Street of Dreams
Run down, then wrecked, Automobile Alley is an example of how an area can be reborn.
By Steve Lackmeyer
Sunday, April 17, 2005
Edition: City, Section: BUSINESS, Page 1C
Dreams have always been a part of Automobile Alley — some came true, some were broken.
The stretch of Broadway was a vibrant business district 75 years ago. Gradually, it became a slum populated by transients before being devastated by a terrorist act.
In the last decade, that stretch has returned to vibrance. The urban neighborhood is a mix of high tech offices and residential lofts, anchored by eclectic boutiques including a coffee shop, art gallery and music store.
Chris and Meg Salyer, who have renovated at least a half-dozen historic properties, said the foundation for the rebirth is community. And they said that community was formed in the wake of the senseless devastation that occurred at the federal building.
“We realized we were a greater force and power together,” Meg Salyer said, looking back. “And if we worked together in the rebuilding, we could make this a wonderful place.”
From their windows in the Magnolia Petroleum Building at NW 7 and Broadway, the Salyers see life. They see neighbors they didn’t even know until after April 19, 1995.
Chris Salyer was sorting through paperwork in his fifth-story office at the Magnolia building when terrorists bombed the nearby Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
“I looked in the direction of the noise and saw this white vertical plume of smoke,” he said. “The sound was deafening. … The white plume immediately went black. And that was followed by more explosions as the fuel tanks of the cars in the parking lot next to the Athenian went off.”
Still looking outside his window, Salyer saw the plate glass windows on buildings along Broadway start to shatter in a delayed response.
“It was exactly like dominoes falling to the ground,” he said.
In the midst of the chaos, Meg Salyer rushed to her husband’s office, where they defied orders to evacuate.
From their window, they saw a procession of doctors and nurses walk down Broadway, marching toward a triage where, sadly, few lives were to be saved.
“It was just so poignant,” Meg Salyer said.
Acting on impulse, the Salyers spent the day securing their buildings with plywood.
The Salyers had invested their life savings buying up and renovating a half dozen of these old car-dealership buildings. Most of them were not even insured. At that point, they could not even think about the future.
The Salyers’ future neighbor, Nick Preftakes, was known as a focused thinker. Instead of waiting for a for-sale sign on a desired location, the developer would contact a property’s owner, letting them know he was a ready buyer.
At the urging of an old friend, Mark Ruffin, Preftakes had joined him in buying an old car dealership at NW 13 and Broadway. In early 1995, the pair started converting it into the “Garage Lofts,” downtown’s first residential lofts.
The bet seemed like a good one, Ruffin had argued, because similar projects succeeded in other cities.
April 19, the developer was in his office at NW 63 and Broadway Extension, talking on the phone with his sister in Philadelphia.
When the blast went off, Preftakes didn’t worry about his only downtown property. When the window shades swung in and the ceiling tiles lifted up in his office, Preftakes thought the explosion involved weapons kept by one of his tenants — the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation.
“I thought the explosion was in my own building,” Preftakes said. “So what do you do? You go run outside. Everybody was leaving the building, trying to figure out what had happened.”
Preftakes spent the remainder of the morning watching the events transpire on television like millions of others around the world. When he traveled downtown, he found extensive damage to the lofts that were already under construction.
Like Salyer, all Preftakes could do that first day was cover everything with plywood. And they, along with everybody else in north downtown, would have the next couple of weeks to ponder what would follow.
They had no choice. The street was closed for weeks as the investigation commenced into what was, at that point, the most deadly terrorist attack on American soil.
Broadway was already in pretty bad shape even before the bombing. When the Salyers started buying up properties in the late 1980s, what few tenants remained consisted of loan shops, pawn shops and offices where the down-and-out could sell their plasma.
The sidewalks were crumbling. The only landscaping consisted of weeds the size of preschoolers.
The Salyers worried that what few decent tenants remained in north downtown might flee to the suburbs.
April 20, they arranged for ADT Alarm Systems to move into their Magnolia Petroleum Building, which had escaped much of the damage that surrounding properties sustained.
Meg Salyer proceeded with plans before the bombing to open an office staffing company.
Mayor Ron Norick secured quick funding to replace shattered windows. The Urban Land Institute came in and provided a quick analysis of the area’s damage and needs.
Norick, working with the state’s congressional delegation, had secured millions in federal grants and loans to help property owners rebuild.
Downtown was divided up into six separate zones, with workshops for Automobile Alley property owners coordinated by Ron Frantz, a former Main Street organizer who worked with the Oklahoma Commerce Department.
Meg Salyer noticed Frantz was doing more than just planning out a recovery strategy. He was sparking a frank discussion between property owners.
