Coming out of its shell
The Pearl District is poised to become downtown’s next big thing.
Streetscaping has recently been completed along Sixth Street and Peoria Avenue in the Pearl District, a burgeoning area for development located near downtown.
The Brady District is not the only downtown area enjoying a revival. The nearby Pearl District is finding new life as well. The area’s central axis runs along Sixth Street from the Centennial Park area past Peoria Avenue to the threshold of The University of Tulsa.
Jerry Bowen is a Pearl District pioneer. He and his wife, Patty, moved to the neighborhood in 2005, exchanging their south Tulsa residence for a brownstone condominium next to Centennial Park, just east of downtown Tulsa around East Sixth Street and South Peoria Avenue.
“It’s cut my commute from 30 to five minutes,” says the 59-year-old Bowen, who works for ONEOK.
The move also cut their Sunday morning pilgrimage to Tulsa’s First Baptist Church by the same amount.
As empty nesters, the Bowens could be the vanguard of baby boomers and others who are rediscovering the benefits of living close to the urban core in neighborhoods like the Pearl District.
“It’s a good fit for us,” he says. “We got tired of the long commute, and now we can ride our bikes and I can walk to work.”
During the 1950s, the area now called the Pearl District thrived with a lively mix of homes, shops, eateries, a couple of groceries and some working-class commercial businesses.
Gradually, the neighborhood changed as people flocked to the suburbs. By the 1960s, full-scale decline had set in, with most homes becoming rental properties and family businesses closing down.
The area languished for years, dotted with ramshackle homes and boarded-up storefronts. In the last few years, this condition has gradually begun to change, thanks to efforts by the City of Tulsa Department of Planning and Economic Development and renewed interest from visionary residents and entrepreneurs determined to polish the Pearl to a high gloss.
Rachel Navarro says she believes the Pearl District’s promise is huge, and she foresees dramatic improvements. As one of the owners of 1Architecture, she has located her business in the neighborhood. She is also on the Pearl District Association’s board.
She points to recently completed streetscaping along Sixth Street and Peoria Avenue as among the first signs of good things to come.
“Now we’ve got to get some buildings redeveloped and rented as soon as possible,” she says. “In the next six months to a year’s time, I anticipate rehabbed and occupied buildings.”
Navarro says changes to the city’s code, called Form Based Code, allow for more flexible use of the properties that already exist there. Prior city codes discouraged redevelopment because of various use restrictions, red tape and fees associated with variances and parking requirements.
“The changes just made so much sense and will really promote redevelopment here,” she says. “Now you can do what you want with a property within reason.”
The other major inhibitor of Pearl District development has been flood remediation. Located in the Elm Creek flood basin, the district’s creek tends to overflow during heavy rains.
The plan laid out by the city involves floodwater retention ponds located on the east and west sides of the district and, most intriguingly of all, a canal along Sixth Street.
With the code problem solved, it’s now up to the city to take care of the district’s flood issues, a final but significant barrier to redevelopment.
That has not stopped Blake Ewing, entrepreneur and city councilor, from moving ahead with plans to open The Phoenix Café later this year. The 4,000-square-foot restaurant will open at East Sixth Street and South Peoria Avenue and feature a full bakery and coffee bar and also serve alcoholic beverages.
“It’s going to be a very cool place,” Ewing says. “It will have fireplaces throughout and gas lamp lighting on the walls.”
Ewing is convinced that developers and residents will flock to the area within five to 10 years and completely transform the Pearl District.
“It’s going to be entirely different,” he says. “The Pearl is on the cusp, and it’s going to become very valuable to the young middle class who maybe can’t afford to live in a pricey downtown loft.”
Once more businesses such as The Phoenix Café attract people, development begins to take on a life of its own and things happen quickly.
“People will realize there’s money to be made, and the developers wake up to that,” Ewing says. “It’s really about private individuals believing in it and investing. A few years ago, people thought I was crazy doing what I’ve done in downtown. People don’t look at me like that anymore.”
Ewing credits advocates such as Elliot Nelson, owner of downtown establishments James E. McNellie’s Public House, Dilly Deli, Dust Bowl Lanes & Lounge and others, for making an early foray into downtown and establishing the area.
Navarro can hardly wait for the days when the Pearl District is buzzing with activity.
“My vision is a neighborhood that would have everything you need within walking distance,” she says.
With a little luck and persistence, the Pearl could be that place.