Part I - The arena effect
With the BOK Center attracting traffic and dollars, downtown Tulsa has received a much-needed shot in the arm, and local developers are reaping the benefits- and creating even bigger plans.
Like a school kid making full use of a jumbo-size pack of colored markers, Jack Crowley has spent hundreds of nights over the past 15 months sitting up late at his downtown Tulsa apartment, a table full of sketches scattered before him.
But Crowley hasn’t been burning the midnight oil doodling family portraits or favorite pets. His artwork — a brightly colored dreamscape of arenas and ballparks, skyscrapers and parking garages, with a hotel featured on this corner, a park on that corner and perhaps a trolley car bisecting the whole shebang on a shiny new fixed-rail network — represents possibilities for downtown’s future.
Since he began his assignment in January 2008, many of Crowley’s efforts have wound up wallpapering the conference room outside his office at City Hall, where he is special adviser to Mayor Kathy Taylor on urban planning and development.
“When I get up in the morning, I look at my project,” he says, referencing the view outside his windows. “I’m a one-man band with no staff.”
Now that Crowley has released his evolving plan, as he did in late January, it’s up to Taylor and the City Council to decide which of those recommendations will be implemented and in what order. Then they’ll have to figure out how to pay for them.
But with the centerpiece to the resurrection of downtown — the $178 million BOK Center — already in place, that process is off to a running start. Since opening in September 2008, the facility has drawn raves for its appearance, management and events.
According to figures provided by John Bolton, BOK Center general manager, the arena generated an economic impact of nearly $16.8 million in its first three months. And over the first four months, the arena produced more than $1 million in sales tax revenue.
Those figures aren’t exactly a surprise. As Bob Eggleston, who served as director of construction for the BOK Center, puts it, “If you drop a $180 million investment right in the middle of somewhere, it’s going to do something positive.”
But Eggleston says he has been moved by the reaction Tulsans have had to the building. From the obvious pride of the workers who constructed it to the suburbanites showing up in droves to see the Eagles or Bruce Springsteen, the BOK Center has inspired a rash of optimism.
“I had never seen people invested in a project so much,” Eggleston says. “Tulsans really wanted this and needed this.”
Downtown developer Michael Sager goes further.
“Across the board, people cannot believe it is ours,” he says. “Call it our asset, our arena, our lone iconic piece of architecture being operated in an iconic manner … what we have done is initiate a new channel of energy and success.”
For a lesson in how such a facility can do that, Bolton points to a nearby example.
“If Oklahoma City didn’t have the Ford Center, they wouldn’t have positioned themselves for the opportunity that came their way,” he says, referring to the capital city’s new National Basketball Association franchise. “You have to put money into infrastructure and be ready for things that happen out of the blue.”
Bolton isn’t making the case that Tulsa is ready for an NBA team, but he says he believes the city will attract its share of prestigious sports events. He’s looking forward to March 2010, when the BOK Center welcomes the Conference USA men’s basketball championship. And he believes the day when Tulsa can compete for the Big 12 basketball championship is fast approaching.
“I’m not sure why it wouldn’t be,” he says. “We’ve got the building; we really just need the amenities outside the building to bolster our argument. And I think those will come.”
But across the board, city officials, developers and business owners point to a single factor in ensuring the success of downtown: creating enough housing to attract thousands of new residents.
“Without a question, housing is our priority,” says Jim Norton, president of Downtown Tulsa Unlimited. “With that comes all the rest. It animates your sidewalks, and it provides steady traffic for your after-hours and weekend activities.”
Work on the shortage of housing is being addressed, if only on a limited scale. More than 160 additional units will open soon between three projects partially funded by Vision 2025: the Mayo Hotel and Lofts, the Mayo Building and Sager’s First Street Lofts. That number falls far short of the estimated 1,500-2,000 additional units City Councilor Eric Gomez says downtown needs, but it’s a start.
The first new owner-occupied housing added to downtown in decades was developer Jamie Jamieson’s The Village at Central Park neighborhood near East Sixth Street and South Peoria Avenue, which opened in 2001. A self-described “new urbanist,” Jamieson is an outspoken proponent of making downtown a more walkable place.
For Jamieson, that kind of downtown is just as much about the spaces between the buildings as the buildings themselves.
“It’s important to create a charming, dignified, pedestrian environment,” he says. “And we don’t have that. What we have are too many acres of surface parking lots in a pretty poor state of repair.”
He isn’t likely to draw an argument from Crowley, whose focus largely has been on creating pedestrian-friendly corridors between the BOK Center and the new downtown ballpark, ONEOK Field, scheduled to open west of the Greenwood area next spring.
Much of that foot traffic will be led through the Blue Dome and Brady districts, where many of downtown’s more unique businesses exist.
Mary Beth Babcock’s Dwelling Spaces epitomizes that description. Her shop at 119 S. Detroit Ave. features an eclectic selection of furniture, accessories, music and artwork. For her, the decision to open a business downtown in 2006 was more about a gut feeling than anything else.
