Houston. I don’t think there are many downtowns that have department stores anymore. And those once were the hallmarks. It’s not our future. We don’t shop like we used to. We don’t interact with people the way we used to.”
Jenkins’ staff is trying to stay current and look ahead of such trends.
Downtown Oklahoma City Inc. this past year has sought to create events and venues that help build a sense of community in a downtown that 20 years ago didn’t have much of a community left.
Those efforts include creation of a public basketball court at Reno and Hudson Avenues, gatherings at restaurants, bars and entertainment venues and festivals.
Jenkins, who lived in Boulder, Colo., before moving to Oklahoma City four years ago, has heard from those who lament the loss of downtown retail institutions in the 1970s. But by starting virtually from scratch, she said, downtown Oklahoma City has ended up with an advantage over cities facing increasingly heavy odds supporting beloved old department stores.
“We’re not trying to modernize a department store that’s been here since the 1950s,” Jenkins said. “The department stores here are gone. Now I’m getting to work on projects that may or may not be completed in my tenure as president of Downtown Oklahoma City Inc. or even in my lifetime.
“I may not be here when some of the potential of these projects is fully realized. But to have a seat at the table, to have a say in the potential of what these projects can be, that’s the exciting part of being a part of downtown Oklahoma City.”