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Downtown Tulsa’s Pulse

Here we are – optimistically, in the midst of a burgeoning revitalization of downtown Tulsa.  We nearly lost our downtown; it barely had a pulse.  Then, when things looked their bleakest, something happened:  we began to understand the importance of our city center from the standpoint of our collective memory of the place.

Italian journalist Italo Calvino writes, “The city … does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.”

I am not a native Tulsan, but I have lived here since 1983.  During those 27 years, I’ve experienced oil busts and booms; tornadoes, floods, and ice storms; exquisite azalea-and-dogwood-infused Springs and equally lovely fiery red and orange-hued Autumns; some preservation wins — and all too many losses — certainly enough to keep one on one’s toes.  Complacency has its pitfalls.

I suspect most of us recognize the beauty of our historic neighborhoods, parks, and landscapes.  We relate easily to the Art Deco architecture for which we are recognized on a national level.  Gothic Revival style churches built when Tulsa was a beginning oil boomtown tell a story of congregations who had faith in the permanence of this city as well as the tenets of their religion.

Post-war prosperity and a generalized “out with the old, in with the new” attitude brought us sleek, clean lines of International style architecture and Modern structures and a general dissatisfaction with the “outdated” buildings of the past – including art deco buildings.

Warp Speed Flight to the Suburbs

Substantial flight to the suburbs due to the overwhelming demands for housing and the abundance of cheap land outside of the city left the downtown nearly vacant.  In Tulsa, for example, neighborhoods such as White City experienced its major explosion of growth in 1946.

Churches, groceries, restaurants, and other support services were built with the prosperity of the post-war economy.  Downtown churches, restaurants, and department stores were replaced with their suburban counterparts.  In the 50s, more suburban neighborhoods developed including Ranch Acres, Lortondale, Patrick Henry,  and Bolewood Acres (to name a few) grew and prospered with new identities architecturally and culturally.  Neighborhood pools, new public schools, and the family automobile allowed individuals and families to drive to multiple places to shop in lieu of downtown’s one-stop-shopping.

As a result, Tulsa Urban Renewal Authority (TURA) came into being (1960-1974) with the Tulsa Development Authority (TDA) later taking its place.

Many historic structures built during Tulsa’s boom days were lost during this time including the Bliss Hotel, Hotel Tulsa, all the movie theaters, Halliburton-Abbott Building, and the Medical Arts Building –to name a few.

Various projects took their place (Williams Green, Performing Arts Center, BOK Tower, Central Park Tower, and several state department buildings) culminating in the 1980s with the Williams Centers I and II.  The oil bust in the 1980s (1982-1987) dramatically affected the number of people living and working in Tulsa, especially those oil and gas entities remaining downtown.

For example, Cities Service’ headquarters (now known as CITGO) experienced dramatic changes and projects like the ONEOK Building were halted midway through construction.  Suburban sprawl continued at warp speed in southeast Tulsa leaving the city center with barely a pulse.

Efforts to Revitalize and Re-energize Downtown

In the last three decades, Tulsans have realized that art deco architecture is something worthy of preservation.  In 1980, the Tulsa Junior League published Tulsa Art Deco, out of print just a few years later.  TFA obtained the copyrights to the book, revised and augmented the original, and republished it in 2001.  An art deco icon, the Warehouse Market, galvanized the local, state, and national preservationist movement when threatened with demolition by Home Depot.  The successful compromise reflected in this project and the “mothballing” of the Tulsa Fire Alarm Building, saving it from demolition by neglect, put two “wins” on the preservation scoreboard.

On July 12, 1988, the Board of City Commissioners of the City of Tulsa passed a preservation ordinance that created the Tulsa Preservation Commission and established Historic Preservation (HP) Supplemental Zoning and with it came:

  • Technical assistance from the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) and Tulsa Preservation Commission (TPC);
  • Preservation Easements:  McBirney Mansion, Comma House, and others;
  • Tax Credits: October 22, 1986, the Tax Reform Act of 1986 was signed into law making comprehensive changes to the Internal Revenue Code providing a 20% tax credit for the substantial rehabilitation of historic buildings for commercial, industrial, and rental residential purposes and a 10% tax credit for the substantial rehabilitation for nonresidential purposes of building built before 1936.  Since January 1, 2006, Oklahoma State Tax Credits match federal tax credits for approved 10% and 20% projects.  Recently, a response to the depleted State coffers placed the following temporary change in force:

Any tax credits which accrue during the period of July 1, 2010, through June 30, 2012, may not be claimed for any period prior to the taxable year beginning January 1, 2012.  No credits which accrue during the period of July 1, 2010, through June 30, 2012, may be used to file an amended tax return for any taxable year prior to the taxable year beginning January 1, 2012.”

