Thursday, June 11, 2015
By Molly M. Fleming
OKLAHOMA CITY – Twenty-eight years ago, Chris Salyer started purchasing buildings on N. Broadway Avenue. The area, now called Automobile Alley after its history of car dealerships, had elements that Salyer said would make it a thriving commercial area.
“It was a street named Broadway, which is a wonderful name for a street,” he said. “It was a major artery during Oklahoma City’s history. It was built the width it was so horses could turn around without going down the block. It had character, it had width, and at one time, it had streetcars.”
He said it didn’t make sense to him for the buildings to be offered at such low prices. Many of the area’s structures are cement or brick, with high ceilings and depth from the street.
“It had consistency of architecture and an automotive theme,” he said.
The buildings’ coherent appearances, marketing potential and historic character are a few elements that some Oklahoma City developers said can lead to a commercial district’s creation. Every year, the Plaza District honors those who have seen the potential in a distraught area with its Urban Pioneer Award. Good Egg Dining Group owners Keith and Heather Paul received the award Tuesday for their work in revitalizing old buildings as their restaurants’ homes.
Good Egg opened Cheever’s Café on NW 23rd Street in 2000, at a time when the street wasn’t the safest in the city. Since then, the company has opened Iron Star BBQ at NW 36th Street and Shartel Avenue, Red Prime Steak in Automobile Alley, Republic Gastropub in Classen Curve, Kitchen 324 in downtown Oklahoma City, and Tucker’s Onion Burgers’ three locations, including on NW 23rd Street. Most of the restaurants are in old buildings that required rehabilitation.
Keith Paul said those aged buildings help create the restaurants’ atmosphere. Heather Paul credited Cheever’s nearby neighborhoods as one reason the restaurant was able to succeed.
“Mesta Park, Crown Heights, Heritage Hills – you all helped us continue to thrive,” she said. “There were some nights we would have four people for dinner all week.”
Now, the restaurant takes reservations. It has become a part of Oklahoma City’s food culture, while being in a building that was once a flower shop. Citywide, buildings that were constructed for one purpose have taken on a different life, which is leading to the commercial districts being formed.
Film Row developer Chip Fudge started purchasing properties on W. Sheridan Avenue in 2006. The history buff said he was attracted to the area because of its past and the marketing potential. The district is home to film exchange buildings, with many structures still bearing nameplates for movie companies such as Warner Bros. and Paramount Pictures.
At that time, the city wasn’t developing west, so Fudge said he imagined the buildings would get restored and the area would move along as the happening west side of Oklahoma City.
“I did not have the ability to comprehend what’s taking place now,” he said. “With my company (Claims Resource Management in the Hart Building), we don’t need prime real estate. The irony is that we’re a company that doesn’t need prime real estate that has prime real estate.”
Plaza District Developer Jeff Struble started investing in NW 16th Street in 2006 as well. Struble was working on houses in the area and saw something was happening. When he heard Lyric Theatre was going to restore the old theater and move to the area, he knew he was onto something. His third purchase was the building that’s now the home of The Mule.
“Then, things just went like gangbusters,” he said. “We had a lot of people that were from other places that told us that it reminded them of neat places in other cities.”
Fellow district developer Steve Mason with Sweet Sixteenth LLC and his partners started purchasing buildings in 2010. He said he tends to wait for a district to get off its feet before he invests. Having seen commercial districts’ successes in other cities, he said he knew the area had potential.
“’First, we build our buildings, then our buildings build us,’” said Robert Henry, president of Oklahoma City University, quoting Winston Churchill.
Mason said that is exactly what Plaza District and other commercial areas have become: buildings that are shaping the neighborhood and the city, helping to give the city an identity.
Yet the city has more strips of buildings that could use some rehabilitation. Mason said he expects Historic Capitol Hill along SW 25th Street to see interest from developers. Salyer said the Oklahoma River has potential, with the bike trails coming from Lake Overholser into the area. Fudge said an often overlooked area is at W. Britton Road and N. Western Avenue, where the remainders of the city of Britton’s buildings are still standing.
“One bright person could go in and buy all those and put them all back together again,” Fudge said.
For more Oklahoma City business news, go online to The Journal Record.