Skelly/Froug's protests to continue


Tulsa Area Preservation Society held another protest Wednesday outside the Skelly Building, one of two buildings which the Tulsa Whirled plans to demolish later this summer. (I couldn't manage the time away from work this week, unfortunately.) Protests are planned every Wednesday from 11:30 to 12:30 through August to call attention to the planned demolition, to try to get the Whirled to consider alternatives, and to encourage finding a way to stop the continued conversion of Tulsa's downtown to asphalt parking lots.

A participant in the TulsaNow forums asked whether last week's protesters tried to get a meeting with the Tulsa Whirled before setting up the picket line. The answer was no, but representatives from the Tulsa Preservation Commission had already sought an audience with the Whirled. They were allowed to meet with an administrative aide, and each question was met with the reading of a prepared response.

In light of over $200 million in public investment in downtown, it's reasonable for Tulsa's citizens to feel some "ownership" over our center city, and to place the "burden of proof" on someone who wants to tear down yet another downtown building. Here's the case made by Whirled executive editor Joe Worley (how about that -- Whirley of the Whirled!) in last Thursday's paper:

"The Skelly Building was in disrepair when we bought it in 1993," Tulsa World Executive Editor Joe Worley said.

The building lacks proper sprinkler and fire systems and needs a new roof and an updated heating and cooling system, he said.

"It would cost millions of dollars to make the necessary improvements, and given the amount of vacant office space downtown, this just does not make sense," Worley said.

No one is asking the Whirled to renovate these buildings today. No one is asking them to add to the surplus of downtown office space. We're simply asking the Whirled not to tear them down. It is possible to stabilize a building and "put it in mothballs" for future usage. The buildings serve a purpose just by being there, as a part of downtown's streetscape. That block is one of the few remaining downtown without any surface parking. Tearing that building down devalues all of downtown.

I am pretty certain that the Whirled did not seek the advice of local preservation experts before deciding on demolition. Tulsa's preservationists are not unreasonable people, and if a building is too far gone to be saved, they aren't afraid to say so, as in the case of the buildings demolished in 2001 by Arvest at 6th & Main. But in this case, they have brought the plan to demolish the Skelly Building to national attention, and have tried to meet with the Whirled to suggest alternatives.

An architect posting to TulsaNow's forum under the handle "booWorld" has an alternative proposal for the Whirled to consider:

I wrote a lengthy letter to the World yesterday. I requested that the former Froug's site at 3rd & Main be developed with retail space at sidewalk level facing both streets. It seems as though World Publishing could build a few private parking spaces below the retail area with their new thermal plant tucked behind.

The best use for the Skelly would be residential. Keeping the spaces open and "raw" without expensive finishes would help in keeping renovation costs under control. It is most likely that one or two exit stairs would need to be built in order to meet minimum fire codes.

I like the creative approach to preserve street-front retail, while still meeting the needs for parking and the thermal plant.

In the same topic, he offered some informed comments on the International Existing Building Code and how that affects what can be done with the Skelly Building.

Urban Tulsa gave the first protest some extensive coverage, with this story by Hilton Price, which includes an interesting quote from Clayton Vaughn, head of the Tulsa Historical Society:

“We are interested in the preservation and documentation of buildings of historical value in the community.” Vaughn said. “We are asking for support in the form of private and public partnerships, revolving purchase funds, and tax incentives.”

Revolving purchase funds have been used by preservationists in other cities as a way to protect endangered buildings by purchasing them, then selling them to someone who will restore or adaptively reuse the buildings. The proceeds from the sale of one building goes to buy the next endangered building. I'm not sure if he's saying Tulsa has such a fund, and it needs funds, or that we don't have such a fund at all yet.

State and federal tax credits may be available for restoration -- a downtown Shawnee hotel (this one) is being restored with this kind of help, and it was used in the renovation of the old Tribune Building as apartments.

Taxes may be part of the push to tear the building down, despite alternatives to meet the Whirled's desire for parking. Property taxes are assessed on the value of the land plus the value of the improvements. If you remove the improvements, you remove the value, and you remove that amount of the property tax assessment. Because this building is lumped in with the rest of the Whirled's property on the western half of that block, it's impossible to tell exactly how much the Whirled would cut their taxes by tearing down the building. Funny, though, that the same paper that continually urges us to pay more taxes to build up our city is willing to wreak destruction in order to cut their own bill.

Urban Tulsa also has a feature by Dave Jones of the Tribune Joneses about the folks who own the shoe repair store in the Skelly Building, the only tenants that remain. Good story about some fascinating people, but at the beginning of the story he displays the same defeatist attitude that has brought downtown to its current state of demolition.

UT also reports on the drive to get funding to turn a Brady Village warehouse into a center for contemporary art. Architect Kathleen Page calls this a form of positive preservation -- finding a use for a building now, before demolition is even in the picture.

“There is a mindset that empty land is more valuable than old structures,” says Page. “It all has to do with the fluctuation of land value, building value, and renovation costs. But instead of waiting until someone purchases the building and tears it down, then saying ‘Oh, that’s awful,’ the city could step forward and insure that the Brady Mathews building is retained under the ownership of someone who has a dedicated purpose for it.

“We really see this as a positive form of preservation. Once the cycle of demolition gets started in older areas of the city such as this, it’s really hard to come back and reverse it. We’re trying to stop that process before the building becomes endangered.”

Page says the expansive two-story concrete warehouse—complete with high ceilings and clean, unadorned lines—is an ideal art studio. She stresses that the site is also a perfect link between our revitalizing downtown district and the burgeoning Brady Village area. “If this building is not developed for a civic purpose,” she says, “if someone were to tear it down and make it a parking lot, it would simply continue the unraveling—the destruction—of our downtown building core.”

The east half of this building is proposed as loft/studio space, and they sought some of the city's downtown housing funds, but were turned down by the Tulsa Development Authority's committee in favor of a proposal for apartments in the Philtower.

Finally on this topic, a reader makes an interesting point: The Whirled claims that there is a wall between the business operation (Whirled Publishing Company) and the editorial content of the paper (the Tulsa Whirled). If that's so, why was Tulsa Whirled Executive Editor Joe Worley speaking on behalf of Whirled Publishing Company on this issue?

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on July 31, 2004 12:29 AM.

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