  • Tax Increment Financing:  a technique that utilizes increasing property taxes, resulting from improvements to property in a specific area, to make capital improvements benefitting that property.  Examples: Brady Arts District was the first TIF and was recently extended from 15 to a 25 year term; Central Park District (Warehouse Market) is our most successful TIF District.
  • Local Development Act, Tax Incentive Projects:  State statute provides for a tax freeze or abatement of increase in property taxes on certain eligible projects for 5-6 years Examples:  Mayo Hotel, Mayo Building, Atlas Life (requested), and Hotel Ambassador (Freeze property taxes for five years before renovation);
  • Adoption of the International Existing Building Code (IEBC);
  • Fire Suppression Grant;
  • Low-Income Housing Tax Credits; and
  • Tulsa Foundation for Architecture established in 1995 with downtown revitalization as one of its primary goals and objectives.  To that end, we’ve participated in the following:

a.       Smart Growth conferences beginning in 1995;

b.      Sponsored lecturers featuring Rypkema and Kunstler, experts on downtown revitalization and sprawl;

c.       Instrumental in recognition of valued buildings in the downtown area including all the art deco (Tulsa Art Deco and DecoGuide), Foundation Awards recipients:  Warren Petroleum Headquarters, 320 S. Boston, Boston Avenue Methodist Church, and Central High School (now PSO);

d.      Downtown Living Tour began in 2007 and featured Philtower Lofts, Mayo Hotel Luxury Residences; Village at Central Park townhomes; First Street Lofts; Wallace Penthouse; Bell Loft, Wright Building; Tribune Lofts; Del Ray Building; walkup on Brady; Gypsy Coffee House; and the Reunion Building, Skib Residence, and Girouard Vines, LLC were sites of the Patron Parties for each tour.

e.       National Preservation Conference held in Tulsa in October 2008;

f.        Though not specifically in downtown, preservation efforts seen in the Circle Cinema and Meadow Gold sign have provided inspiration for future projects including neon signage in the Blue Dome District and restoration of existing vintage and creation of new neon signs;

g.       Development of “Downtown Tulsa.  Building Opportunity” booklet describing incentives, citing examples, and providing resource information for developers, realtors, et al.

h. TFA Archives, a repository of over 35,000 architectural drawings and resource materials that documents Tulsa’s built environment has received a number of grants including the Save America’s Treasures;

i.         Participation in the Downtown Intensive Level Survey (completed last September by Rosin and Ambler) and the CORE Report;

j.        Creation of Modern Tulsa Committee to underscore the importance and fun of mid-century modern architecture and design.

Recently Completed Success Stories

  • Tribune Lofts, Hotel Ambassador, Philtower Lofts were the recent pioneers of using public/private funding to create residential and hotel room nights downtown;
  • Tom Wallace’s renovation of 200 East Brady is award-winning and really provided a stimulus in the Brady Arts District;  he then followed up this success with his renovation of the Wire Rope Building at 300 East Brady and included a fabulous loft space that he and his wife, Susie, enjoy as their weekend getaway; Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame renovation; Convention Center renovation and addition; creation of the BOK Center (12th in the world for arena ticket sales); The Mayo Hotel; Marriott Courtyard (Atlas Life Building); and the Mayo Building Lofts and the first-floor YMCA.

Underway at this time

  • Visual Arts Center (Mathews Warehouse Building in Brady – September groundbreaking and November 2011 grand opening);
  • John Hope Franklin Greenwood Reconciliation Memorial near OSU-Tulsa;
  • Enterprise Building (David Sharp $700 k wants to develop Mid-priced residential opportunities in downtown Tulsa with mixed-use retail);
  • Detroit Lofts (construction began in March:  restaurant/bar/grocery);
  • Max Retropub (video arcade near Joe Momma’s);
  • Hey Mambo (114 N. Boston scheduled to open in July . . . Italian!)
  • The Forge (Tulsa Vision Builders space for TYPros) . . . a small business incubator featuring 11 offices and event space (scheduled to open June 23);
  • Tulsa Opera moving into the Firestation #1 at 3rd & Frankfurt
  • Lee’s Bicycle and Fleet Feet moving into warehouse spaces on 2nd Street;
  • 119 Downtown:  Service Pipeline Building at 6th & Cincinnati – beautiful art deco renovation by McIntosh Group . . . 72 units on 6 floors including modern design and kitchens by Pohlenz Cucine Moderne . . . six penthouse units and bocce ball on the 2nd floor; outdoor fireplace . . .
  • Micha Alexander development (800 block of East 3rd Street).

Projects On the Horizon

  • Griffin Communications Media Center;
  • One Place (Rachel Zebrowski):  between 2nd & 3rd and Denver & Cheyenne . . . shop, dine, relax (hotel/restaurant/art & green space) before and after events at BOK and other downtown venues;
  • Dust Bowl (bowling alley south of the Dilly Deli);
  • OETA Studio (by OSU-Tulsa near Greenwood Cultural Center – north of the Vernon AME Church);
  • Vandever’s. . . Snyders most “up to code” building seeking low-cost loan and/or tax credits
  • Old City Hall and Complex (two RFPS for renovation to be announced July 8, 2010)
  • Plush (Tulsa Auto Bank) high-end sushi/martini bar;
  • East End Development (two proposed developments; stay tuned).

The Tulsa Foundation for Architecture is all about Tulsa’s quality built environment.  Please support our mission of protecting the irreplaceable.  We have the pulse beating again and Tulsans feel this revitalized sense of place again . . . and just in time.