Tulsa: July 2004 Archives

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?

Here are links to media coverage of Wednesday's protest:

KTUL Channel 8

KOTV Channel 6

The Whirled its own self (look way down at the bottom of the page)

The Daily Oklahoman.

The TulsaNow forums have photos here but there are bandwidth issues, so the photos may not be visible at certain times. They should be mirrored elsewhere at some point.

Another TulsaNow forum topic asks what can be done long term about downtown demolition. And yet another topic reveals the result of an attempt by the Tulsa Preservation Commission to try to meet with the Whirled's management:

Representatives of TPC met with an administrative aide. The response to each of their questions was the reading of a prepared statement.

The discussion is just getting started. And the best way to be part of it is to head over to the TulsaNow forums. Anyone can read what's there, but you must register (pseudonyms allowed) to post.

With the advent of e-mail, it is not unusual to see a letter in a newspaper responding to a news story from a day or two before. Not in Tulsa. The Whirled, for whatever reason, won't publish letters until the relevant story is good and cold -- at least two weeks after the event or story that the letter addresses, long after the story has migrated from their website to their website's archives or from your coffee table to the recycling bin.

As a public service, I am publishing this excellent letter, which I received today, from a Cushing resident in response to the Whirled's plans to tear down the Skelly Building. He submitted it over a week ago, but it has yet to be published.

July 13, 2004


It is with dismay that I read about the Tulsa World’s decision to take a chain saw to Tulsa’s and Oklahoma’s history by demolishing the Skelly building in favor of a parking lot.

One of the reasons cited was code restrictions and the age of the building , built in the 20’s. May I remind you that the Philbrook was built in the 1920’s? The White House in Washington DC is older still. Ways were found to keep them as part of our history and heritage. Down the turnpike Oklahoma City’s Bricktown is made up of buildings this age or older. And this venture has made positive repercussions nationwide.

In my hometown of Cushing a 1920’s American Legion group has found a way to rehabilitate their structure which was built in 1924.

At a presentation sponsored by the Tulsa Architectural Foundation earlier this year noted economic developer/historic preservationist Donovan Rypkema stated after a fly-over of Tulsa proper that even taking into account Tulsa’s wildest growth projections another 40 years could pass without the need for another parking lot.

I have long thought of the Tulsa World as a calm voice of reason. But this
decision is one of the most distasteful I have seen in recent memory.

Laura Bush is seen on television telling us to ‘save our history’. All across the country we see grass roots effort to save, restore and celebrate our past. Small Oklahoma towns such as Newkirk and Perry have made national waves with their preservation efforts.

Surely Tulsa can do better than this.

The decision to take a wrecker ball to the Skelly building is sad indeed. Each time a bit of history is wiped away in such fashion it creates another disconnect between generations. Nothing left to remember, nothing left to build a dream on.

Just a nice place to park your car.


Rick Reiley

Good stuff, and thanks to Mr. Reiley for sending it along. From his e-mail address, I gather that he is involved in the "Main Street" program, which has been used effectively to restore buildings and reviving downtowns in Oklahoma's small cities, and has even been used in three different districts in Oklahoma City -- Stockyards City, Capitol Hill (south OKC), and Automobile Alley. Tulsa's leaders have never bothered with it.

Interesting to read that he regarded the Whirled as the calm voice of reason. A lot of people have that impression until they find themselves involved in an issue and learn that the Whirled is hiding behind that calm facade to promote the self-interests of the Whirled and its allies in the city establishment. That "distasteful" decision to which he refers is characteristic of the way the Whirled operates. You may recall the Whirled's even more consequential decision in 1992 to refuse to extend their joint operating agreement (JOA) with the Tribune. The two papers could have gone on indefinitely with the old arrangement, but the Whirled wanted and got more money and a monopoly on print media. Meanwhile Tulsa lost the many benefits of having two independently owned daily newspapers.

The Whirled's demolition plans are helping more Tulsans see the Whirled as it really is.

On the picket line


It's been a while since I joined a protest, but there I was, with my seven-year-old son, on the sidewalk in front of the Skelly Building at 4th & Boulder, along with the hearty souls who organized the protest on the TulsaNow message board.

We brought some signs with us:

Enough asphalt already! Stop tearing down Tulsa! [With a wrecking ball demolishing the letter "a" in Tulsa.]

$200 million of public investment in downtown -- and this is the thanks we get?

Tulsa Whirled has no faith in downtown's future

Knocking down history is not an "improvement"

Downtown's future? Acres of parking, but nothing worth parking to see.

Someone else took the prize for a clever slogan:

Tulsa World's
Vision 2025:
Asphalt parking lot

KRMG, KJRH, and KOTV all covered the story, as did Urban Tulsa. The Whirled sent city reporter Brian Barber out to talk to us, and later on his colleague P. J. Lassek came out to say hello. The organizer had me do much of the talking -- I have some recent experience with that sort of thing.

