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Rejuvenated downtown: Tulsa's hub ready for return of retail

Published: 3.20.16
The Renberg's sign still hangs over Main Street between Fourth and Third streets. Two new restaurants - Main Street Lunch Box and Take 2, a Resonance Cafe - moved in on either side of it over the winter.

The sign hasn't noticed.

Each new eatery is among what some would call "downtown pioneers" - the steady trickle of businesses that have come to a rejuvenated downtown Tulsa. A few dozen shops and restaurants line Boston Avenue, Main Street and Fifth Street. Another dozen or so bars and restaurants are scattered about the Blue Dome and Brady Arts districts.

On weekend nights, Uber drivers idle outside those bars, waiting for a chance to grab a rider while the prices are high. It's a far cry from what the Tulsa World wrote in 1979: "Word is out. Don't go north of 2nd Street after dark."

Hundreds - maybe thousands - of people in green drank and ate on a closed-off Second Street on Thursday evening for St. Patrick's Day. When they looked west or east, they saw a parking lot.

Those parking lots - one across from the Tulsa Performing Arts Center and the wide expanse of concrete next to the old Santa Fe Rail Depot - are both poised, with the help of the Tulsa City Council, to become the largest amount of retail space in downtown Tulsa since Renberg's lights went out 22 years ago.

Retail follows rooftops

Downtown sees tens of thousands of workers during the day, and for decades few of them went home to houses or apartments nearby. That's beginning to change, and now retail will start to follow the rooftops.

Caitlin Boewe with commercial real estate firm CBRE said downtown Tulsa's residential population has hit 6,000, and over 1,000 more beds from planned projects or those under construction are on the way.

Count the population immediately around downtown, and it's about 25,000, she said. The potential is there for a shopping district that pulls people in, she added. There just needs to be a "critical mass" of retail like there is at Tulsa Hills and Woodland Hills Mall.

For that critical mass to occur, Boewe said, downtown needs the proposed Santa Fe Square and the rumored Tulsa Performing Arts Center project, which is supposed to come with downtown's elusive grocery store - a Reasor's.

Reasor's wouldn't confirm that it was coming downtown. Said Chief Operating Officer Brent Edstrom: "Reasor's definitely has an interest in downtown Tulsa with all of the residential growth, but there's more research to be done."

Both projects are seeking approval for Tax Increment Financing districts from the city of Tulsa.

There are other projects on the way, too. The Boxyard, a retail concept that will feature shops in discarded storage containers, is a project from Nelson Stowe. The View, planned for Archer Street and Elgin Avenue, is leasing retail space, according to CBRE's website.

Elliot Nelson of Nelson Stowe, which is also developing Santa Fe Square, said in an interview with the World last week that there are a lot of retailers making a go of it downtown already, and The Boxyard will drive more traffic to downtown because it's a unique concept.

"We hope that Santa Fe Square becomes a prime retail destination in the metro area," he said.

History as a reminder

In the years before and immediately after World War II, downtown Tulsa was the prime retail destination in the metro area.

It housed the original Miss Jackson's store, Vandevers, Streets, Brown-Dunkin and Renberg's among others along a few-block stretch. Slowly, but surely, however, the retail followed the population into the suburbs - just like it did in most of the U.S.

Utica Square, the area's first shopping mall, opened in 1952, attracting Miss Jackson's, Vandevers and Brown-Dunkin. Thirteen years later, Southland Shopping Center, which became Tulsa Promenade, was built, boasting anchor tenants such as J.C. Penney and Dillard's.

There were broad efforts to rejuvenate downtown retail throughout the 1970s with the building of the Main Mall and Williams Center. But a 1978 survey showed the odds were against it - 75 percent of the people surveyed said they went right home after work.

Another retail arrival probably contributed to that. Woodland Hills Mall, then the largest mall in the state and still one of the prime retail destinations, opened in 1976, continuing to drive the sprawl southward.

Things began to change a decade after Renberg's closed in the early 1990s. Voters passed Vision 2025 in 2003, which paid for two key downtown destinations - the BOK Center and the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame. That public investment is credited with sparking nearly $1 billion in private investment in downtown.

"I think it would have been a lot more difficult for many of these projects to get off the ground," Cody Brandt of CBRE said to the World in October. "They were a changing point for Tulsa and put the focus back downtown."

For downtown "pioneers," new retail is welcome.

William Franklin, owner of the art store Decopolis Studios, said in December: "Every day people will say, ‘Where are all the people?' We're growing. Things are getting better. It seems like it's a long haul sometimes. There's a benefit if we hang in there. When downtown finally crosses that barrier, we'll be one of the main players."

That barrier might not be too far away from being broken.

Boewe said that in the past two years national clients have started to ask about downtown Tulsa, something unheard of six years ago.

"We are finally to a place for the final piece (retail) to come in," said Nelson.

Said Boewe: "When all of these planned developments are complete and downtown has a cohesive feel, that will be the key for downtown retail."

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