Tulsa Downtown: August 2005 Archives

Sunday's Whirled had a front-page article about the city's plans for downtown east of Detroit and south of the Frisco tracks. (I know, I know -- it's been Burlington Northern for a long time now, but doggone it, the Saint Louis and San Francisco Railroad laid those tracks in 1882 and determined the cockeyed orientation of downtown Tulsa. I'll still call them the Frisco tracks, so as to differentiate them from the Katy tracks and the Tulsa Street Railway tracks.)

This 115-acre area, prospectively titled the East Village, was the subject of a redevelopment contract between the Tulsa Development Authority and DESCO, a St. Louis-based big box retail developer. The deal quietly expired without any progress. Now Mayor Bill LaFortune is in discussions with some private groups about redevelopment plans, which may involve a soccer or baseball stadium. The Whirled quotes the Mayor as saying, "The primary thrust of the redevelopment projects we're in discussion with will have the end result of the new urbanism concept for this city that we don't have now."

To be fair, the Mayor acknowledges that a stadium shouldn't be the focal point of the redevelopment:

LaFortune said any sports facility that is part of the redevelopment discussion "is more of a secondary theme to the primary theme of multi-use development. A stadium, whether it be soccer or minor league baseball, would be woven into the fabric of that project."

LaFortune said everyone has seen the success that downtown stadiums can bring to revitalization.

"We've seen it in city after city after city," he said. "The major difference of any discussions now regarding any professional sports is that it is not the No. 1 focus as it has been in the past."

City after city? Where, exactly, have downtown sports facilities sparked downtown revitalization? Not the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Not any of the sports facilities in downtown St. Louis. Where there has been revitalization around a sports facility, there are other attractions in place. I think the canal has had more to do with the liveliness of Oklahoma City's Bricktown than the Bricktown Ballpark or the Ford Center. If an attraction is going to make a difference, it has to be something that you can enjoy at any time, not just on certain scheduled occasions. The canal provides a promenade -- a place to stroll along, to see and be seen. The sports facilities bring people into the area to see Bricktown for the first time, but that only makes a difference because first-time visitors can see that there are lots of people who are enjoying themselves outside of the sports facilities.

A couple of things bother me about this news item. One is the hope placed in a sports facility, or any one big thing, to revive downtown. Another is the focus on finding one big developer to fix up the whole area.

It has taken fifty years to reduce downtown Tulsa from its glory days to its present state. This process has been helped along by expressway construction, urban renewal, skyscraper construction (and the increased demand for parking), and plenty of well-meaning revitalization attempts.

We won't erase half a century of mistakes overnight. The best examples of revitalization in Tulsa are along 15th Street and along Peoria, and in each case it has been a process of more than 20 years, beginning with some pioneers who saw potential in the old commercial buildings of Cherry Street and Brookside. The best city government can do is provide encouragement and remove obstacles.

  1. Treat the conversion of downtown into a parking lot as the shame that it is. Call a summit of office building owners, downtown pastors, city and county officials, and the leaders of OSU Tulsa and TCC, and work out a way to meet parking needs and expansion needs without ever more demolition.
  2. Improve connections within downtown. At long last, fix and reopen the Boulder Avenue overpass. Make the Denver Avenue viaduct and all the overpasses more comfortable and less forboding for pedestrians. Create a direct route connecting 3rd and Main in the downtown core with Archer and Main in Brady Village -- even if it means tearing down some ugly modern buildings.
  3. Keep the street grid open. Don't close any more streets, and open some to complete the grid, like Frankfort between 1st and 2nd, Greenwood between 3rd and 5th, and 5th between Frankfort and Kenosha.
  4. Insist that OSU-Tulsa build out its campus in an urban fashion. OSU-Tulsa has their land because the City of Tulsa condemned it for them. The City should strongly encourage OSU-Tulsa to remediate, and not repeat, the isolated suburban mall design of its current campus.
  5. Improve connections between inside and outside the Inner Dispersal Loop for drivers and pedestrians.
  6. Remember that retail follows residential. Encourage the urban pioneers who are already creating living spaces downtown and find out what obstacles are standing in the way of others following in their footsteps.

You'll find a very intelligent discussion of downtown revitalization happening at the TulsaNow forums.

Via OKC's Downtown Guy, I learn of a blog devoted to downtown Tulsa. Not too many entries so far, but it looks like the blogger (who chooses to remain anonymous) has begun posting in earnest again since mid-July. Perhaps some traffic and positive comments will encourage him or her to post more frequently. I've added the blog to my list of Tulsa news links.

Also, Downtown Guy has an article by urban critic Joel Kotkin, who has his doubts that loft living will ever be as popular as some anticipate, but writes, "the right policy and reasonable expectations could transform parts of downtown [Los Angeles] into an exciting, slightly offbeat alternative community amid L.A.'s vast suburban archipelago."

Just before that sentence is an interesting observation: "Even so, don't count on downtown L.A. becoming another Soho. It may never fully compete with the Miracle Mile, West Hollywood, Pasadena or the beach as an urban lure. These areas have fewer dead spots created by freeway ramps, parking lots and government buildings. They offer more attractive pedestrian streetscapes and more places to go." Think how that applies to Tulsa. Tulsa's leaders ringed downtown with freeways (I heard someone today liken the Inner Dispersal Loop to a noose), leveled buildings for entire blocks of surface parking, and replaced market-driven diversity with superblocks of government-imposed sameness. The interesting streetscapes are in areas that government largely neglected -- places like Cherry Street and Brookside.

