The legacy of the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority is almost cliche by now: a group of people who operate out of public view and tear down old buildings. Looking back on the agency’s four-plus decades of existence, it’s easy to understand how it got such a bad rap. In the 1970s, the agency did tear down hundreds of old buildings downtown, regardless of public sentiment. Even after current director JoeVan Bullard promised two years ago the agency would establish a Web site, the agency’s only online presence consists of agendas posted at the city’s Web site. Anyone searching for records of properties the agency controls or the status of various developments will get nowhere searching online.
Preserving pastAnecdotally, however, some stereotypes are simply outdated. More often than not these days, Urban Renewal’s actions have resulted in the preservation of distressed older properties. Consider Deep Deuce, where all but two buildings — the Luster home and a two-story warehouse on NE 1 converted into offices — were boarded up and dilapidated when the agency did a redevelopment deal with First Worthing to build apartments in the area. The deal required that apartments be built around the boarded up properties and that the developer take a leap of faith that renovations of the old buildings would follow an influx of residents. That theory played out nicely, and the area has seen all but one boarded-up building renovated and converted into restaurants, shops and apartments. The agency also worked with the Oklahoma City Museum of Art in preserving the facade of the old Centre Theater as it was turned into the museum’s new home. And Bullard, who for two decades led city efforts to find a savior for the Skirvin hotel, was a key player in working with Marcus Hotels and Resorts in its much acclaimed restoration.
Encouraging growthOther reminders of Urban Renewal’s changed approach are a bit more subtle. Commissioners balked when developer Nicholas Preftakes demanded they acquire and raze two duplexes across from the old Mercy Hospital site at NW 13 and Walker before he proceeded with construction of housing. Destruction of the duplexes could have been justified; one had come very, very close to being declared a public nuisance by the city council and both were considered flop houses by neighbors. A drive by the two duplexes today shows one renovated and turned into offices (the MidTown Law Center) and renovations underway on the adjoining property. Both buildings provide a frame for parking behind the now thriving Shops on Walker, which itself consisted of older buildings that could have been torn down in the name of progress. Not every old building can be saved. Redevelopment of the MidTown area was stunted for years by the blighted Mercy Hospital and only took off once the eyesore was removed by the city (not Urban Renewal). But when one looks at the track record of the past decade, this Urban Renewal Authority has built a record far different than that of its early years.