It was a hot morning. We showed up about 9:30. Neptune74137 and sgrizzle -- that's the handles they use on the TulsaNow forums, don't know if they'd want me to use their real names -- were already on the corner. Neptune74137 was the principal organizer of this event. When my son and I left about 11 there were about a dozen folks on the corner (a few were sympathizers who weren't carrying signs). We got thumbs up from passers-by -- no negative responses. At one point, while the Whirled and Urban Tulsa reporters were there, a police officer pulled up onto the sidewalk in his Cushman cart. He was cordial, wished us well; he advised us not to keep anyone from entering or leaving the building.

One of our number was familiar with the downtown parking situation, and he pointed out that the parking garage just across 4th Street from the Skelly Building is now open for daily parking -- it isn't fully used by people paying by the month for parking. We could look up and see that the upper level and part of the next level was vacant, at least along the 4th Street side. Surely the Whirled could work with available existing parking facilities to meet any need for customer parking.

There was some conversation about restoring older buildings. The Ambassador Hotel was in terrible shape, nearly ready to be demolished, when Paul Coury restored it as a top-of-the-line hotel. The consensus was that the Skelly Building couldn't be as bad off as the Ambassador was.

I'm hoping for at least enough coverage of the event to raise awareness. During my runs for City Council, I talked to plenty of people who were dismayed at the continued demolition of downtown and wished that something could be done about it. There are steps our Council should take, but what is more urgently needed is a change in attitude, especially among Tulsa's business leaders, from a culture of demolition to a culture of preservation. If someone with influence and money were willing to advocate for preservation, that could do a great deal of good.

As we walked back to the car, we peeked in the window to the basement of the Mayo Hotel, which is currently being used as a very nice covered parking garage, while the 1st and 2nd floors have been restored as a banquet facility. I know of another building -- I think it's the old Renberg's building on Main between 3rd and 4th -- that is used as a parking garage. It's well concealed -- the entrance is on the alley. Couldn't the Whirled do the same thing with the Skelly Building? The first floor or basement could be converted to parking, while the rest of the building is mothballed until it becomes valuable for office, retail, or residential use.

There are ways to preserve and reuse these buildings -- the Whirled has the money, they just need the will and the imagination.

UPDATE: Preservation Online -- the web edition of the magazine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation -- published a story about the Skelly today. Here's the link.

(Don't forget this morning's protest! 9 a.m., 4th & Boulder.)

The Tulsa Whirled's plan to demolish the old Froug's Department Store at 3rd & Main, to replace it with heating and cooling equipment for the rest of the Whirled's complex, is a slap in the face of Tulsa's taxpayers, who were told that reopening the Main Mall was necessary to encourage new residential and retail development. The Whirled endorsed the plan to reopen Main to traffic as a way to revitalize downtown. Reopening 3rd to 4th cost $1.3 million. Reopening 4th to 6th will cost about $4 million.

This entry is not going to include a lot of analysis. I want to provide a history of the effort to revitalize this part of downtown, particularly what the Whirled, public officials, and civic leaders had to say about it.

Back in the mid-'70s, Tulsa followed the lead of a lot of other cities in closing off what was once our main shopping streets to traffic. It was a mistake, and it choked off what business there had been on Main Street. Shortly after we completed our mall, other cities began to remove theirs. In some notable cases, like Chicago's State Street, reopening to traffic led to restoration of buildings along the street and businesses moving into once vacant buildings.

In 1996, the City included, in that year's third-penny tax package, $1.1 million to "update and repair" the Main Mall, according to a January 10, 1996, story in the Whirled. In all that package was to include $13 million in funding for downtown improvements.

By October 27, 1996, the plans had changed and the final amount for downtown improvements was $8.5 million. Here's how Whirled editorial writer Janet Pearson described the plan in that day's edition:

Main Mall will get a face lift too, though not a radical one. Main Street would be reopened between Third and Fourth streets, but the pedestrian mall would remain in place between Fourth and Sixth streets. Barriers, berms and other structures that give the appearance of being hiding places will be removed and landscaping changed to make the mall a more open, lighter and more inviting place. Bartlett Square would not be changed.

In 1998, Downtown Tulsa Unlimited formed a committee and worked with a consultant to look at options for reconfiguring the Mall. The committee chose an option that would open the rest of Main Street to traffic.

In a June 24, 1998, editorial, the Whirled said:

The date and time has been set, Wednesday, July 21st, 9 a.m., at 4th and Boulder. Bring your own protest signs. The media has been notified. If you are tired of seeing downtown Tulsa turned into one big parking lot a building at a time, be there. Keep an eye on the TulsaNow forum for more details and any change in plans that may occur.

