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Sunday Flashback: Sycamore Square

As much as I’ve delved into the history of downtown, I’m still surprised by what I stumble upon while browsing through various archives.

My latest discovery was the original plan for the Sycamore Square block.

The Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority was still in clearance mode as it approached the west side of downtown in the mid-1970s. The area between Shartel and Walker Avenues, Robert S. Kerr and NW 4 was aimed at what was described as a “commercial cluster” of parking garages, automotive sales and service firms and light industrial buildings.

Urban Renewal issued a request for proposals in 1977. An array of prominent firms and developers indicated interest, but when proposals were due, HTB, Manhattan Construction, Midland Mortgage and Dick Coyle, and Henderson Properties all bowed out.

That left one proposal by a group led by Thomas Simms, who proposed a $16 million mixed-use development that would include 476 apartments, an office building, retail and parking on the 19-acre spread that was to be converted from six blocks to one big superblock.

Simms submitted an aggressive timeline that suggested construction on the first phase could have started by March 1978. Simms announced the apartments would be built instead as condominiums and submitted a request for a $10 million loan pool for condominium buyers to the Oklahoma Industries Authority. Simms’ group also was hopeful they could get $3 million in revenue bonds from the OIA to finance an eight-story office and retail building as part of the first phase.

Financing, however, did not go as planned as Simms’ request for a $10 million loan pool for condominium buyers was rejected in March 1979 by the Oklahoma Industries Authority. By that summer, Simms had switched his residential concept to 364-square-foot “efficiency” condominiums. Downtown civic leaders were angered by the switch from what had been promoted as high-end housing for middle class and upper middle-class families.

Simms backed off, but more delays hit as the Urban Renewal Authority was unable to deliver the entire super block in a timely manner. By May of 1980, the two sides were clearly at odds with Urban Renewal officials threatening to cancel the development agreement unless Simms delivered final construction plans and Simms responding he wasn’t going to spend on those plans if he was facing cancelation of the project.

Simms delivered on the plans that September and promised construction of the high-rise condominium tower and the office building would start as soon as possible pending financing. But that financing was not as easy as Simms predicted. By winter 1980s, Simms’ role was scaled down and new partners stepped in and won an extension and support for “restructuring” of the development.

High interest rates, meanwhile, promoted the city to cancel plans to issue bonds to build a parking garage along Walker Avenue across from the Sycamore Square super block.

With financing secured from Fidelity Bank and the development taken over by Tierco Group and Neil Stanfield, the project was scaled down to 118 condominiums.

Construction started in summer 1981 and sales started the following year. The complex consisted of large well-designed condominiums with landscaped courtyards and pools surrounded by covered surface parking. It did match the plans pitched years earlier by Simms, but they fit expectations for quality homes and would end up being the only housing built downtown as part of the original Urban Renewal I.M. Pei Plan.

The first phase would be all that got built with the oil bust taking down the state’s economy that following year. Half of the first phase was sold as condominiums and the other half was converted into apartments.

It took 30 years for the remainder of the super block to be developed with the Avana apartments with ground floor retail being built about a dozen years ago and the city’s 911 center being built on half of the undeveloped land facing Shartel. Developer Ron Bradshaw, meanwhile, was recently selected to develop the last remaining vacant land at NW 4 and Shartel with a mix of apartments and retail.

The office buildings, a skywalk that was to link the development to a garage on Walker and the garage were never built. But in retrospect, the scale is about right by 2019 standards and for a development that is nearing 40 years old, it's held up well and with the John Rex Elementary nearby, the generous size of the condominiums and the apartments have given Sycamore Square and the renamed and renovated apartments, The Haven, a competitive edge downtown.

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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 ›