Armory development delayed but not dead
OKC Central Live Chat, usually started every Friday at 9:30 a.m., is on hold while The Oklahoman's online site is upgraded. Writer Steve Lackmeyer answered questions about Oklahoma City development that were submitted by readers in advance of this prewritten chat. Live chat is expected to resume in late March.
Q: Good morning Steve and happy Friday to you! In your opinion, what is the mindset of property owners holding on to properties, not improving but not selling either? I pass properties every day that have been boarded up for 10 years or more, no one going in or out. I look it up and there are some local property owners that could sell them and make sure money. Is it laziness? Tax write-off? Help me understand.
A: Sometimes we're dealing with properties owned by people who acquired historic buildings dreams of restoration only to be unable to get the job done or they pass away and families find themselves unable to let that dream go.
Such was the case with the Walcourt that was owned by Mary Williams, whose late husband bought the building at 141 NE 13 in 1976. The century-old, two-story former apartment building, with its Tudor Revival architecture and tin shingle roof, drew plenty of unsolicited offers.
The building was boarded up for 40 years and caught fire several times before it finally sold in 2017. Exterior restoration is wrapping up, and the new owners are looking for office tenants before beginning interior finishes.
The Jewel Theater at 904 NE 4 is the only surviving historically Black movie theater still standing and is in the middle of a JFK neighborhood enjoying a revival. The theater remains boarded up and I've been told several parties have shown an interest in buying the landmark. It is still owned by Arthur Hurst, who bought it in the 1970s with plans of restoration.
Other properties are caught up in family disputes or are tied up with title complications. And some are owned by speculators who let their properties languish and hurt efforts of surrounding owners to bring life to an area even as these speculators are counting on their neighbors' investments to increase their own values.
I am aware of one such property owner who has been buying up properties south of downtown to do just this, and is seen as hurting efforts by others truly trying to redevelop blighted areas.
Q: What is the latest on the armory?
A: Readers were excited when the state agreed to sell the former National Guard Armory at 200 NE 23 to COOP Ale Works for use as a brewery, hotel, restaurants, bars and an event space.
I spoke with Sean Mossman, director of sales and marketing at COOP Ale Works, and the project is very much alive and still moving forward. The armory was built in 1935, was once home to the 45th Infantry and National Guard. It was vacated by 2010 and then put up for sale in 2017.
The cavernous former armory, spanning 72,667 square feet, was seen as a potentially awkward fit for most development possibilities due to its design. The bulk of the interior is just the ground floor with the roof three stories above.
Floors line the east and west sides of the building overlooking the space.
That design, however, was seen as ideal for an expanded COOP Ale Works brewery that will be transformed into a visitor destination with the side offices turned into a boutique hotel.
The proposal called for 16 hotel rooms overlooking the production floor with the opposite side of the building to be home to a restaurant and event venue.
The two wings are intended to be connected via a 4,000-square-foot lounge and taproom on the production floor that will be separated from the brewing operations by a 105-foot-long glass wall. An observation deck, with seating for 80 and an array of games, is designed to be located atop the wall overlooking the brewery.
Meanwhile, the T-shaped Veterans Administration building to the east of the Armory is designed to be turned into 12 hotel villas, a basement speakeasy and a pool and lounge open to guests and the public.
So, what happened?
It’s not a question about growth or viability. COOP Ale Works was one of the city’s first craft breweries when it opened in 2009 and it now sells at hundreds of locations in a multistate region. Oklahoman food writer Dave Cathey reported this week the brewery is working with Sonic Drive-ins to produce a line of hard seltzers.
“We need the space,” Mossman said. “We need this building.”
Blame the generosity of our city fathers for the delays. I mentioned in last week’s chat that if the proposed MAPS 4 outdoor stadium is to be built at Wheeler Park, the city will have to find a way to change deed restrictions against alcohol sales required by the Wheeler family when they donated the land.
The Harn family, meanwhile, placed their own restrictions as part of donating the land along NE 23 to the state to build the armory.
“There have been a couple of issues involving clearance of title,” Mossman said. “That’s the total bottleneck right now.”
Once those title issues are resolved, Mossman said the purchase will be completed and work will resume.
“We’re excited about it,” Mossman said. “We are anxious about it from time to time. It's truly nobody’s fault. And when we get the property, we will be ready to go. We think it’s a winner. When you’re developing an old piece of real estate, you sometimes find things under the pillow.”
Q: With the hotel going up quickly and the apartments next door, the area west of Chesapeake is starting to move well. Do you think we will see any movement in the near future on the area between Whole Foods and the new hotel?
A: Is there really that much land left to develop with the apartments being built to the west of the hotel? I can see a relatively small stretch of land immediately north of Whole Foods and with the hotel and apartments coming online next year, I can't imagine it taking long for that to be built up as additional retail or restaurants.
Q: What are you hearing from business owners on when their comfort level for resuming in-person meetings and things getting back to normal? Are we talking quickly? This summer? Later?
A: The folks I'm talking to are cautiously optimistic that we may return to a situation closer to normal by autumn.
Q: Now that vaccines are starting to roll out, are there any developments that were put on the backburner that are going to move forward that you know of?
A: Not yet. But don't be surprised if Rick Dowell, who owns the 20-story former Kerr-Mac building at 260 N Robinson Ave., decides to switch his plan to restore it as office space and instead go with apartments in response to changes in the office market caused by the pandemic.
Q: When I have talked to friends about the new soccer stadium, the fear for the cotton oil site (south of Lower Bricktown) is that it will be a stadium with a sea of parking around it. Also, it would be too expensive.
From your understanding, will there be any city incentive to redevelop the area surrounding it into living, retail or office space? Maybe a request for proposals to go along with the approved plans? I know with the Farmers Market site, there really isn’t enough space to do that and Wheeler has its own hurdle of serving alcohol to get over. The cotton oil mill site was always my favorite option for the same reason the convention center's location was a favorite option; it would help spark development in the area.
A: The MAPS 4 stadium is a potential game changer for wherever it might be located with potential to spur a lot of adjacent development.
The Farmers Market site may indeed be too small. Title issues at Wheeler Park are not impossible to overcome and I wouldn't rule it out as a contender. Bob Funk, owner of the FC Energy, has shown a lot of interest in the stadium being built on the cotton oil mill site and even had a contract to buy the land a few years ago.
The issue on the cotton oil mill site is the cost of the land, which I've been told would run about $35 a square foot unless the sellers allow for a deep discount with the idea of a stadium boosting the value of the rest of the property. Your idea of the city looking for developers to take on the remaining property isn't a bad idea, but I don't see how that can happen without the city using up the entire stadium budget to buy the land.
These may not be the only sites to get considered by the city with other sites, including Chisholm Creek, having been pitched in the past for the stadium. Such a location, however, would likely hurt interest among south side Hispanics who are passionate soccer fans.
Q: What is going in at 500 S Western? It used to be part of the Urban Farmhouse compound. There is a new fence for back, lots of lighting and stage. An event venue?
A: I spoke with owner Jason Thomas, and while building permits indicate the warehouse is being converted into a marijuana and grow facility, that really doesn't tell the story.
What I can share right now is the direction of the project is very different with aspirations to take on a vibe more like Austin, Nashville or Lower Greenville in Dallas. Thomas said it will include an outdoor venue with multiple stages a multi-theme bar and food service. It will include parking on site and a remote park and ride by the lower section of Scissortail Park.
I hope to tour the project soon and will share more details.
Staff writer Steve Lackmeyer is a 30-year reporter, columnist and author who covers downtown Oklahoma City and related urban development for The Oklahoman. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a subscription today at oklahoman.com/subscribe.