Owner hopes to revitalize landmark
By Steve Lackmeyer
|Tuesday, March 28, 2006
Edition: CITY, Section: BUSINESS, Page 4B
The Criterion Theater and Baum Building were architectural jewels in Oklahoma City by anyone’s standards — landmarks that were razed in the heyday of Urban Renewal. In their place stands Century Center Plaza, a mostly empty one-time attempt at a downtown shopping center that isn’t highly rated by any local architect.
Thirty years ago, a shopping mall was considered the Holy Grail for downtown development. The 89,000-square-foot Century Center Plaza, built along with the Sheraton Hotel in 1977 at Broadway and Sheridan, was the only one to be built.
A much bigger mall, an envisioned 600,000-square-foot Galleria, was talked about for years and was to be built a block west of the Century Center. Four square blocks of old retail properties — including the John A. Brown’s flagship department store — were bulldozed to make way for what civic leaders pledged would be a shinning new monument to downtown shopping of the future.
That vision never came true, though the Galleria name remains attached to the massive parking lot built in its place. Is the Century Center Plaza a hint at what might have happened if the Galleria had become a reality?
Walk into the plaza today, and you will likely be alone. Even during its oil boom heyday, the place never quite had an identity. At one time, it was home to a fitness center, several restaurants, florist, eyeglass store and even an FAO Schwarz toy store.
“It was originally designed as a retail mall area that would serve downtown office tenants and also convention visitors,” broker David Huffman said. “It never had an anchor tenant. Its definition was unclear from the very beginning.”
Meristar, which owns the plaza and attached Sheraton Hotel, recently renovated the property and hired Huffman’s firm, Wiggin Properties, to bring it back to life.
Out are the old awnings left behind by Schlotsky’s when it closed 20 years ago. The interior of a Mexican restaurant that closed several years ago also has been gutted. One of two escalators was removed, creating one continuous open space that spans the length of the plaza.
New paint and carpeting have brought the building into the new century. But it’s still quiet — with the only visible tenants being an office for the Yard Dawgs arena football team and a salon where the plaza is adjoined to the hotel.
But the location along Sheridan Avenue is enviable. To the west are the Myriad Gardens and the historic Colcord building, which is being renovated into a boutique hotel. To the south is the Cox Convention Center. And to the east are the Renaissance Hotel and Bricktown.
Huffman isn’t sure it can ever come back as retail. Maybe, he says, the plaza could come back as a “quasi-retail” center with a tenant mix of a copy shop, fitness center, brokerage firm, video arcade and restaurants. He’s also open to less commercial uses — maybe a school, organization, printing company or even simply for storage. He said the 90,000-square-foot center also could be home to an entertainment complex. Discussions, he adds, are under way with a “strong prospect.”
The Century Center, Huffman concludes, is a “unique space.” What’s needed is a “unique tenant” — and a chance for the property to finally stand out on a street that is rapidly becoming the most important corridor in a revived downtown Oklahoma City.
So here’s a quick question – how do I know so much about this place?
Take a look at this cool item maintained by Downtown Tulsa Unlimited
Once again, it’s the elusive dream for downtown developers, residents and civic leaders. Some say downtown retail will anchor the area known as Core to Shore. Others say the east end of Bricktown will inevitably end up with more retail. Or maybe it will be in the Flat Iron.
But to quote Harry Truman, the only thing new is the history you’ve not heard…
So let’s begin with “Fight to the Suburbs” from the March 22, 1954 issue of Time:
Business Must Follow The Dollar
THE enormous growth of the U.S. population has meant vast new markets in everything from baby carriages to washing machines and wrist watches. Will every retailer cash in on the bonanza? Not at all. The reason is that since 1940, almost half of the 28 million national population increase has taken place in residential suburban areas, anywhere from ten to 40 miles away from traditional big-city shopping centers. Thus, to win the new customers’ dollars, merchants will have to follow the flight to the suburbs.
In the ten years from 1940 to 1950, St. Louis’ suburbs grew 48% while the city itself added only 6% to its population. In the same period, Philadelphia’s suburbs expanded twice as fast, Boston’s eight times as fast, as their already-crowded metropolitan districts. The numbers tell only part of the story. Suburbia offers not only more new customers but better customers. Suburban families are younger and have more children, thus are potentially bigger spenders than city families. Average income in the suburbs is estimated at $6,500 a year, fully 70% higher than that of the average U.S. family.
