Main Attractions: OKC’s Districts on the Rise
In the Oklahoma City Metro area there are districts aplenty, some established and some newer to the scene. Places where people live, work, shop, eat, drink and hang out, all in the same area. There are no hard-and-fast rules to defining a district, and they come in all shapes and sizes.
For years, Oklahoma City’s Paseo has been home to art galleries housed in colorful stucco buildings. Bricktown is the entertainment district that draws tourists to the canal, restaurants, bars and nightclubs. Areas like Midtown are typically populated by locals stopping in for an evening out in familiar, locally owned establishments.
Steve Mason – president of Automobile Alley Association, Automobile Alley developer and Plaza District business owner – says that what defines a district is that it must be walkable: A place where you can park your car, walk to a variety of venues and plan to stay around a while to shop or play.
By his definition, in Oklahoma City that would include Bricktown, Midtown, Automobile Alley, The Paseo, Film Row and the Plaza District. To the south, Norman has a district that spans many decades, Campus Corner, which continues to bustle with new venues and attractions. Edmond is working on its downtown area to create the same vitality. Many other destinations are striving toward such a designation, such as Uptown 23rd.
As the metro area adds new designated areas and revitalizes others, property and business owners are working together to create pockets of activity to make the city a unique destination with little surprises hidden all around.
► The Renaissance of Midtown
Just a decade ago, few lingered in – or even visited – Midtown. The main reason to frequent the area was a trip to St. Anthony Hospital. A Subway franchise opened, but the area was far from the highlight of a Chamber of Commerce recommendation.
That all changed with the Midtown Renaissance Group and the decision by St. Anthony’s leadership to stay put and grow the urban hospital instead of packing up and heading for the suburbs.
Today, Midtown is transformed. Rather than flophouses filled with transients, the area’s 1920s and 1930s buildings have been converted to upscale urban apartments. Plaza Court, once a center of commerce and later a vacant husk, is a lively bustle of activity with restaurants, a branch of the YMCA and shops that draw locals and visitors alike.
Midtown Renaissance, led by Mickey Clagg, Bob Howard and Chris Fleming, knew that to create a healthy district they would need people and amenities. While real estate developers know that retail follows rooftops, the Midtown team worked on both simultaneously with the push for retail to draw from downtown and the nearby Heritage Hills and Mesta Park neighborhoods.
Midtown is fairly clearly defined as the area from the alley west of Broadway Avenue to Classen Boulevard, and N.W. 13th Street on the north, stair-stepping to about N.W. 4th or 5th to the south.
Clagg said while it looks as though his team had a master plan to create a great district all along, that actually was not the case in the beginning. A chat with leadership at the Chamber led them to create a plan.
“One day the Chamber talked with me about our vision. I came back and told Chris and Bob, ‘Everybody thinks we have a vision, so we had better come up with one,’” he laughs.
To create the dream, Clagg and his team had to decide what they wanted Midtown to be. Would it be comparable to Bricktown, or would it have a different feel?
“Our present vision has evolved since 2006 and 2008,” he said. “We want it to be a place for locals.”
That meant making it walkable and selectively choosing tenants based on their merits and the need for their services, rather than just including a bunch of shop owners who could pay the rent. That has led to businesses that complement one another without undue competition.
The push now is to continue to add retail, while also converting vintage apartments and hotels into housing.
“If we can create enough amenities, we will serve our apartment dwellers better and keep our occupancy up,” Clagg said. “You have to have ‘heads in beds’ because someone living in your district is much more significant than someone working in your district.”
Mason credits much of Midtown’s success as a thriving district to its leadership. He explains that many developers and property owners shout their plans from the rooftops, and sometimes the projects happen, and sometimes they don’t. “That’s one of the great things about Mickey Clagg, Chris Fleming and Bob Howard. When they announce it’s going to get done soon, their announcements are dependable.” He believes the city takes notice of those practices rather than pie-in-the-sky projects that build up hype and then never get off the ground.
