A 220-foot-high amusement ride may or may not become a reality in Bricktown, but the overall momentum downtown is unquestionably giddy as the city moves beyond the 20th anniversary of the original Metropolitan Area Projects.
The initiative, more commonly known as MAPS, consisted of a five-year, one-penny sales tax designed to add life back to the urban core of Oklahoma City. Without the investment, Oklahoma City would not have the Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark, the Bricktown Canal, the Chesapeake Energy Arena, a modern downtown library, a revived Oklahoma River, or a robust convention center, music hall or fairgrounds.
And for that matter, the city would not have the NBA Thunder or the River Sports park that has developed along the river.
Construction cranes have stayed busy downtown and in surrounding districts for more than a decade, but at ground level, an equally important transformation is underway. New stores, attractions and events are ensuring that the momentum will continue for the foreseeable future.
Sometimes, it’s helpful to step back and survey the changes, district by district, to get a real grasp of what’s underway.
A half-century ago, downtown had a retail corridor along Main Street between Walker Avenue and Broadway, but most of those buildings were razed, and the street itself between Robinson and Hudson Avenues was eliminated as part of Urban Renewal’s I.M. Pei plan of the ’60s and ’70s.
Without such storefronts to use as the base for bringing back retail, and with the realization that suburban malls do not work in urban areas, planners began to realize about a dozen years ago that Broadway between NW 4 and NW 13 presented the best opportunity for a retail resurgence. The pre-World War II automobile dealership buildings with large display windows were seen as ideal for new storefronts.
Retail, however, did not truly get started until the past few years as downtown’s residential population grew. Automobile Alley is now home to Rawhide, Schlegel Bicycles, Plenty Mercantile, Side Street Glass, Shop Good, Broadway Wine Merchants, Kanon Gallery, Blue Water Divers, Stow’s Office Furniture and Ratio Gallery.
The restaurant scene, meanwhile, is set to grow. Broadway 10 Chophouse prepares to open in a newly renovated Buick Building. And Broadway itself continues to bask under the glow of neon signage all along the strip — an effort that began with a grant program provided by the Oklahoma City Community Foundation.
By this fall, a hint of the next big addition to Automobile Alley will appear at NW 11 and Broadway, where an assembly of shipping containers will be erected to form an observation deck and showroom for what will eventually be the new home for Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center. And while the public has yet to see any designs, the track record of the project’s architect, Rand Elliott, includes some of the most daring designs in the city, including the boathouses along the Oklahoma River and Classen Curve shopping center.
As Oklahoma’s premier entertainment district, Bricktown draws millions of visitors annually. Despite such traffic, the old warehouse district still had “gaps” in its development — dead, empty, upper floors and even a couple of boarded-up windows.
A new wave of development is set to transform Bricktown once again, with an influx of hundreds of apartments and hotel rooms. The Steelyard, to be built this winter at E Sheridan Avenue and Joe Carter Avenue, will include a Hyatt Place Hotel and apartments with retail on the ground floor. At least three other hotels are being developed in east Bricktown, while a Holiday Inn Express is set to open later this year at Oklahoma Avenue and Main Street.
Tom Ward’s Tapstone Energy, meanwhile, is set to bring up to 140 employees to the long-vacant upper floors of the Mideke Building just south of the Holiday Inn Express. Construction also has started on Brickopolis, a restaurant, entertainment center and gift shop that will overlook the Bricktown Canal just west of the Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark.
Existing Bricktown tenants are expanding their footprint. The Chickasaw Nation recently opened Exhibit C, an art gallery, Bedre Chocolates shop and gift shop, next to its tourism offices at 1 E Sheridan Ave. Sonic is converting space on the first floor of its headquarters in Lower Bricktown into a test kitchen that reminds visitors the entertainment district is home to the nation’s most popular drive-in restaurant chain.
Long-time eyesores are being converted into jewels as developers Bob Howard, Mickey Clagg and Chris Fleming take on some of the area’s most challenged old buildings. The Hotel Marion, built in 1904 and boarded up for 30 years, has been painstakingly rebuilt from the inside out and is set to reopen as upscale apartments later this year.
The developers also are building a garage across the street that will provide parking for the Hotel Marion and two other buildings that are claimed by both Midtown and Automobile Alley: the Buick and Packard buildings at 1100 and 1101 N Broadway. Those buildings also are being renovated and converted into offices and retail.
The intersection of NW 10 and Walker Avenue, desolate just a decade ago, is a busy collection of restaurants, shops, offices and apartments, with a renovated Osler building now home to the boutique Ambassador Hotel. Just a couple of blocks to the north, the 250-unit Edge apartments is set to open next month. An even larger complex, Lift apartments, is being built at NW 10 and Shartel. When the construction ends, Midtown’s population will have grown from virtually nothing to more than 1,000 residents.
If the next efforts of Howard, Clagg and Fleming’s Midtown Renaissance Group are realized, the thriving Midtown hub at NW 10 and Walker will extend to Broadway with a mix of offices, residences, shops, restaurants and entertainment venues creating a vibrant urban mixed-use neighborhood.
And while the three have generally sought to redevelop existing buildings, the exception is the new home they are building at NW 10 and Hudson Avenue for a vintage-style Dust Bowl Lanes and Fassler Hall beer garden. An outdoor food truck plaza, Bleu Garten, meanwhile, is being built at NW 10 and Harvey Avenue.
Thousands of young professionals now live and play in a neighborhood that was a collection of boarded-up buildings and abandoned surface parking lots 20 years ago. On any given evening, one can drive down NE 2 — “the Deuce” — and see people shopping at downtown’s only grocery, Native Roots, dining at Urban Roots, the Deep Deuce Grill and Urban Johnnie, or enjoying a shot of whiskey and a good cigar at WSKY. Next to WSKY, the lounge’s owners are preparing to open a deli to further capitalize on the neighborhood’s growing population.
A newly opened Aloft Hotel is providing Deep Deuce with a modern, sleek beacon that is bathed in multicolored LED lighting at night. The Aloft Hotel is quickly becoming a magnet for the city’s creative class, with its top floor hosting hundreds recently for a 1970s disco night launch for the 2014 deadCenter Film Festival.
What few empty lots remain will soon be developed with more rental and for sale housing. Richard McKown, developer of the Level and Mosaic apartments, has started work on a shipping container development just west of the Aloft Hotel that will include a bar that caters to customers with dogs.
The remainder of NE 2 is filling up with a variety of neighborhood-oriented businesses including a dentist, a salon and fitness center. The jewel of Deep Deuce, meanwhile, is the restored historic Calvary Baptist Church, now home to the Dan Davis law firm but once the birthplace of the city’s civil rights movement that even hosted a young Martin Luther King.
The fringe and future
As such development continues, expect increased interest in fringe areas of downtown, most notably Film Row, which will soon boast a 21C Museum Hotel; the Farmers Market district, and along Classen Boulevard between Main Street and NW 13.
MAPS 3 investments in Core to Shore — a large city park and a convention center — likely will spur even more development south toward Capitol Hill.
And a MAPS 3 streetcar system is set to connect all of these areas when it begins service in 2017.
Former Mayor Ron Norick predicted the original MAPS would spur private investment totaling $140 million when he pitched his vision in 1993. To date, that total has exceeded $2 billion. Add up everything underway, and that figure could grow by more than another $1 billion in the next couple of years.
The vision of a vibrant downtown is a reality. The evolution of that dream continues.