In Saturday’s Oklahoman I provided another update on the 20-story Dowell Center at Couch Drive and Robinson across from Leadership Square. Progress is going slow, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. Not everyone is happy with Dowell’s proposal for a new east facade, which he wants to look like this:
I think some perspective is needed on this one. I agree – some wonderful things could be done with this building if it were in the hands of another owner. But truth be told, I don’t think a traditional developer would have even bothered. Why do I say this? Well, read the story below that I wrote in 2007. True, Dowell is moving much slower than hoped. But he has proven to be the turtle in that he DOES get things done. It’s my observation that this building would be doomed to stay empty another decade or more, or simply face eventual demolition, if not for Rick Dowell. Look at Tulsa’s Petroleum Club building and the turmoil they’ve had with its owners. This could have easily ended up with that sort of story line.
Before proceeding with my 2007 story, consider that this building has a history unlike any other downtown:
Confused? Read on….
Abandoned by owners, half filled with asbestos and marred by title complications, the 20-story former Kermac Building may very well have been the nicest blighted building in Oklahoma City when Rick Dowell bought it in 1995.
Thirteen years later, Dowell is hoping to prove his critics wrong. Title is clear. He owns a parking garage with Underground tunnel connections to his renamed Dowell Center. And he’s anticipating a new start for the property once he completes asbestos removal started this month.
“Everybody thought I was insane, that anybody who would buy this building would be nuts,” Dowell said. “But I had done a lot of research on this before I approached it.”
His conclusion: Prospects looked bleak for the tower, but the opportunity to buy it at a county auction for $350,000 was too good to pass up. He would have to overcome a history that started with the west half of the tower being built in 1927 and the east half being built with asbestos on top of a land lease in 1964.
Back then, it was considered the nicest space in town, corporate home to Kerr-McGee until the company built a bigger tower one block north in 1971. The tower remained full throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, as it passed from one owner to another.
But by 1992, its owners in Dallas had given up on the property after concluding downtown Oklahoma City would never rebound from the oil bust. Dowell said occupancy had plunged to 40 percent, forcing owners into paying out more for operations than they were collecting in rent.
“It was considered too hot to handle,” Dowell said. “Its ownership had become very convoluted. The land-lease holders had taken possession of what they could take possession on, and they hoped to get full ownership of the building. And the taxes hadn’t been paid for a couple of years.”
But as it went to auction in 1995, a vacuum salesman had convinced a dentist to join him in buying the building, and they were the only party to show at the bidding. The land-lease holders didn’t enter a bid, thinking no sane person would buy half a building with splintered title and asbestos. They assumed that with no other bids they would then automatically get a shot at obtaining the entire property, Dowell said.
The salesman and dentist, whose names Dowell can’t recall, only learned they won the bid for half of the property after writing out a check to the county.
“The people who had the land lease came to the dentist and asked, ‘Why did you do this? Don’t you realize you just bought half a building with asbestos in it?’ And he didn’t know any of the above, so he canceled payment of his check,” Dowell said.
But county officials weren’t keen on the idea of canceling the payment and were threatening to prosecute. And that’s when Dowell, informed of the fiasco, stepped in and assumed the payment and took title.
Ultimately, the land-lease holders sold Dowell their interests.
He wasn’t waiting long for his first tenant. The transaction closed in summer 1995, just as the Journal Record newspaper, displaced by the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, was looking for new space. Dowell walled off the first two floors of the west tower from the asbestos-filled space and installed a separate heating and air-conditioning system.
He then did a facade update for the first two floors, matching imported black Italian granite to match materials used by Kerr-McGee when it bought the property and combined the two towers in 1964.
“We went ahead and had the lobby redesigned and created a new entry, so that when the time was right, all that would remain was the interior work,” Dowell said.
For the following decade, the Journal Record remained the only tenant. When they moved last year, Dowell contemplated filling just that space and continuing his wait for the right opportunity to remove the asbestos and reopen the rest of the tower.
Dowell Center would have to wait, Dowell figured, because he already was busy developing MidTown Plaza at NW 5 and Walker.
Jimmie Hammontree, Brownfields administrator at the Oklahoma City Planning Department, saw Dowell Center as the ideal candidate for a new federal loan fund established by the Environmental Protection Agency. For years Brownfields loans and grants had been used to clean up polluted properties. The agency expanded eligible properties to include “polluted buildings” — including those laden with cancer-causing asbestos.
Dowell welcomed the opportunity to tap into the federal loan fund, since banks rarely if ever approve loans to remove asbestos from empty buildings. But their application for the $955,976 wasn’t a sure thing.
“The EPA estimates that nationwide, about 40 percent of these programs expire without a loan ever being made,” Hammontree said. “In addition, the average time for getting these cleared is about three years.”
Dowell and Hammontree obtained the loan for Dowell Center in 10 months, making Oklahoma City the first municipality in the state to successfully tap into the fund.
“The EPA funds speeded up the redevelopment of this project by at least three years,” Dowell said. “I have been devoting most of my energy as well as a sizeable proportion of my company’s cash flow to the redevelopment of MidTown Plaza. This loan from the EPA through the city has provided me the necessary funds to pursue these two formidable downtown projects simultaneously.”
Dowell estimates asbestos removal will be complete within one year, and he is already fielding calls from prospective tenants. His future plans include offering tower tenants free rent at the Dowell Center Garage at NW 4 and Harvey, and separately metered heating and air-conditioning on each office floor.
He’s excited about the future for Dowell Center, which will include a renovation of the glass-encased top floors that was the office of Dean A. McGee. He notes the building was built with top materials, and its view competes with better-known Class A towers like Leadership Square across the street.
“The top three floors have 360-degree views of downtown with 18-foot ceilings,” Dowell said. “We can do some things that are really unique up there for the right tenant. And that top floor still looks exactly as it did when it was Dean A. McGee’s office — travertine floors, fountain just waiting to have the water turned back on. It’s even got lighting that when turned on looks like the stars in the sky.
“It’s an absolute gem.”