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UpTown momentum underway in Oklahoma City

The long struggle for UpTown NW 23 in Oklahoma City has been replaced by dreams of recreating South Congress Avenue in Austin, Texas.
by Steve Lackmeyer Modified: April 6, 2013 at 1:49 am •  Published: April 7, 2013

/articleid/3780648/1/pictures/2004113">Photo - The former Elmer's Texaco at 2425 N Walker Ave. was a longtime community gathering spot until it was sold by Elmer Gentry in the late 1970s. <strong>Provided by Paula Black</strong>
The former Elmer's Texaco at 2425 N Walker Ave. was a longtime community gathering spot until it was sold by Elmer Gentry in the late 1970s. Provided by Paula Black

A $1.9 million streetscape of the strip in 1998 was one of the city's first such street reconstruction projects where planners worked with engineers to create designs that sought to use landscaping, stylized light poles and other amenities to create a sense of place.

Claus said the streetscape was a worthy attempt but alone was not enough to reassemble the community recalled by Sharon Gentry.

“It was certainly reflective of that parallel decline we saw elsewhere of neighborhoods and commercial corridors,” Claus said. “If one went down, the other couldn't stay stable. That's why the city struggled so long to put them back together. Once they both go down, it's very hard to put them back together.”

Heritage Hills, Paseo, Edgemere and other surrounding historic neighborhoods were either re-established or well on their way to regaining stability from past struggles as the first signs of commercial activity began to emerge with Cheever's at 2409 N Hudson Ave. in 1998, followed by the opening of Big Truck Tacos, 530 NW 23, in 2009 and Tucker's, 324 NW 23, in 2011.

Claus sees two other less-heralded events as triggering the latest wave of interest in UpTown.

The 23rd Street Courts along the 700 block of NW 23 was simply a worn-out stretch of early-day bungalow-style homes that had seen a series of commercial tenants come and go over the prior quarter-century.

Mike Tharasena began buying up the homes in 2006, and armed with a master plan drawn up by architect Brian Fitzsimmons, he saw the bungalows turned into a hip commercial plaza consisting of a cupcake shop, salon, gift shop, barbecue restaurant and offices. The shops, most notably Cuppies and Joe, routinely attract a younger mix of college students and families.

That demographic helped make Big Truck Tacos and Tucker's success stories. And that led to the next part of the area's transformation.

“The surrounding neighborhoods have gotten younger, more hipster, and more interested in what the older commercial neighborhoods can offer,” Claus said. “The 16th Street Plaza District (NW 16 between Classen Boulevard and Pennsylvania Avenue) has led the way and has set the standard on how this can be done. It shows you can expand the model, and that's happening along NW 23.”

Tipping point

The revival of UpTown is picking up speed:

In 2012, an aging two-story office building just west of Big Truck Tacos was bought by Ben Sellers. Office space on the first floor was gutted, an outdoor patio was built, and the property is now home to Orange Leaf Yogurt and Pizza 23.

Chris Lower and Kathryn Mathis, co-owners of Big Truck Tacos, are set to open Back Door Barbeque this spring at 315 NW 23.

Boards have been removed from the windows and doors of a former KFC at 211 NW 23, and the building is being renovated into a Basil Mediterranean Cafe by the owners of Zorba's in northwest Oklahoma City.

The long-vacant former home of Tull Overhead Door, 3110 N Walker Ave., is being renovated to house the offices of Good Egg Dining.

Jonathan Russell, who owns the Texaco set to become home to Pump Bar, sees his upcoming redevelopment of the Hotel/Motel Furniture Liquidators building into an upscale shopping center, The Rise, as the next big step forward for UpTown.

“The Rise may be the tipping point for the whole area,” Russell said.

Russell said he hopes to begin development of The Rise next month.

“We have restaurants set to go in, and we also have some softgoods stores, which we're very excited about — that's difficult to get,” Russell said. “What we're really excited about is we have uses other than restaurants and bars. They're great — but the area is getting saturated with that and we need to add more to the mix.”

Such activity leaves the Tower Theater, 425 NW 23, and the newly dormant Gold Dome, 1112 NW 23, as the two largest properties with uncertain fates. Both are seen as landmarks along the strip, but successful redevelopment of the buildings has eluded their owners.

The Gold Dome shut down three months ago after it was purchased at a bank auction by David Box, owner of the Greens Golf and Country Club in northwest Oklahoma City. He attempted to file for a demolition permit for the former bank but has since put that effort on hold and is in talks with community leaders and real estate professionals on how to redevelop and save the building.

Marty Dillon, whose family owns Party Galaxy, came in with plans to turn the Tower Theater into an event center surrounded by shops and restaurants when he bought the building in 2006. Those plans stalled as he struggled to obtain financing, and he is in talks with real estate professionals hoping to move the project forward.

Russell believes that as his project comes on line and NW 23 continues its comeback, better times are ahead for the entire strip — including landmarks such as the Tower Theater.

“Everyone,” Russell said, “is seeing the vision.”

by Steve Lackmeyer
Business Reporter
Steve Lackmeyer is a reporter, columnist and author who started his career at The Oklahoman in 1990. Since then, he has won numerous awards for his coverage, which included the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, the city's...
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