With today’s story on the potential closing of Johnny’s Lunch Box at Sheridan and Walker, questions are renewed about the intentions of the property’s owner, Nick Preftakes. Last night discussion of this story led to an unfortunate exchange via Twitter about “hearing rumors.” So let’s delve into all this. For the past few years Preftakes has been buying up the block bordered by Main Street, Hudson, Sheridan and Walker Avenues and for the most part letting them stay empty (everything he’s bought on Main Street) or running on auto-pilot (like One North Hudson, historically known as the Black Hotel).
Nick is a businessman. He’s not sentimental. He’s respected for knowing the difference between buying “retail” and “wholesale.” Usually Nick always buys “wholesale” – meaning he’s no fool in the real estate game. But when it came to buying out much of this block, truth be told, he’s definitely paid some retail prices. So when he first began his buying spree, which occurred at a time when Devon Energy’s plans for a headquarters across the street was not a secret, his explanation that he was buying the land as “an investment” was laughable. It was also a curious matter that Preftakes was seemingly quite able to sit on $14 million or more for four years and counting.
But he wasn’t able to buy everything on the block. The city owns, and fully occupies, the largest building on the block, 420 W Main. He also has yet to buy nearby Pizza Town or Coney Island Hot Dogs. And most elusive of all was the Union Bus Station. As I’ve noted previously, it was also odd that when Preftakes bought the Auto Hotel at 17 N Hudson, he ended a contract with Republic Parking and closed it down. He said he wasn’t in the parking business. That response came off as odd to those who know Preftakes as a man who is in the business to make money (he later reopened the garage when Devon shut down the City Center West Garage as part of an expansion, creating a shortage of parking for the area).
It was at an October, 2009 meeting of the Downtown Urban Design meeting where Preftakes sought to demolish a rather unremarkable building at 419 W Sheridan, next to the Lunch Box, that he fessed up – a bit. Preftakes confirmed for the first time he is preparing to redevelop the block and that he wanted to acquire the Union Bus Station before taking that next step. Then, a few months ago, owners of the bus station announced they were shutting down operations and yes, the property might be sold. So far, however, so sale has been recorded at the county.
Preftakes has repeatedly declined to say whether Devon Energy has any involvement in his development plans (note I also made no headway in getting a clear answer on this matter from Devon Energy Executive Chairman Larry Nichols). Also note that during that urban design meeting in 2009 Preftakes was accompanied by a Devon attorney. When asked about why she attended, the attorney responded she was there as an interested neighbor. I’ve reported most of this in the past, but it’s important to put all of this into perspective.
Now let’s consider yet another detail – the new Devon Energy wellness center on the second floor of the company’s new and expanded garage that overlooks Main Street. The wellness center is designed so that dozens of employees exercising on treadmills, stair-stepping machines and stationary bicycles are doing so looking out onto the mostly vacant, haggard-looking buildings along Main Street now owned by Preftakes. So ask yourselves – would Devon really design this sort of view (a wide expanse of windows no less) without having any control over the surrounding area or at least an idea that the view would soon change?
Also consider just how much the Myriad Gardens make-over has improved the immediate area, and how a new downtown elementary will be built across from the Union Bus Station.
Are we getting a picture yet? Nick has done some impressive mixed-use development both locally and elsewhere. He knows how to do adaptive re-use of old buildings. He also knows how to tear down a building and replace it with offices, housing or retail. He knows how to do urban development. So when you hear about “rumors” concerning Nick Preftakes and this block, with everything I’ve shared, at this point a picture must emerge ….
I don’t deal in rumors. I deal with what I know, and I’m only going to share what I know. And now I’ve done just that….