Chamber-led cabal chokes off downtown development

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This sort of thing never happens, right? Never, ever would a secretive group of private business leaders direct the redevelopment decisions of public agencies from behind the scenes. And if they did, well, we just have to trust that these business leaders know far more about urban development than the unwashed masses, as is readily apparent by the wealth they accumulated in completely unrelated fields of endeavor, right? We just have to trust that they have the best interests of the city at heart.

The OKC History Blog has an entry about a group of Oklahoma City business executives called Metro Action Planners and their efforts (of questionable legality) in the late 1970s to implement architect I. M. Pei's plan for downtown redevelopment. The story begins with Pei's return visit in 1976:

His summons to appear came from a new, informal group of downtown Oklahoma City business leaders assembled by the Chamber of Commerce to expedite implementation of his plans for the area.

The group - Metro Action Planners - was led by Southwestern Bell President John Parsons. The group had no office, no phone number, and no mailing list. And no vice presidents or directors were allowed.

Its membership was limited to CEOs, presidents and downtown property owners, and those who belonged included Charles Vose, president of First National Bank and Edward L. Gaylord, publisher of The Daily Oklahoman.

Behind the scenes, the group picked which retail developer would get a shot at building a planned indoor shopping mall:

In April [1977], the Urban Renewal Authority sought new proposals and got them from a local man, Bill Peterson, Dallas-based developer Vincent Carrozza, who estimated he could get the project done in six to 10 years, another outside developer, Starrett-Landmark, and Cadillac Fairview. (5)

While Carrozza, in particular, had no doubts about his project's future success, Cadillac Fairview's proposal was much more reserved in that regard.

The latter's proposal cautioned that there was "absolutely no certainty at this time that sufficient department store interest can be committed to ensure that the major Galleria retail can proceed in the near future."

But, Carrozza enchanted Metro Action Planners. The group, in fact, committed itself to raise $1.6 million needed to create a limited partnership with the developer to get the project going.

Before the end of April, 1978, Carrozza had his deal with local leaders.

Then everything unraveled when the developer asked for a favor from an official who, evidently, wasn't part of the in-crowd:

Oklahoma's attorney general launched a probe in August of 1980 to determine whether Carrozza, urban renewal and Metro Action Planners had restrained trade by creating an informal building moratorium downtown to enhance possibilities that the Galleria project would be successful.

The Metro Action Planners, it had turned out, had approved a moratorium on downtown building in October 1978. The following year, Carrozza had contacted an Urban Renewal commissioner, asking him to seek a second moratorium from the group. At the time, Carrozza was finding it difficult to find financing for a second office tower he was building on the Galleria site.

The commissioner - Stanton L. Young - declined to carry out Carrozza's request, and was not implicated of any wrong-doing.

Neither, curiously, was anyone else.

But while the attorney general's investigation went nowhere, the damage to this super-powerful group of downtown leaders had been done.

Metro Action Planners abruptly disappeared from the downtown redevelopment scene.

So much for corporate commitment to the free market. This shadowy group choked off downtown development to clear the path for their favored developer, who (by the way) never completed his project. The land -- most of a 2 x 2 superblock -- continues to sit mostly empty. The new downtown library was built on the northwest corner of the site.

But I'm sure this situation was peculiar to Oklahoma City, and powerful, private groups have never steered the actions of Tulsa's urban renewal agency, and if they did, I'm sure it was for our own good.

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8 Comments

The A Team said:

Metro Action Planners sound like the Tulsa Development Authority to me.

Check this out:

http://downtownontherange.blogspot.com/search/label/TDA

Not TDA so much as whatever shadowy group might have (e.g.) influenced the TDA to weasel out of their exclusive negotiations with Will Wilkins over the Archer and Elgin parcel. Not that that sort of thing has ever happened here. And if it had, it was of course only for our own good.

And now, as Paul Harvey used to say, here's the rest of the story...
Jack Money and I were surprised by many things while researching our 2006 book "OKC Second Time Around." One of the things we discovered related to the Metro Planners, when we looked at patterns of development during the "moratorium," was that it was during this time, with zero vacancy, that older buildings not targeted by Urban Renewal were renovated and upgraded. This includes the Black Hotel, The Montgomery and West Main Place.
Another benefit from all this: such actions doomed development of the Galleria, which most people believe is a good thing seeing the failure downtown malls from this era elsewhere.
The down side? Many would say cities like Tulsa saw more remarkable office tower development during the late 1970s and 1980s than OKC.

Bob said:

Michael:

As per usual, another great insight into the nefarious machinations of the Oklahoma Ruling Elite.

Any reason to think that it has ever stopped?

For current instances of abuse by the Rule of the Oklahoma Elite, take a look at www.prowlingowl.com, and the documented rampant abuses and outright fraud committed by financial schemers to extract $100,000,000's in State Income Tax credits on behalf of the Oklahoma Ruling Elite.

For instance, www.prowlingowl.com reveals that a certain Tulsa financial institution controlled by King Kaiser made an EIGHT HUNDRED MILLION DOLLAR claim for Oklahoma State Income Tax credits that appears suspect at best.

And, guess what: Ever state income tax credit handed over to the Swells means the average Oklahoma wage earner gets to pay more state income taxes.

This scandal will ultimately blow the Oklahoma State budget completely apart.

Steve, that is very interesting, and a good point about downtown malls. I'm reminded of Gov. Haskell's determination to deprive Guthrie of the State Capitol, which deprived it of the growth that Oklahoma City experienced, but the result was the preservation of a good deal of late 19th century architecture. And Tulsa may have been better off without most of that remarkable office tower development. The resulting demand for parking cleared off a lot of our more modest two and three story buildings. We may very well have less building square footage in downtown Tulsa today than we did in the 1950s.

Bob, I was in Kansas recently when the legislature passed a sales tax increase to cover their budget shortfall. (Kansas doesn't require a vote of the people on tax increases.) Several of the legislators who opposed the tax pointed out that their colleagues weren't getting rid of any special interest tax credits and weren't asking the public employee unions to feel any pain -- just Joe Taxpayer.

Do either of you feel that the state historic tax credits have been abused in the same manner alleged as the economic development tax credits?

Rob Abiera said:

Reminds me of the Moshe Tal debacle.

Moshe Tal.... oh boy...
Nothing I've ever seen compares to the Moshe Tal situation. You may think it reminds you of Moshe, but trust me, the Moshe Tal story stands alone.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on May 22, 2010 11:04 AM.

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