Let me start this post by stating the obvious: by simply commenting on downtown Tulsa, there are those up in our sister city who will assume the worst of me, that I’m out to trash them to the benefit of Oklahoma City, etc.
That’s not true, and fortunately there are also many rational voices up in Tulsa who see beyond the childish and petty “us vs. them” cliche that has plagued the two cities for decades (dear Tulsa – OKC doesn’t like the turnpikes anymore than you do).
So let’s get that out of the way; I love downtown Tulsa. I love its architecture. I love its proximity to the Arkansas River. I have unlimited jealousy of the Tulsa Press Club, its location downtown, and its proximity to Arnie’s (a downtown dive bar unrivaled in downtown OKC).
With that aside, I am struck by a story posted by Michael Bates, an insightful Tulsa blogger who has done a great job informing his readers, including myself, on various matters including urban planning. Maurice Kanbar might not be a household name here in Oklahoma City, but in Tulsa he IS downtown, having bought about a third of the properties in the central business district a few years back.
Now it looks like he may be bailing out.
Tulsa, it seems, gets so close, so often, to celebrating something huge only to see their hopes dashed. While Oklahoma City goes in slower, incremental steps on its urban revival that take years to complete, Tulsa goes after one big quick roll of the dice after another.
A giant Indian statue called “The American” (something to rival the St. Louis Arch) was announced to great fanfare – and went no where. Oklahoma City, meanwhile, went with a heroic size recreation of the Land Run, and while it’s taking a few years to get done, one small piece at a time, it’s quietly becoming a significant tourist attraction (though it will never be the St. Louis Arch).
Tulsa then sought to create urban entertainment districts to rival Bricktown. At first glance, with incredible assets like Cain’s Ballroom and the Brady Theater, this should have been a slam dunk. But again, Tulsa went for something bigger than just one district, and the result until recently has been two detached district, each with great qualities, but still falling short of the sort of place people will travel to from across the region. I have high hopes that may soon change with the latest announced developments – if they come to pass.
So now we come to Maurice Kanbar. In January, 2006, I was quite proud of having scooped the Tulsa World in scoring the first interview with Kanbar’s then-business partner, Henry Kaufman:
In downtown Tulsa, they’re wondering, “How did we get so lucky?”
Two San Francisco investors, Maurice Kanbar and Henry Kaufman, were virtual unknowns when they hit Oklahoma’s second-largest city back in August, buying five prominent downtown Tulsa office buildings.
Unlike typical developers, they skipped doing any interviews with reporters and quietly went about buying even more properties. With their latest purchase last week of Tulsa’s Atlas Life Building, their total investment exceeds $100 million.
Kanbar and Kaufman, in business together for 42 years, now own 19 buildings, representing about 28 percent of all downtown Tulsa office properties.
So who are they? What are their plans? And why Tulsa?
“We had a long-standing interest in Tulsa,” Kaufman told The Oklahoman this week. “We had a publishing company there. It’s a beautiful city. The universities that surround it are turning out excellent graduates, and the architecture is superb. … There are no negatives.”
Downtown Tulsa, Kaufman said, “is an undiscovered gem.”
Well, at least it was until Kanbar and Kaufman came to town.
Kanbar made his fortune as the founder of Skky Vodka. A biography provided by the San Francisco mayor’s office shows he also opened the first multiplex theater in New York and holds several inventor’s patents.
Kaufman said he and Kanbar think Tulsa has the chance to be the country’s next big arts magnet. And their investments will reflect that hunch with a drive to lure some satellite university branches, museums and galleries to their buildings. They also are planning to convert some of their buildings into artists’ lofts.
“I see a need for art galleries, artists’ lofts, the kind of things that made Soho what it is today,” Kaufman said. “We want to price them to be affordable for artists — it’s interesting to note that the artists have abandoned Soho and have moved to Chelsea — because they were out priced by Soho.”
Wow. How could you not get excited about such a development? Imagine if a millionaire angel investor came into Oklahoma City, bought First National Center, all of Nick Preftakes’ buildings along Main Street and Sheridan Avenue, and every undeveloped building along Automobile Alley, and made similar promises. Believe it or not, Kanbar and Kaufman’s arrival in Tulsa was double that scenario.
Kaufman, however, eventually disappeared from the equation. And while one building, the wonderful Atlas Building (where I first visited the Tulsa Press Club) was converted into a nice hotel, that was the result of a sale to new owners. The rest of the story, as told by Bates, isn’t so great.
What’s potentially worrisome is that the Kanbar is emptying some of the older buildings of their few remaining tenants. Such moves can lead to regret later if the buildings go dark, and lose their “grandfather” status under code requirements for renovations.
I’m curious as to what all of you might think, Tulsans and Oklahoma Citians alike. Is there something to learn in all this? In the meantime, let’s hope for the best for Tulsa; and just know that there are a lot of Oklahoma City folks making treks to Cain’s and loving their stay in T-Town.
As an aside to all this, not sure I ever read about the outcome of the Kanbar/Kaufman lawsuit, but a search of court transcripts shows the matter went to the 9th Circuit Court, where it affirmed a decision by a lower court that went Kanbar’s way, but financially pretty much favored Kaufman. Confused? Apparently Kanbar doesn’t like paying bonuses. And the relationship between the two men was pretty informal. So when Kaufman paid finder’s fees, etc., to affluent Tulsans including John and Tori Snyder (who restored the Mayo Hotel) and attorney Raymond Feldman, Kanbar, according to the court documents, was none too happy.
That said, if I understand the 2010 ruling correctly, the courts determined the money paid to these individuals didn’t exceed what they would have been due. There may still be some filings, court actions not showing up in my search, so I’m not entirely sure this is the end of the story.
ONE MORE ADD:
Over at Tulsa Now, they’re discussing this post and trying to figure out my intent. My intent, quite simply, is to question whether putting all of one’s hopes into the big stuff can overshadow the small stuff, which often pays off more when everything is said and done.
I’m intrigued by this response over at Tulsa Now by “Floyd”:
“His point appears to be that Tulsa seems to keep “missing” on its large-scale development attempts. I think that’s a fair point on one level–witness the failure of the Stadium Trust to even begin to deliver improvements in the immediate vicinity of the ballpark. But it misses the more important aspects of what’s happening in Tulsa. Despite it all, Tulsa’s smaller-scale entrepreneurs and visionaries are remaking the city’s core into a place with character and life, from the Pearl streetscape to Tulsa Tough. That’s the real story here, and Lackmeyer should pop over to Tulsa to see it and write about it.”
Floyd, it’s been about year, way too long, since I last visited Tulsa. I’m way overdue, and I’ll be up there soon!