One anomaly in Midtown is the H&8th Night Market. The monthly event in the spring, summer and early fall brings together a plethora of roving food trucks and merchants. It is what could be called a “pop-up district.” It comes to town like the circus, woos the spectators and then packs up and leaves. But while it’s there, visitors are shopping, eating, socializing and people watching for hours.
“For one Friday a month, it meets the definition of a district,” Mason said.
► The Street That Connects
Automobile Alley, along North Broadway Avenue, are working to blur the line between the distinct areas with amenities along N.W. 10th Street to provide a vein connecting the two areas, including a newly constructed parking garage. One of the newer tenants in the neighborhood is the R&J Lounge and Supper Club, an establishment where one might expect to bump into Don Draper and Roger Sterling from the TV show “Mad Men.” It’s jointly owned by Jonathon Stranger, Russ Johnson and the building’s owner, Chip Fudge.
Intentionally tucked into the back of a building off N.W. 10th Street, the small restaurant and bar is a throwback to the lounge culture of the 1960s.
“We know that it’s somewhat difficult to find your first time there, and that is on purpose,” Stranger said.
Those who persevere, however, are rewarded with champagne served on tap, and forgotten favorites like cocktail wieners, cheesy crab toast and beef stroganoff on the menu. And aside from being in close proximity to their other venture, Ludivine, Stranger said there was a reason he wanted the lounge to be a part of Midtown.
“We really didn’t look elsewhere,” he said. “Midtown has a larger growth potential than most areas of OKC at this time. Who knows what the future holds for other areas, but right now Midtown is leading the way.”
► Taking It To The Alley
After a stop at R&J’s, or Fassler Hall or Bleu Garten, all along N.W. 10th Street, one can seamlessly wander east toward another district, Automobile Alley, one of the first success stories in downtown Oklahoma City.
The area was damaged by the blast from the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah building in 1995, and subsequently received federal dollars for its rehabilitation. Property owners and city leaders took the reins to reinvent the buildings that once had housed car dealerships.
Along N.W. 9th Street, Mason purchased properties and put in businesses that gave those strolling along Automobile Alley a chance to take a turn east and find a whole block of restaurants and shops. When he opened Iguana Mexican Grill six years ago, the restaurant had few neighbors. Oklahoma City also had few real options in terms of districts. But it didn’t take long for other businesses to open near Iguana.
“Ninth Street established a footing very fast because there was not much else,” he notes. In those early days, Iguana attracted mostly locals. It still does, but it also draws from around the metro.
“Six years ago I would walk in and know a third of the restaurant,” he said. “Iguana has evolved over the years. I’ll walk in now and know five percent. It says we have more people living downtown and more people driving here as a destination.”
► On The Plaza
In terms of potential districts, perhaps the greatest ugly duckling was the Plaza along N.W. 16th Street, west of Classen Boulevard and east of Pennsylvania Avenue.
A former retail strip nestled along that stretch of road had deteriorated and many buildings were shuttered. Those that were open were discount stores and an aging laundromat. Lyric Theatre had decided to call the area its home, but years passed with little to no further investment by developers.
That all changed when business owners and developers decided to take a stab. Mason was one of those who took a chance on investing in properties and partnering with potential business owners to get their concepts off the ground in the last few years. Others, like Jonathan Fowler, also jumped in to sponsor events to get people to come to the Plaza.
Things really started to take off after pizza emporium Empire Slice House opened a few years ago. But it was a long road from derelict to delectable.
Aimee Ahpeatone started out as a volunteer in the Plaza when she moved to the nearby Gatewood neighborhood 10 years ago. She and other volunteers worked to secure funding from the city to get the ball rolling.
“The streetscape was the first project,” she said. “They created these large sidewalks for walkability.” The walkers came, and the shoppers, the curious, the hipsters, and Ahpeatone knew it was working for business owners who had taken a chance and put everything on the line in an untested market.
