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Promises, Demolition and First National Center

Today's story about First National Center being emptied out with no sale certain has people nervous. And despite there being no threat voiced or hinted at in terms of demolition, rumors are flying online that First National could be the next endangered building.

Such fears are understandable, though I will also argue they are unfounded.

The backdrop to this development is of course worrisome to preservationists. Just this months the community was surprised to see buildings whose owners promised would not be torn down end up being targeted anyway.

As recently as last summer I was responding to questions about the old Hotel Black and Union Bus Station that I did not have any definite information that they were being targeted for demolition. That was the truth. What I had were promises by owner Nicholas Preftakes that the buildings were not going to be torn down. I never had any such assurances about the Lunch Box building or the old Carpenter Square Theater (originally Baron's Department Store).

So I responded as only I could - that the last response from Preftakes was a promise that they would not get threatened. I take my responsibility to report accurately seriously, and I take responsibility for when I get it wrong.

On this one, I didn't get it wrong. But I now know why Preftakes did not return my calls in those weeks when rumors were flying.

When someone makes a promise for me to put in print, and then the exact opposite ensues, I make a mental note of that matter and will proceed accordingly, reminding readers when appropriate of the conflict between promises made and actions taken.

So now we know that Hines, the Houston company that developed Devon Energy Center on behalf of Devon Energy, is wanting to tear down the Hotel Black, the Union Bus Station and several other structures to make way for a 27-story tower and two parking garages. The argument is these buildings are "functionally obsolete." A preservation fight will ensue. And a likely argument will include reports that a deal was underway to put a very popular restaurant in the bus station and interest was being expressed in renovating the Hotel Black into housing or a hotel.

Promises also were made to preserve the 1920s era former Conoco station at NE 3 and Walnut, and to even incorporate the buildings into the second phase of the Maywood Apartments. But the developer who made the promise, Ron Bradshaw, is no longer involved in the project, and the lead developer is now NE Construction, a Texas company led by Charlie Nicholas that built the first Maywood complex and also The Edge apartments in Midtown.

The developer went to Downtown Design Review Committee recently and got approval for "disassembling" the buildings and rebuilding the facades with the salvaged materials. And what followed was a curious Christmas Day demolition.

I spoke to Luke Harry with NE and he promises any salvaged materials that can be re-used will be used in the reconstruction. But in talking with him, I got the impression even this is uncertain.

"The plan was to keep them," Harry said. "We resubmitted the application and they gave us permission to take it down and reuse what could be used in the reconstruction of the buildings. That's the best we could do with the shape the buildings were in. They were in pretty bad shape. Inside, they were just a shell."

First National is NOT a tiny Conoco station. It is not the Hotel Black, which was stripped of its historic interior long ago though it does maintain a good part of its historic exterior. First National is far more important to the city's history than all of these buildings collectively.

And First National is viable. It needs more than $100 million in renovations. But the payoff could be huge for patient investors. The Great Banking Hall alone would cost millions to build today. Every developer sees the potential in converting the tower into a mix of housing and a hotel.

More importantly, city leaders are ready to step in to ensure it's not torn down. I do not believe, at all, that this community will tolerate demolition for First National, which rivals the Skirvin in terms of historic and architectural importance.

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Steve Lackmeyer

Steve Lackmeyer is a reporter, columnist and author who started his career at The Oklahoman in 1990. Since then, he has won numerous awards for his coverage, which included the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, the city's... Read more ›