San Francisco investor Maurice Kanbar has bought six historic buildings in downtown Tulsa, including some art deco gems, like the Adams Hotel. KOTV has the story. I'll see what I can learn about Mr. Kanbar and report back later.

Life continues to intrude on blogging time. I hope to have time and energy to post more tonight. In the meantime, check out the links on the right-hand side.

UPDATE: Kanbar invented the D-Fuzz-It sweater comb among many other things. I found one connection Kanbar has with Tulsa. His memoir, Secrets from an Inventor's Notebook, was published by Tulsa's Council Oak Books.

A reader who lived in SF until a few years ago writes: "Mr. Kanbar is a friend of Michael Savage's. I remember Savage interviewing him years ago in SF, before Savage's show was syndicated. I also remember reading articles about him in the SF Chronicle. He is a good guy and a very interesting story."

OKC's Downtown Guy has two entries (here and here) with details from the KOTV and Whirled coverage of the sale. DG asks, "Could Maurice Kanbar be the first outsider to truly recognize the potential in Vision 2025 and Tulsa's attempt to revive its downtown?" Maurice Kanbar will be the first anyone, insider or outsider, to make a major investment in downtown since the Vision 2025 vote. We didn't see the same immediate outpouring of private investment that OKC did after MAPS was passed. I think the difference comes down to two things -- the economy was much better in the early '90s in OKC than in 2003 in Tulsa, and MAPS had far more for downtown than just an arena. Given the buildings he bought, I suspect Kanbar is an art deco lover, and that may have as much as Vision 2025 to do with his purchase decision.

Charles G. Hill writes: "Preservationists have had a tough time of it in Tulsa lately; with Kanbar apparently on their side, the balance of power could well tip in their favor. And about time, say I." And in comments on that entry, McGehee wonders if the Whirled has anything to do with this. Apparently nothing at all; if they did, demolition would be involved. You can see the kind of architecture the Whirled prefers here. (The center building is the Whirled's. The one to the right was demolished for an HVAC plant.)

I mentioned a while back that the three families who are contributing $1 million to the construction of "The American", 176-foot bronze statue of an Indian proposed for Osage County, are also major landholders in the Brady Village area of downtown Tulsa.

Brady Village, bounded by the Frisco tracks, I-244, and Denver Avenue has the potential to become Tulsa's Bricktown. Like Bricktown, it's across the tracks from the downtown office district. For years it was allowed to moulder unnoticed, home to rescue missions, warehouses, and light-industrial facilities. But the area was also home to two significant and venerable entertainment venues -- the old Municipal Auditorium, now known as the Brady Theatre, and Cain's Ballroom. For the most part, the area had been ignored by urban renewal programs, so apartment buildings and commerical buildings were still standing, available for occupation by businesses needing a cheap place near downtown to get started. Some pioneering Tulsans were attracted by the potential of the area and moved in with art studios, lofts, nightspots, and offices.

Still, Brady Village seems somewhat stuck, unable to move to the next level. For example, despite a number of plans for the vacant land northeast of Archer and Elgin, nothing has happened. Some proposed loft projects have failed to get off the ground.

I've been told that the Oliphant, Mayo, and Sharp family trusts own most of the land in Brady Village, and that because the ownership is scattered across the country, in some cases, it's difficult to get all the owners in agreement to sell or lease property, and thus a lot of property sits idle. Thus my comment earlier that it would be better for Tulsa if the aforementioned families were to invest their million dollars in developing Brady Village.

A reader contacted me to let me know there was another obstacle to development. The trust-owned land is on the books at a value much higher than its market value. If it were sold at market value, even a very good market value, the trust would experience a loss on paper. Many trusts have provisions requiring fiscal prudence on the part of the beneficiaries, so such a sale would either be prohibited under the terms of the trust, or, if the sale were carried out, would trigger a forfeit, and the trust would be taken from the beneficiaries and given to charity. The land is unlikely to change hands until market values rise enough to approach the book value, which would require a downtown land boom like we haven't seen since the '70s.

It's likely that the same trust provisions prevent the families from doing anything too daring or innovative with their land, beyond collecting rent on existing structures. If this is true, then I can understand why these trusts seem to be sitting on their land. I can also understand why there would be such interest in any public improvements -- like a new arena -- that has the potential to bring up property values sufficiently to allow the trusts to sell off their holdings. Under this theory, they're not looking to make a killing, they're just looking to get out.

In the lead-up to the Vision 2025 sales tax vote, I wrote:

Many observers have noticed that Tulsa doesn't have many risk-takers these days. We have the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of risk-takers and wildcatters, but they keep their trust fund money in safe investments.

That may have been unfair, if it's the case that these "trust fund babies" are forbidden from making risky investments. That may explain why so much money is poured into ever-bigger homes, rather than, say, venture capital for high-tech firms trying to get started here.

Please indulge me in some thinking out loud.

Wouldn't it be ironic if the risk-takers who built this city nearly 100 years ago are suffocating its continued growth and development? In their admirable desire to provide for their descendants, to protect their progeny from financial predators and their own carelessness and stupidity, have they inadvertently squelched any spirit of adventure that might have been passed on through their genes?

I'd like to hear from readers who are beneficiaries of trust funds, particularly old Tulsa money trust funds. Am I painting an accurate picture? What kinds of restrictions apply to your trust fund? Feel free to post a comment, or e-mail me if you'd prefer to remain anonymous.

If trust fund restrictions are holding Tulsa back, we need to get a handle on the problem and see if there is a creative way to unlock the potential for the benefit of the beneficiaries and the city of Tulsa.

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Tulsa Downtown category from August 2005.

Tulsa Downtown: September 2005 is the next archive.

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