According to Aimee, “The reason why we have been successful is community. We’re all good friends.”
► Attitude Will Get You In The Corner
It’s a place you’ll see college students, families, baby boomers – people in all stages of life – enjoying the host of venues for eating, drinking and playing around.
Yes, Campus Corner is back in balance, said Judy Hatfield, founding principal of Equity Commercial Real Estate and developer.
“We have retail, we have restaurants, we have bars, we have bakeries,” she says of the long-time district well known to anyone who’s ever visited the hometown of the University of Oklahoma. “There are gift shops, accessory shops, a 24-hour gourmet donut shop, a hair salon – there is so much going on and expansions that it’s just a great balance.”
Hatfield says the city is looking at high-density housing and expects “the first major location will be near Campus Corner, which makes the most sense.”
With mostly local businesses possessing unique identities, she said people know where they are when they’re on Campus Corner.
“Campus Corner is an attitude,” Hatfield said. “It’s about being with friends, having fun, and enjoying the periphery because it’s where you go when you go to an OU event.”
► Uptown Funk Gonna Give It To Ya
Ah, N.W. 23rd Street. Once a bustling and fashionable hub of commerce north of downtown, it went from riches to rags but, in recent years, has sought to restore its former glory, thanks to a handful of dedicated businesses and property owners.
The crown jewel of the strip, the Tower Theatre, was once a grand movie house to experience films like “The Sound of Music” in all their glory. While the building is undergoing a complete renovation, nothing in Technicolor has been seen there in decades.
Since bellbottoms were still in fashion, N.W. 23rd Street – between Classen Boulevard and Broadway Avenue – has been a great place to buy a wig, pawn a television, buy some liquidated hotel furniture or earn some extra cash donating plasma.
Keith and Heather Paul, owners of A Good Egg Dining Group, jumped into Uptown with both – or all four – feet, long before area revitalization efforts were in place.
It began with Cheever’s Cafe, 2409 N. Hudson Avenue, 15 years ago – a place that, aside from great food and service, has been long known as ideal for first dates (and sometimes last dates), business lunches, Sunday brunch (despite the mile-long waiting list) and cocktails after work. It didn’t matter that the area was rather sketchy – or as one area business owner put it, “rough.” Cheever’s has always had that certain je ne sais quoi that drew people in over the years – and still does.
“Regulars have a tough time making the walk to their table because they need to stop along the way to visit with several people they know,” Keith Paul said. “The atmosphere and character of the building is a huge part of Cheever’s success. Cheever’s has a responsibility to the area. We were the first to set up shop, we need to continue to do our part while Uptown continues its growth.”
Evidently, they’re doing just that.
The Pauls have added Tucker’s Onion Burger, 324 N.W. 23rd Street, their offices at the corner of N.W. 24th Street and Walker Avenue in the former Tull Overhead Door building, and the Dutch building.
Paul credits the rooftops in Heritage Hills, Mesta Park, Jefferson Park and Edgemere for much of the traffic to the area. “Heather and I couldn’t be happier with the progress of the Uptown 23rd area, however, it wasn’t always as business-friendly as it is now. We always thought that we could help transform this neighborhood by rehabbing an older building or two. We wanted to be part of a great neighborhood … and we will continue to open restaurants in this area as long as the public demand is there.”
Next up for the Pauls is The Drake, a neighborhood seafood and oysterette located in The Rise at N.W. 23rd Street and Walker Avenue.
In terms of public demand, Greg Seal, owner of Grandad’s Bar, 317 N.W. 23rd Street, couldn’t agree more. He says his initial projections prior to moving into the area three years ago have been well exceeded – up to six times during the first eight months or so, which he referred to as their “honeymoon period.” Since leveling off, the smoke-free honky tonk continues to meet and exceed the goals lined out in Seal’s business plan.
And today, while you may not find Sam Malone behind the bar, Grandad’s has the feel Seal yearned for: A place where everybody knows your name, and there are plenty of Norms who walk through the door asking for a beer to slide their way.