Protest the Whirled!


A protest is brewing against the Whirled's planned demolition of downtown buildings (which they call an "improvement"). Click here to see what's been discussed so far.

This quote hits the nail on the head:

Since when was tearing down an historic building a downtown "improvement?"

I'll let you know when the protest date is set.

The Tulsa Whirled 'fessed up in Sunday's edition, owning up to plans not only to demolish the nine-story Skelly building for a small parking lot, but also to demolish the old Froug's Department Store building at 3rd and Main for a heating and cooling system.

The demolition of Froug's will mark the destruction of one of the last remaining retail spaces on Main Street of any size. In 1998, Cathey's Furniture (8th to 9th on Main) was pulled down and more recently three two-story buildings, built in the late 1910s, on the west side of Main north of 6th Street, were demolished by Arvest Bank. Both demolitions were for the purpose of creating surface parking. Another two small buildings on the east side of Main between 4th and 5th will be torn down for no good reason -- for another worthless plaza.

Main Street was once the principal commercial street of our city, but we blocked it off with the Williams Center, malled it, de-malled it, and our city's culture of demolition resulted most of its buildings being pulled down. Where there were department stores, now we have holes in the ground. Grand theatres gave way to parking garages.

During TulsaNow's bus tour of Oklahoma City back in 2002, I asked then-Mayor Kirk Humphreys about the urban conservation districts that were set up in Bricktown and other areas in and near downtown OKC. These districts set design requirements for new construction, and if memory serves me, they also place some restrictions on demolition. I asked the Mayor how they convinced developers to go along with restrictions on what they could do with their property. He said (paraphrasing here) that the City pointed out how many millions of dollars the City had invested in that area, and that it was reasonable for the City to take steps to protect its investment.

Tulsa's taxpayers have or will soon pour over $200 million into downtown Tulsa -- the arena, convention center upgrades (including some 3rd penny projects in addition to Vision 2025), removing the Main Mall and Bartlett Square, funding downtown housing initiatives, streetscaping, a new Central Library (if their bond issue passes).

The Tulsa Whirled strongly supported the reopening of Main Street to vehicular traffic. They told us that we had to reopen the Mall to traffic in order to encourage residential and commercial development. It is a shame and an outrage that fronting Main Street -- newly reopened at great taxpayer expense -- will be a big air conditioning system where a department store once was. Our city leaders need to take action now to prevent the Whirled from devaluing the taxpayer's investment in Main Street and downtown.

And what greater waste than to demolish tens of thousands of square feet that could be reused and redeveloped to create maybe a dozen parking spaces, just so the Whirled's executives don't have to cross the street. Don't believe it when they say it's for the customers. They could easily make arrangements with the lot across the street or the new city-funded structure a block away. They could validate parking.

The Whirled's publisher says this demolition represents the Whirled's commitment to downtown. The Whirled appears to be committed to the idea of downtown as just another suburban office park. As with TCC and its parking land grabs, downtown would have a better chance of becoming a real downtown again if the Whirled packed up and moved rather than tearing down more buildings. But of course, the Whirled doesn't really care about downtown or about Tulsa, as it proved when it refused to renew the joint operating agreement with the Tribune in 1992. The Whirled cares about its own business interests and those of its cronies. That's all. Nothing illegal about that, but you may want to take the Whirled with a nine-story tall grain of salt.

I believe Tulsans want downtown to be a real downtown again. A real vision for downtown should address parking issues, demolition, historic preservation and design guidelines. It is completely reasonable for the city to tell landowners, we've done our part, now you do yours. But that will only happen if the City Council takes the initiative. Dear Councilors, the Whirled already doesn't like you -- what have you got to lose?

The TulsaNow forum discussion about the Tulsa Whirled's plans to demolish the old Skelly Building at 4th & Boulder is evolving into a broader discussion of the gradual conversion of downtown into a suburban office park. Some of the talk is about legally constraining further demolition -- a moratorium on more surface parking lots, or tax rates that disadvantage demolition, but it's tricky to do this in a way that doesn't invoke the notion of a "taking" under the 5th Amendment and thus require compensating the landowner. Preservation easements have been used successfully with willing building owners -- the building owner signs over certain rights to a private organization, while retaining ownership of the building. This is mostly done as a tax-deductible donation, although sometimes the easement will be done in exchange for payment.

One of the writers on the forum ("Average Joe") wonders what book Tulsa's leaders are using for revitalizing downtown. It seems to recommend the following steps (my comments interspersed):

* Tear down historic structures, especially multi-story buildings that add density to the streetscape, for parking lots. That parking lot architect might turn out to be just as famous as the architect who designed the building you just hauled off to the landfill.