The do-it-yourself life in suburbia has also opened up a vast new market. Power-lawnmower sales, for example, shot from 42,000 (worth $5,000,000) in 1940 to 1,275,000 (worth $144.5 million) last year. Home-freezer sales zoomed from 210,000 (worth $80 million) to 1,200,000 (worth $480 million) in just seven years. Papa, puttering around in the basement, spent $150 million on power tools in 1953, and a grand total of nearly $3 billion for all his home carpentry work. Many big department stores are already taking advantage of suburbia’s cash and energy, stock hundreds of items in suburban branches that would look out of place in their city stores.
The huge shopping center, surrounded by wide parking lots, has done much to build the new markets. There are already 93 such centers around the 20 largest U.S. cities, and at least 25 more on the drawing boards. The investments run high—$20 million at Chicago’s Park Forest suburban development, $30 million at San Francisco’s Stonestown, $100 million at Los Angeles’ Lakewood. And an increasing number of big city department and specialty stores, sensing the trend, are building their own suburban branches.
The growth of suburbia has changed the pattern of U.S. retail trade so much that only a relatively few new stores have gone up in the center of big cities in recent years. Even the old, established stores are feeling the competition from the suburbs. In Boston, retail trade increased 275% faster in the suburbs than in the city in the last two decades, while in Detroit, the J. L. Hudson Co. expects to lose fully 15% of its business to its new store in its suburban shopping center. To combat such losses, downtown businessmen are offering special lures to shoppers. They hand out cut-rate bus and streetcar tokens, even carry suburbanites to & fro in special buses.
To read the rest of this story, go here.
Yes, the clock at First National is ticking again – we are glad people have taken notice. More changes are in the works.
First of all, we would like to thank the majority of our tenants who are applauding our efforts to enact the first real improvements to this building in a long time. A common thread among many diverse projects we have undertaken across this great country is quality. We will not compromise quality and we will deliver what we promise.
We would like to address a number of discrepancies at this time, starting with the topic that speaks the loudest: money, and in this case – rent. The market dictates pricing in every industry, not just real estate; in turn, proper pricing brings in quality. We are charging what the market will bear, and the market is bearing it. The First National Center has been passed through a number of hands, but we are the ones who have made the biggest financial commitment of the last 25 years.
We have committed our finances, our resources, our personnel and our time to starting this effort off right. Doing it right means doing our research, which means taking out the controversial marble in the West entry hall. The original design matched the marble that graces the floors of Grand Banking Hall, and despite the unfounded allegations of a few, we are committed to restoring the First National Center to its historical character, including the flooring in the West Building’s entry.
Of course, we are still learning about this great building every day and we welcome comments from our tenants. We know there are challenges; although, we prefer private meetings to public chastisement. Our office is located on the third floor above the Grand Banking Hall.
Please, stop by.
First National Center is the largest footprint in commercial square feet in downtown Oklahoma City and the sheer size of the building makes any renovation a lot to bite off.
Instead of telling our tenants that we’ll take it all on and appearing to break our promises we have decided to phase in our improvements and deliver on these promises in measurable stages.The clock may be ticking, but we are in the business of quality, not slipshod. Quality takes time. Don’t judge us now; judge us a few years from now.
Read more about First National Center and views of upcoming improvements in Tuesday’s Main Street column.
From left, Seattle Supersonics chairman Clay Bennett, NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver, Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, and NBA commissioner David Stern talk after a press conference at the Skirvin Hilton Tuesday in Oklahoma City. By Nate Billings, The Oklahoman.
Flashback: It’s March, 1998. Ward 8 Councilman Guy Liebmann, considered the early favorite for the mayor’s post after Ron Norick decided not to seek re-election, is in a tough battle against political newcomer Kirk Humphreys. The city’s Metropolitan Area Projects initiative is running behind schedule and over budget. Liebmann wants to shelve the proposed arena. Humphreys insists that all of the MAPS projects should be built as promised to voters.
The ballpark has yet to open. No MAPS project is completed some five years after the tax was approved. The public is unhappy with the ballpark lease with the Oklahoma RedHawks because it gave away control of naming rights.
Downtown is showing some vibrancy, however, mostly in Bricktown which has continued to flourish despite delays in construction of the ballpark and canal. But downtown still only has one aging hotel. And one of the grandest buildings of them all – the Skirvin Hotel – is marking one decade dark and abandoned. The building is falling apart, and Ward 7 Councilwoman Willa Johnson is pondering whether it should be declared dillapidated.