“What they’re doing in Midtown as far as bringing in residential, we kind of have it built in already. Those people five years ago (from area neighborhoods) didn’t have any reason to come here, and now they do, so they are,” Seal said. “We want this to be a district where people will walk and go to shops and go to lunch at The Drake when it opens, and that’s awesome. When the Tower gets open, that will solidify nightlife, it will be a fully functioning venue for everything from theater to movies to live music.”
To the north of The Rise is Pizzeria Gusto, a popular spot with a full bar where you’d be hard-pressed not to see a full house. It’s the latest project from Chris Lower and Kathryn Mathis, a restaurateur duo who also operate Back Door Barbecue and are partners in Big Truck Tacos – both in close proximity.
Admittedly, Paul and Seal agree that business owners want to see more walkability, more bicycle access, controlled traffic, additional parking, landscaping and streetscaping.
“We have patience; we are taking it all one piece at a time,” Paul said.
According to Seal, it was Cheever’s and Big Truck Tacos that “did all the work” in getting this area moving. Of course there are too many new eateries and bars to mention, but rest assured there are even more on the way, in addition to retail.
Chad Miller, owner of Hard Luck Tattoos, 2410 N. Robinson Avenue, is the aforementioned business owner who referred to the area as “rough” when he moved in seven years ago. He, like Seal and Paul, described the area as having a broad mix of patrons. The ongoing redevelopment efforts have smoothed off those rough edges, which benefits business owners and brings in patrons who might never have set foot there before.
“The restaurants and bars are bringing in more traffic, which is always good for business,” Miller said.
► Lights, Camera, Film Row
Another budding area is Film Row, on West Sheridan Avenue in downtown Oklahoma City. It was once home to buildings owned by motion picture studios. The studios – Paramount, Warner Brothers, etc. – would deliver movies by rail, and the film exchanges in Oklahoma City and theater owners could view the films and decide what they wanted to take back to their towns.
The area dried up in the 1960s when films were distributed by airplanes rather than trains. Oklahoma City’s Film Row fell into decline.
Chip Fudge is the manager of Film Exchange Row LLC, and owns many properties in the area. He decided to invest in the area based on the vision of two friends, David Wanzer and Pat Gallagher.
“We started buying real estate in the area in 2004,” Fudge said. Since that time, the area has drawn office and retail tenants (including Slice Magazine’s home base) and now hosts a monthly fete on the strip called Premiere on Film Row.
While it is still evolving, the area is taking on more of its identity with a film-themed streetscape and continued interest from artists, retailers and businesses that are eyeing the area as one of Oklahoma City’s next big things.
In addition to Fudge moving his own companies to Film Row, he recently welcomed the University of Oklahoma’s College of Architecture, which will bring even more foot traffic and visitors to the pocket.
While Bricktown was the first real district to emerge in the late 1980s, it sometimes is shunned by locals as a place full of bars and nightclubs populated by non-locals – a bunch of people visiting the city from afar. Despite the offerings that often draw out-of-towners and revelers, Mason said it has been a success, and serves its purpose.
“It’s important to say while these other districts are booming and growing, Bricktown was full and it continues to be full,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with Bricktown from the perspective of the number of people and businesses.”
While “uber-locals” might not spend much time in Bricktown, Mason said plenty of locals do frequent the area, as well as residents in nearby Deep Deuce and around downtown who are able to enjoy a night on the town just steps from their own front doors.
► So What Is A District?
Looking at the various districts around the metro area — and those areas that hope to become full-fledged districts — there are successes, works-in-progress and some areas that will take years, or even decades, to fully develop.
With all that is going on in and around Oklahoma City, and in light of his projects and the projects of others, Mason said, at the end of the day, a district must have a few key elements to differentiate it from just a street with businesses.
“It feels like a community,” he said. “In a community, you walk down the street and you know a lot of people. In a really great district, you park your car and visit several businesses before you return to your car.”