* Spend $183 million on a new arena away from any nightlife already happening downtown. If possible, build it smack up against the post office, city hall and social services. It'll be a big draw. All the vagrants will add "urban character" to the experience.

* When installing new sidewalks and lighting in your downtown districts, take care to avoid installing lighting in the entertainment district next to the jail, bail bondsmen, homeless shelters, and social services.

* Cut the local police force to the bone. Citizens enjoy the excitement of fending for themselves.

* Allow a bridge over railroad tracks to deteriorate to the point of having to close it. Leave it barricaded for years, with no plan to repair it in sight. This is most effective if said bridge would conveniently connect your new arena parking structure to an entertainment district and concert venue.

Guests to our arena would prefer to walk through the dark Denver viaduct, with its high walls that cut off any escape route from danger, past bail bonds shops and rescue missions to get to the Brady District. Or better yet, they would enjoy crossing railroad tracks at night and past the scene of a recent homicide.

* Plant lots of Bradford pear trees along your narrow downtown sidewalks, even when trees aren't historically accurate. Bradford pears are an important choice for plant material due to their low, wide, squatty shape and weak wood. Nobody wants to see the front of those buildings (and the businesses in them) anyway. Dodging fallen limbs is fun! And the dense shade cast they cast is particularly useful in turn a poorly lit sidewalk into a pitch-black tunnel at night. The 10 days that Bradford pears are in bloom will make up for the other 355 days a year.

Not to mention the trees' appeal as latrines for grackles.

* Move the Chamber of Commerce out of your historic Art Deco Chamber of Commerce building - but leave up the sign. Nobody wants to be able to find your C of C anyway.

* And finally, whenever possible, fill your downtown with drive-thru branch banks and flat parking lots for churches and community college students. Downtown should just be suburbia without the grass!

The real problem in Tulsa, one which laws and financial incentives cannot fix, is the absence of a preservation mindset among the city's leading families, developers, and property owners. The instinct in Tulsa is to tear down and build new, rather than adapt and reuse. In some cities, where the preservation mindset is dominant, you'd be cast out from polite society if you tore down a building for a parking lot. If we had the preservation mindset in Tulsa, we'd be able to pass laws to protect Tulsa's architectural history, but then if we had that mindset, laws wouldn't be necessary.

Beyond the issue of preservation, there's a lack of appreciation in Tulsa for the little buildings that form the connective tissue of the urban fabric. Most of downtown Tulsa's one to four story buildings have been torn down for parking lots. Downtown Tulsa has become a sea of isolated nodes of activity separated by vast parking lots.

In contrast, look at San Antonio, which still has a large and widespread stock of such buildings downtown, despite rising land values and demand for parking. These low-rise buildings provide pedestrian-friendly links between the Riverwalk and the Alamo and Market Square.

(A side note: I've been to San Antonio very recently, and I think the city may have more art deco buildings than Tulsa does. That's if you only count the buildings that haven't been torn down -- Tulsa may prevail if you count demolished buildings.)

As a first step toward making things better in Tulsa, we ought to make sure we do something useful with the $18 million set aside for downtown Tulsa from Vision 2025. Planting more pear trees, installing glare-producing acorn lights, and building brick sidewalks isn't going to fix what's wrong.

But more than that, Tulsa's powerful few need to get the vision of real downtown revitalization and historic preservation. Then they need to lead by example.

There are reports that the Tulsa Whirled plans to demolish a historic nine-story building at the northeast corner of 4th and Boulder. Why? For a parking lot of course. Another stinking downtown surface parking lot. I guess the new municipally funded parking lot soon to open two blocks away is too far to walk. Memo to Whirled -- real downtowns are designed for walking, not for park-at-the-door convenience.

Apparently, Whirled staffers have been made aware of the plan to demolish the building, but of course the Whirled hasn't reported on its plan to destroy more of downtown's architectural heritage and urban fabric.

If true, it's one more sign that the Tulsa Whirled really doesn't care about downtown's well-being. There is speculation that the folks running the Whirled don't really care if the arena is successful at revitalizing downtown -- all they need is for the opening of the arena to create enough of a speculative bubble in land prices so they can cash out and move to the suburbs. At that point downtown can go to pot, from that perspective.

The building in question was HQ for the Skelly Oil Company. Three floors were added in 1928 -- the addition was designed by famed architect Bruce Goff.

A downtown that is two-thirds asphalt parking lot is not a real downtown.

In the same vein, I was disappointed to read that TCC has promoted its new president from within. I guess we can expect TCC's slash-and-burn approach to student parking to continue.

UPDATE: Corrected typo -- location is 4th & Boulder.

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Tulsa category from July 2004.

Tulsa: June 2004 is the previous archive.

Tulsa: August 2004 is the next archive.

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