I’m in the thick of all this, easilly cranking out a two to three stories a day with beat partner Jack Money.
Could any of us have predicted that 10 years later the NBA commissioner would be hosting a press conference at the Skirvin Hilton Hotel – now considered the finest hotel in the city – to announce the arrival of a team at the downtown arena was a virtual lock? Would anyone believe that downtown would soon be home to its seventh hotel, with more coming? Or that hundreds of condominiums would be opening up? Or that a skyscraper of at least 37 stories would soon alter the downtown skyline?
First National Barbershop, earlyday photo, Norman Thompson collection, courtesy of Doug Loudenback. The barbershop was largely unchanged when it closed last year after a rent dispute between the operators and the building owner. The space remains dark one year later, and the owner says he does not rule out eventually gutting the space for a different use. First National Center is currently about 60 percent vacant.
Re: First National Building
120 N. Robinson
At 55, I do not consider myself to be so old that I live in the past, yet I do have appreciation for great things that were created before I was born, and certainly that is the case with historic buildings. When the First National Bank Building was constructed in 1931 at great expense, it was truly an “A” class building, and both the exterior and interior features revealed it. Since it was so high-end, and not average, people wanted to lease space in it. As the Great Depression ended, the building filled up, and there was a waiting list time and time again. Before I was born, relatives of mine from both sides of the family worked in the building; my mother’s older brother was an officer with the First National Bank, and my paternal grandfather, uncle and father leased a suite for The Hefner Company. My childhood was filled with endless trips through the building, and year after year, I loved seeing a huge, decorated tree in the Great Banking Hall at Christmas. When I began my own career, it was not long before I reported to a land company in the newer section, the middle building. In the early 1980s, during yet another oil boom for Oklahoma City, I could not walk from one end of the ground-level arcade to the other without running into numerous people that I knew. Such meetings were so helpful in the conduct of my business. Overall, it was great fun working downtown. What changed? The crash of that oil boom carried the First National Bank with it. The building had, as I remember, 33 lenders. The ownership changed and changed again. There were issues of “deferred maintenance,” and certain things had become obsolete simply by the passage of time. One group stepped forward and bought the building, but actually just wanted the “cash cow” of the adjacent parking garage. So, this group kept the cash-producing asset that could have been used to slowly, but surely renovate the building, but got rid of the building itself. That was such a damaging turning point! Several owners since then have failed to have the vision to see that this architectural gem was built to be an “A” class building. Sadly, more “minimalist maintenance” came with the passage of time. As the structures on other corners have achieved lower vacancy rates, the First National has not. Over the years, landlords of the First National have let The Beacon Club, the Post Office, a travel agency, and other amenities slip away from their spaces. Key law firms and oil companies have left too. The current owners lost the barber shop; today, I know of two other tenant-service enterprises planning to leave.
The current owners, as far as I am concerned, have been big on promises, but minimal on spending what is needed. I feel that they, too, do not see the Class “A” fundamentals of the building. A couple of times, I have tried to convince these Los Angeles-based owners to spend money for quality renovations, yet I failed. I have asked for the once-operational elevator security system to be repaired, but it has not. Instead, I find their attitudes are reflected by policies of getting the building locked up as soon as possible at night and on the weekends, as well as shutting off the heat and air immediately at the end of “the business day.” In-house retailers of clothing, coffee, even massages cannot get people inside very easily at all on the weekends.
Last week, while historic art-deco paint continued to peel, and old, stained carpet remained in place in the elevator cars, the owners announced a “Phase I” renovation plan to begin on March 12, 2008. Expensive signs were placed on walls throughout the building saying “First National reborn.” There was a reception for the tenants, but I was too ill to attend.
I learned later, to my great shock, to begin this “renovation,” the press photographed Lt. Gov. Jeri Askins operating a jackhammer blowing holes in the marble floor in the original part of the building! What was she thinking? What are the owners thinking? The marble floor is part of that “A” quality! Why would the owners break up big squares of marble? The money needed to replace this quality flooring could be spent instead of restoring the 1930s art-deco paint design that is peeling above!
And, there is a 1960s era middle building that is in dire need of getting the basis repaired. Why jackhammer a perfectly-good marble floor? I would have thought the Lt. Gov. Askins would have had a better understanding for things that are not only high-quality, but also historic.