Inspired by a visit to New York’s SoHo district, she got a look at the vacant space in the Blue Dome District and immediately sensed the potential.
“I kind of like doing things on the edge anyway, pushing the envelope,” she says.
Among Babcock’s neighbors is Joe Momma’s Pizza, which opened at 112 S. Elgin Ave. in November 2008 after the company got started with a restaurant at 10309 E. 61st St. in south Tulsa.
Owner Blake Ewing says his original intention was to open a restaurant downtown, but he couldn’t attract investors for that until he made the south Tulsa location a success.
“Every week’s been better than the week before,” Ewing said in late January. “We’re already pretty close to hitting our break-even sales goals, and that’s without counting the summer months. I expect things to get even better.”
But Ewing doesn’t get starry eyed when he talks about the future of downtown. While he’s pleased with the success of his new restaurant, he bristles at code and zoning issues he believes make downtown a tough place to do business.
Ewing marvels at Babcock’s courage in gambling on downtown, and he believes Elliot Nelson — whose burgeoning restaurant and nightclub empire is anchored by the success of his James E. McNellie’s Public House, 409 E. First St. — is doing the heavy lifting in terms of generating a buzz.
“We’re talking about development that works in spite of circumstances, not because of some great plan (for downtown) we have,” he says.
When Nelson opened McNellie’s in 2004, he was fresh out of college. Five years later, he’s regarded in many circles as a hero for proving that a business like his can thrive downtown.
His holdings now include two other bars, the Tiny Lounge and McNellie’s Sidebar, along with El Guapo restaurant and bar adjacent to McNellie’s. He also opened the Dilly Deli in March.
So when Nelson talks about downtown, people tend to listen. The opening of the arena has been a good thing for McNellie’s and El Guapo, he says, especially on Sunday through Tuesday nights, when business is traditionally slow.
But he never bought into the notion that the arena was going to be an economic godsend, inspiring a rush of development that overnight would cause the streets to be awash in cash.
Still, Nelson believes that development will come at some point — an idea seconded by Crowley.
“It’s such a big investment, and the tracts of land around it are such large parcels that it will take longer to develop,” Crowley says. “The projects that happen next to it will have to be large as well.”
Mayor Taylor also preaches patience.
“I think we are just beginning to see the impact of the private investment that will be generated by the BOK Center,” she says.
Taylor cites escalating real estate values and several other positive developments as evidence for her belief that private investment that was stimulated by the arena will continue for years.
Mike Bunney, the mayor’s economic development director, says there has been significant interest by developers in two of the sites adjacent to the arena — a plot at East Third Street and South Denver Avenue, and the old City Hall site — but both are on the small side for a convention-class hotel. Still, the city has been taking proposals for both since Jan. 14 and had received more than 20 inquiries by early February.
In contrast, ONEOK Field will play host to more events and attract smaller-investment elements that are likely to happen more quickly, Crowley says.
Nelson, whose pub is located just blocks from the ballpark, is enthusiastic about the ballpark and believes it will draw new people to the Blue Dome neighborhood, which is an increasingly vibrant section of downtown Tulsa.
However, while there is plenty of parking in the area now, the ballpark is likely to draw even more traffic, putting parking at a premium.
But if one of the more significant elements of Crowley’s plan — a fixed-rail trolley system — comes to pass, parking could be less of an issue.
Such a project — which Crowley estimates would cost $150 million, for starters — would have downtown as its hub, with legs perhaps reaching down the west bank of the Arkansas River to Jenks and another going to the airport. The mayor seems convinced of that project’s worth.
“I think fixed rail would be the most transformational step we could take in Tulsa, not just for downtown, but for our region as a whole,” she says, adding that the citizens taking part in the PlaniTulsa project — a citywide process to update Tulsa’s Comprehensive Plan — have set it as a priority.
Bunney says the most likely source of financing is the federal government. And he’s optimistic about the impact of such a project.
“Every stop on that fixed rail is an economic development high-impact zone,” he says. “Economic development will occur around every one of those stops. I’m looking for infrastructure that will bring investment — downtown investment as well as other places.”
Regardless of the specifics of Crowley’s proposals, downtown is likely to look much different a decade from now — a prospect few would regard as a negative.
City Councilor Gomez, in particular, says he believes it’s important to revitalize the area “so that we’re not continually donating our intellectual talent to more vibrant cities. We want to give our city the kind of vibrancy to make a place where young people want to stay by 2025, as envisioned by Vision 2025. My goal is to try and accelerate that.”
A big part of that task could be as basic as battling lingering perceptions.
“We need to just be doing a better job of promoting our assets as they come on line,” says Suzann Stewart, executive director of the Tulsa Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Citing a number of advantages the city already has going for it, Crowley just wants Tulsans to buy into that idea themselves.
“I think a lot of people don’t believe how excellent we could be,” he says.