Reaction to an announcement by 21c Museum Hotels that a deal is being attempted to expand into Oklahoma City's historic Fred Jones plant was met with an overwhelmingly positive response.
The project will create a 24/7 cultural hub, where at any time of day visitors will be able to stop at the hotel and stroll its extensive art exhibits.
But one question kept popping up after I broke the story Sunday in The Oklahoman: How can an upscale hotel and art museum open up in such a desolate section of downtown?
It's a fair question. A decade ago, any development west of Walker Avenue would have prompted curiosity and bewilderment. The area stretching from Reno Avenue to Main Street between Walker and Western avenues was littered with abandoned buildings frequented by vagrants.
As the 20th anniversary approaches for the Dec. 14, 1993, passage of the original MAPS ballot, Oklahoma City residents will be reminded of the downtown transformations that have already taken place.
Deep Deuce in 1993 was a wasteland of empty lots and boarded-up buildings. Bricktown was a struggling, aspiring entertainment district. The Central Business District was dead at night and on weekends. Automobile Alley also was a desolate stretch of boarded up buildings.
Skeptics had their doubts in 1993 and have since been proven wrong. And those who can't see the opportunity ahead with the Fred Jones property (a very cool, authentic 1916 Ford Model T plant) fail to understand and observe what is already transpiring.
Downtown is already growing to the west. The future John W. Rex Elementary School and the Hunsucker Law Firm building are both rising from the ground along Sheridan at Walker Avenue. Those two buildings alone will erase the scar that separated the old Film Row from the Central Business District.
Film Row itself is a rather rapid transformation that has taken place since 2006, with empty buildings renovated into restaurants, offices, a film screening room, a radio station, art gallery and design studios.
The Fred Jones property, 800 W Main, is just one block to the north of Film Row and technically an extension of that district. The entire block, and several properties to the north, east and south, are owned by the Hall family. The family's members are proud descendants of the local early day automotive pioneer Fred Jones, and they have rebuffed plenty of development proposals for the block that they deemed too ordinary.
Have no doubt, the family won't sit on their remaining properties long once the deal with 21c Museum Hotels is completed. That possibility alone makes the museum-hotel proposal far more significant to the development of the west edge of downtown than many may realize.
The area that will remain as a divide between the landmark and downtown consists largely of parking lots. One large parking lot is owned by local attorney Dennis Box, who has already completed some well-regarded infill development along Main Street. The remaining lots are owned by the Oklahoma City Police Association.
Whether a deal can be done with the association is an unknown. But with the city building a new police headquarters at Main and Shartel, just one block east of the Jones plant, opportunities abound.
Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, the founders of 21c Museum Hotels, are no strangers to urban core redevelopment. Their business model, starting with their first flagship hotel in their hometown of Louisville, Ky., involves transformation of historic buildings off the beaten track. For Brown and Wilson, the preservation of an old building on a sketchy street is a fun opportunity, and not an obstacle to be overcome.
Naysayers may say Brown and Wilson are taking a foolish risk. But Chip Fudge, who pioneered redevelopment of Film Row; Craig Brown, who pioneered development in Deep Deuce; and the Brewer family, who pioneered development in Bricktown, have all shown that such urban transformations are very doable — and very rewarding.