When I became re-involved in 2003 in OKC development, I touted TIF (Tax Increment Financing) as the means through which the MAPS sales tax incentive could be “bootstrapped” to help create a dense mixed use environment. The target: a broadly defined “triangle” bordered by I-40 on the south, I-235 on the diagonal and on the west, a north-south boundary splitting what is now known as MidTown.
My first efforts were with ERC on Deep Deuce, then the Arts District, then The Factory, in which I was technically “Oh for three.”
However, we learned a great deal that we have tried to apply since. We conducted a market study of 14 peer cities that had neither sexy mountains nor shorelines and found that each had between 2 percent and 8 percent of their MSAs’ population within the urban core. At the low end for OKC, that math translates to 24,000 people. Even counting the Jail, we are under 2,000 today.
Now that a number of players have emerged downtown, the geographic focus has naturally gotten blurred. The Thunder and Devon Tower have brought into the game two 800-lb gorillas – the NBA owners group and Devon Energy. To a significant but lesser extent, Sandridge, the Humphreys family, Roy Oliver/Mark Beffort and CHK/McClendon have gained strong positions in the core. Greg Banta/Bob Howard/Mickey Clagg and Corsair/Smith Brothers have made a number of speculative buys in MidTown that are starting to see life. Steve Mason, Chris and Meg Salyer, Nick Preftakes, BMI and Earl Neighbors have taken very different but positive approaches as user/owners.
The Greater Oklahoma City Chamber and the City Staff are clearly and rightfully feeling their oats, while the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority has been weakened by Larry Nichols’ departure and the controversial pick of The Hill’s developer, which probably has spawned a winding down of some trustees’ long running influence. The approval of a un-Urban design for the Chamber’s building was an unfortunate reminder of the darker days in OKC history before the Bombing made consensus and grass roots projects possible over politics.
A perceived negative out there is that the former Triangle group has splintered, which is true but not necessarily a bad thing, as each of us can now play in their own sandboxes and probably get more done, and I think Maywood Park has been unfairly maligned as a bit of a bust as most of the brownstones sit empty. I say unfairly because I think they will ultimately sell, and because the City got exactly what it asked for from all of the Downtown housing developers – expensive, high-end for sale homes.
Neither the City or Urban Renewal wanted affordable rentals, as they turned down both of my ERC proposals for mixed income apartments in the competition for the Deep Deuce site (2002, with Benham) and the Arts District site (2003, with ADG and Raptor). The only for sale projects that have sold out have been the Centennial (albeit to mostly corporate buyers) and the Harvey Lofts rehab (only 17 units between $100k and $200k).
Dick Tannenbaum has made a very successful entre into housing development (Park Harvey and Lincoln), but not without hiccups (eg the failed attempts to condo both the Montgomery and the Classen). Block 42 has more dark windows at night than not, and The Hill deal is a ticking time bomb; the unpaid contractors will soon grow tired of waiting for their money and will no longer play as nice as they have been.
The national meltdown has been a big factor, but the reality is that OKC has never been a big condo market. Also, no one can blame even the richest buyers for a reluctance to buy if the surroundings of a real dense and active urban village does not materialize as quickly as everyone would like.
The reality that the City is experiencing downtown is that critical mass and density matters most, and is not delivered quick enough through the linear production and absorption of for-sale housing. The decision by Urban Renewal and the City to promote and push for upper end, for-sale housing first was ill-timed to be sure, but generally a violation of real estate development fundamentals.
In my opinion, the critical path to successful infill Downtown development in OKC begins first with creating density of people using the real estate on a 24/7 basis. This happens quickest through 2 uses – Hotels and Rental Apartments, which more quickly put more heads on beds than any other use.
Everyone wants to experience an urban “Magnificent Mile” environment like Michigan Avenue, but Daniel Burnham’s Plan For Chicago took 15 years to draft and adopt and over 90 years to develop, culminating with Millennium Park, absolutely the coolest urban green space in America. That is why I think that the current Core to Shore emphasis puts the cart way before the horse. We need to finish the Core first in a most excellent way.
I believe that the following represents a better chronology for a critical path for OKC’s Downtown Development
1- Plan for Core to Shore through a broader 20 year long process and horizon, led and participated in by more than a couple dozen people, incrementally stopping and adjusting every 3-5 years to review how the market is responding. Mix in Social Initiatives like the Jail (on a more modest, phased basis, not as a response to another unfunded Federal mandate) and Homeless Center with the sexy stuff so that voter fatigue doesn’t kill the Goose that Laid the MAPs Eggs.
2- Avoid the consolidation of power in administering Business Improvement Districts comprising the current and emerging “districts” that make up the Downtown Core. Remember that absolute power corrupts absolutely.
3- Let the Neighborhoods and Districts decide where their boundaries begin and end and manage themselves through Business Improvement Districts and other Owners Associations. The localized characteristics of Auto Alley, Bricktown, Deep Deuce, Maywood Park, Midtown, Film District, Lower Bricktown, Courthouse Block, Devon/Botanical Gardens each have their own forces of will, market attraction and good design attributes that will help compel and sort out the timing and priorities of projects – politics should not.
4 – Use TIF creatively and broadly to include Sale and Room Taxes for discrete user-driven projects, as per the examples of the Skirvin Hotel and Devon Tower.
5- Inventory current infrastructure opportunities and challenges in the Core and create a priority list that gets addressed by TIF. Example on one end of the spectrum – we can cheaply double parking on Broadway through angled striping and narrowed, slower traffic; versus the other end of the spectrum – the costly Boulevard through nothing to nowhere, which only happens five years after the Feds fund I-40.
6 – Agree that density, shared parking, connectivity and walkability are good and should be the paramount ideals for Project design.
7 – Focus on Big Users and what they need to come into the Core.
8 – Rental apartments can be tailored for sites big and small, renters rich and not so rich, and are the most finance-able class of real estate today and for the foreseeable future.
9 – The Quiet Zone (property owners are seeking new gates along the BNSF railroad to quiet train noise as it passes through the Flat Iron district) is a threshold need that must happen first BEFORE any other project Downtown – it is absolutely essential to any private project of scale, and will create incremental value on both sides of the tracks for miles East and West, North and South.
10 – Do not try to Force the Core to Shore – it is my sense that a relatively small group of parties are unduly influencing priorities. I am okay with the MAPs 3 Convention Center Idea just South of the Ford Center, but it is still a long ways to the South shoreline. Our version of Millennium Park will have to be birthed and season for 10 years before development happens naturally further South. The thing that could change this is if a huge User shows up, but none are on the horizon that I can see.