They let out their emotions. They spoke out about the pain they had endured. They talked about what they thought was holding the area back. They shared fears that the bombing might scare people away from downtown for good.
In these tense moments, the street became a community.
“We had people who had been in this neighborhood for 25 years who had never become acquainted with each other,” Meg Salyer said.
Trials and tribulations
Such bonding didn’t provide easy answers for Meg Salyer when, one Saturday morning in July after the bombing, her phone rang and she was told that one of her buildings was on fire.
The old St. Nicholas Hotel had only one tenant: Sweeney’s Deli. The operator, David Hoke, had just reopened after spending weeks repairing the damages from the bombing.
“I thought, little fire, whatever,” Meg Salyer said. “I called the guy who worked for us, and he said, ‘Get downtown, take a look.’”
The blaze was nothing less than a four-alarm fire. The building appeared to be a loss.
“It would have been the easiest to tear it down,” Chris Salyer said. “I can’t count how many times we thought about that.”
Frantz was the first to console Salyer, giving him a Main Street program “certificate” in response to the blaze.
“This is the award for the first post-Main Street fire,” Frantz told the Salyers. “It happens in every Main Street program.”
Those whom Salyer had relied on for advice on how to bring Broadway back were vocal in urging him not to tear down the St. Nicholas Hotel. Architect Rand Elliott had worked on some of Salyer’s building renovations and had also tackled his own project: the restoration of the Heierding Building at 35 N Harrison.
For years, the flatiron-shaped building was a burned out, gutted eyesore at the entryway to downtown. Elliott related to Salyer’s dilemma with the St. Nicholas Hotel.
“Nothing scared me,” Elliott said. “I believed in buildings being resurrected.”
Devery Youngblood, hired to oversee the newly formed Automobile Alley Main Street program, joined with Elliott in arguing to Salyer that demolition of the building would hurt the area’s redevelopment.
“It was important to the character of the district,” Youngblood said. “But it’s not the developer’s place to lose money. It was a very real decision that had to be made.”
The economics of the project weren’t great, but the Salyers took the advice and rebuilt the St. Nicholas Hotel. The property is now home to CD Warehouse and VOX, an alternative weekly newspaper.
“I’m a preservationist through and through, so it didn’t take too much talking to get me to keep it,” Salyer said.
While Salyer got busy renovating the St. Nicholas Hotel into a modern office building, Preftakes was tackling three buildings across the street.
The C.R. Anthony’s headquarters at NW 7 and Broadway had been repaired after the bombing but was destined to be left empty when Texas-based Stage Stores bought the clothing store chain.
Preftakes wanted the office building but not the adjoining annex on NW 7. Kenny Walker, owner of neighboring Walker Stamp and Seal, wanted the annex but not the office building.
In this emerging community, the pair bought the complex and then split it for their own needs. Preftakes offered the renamed “701 Building” as a traditional office property and alternative to office lofts he had opened in two nearby warehouses.
The progress that the Salyers and Preftakes made sparked a feeling along Broadway that the area was on the rebound. Some renovations once considered not doable were pushed along by the city’s bombing recovery program and the office’s grants and loans.
Properties boarded up for years before the bombing suddenly came into play. The former home of a Packard dealership was renovated and turned into the IAO Gallery. Yet another was turned into an office supply store.
Both were owned by Bob McDonald, whose father started a Chevrolet dealership along the “alley” in 1932.
A three-story former auto dealership at NW 5 and Broadway owned by the Boyington family for a half-century had remained empty since 1982. With assistance from bombing recovery funds, owner Don Boyington renovated the building into the Fifth Avenue Lofts.
The renovations were complimented by a “streetscape” that replaced the crumbling sidewalks and added vintage-style street lamps and brick-paver crosswalks.
In later years, the property owners would assess themselves as part of a business improvement district and use the fees to add street furniture and historic markers along sidewalks.
Chris Salyer said neither he nor Preftakes deserve sole credit for the revival of Automobile Alley. The community’s effort was born in response to the violence of April 19, 1995, Salyer said.
“There were people from every walk of life,” Salyer said. “It’s unfair for us to be singled out. … This is a joint effort.”
Salyer and Preftakes disagree as to whether the revival would have happened if not for the bombing.
Preftakes calls the idea that Automobile Alley is the “silver lining” in the tragic aftermath of the bombing is nothing more than an “urban legend.” He saw the properties as a great business opportunity before the bombing. And he argues the tragedy didn’t alter his ultimate plans.
Salyer thinks other cities can learn from what happened in Oklahoma City, but wishes that lesson didn’t have to come at the expense of 168 lives.
“The lives that have been changed, much to the better here, is the result of all the pain and suffering that we all went through,” Salyer said. “I’m thinking the good that can come from vile efforts like this is the template that can be used in circumstances of any similar disaster.”