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.”
I’ll be at Coney Island Hot Dogs, 424 W Main, at noon today.
The following photos from Greg Elwell’s Corner Booth blog (part of NewsOK) are being deliberately posted to manipulate your lunch decision today. And that’s all I’ve got to say about that.
It seems as if Project 180 is going to be an overriding topic at OKC Central this week. But instead of delving deeper into the funding and project scope problems I reported today, let’s first give some love to one of the latest restaurants suffering through road construction.
I’m going to be blunt: after reporting on the potential loss of landmarks like Crescent Market, Nichols Hills Drugstore and Johnny’s Lunch Box (not the mention the long slumber of closed down eateries Sleepy Hollow and County Line BBQ), I’m not ready or willing to do another such story.
Which brings me to Coney Island Hot Dogs … which has been around a while.
Visit Urban Spoon and you’ll discover Coney Island Hot Dogs has a 92 percent approval rating. This isn’t Red Prime Steakhouse. It’s chili cheese dogs, chili on spaghetti and Frito pie territory. And the food is good. The atmosphere is old, old school with hand written college football records kept for decades all over the walls. The building is old – built back before statehood, and the restaurant dates back to the 1920s and moved to this building at 424 W Main about a half century ago when its original home fell to the Urban Renewal wrecking ball.
Coney Island has been a survivor. It’s a community gathering spot, where every Saturday old-timers get together and play chess.
Today I got a call from Bill Mihas. It’s a call I’ve received from several restaurants caught up in the steamroller known as Project 180. Streets are torn up. Despite the best of intentions, contractors don’t complete their work on time due to complications, surprise basement discoveries, or even, I suspect, the occasional under-staffing or bidding for more work than they know they can really handle. Mihas’ business is down – way down. He’s not saying he’s in danger of closing, but you can sense the panic in his voice.
Yeah, I’ll write another story about how Project 180 is going to be great when done, but how it’s also hurting more businesses caught in its path. I’m once again checking to see whether contractors are finishing Main Street on time, and if they’re not, is there a good reason or are they screwing around (yes, that does happen from time to time on street projects and there is one contractor that is rather notorious for low-balling bids and spreading itself too thin on jobs).
In the meantime, though, it’s time to go a step further. I’m not going to sit by and risk watching Coney Island die. So I went to work:
Will this little lunch gathering make or break a restaurant? Probably not. But it won’t hurt. And the hot dogs are damn good. Feel free to join me. Access won’t be easy. My suggestion is to park along Main Street west of Walker Avenue, in the Sheridan-Walker garage, or in parking spots around City Hall. Join us. We’ll be helping out a great historic restaurant, enjoying good food, and I’ll do my best to make the conversation interesting!
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….
I’m still reeling from the news that Cathy Rigby is STILL performing as Peter Pan …
So despite that and other stories getting your interest this week, let’s recap, shall we?
We’re getting a good glimpse of what’s to come downtown, and if it all comes true, then we’re looking an office market far more vibrant than its been the past 30 years.
When you read my coverage in the Sunday Oklahoman about Devon, you’ll learn more than 2,000 people will be moving into Devon Energy Center when it opens in 2012. We also know from today’s coverage that SandRidge Energy is looking at an expansion of its downtown workforce that will bring the total to 2,000 in five years, and that it will be building a second tower equal in size to its current 29-story tower.
Contemplate that for a moment. Also add into this equation that Continental Resources is looking at employing about 750 people by 2014 as it completes its move to Devon’s current headquarters at Broadway and Sheridan. And have no doubt, Continental is growing. Don’t be surprised if that 750 figure is low – very low.
Also remember that construction will be starting this winter on an 11-story Hilton Garden Inn in Bricktown. And of course the city is very intent on getting a conference hotel built in conjunction with the new convention center. Doing quick math and considering the foot print, this hotel will definitely go vertical Let’s assume it’s the same sort of footprint as the Renaissance Hotel. Add more amenities into the mix, and double the room count, and it’s easy to see it going up 20 stories or higher.
Still with me?
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – the skyline isn’t finished yet. And I expect even more yet to be announced. In the meantime, enjoy this latest time lapse video of Devon Energy Center by OKC Central contributor Will Hider.
I spent more than two hours touring Devon Energy Center with photographer Jim Beckel and sadly there wasn’t enough room in the paper to feature all of his work. Jim is a veteran at The Oklahoman, and without disparaging the other Oklahoman photographers, who are also great, but Jim is my favorite. When it comes to downtown, he gets it. We work very well together. And I was thrilled when he was assigned for this tour.
More of Jim’s photos:
Looking at the NewsOK Skyline cam, it appears as if some folks who were working on the Devon tower may have the day off.
Attention downtown brokers, leasing agents, building owners and managers; if you’re looking for an established restaurant tenant with long track record of success, the Interurban, I hear, is looking for a new home after closing last week at City Place Tower.
Lot’s of miscellaneous items today.
Item No. 1
The above signage ought to go a long way in promoting tenants in Lower Bricktown. But the question remains – if signage like this is ok in upper Bricktown, which enjoys the advantage of free parking and one sane owner and developer, than why can’t one be used to promote the restaurants and retailers along the Bricktown Canal north of Reno Avenue?
Item No. 2
Devon released renderings about a year ago for the auditorium that will be built at the corner of Hudson and Sheridan. Sometimes it’s the finer details that prove to be interesting. From the rendering submitted recently to design review it would appear that architect Jon Pickard is once again nodding to a bit of downtown’s Art Deco heritage by going with the sort of lettering for the auditorium entry that, at first glance, hearkens to the Civic Center and First National Tower.
Speaking of Devon tower (which we now know will be referred to as Devon Energy Center), here’s the latest view from the OKC Skyline cam at www.newsok.com/okcskyline:
Item No. 3
Final thoughts…. seems as if the dream scenario of a real local station being allowed to exist in this market is was just that – a dream, albeit one enjoyed for real for little more than a year at 105.3 FM. The corporate types have done what they do, and now the real Spy can only be found at www.thespyfm.com. I’m not sure what the corporate folks are thinking, but in the age of the Internet they won’t fool followers of Ferris O’Brien for long. They will abandon the radio station and follow him to his online station. This begs the question though – can Ferris pull it off online only?
Here’s my thought – and from what I learned today, it’s something that’s been talked about: move The Spy to The Oklahoma Hardware Building in Bricktown, home to the increasingly awesome and inspiring ACM@UCO. Ferris would be attached to some of the city’s best aspiring musicians and might even have an “in” on doing live broadcasts of masters classes guests (Jackson Brown was the latest visitor, with prior guests including Roger Daltrey). Imagine a lecture given by Chris Martin going over live…
Originally home of the Oklahoma City Savings & Loan, this building at the corner of Robert S. Kerr and Robinson was built in 1928 and was within weeks of being renovated into condominiums by the Triangle group when Kerr-McGee was acquired by Houston-based Anadarko Petroleum in 2006 and the deal was scuttled.
Here’s a photo of the building’s early appearance:
The building is one of five structures being torn down by SandRidge Energy to make way for a landscaped plaza. A sixth building at 120 Robert S. Kerr will be torn down as well and replaced with a new building.
Expect the old bank building to be history within just a few days, if not sooner.