A spokesperson for the management defended the action to me in my phone call, but only convinced me the owners do not understand the attraction of “historic” and how important that could become in making the venerable First National as an office address people prefer. Furthermore, a restoration (not a budget-minded partial remodeling) would restore the long-lost trust that potential tenants could feel through watching –finally – some First National owners spending enough money and spending it correctly on making things right. In my business career, I have learned that “attraction” works far better than “promotions,” and I am deeply troubled that the current owners are willing to do irreparable harm to this Oklahoma City landmark in favor of the latter. Restoration of the original quality is the missing ingredient for the future security of the one and only First National. Steve, I would like to thank you for taking an interest in the preservation of the historic First National Center.
Sincerely, W. John Hefner, Jr
Read more about this in today’s Main Street column.
So tomorrow is the day when NBA Commissioner David Stern and several top league officials will come downtown to meet with locals about relocating the SuperSonics to Ford Center.
Governor Brad Henry, Mayor Mick Cornett and Sonics’ Chairman Clay Bennett will lead the presentation, which will consist of a thorough review of why Oklahoma City is ready to be the home to a permanent NBA franchise. The members of the committee will also be given a detailed presentation on planned improvements to the Ford Center, approved by Oklahoma City voters on March 4.
Four NBA owners from the relocation committee who will attend are: Peter Holt (San Antonio Spurs), Lewis Katz (NJ Nets), Herb Simon (Indiana Pacers), and Jeannie Buss (LA Lakers) who is representing owner Jerry Buss. The committee will make a recommendation to the NBA Board of Governors, which will meet April 17-18 in New York.
So, for the sake of argument, let’s assume this is getting close to being a done deal. For years it seemed as if two things might forever elude Oklahoma City’s big league aspirations – a major league team and a significant change to the downtown skyline. Now both are becoming reality. So tell me, readers, dreamers, skeptics and disbelievers - what’s next?
No, it wasn’t Mayor Mick Cornett’s appointment to replace Larry Nichols as a board member at the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority. After seeing one comment after another on local message boards – notably www.okctalk.com and www.okmet.org - by members insisting on more openess and vows to go to a meeting, digital downtown finally caught up with virtual downtown.
A week earlier, I met with Nick Roberts, otherwise known as “Spartan,” at The Buzz and discussed all sorts of issues involving downtown. For me, this opportunity to meet with the operator of okmet.org was a chance to get a better insight into what’s driving continued interest in downtown development, what stories I might pursue, and how I can improve my reporting so that it stays relevant to you the reader.
Nick is a bit embarassed by the attire he wore to Wednesday’s Urban Renewal meeting – he was running late after traveling from Norman and trying to find the meeting locale, and didn’t realize the small confines of the board room where the commissioners meet. But consider this: Nick took the time and effort to see firsthand how development is guided by Urban Renewal and what discussions do and don’t take place.
That says a lot. I can’t recall another time when someone from digital downtown took such an effort to cross the gap into virtual downtown. We’ve seen near misses – one poster actually called into Urban Renewal’s offices several months ago criticizing a pending selection of a developer and vowed to show up leading a protest (no such protest followed and the person in question, who I’ve also met, has yet to appear at any Urban Renewal meetings that I can recall).
Nick, it was fun and enlightening meeting you over coffee, and I hope you learned something Wednesday.
With everything going on these past two weeks, you might have missed some deals quietly moving along in the background. So what did we miss?Well, to begin with, the deal between Oklahoma City and the Oklahoma City Public School System that would have resulted in school administrators moving into downtown’s Journal Record Building is dead.
The district initially negotiated to buy 70,000 square feet of the 110,000 square-foot building at a cost of $8.5 million. The deal was delayed week after week by city officials who initially believed the deal was inevitable. But this week the item was scratched for good.
The Bricktown Urban Design Committee last week approved plans to repair and cover a stucco finish at 3 E Main. The century-old building originally had a brick facade, but architects reported removal of the stucco was cost prohibitive. The building is being renovated into the corporate headquarters for Standley Systems. The company bought the three-story building, built in 1901, for $937,500 last year.
Sorry for my absence the past two days. After working some long days last week, I’m spending some quality time at home with the kids.
I’ll be back out on the streets tomorrow, keeping a close eye on developments at the monthly meeting of the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Meeting. Not much on the agenda… just a 37-story or higher skyscraper….