OK, I really don’t expect a WWE situation at Wednesday mornings BID board meeting. But it will certainly be lively. Let me elaborate: Rick Dowell is a person people either love or hate. I’ve rarely met anyone lukewarm on the guy who knew him. And that, my friends, is OK.
Rick is going to battle over the name for his corner of downtown – a series of properties he has developed around NW 5 and Walker that he has long called MidTown Plaza. But with renewal of the BID and district identities growing in importance, the MidTown Plaza name is drawing criticism from nearby MidTown and now, I hear, from the Plaza District concerned over district confusion.
The trick is Dowell’s property is in the Arts District, but truthfully, I’ve observed first hand that he’s never been embraced by the emerging Arts District. One anecdote comes to mind quite clearly, when a group of Arts District developers and property owners gathered together to form an “arts quarter” and lined the rooftops with year-round light strings to signify their area – work done with grant money from a local foundation. The project excluded Rick, so he decided to spend his own money on rooftop lighting thinking it was an oversight.
He thought the move would endear him to his neighbors, but did the opposite.
So here’s what I wrote about Rick a couple of years ago:
Rick Dowell knows he is not the most popular guy downtown.
He was once an economics professor at the University of Oklahoma, and he still looks more like a member of academia than an urban developer who loves to take risks.
Dowell isn’t being paranoid about those around him. Peers on the city’s Urban Design Commission (of which he is a member) pretty much trashed his MidTown Plaza development. They didn’t like his conversion of the former Fred Jones Lincoln dealership into offices or the two-story office building he built across the street.
He’s about as popular with the preservationists and design professionals downtown as Rodney Dangerfield’s Al Czervik was with the country club types in the movie “Caddy Shack.”
An entirely different story is told by some of Dowell’s tenants and neighbors. They speak glowingly of him and his work. When Larry and Sara Bonnell decided to open an office downtown, their first instinct was to check out what was being offered by their former Norman landlord: Dowell.
The couple last month were the first to sign a lease and move into one of Dowell’s riskier projects — renovation of a seedy old motel into small offices.
To date, Dowell has renovated six buildings along NW 5 and Walker, has repairs under way in two more and has had good luck leasing up much of the space.
A corner that had nothing but boarded up or abandoned buildings is now humming with activity.
Yet when Downtown Oklahoma City Inc. and the Oklahoma City Planning Department recently began a road show recounting all the development that has transpired downtown in the last decade, the presentation included nothing about Dowell’s work. The presentation did include development to the north and south of his property.
So why the disconnect?
The design community takes issue with his renovations. They argue his red clay tile roofs aren’t appropriate for MidTown or its history. They don’t like that he stripped away the 1947 facade at the former Lincoln dealership or used a stone facade for his new building at the same intersection.
Dowell also is derided for slow progress on his two biggest downtown properties — the former Bob Moore Cadillac dealership and the former Midland Plaza building. He’s criticized as being argumentative and stubborn.
But I’ll throw out another theory and wait for an almost inevitable scolding. Dowell isn’t consulting with preservationists or architects on any of these projects — he’s coming up with the design concepts all on his own.
To many downtown insiders, Dowell is a novice putting his stamp on downtown. But Dowell isn’t too concerned with them. He’s moving forward with MidTown Plaza, with or without the downtown crowd. He argues his inspiration comes from his visits to 34 countries and from downtown’s history. He responds he actually admires architects’ work and boasts a home library filled with photos of historic architecture.
Most of the preservationists and architects who privately (and sometimes publicly) bash Dowell share at least one thing in common with their target: They all have big framed photos on their walls, displaying the neon-lit downtown Oklahoma City of a half century ago.
Maybe the ultimate judgment on Dowell should end with a survey of his work at NW 5 and Walker. Whether it meets with everybody’s approval, when combined with development to the north and south, the blighted scar that once separated MidTown and downtown is fading quickly.
So why does any of this matter? Rick Dowell is gearing up to fight BID renewal if his MidTown Plaza id isn’t recognized by the BID itself.
Get a glimpse of his powerpoint: midtown plaza district presentation amended
Read letters of support Dowell is providing to the BID, including a fascinating history of the area: Dowell support letters