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With Faith of Investors, Downtown Tulsa Reawakens

Published: 12.31.14
For decades, the Mayo Hotel had been the societal symbol of Tulsa's reign as the Oil Capital of the World, catering to oil barons with names like Getty, Skelly, Phillips and Sinclair. But its closing in 1981 underscored the city's faded status as Houston became the focal point of the energy industry.

Left behind were a large concentration of Art Deco buildings built by the oilmen in Tulsa's declining 100-square-block downtown district, which fell victim to suburban growth and a lack of investment.

Thirty years after it was shuttered, the Mayo Hotel was snapped up for $1 by the construction executive John Snyder, who also bought a nearby parking lot for $250,000.

His family undertook a $42 million redevelopment to resurrect 102 hotel rooms and create 76 luxury apartments. The building reopened as the Mayo Hotel and Lofts in 2009 and has become a harbinger of downtown Tulsa's resurgence.

"No one was buying anything in downtown Tulsa, and we bought the building not knowing if downtown was going to come back," said Macy Snyder Amatucci, Mr. Snyder's daughter and vice president of Brickhugger, the family's development company. "Everyone thought we were crazy."

Energized by a rejuvenated oil and gas industry, along with a one-cent sales tax increase in 2003 and a downtown property assessment a few years later, investors have injected about $930 million into the central business district over nearly 10 years, according to the Tulsa Regional Chamber.

Large public projects include the $220 million, 19,200-seat BOK Center, a swirling glass arena designed by César Pelli, and the $39.2 million Oneok Field minor league baseball park. Meanwhile, real estate developers have added some 400 apartments and 526 hotel rooms downtown, many of which are in old structures like Tulsa's former city hall and the historical Atlas Life and Mayo office buildings.

"We were an attractive city in the '40s, '50s and '60s, but after suburbia developed, downtown became a place where people worked and then went home," said George Kaiser, an oil and gas billionaire. "Little by little, that's changing. There's a real vibrancy downtown, and people are finding out about it."

His philanthropic organization, the George Kaiser Family Foundation, endowed with more than $3.5 billion, is leading efforts to revitalize the Brady Arts District on the north end of downtown. The entertainment area includes the Brady Theater and Cain's Ballroom music venues, and old industrial buildings that have largely served artists.

Among other projects, the Kaiser foundation replaced a truck loading dock with the $10.5 million Guthrie Green urban park that holds daily events and concerts during warm months. Across the street it oversaw a $36 million rehab of an old warehouse that, among other users, now houses the Woody Guthrie Center, a museum and repository of the musician's archives, and the Philbrook Museum of Art satellite location.

The foundation also is entering into master leases with longtime building owners in the district, in which it pays a nominal rent and converts the structures to residential units, and in some cases adds commercial space. The housing is largely reserved for Teach for America educators, whom the foundation brings in for two-year teaching stints in the urban core.

The district is considered an important connection between nearby Oneok Field and the BOK Center about 10 blocks to the southwest, said Elizabeth Shreeve, a planner and landscape designer with SWA Group in San Francisco, which with other firms conducted an urban design plan for the neighborhood.

"Going there now," she said, "it's hard to imagine how forlorn it was."

About 20 bars and restaurants have popped up in the Brady district over the last decade, and downtown supporters credit a lifelong Tulsan, Elliot Nelson, as the primary driver of the growth. After graduating from Notre Dame, he turned a warehouse into an Irish pub in 2004. Although he struggled early, he added an equity partner and now operates seven restaurants and bars downtown and five others spread throughout Tulsa, Norman and Oklahoma City.

"The sentiment for years was that downtown wouldn't work - people would say, ‘You're stupid,' " he said. "But it seemed to me that people might want to walk to get a beer after work instead of driving three miles."

Mr. Nelson is pursuing residential and commercial development downtown in addition to opening more restaurants. Despite the area's improving fortunes, he said, more density and content is needed to generate a true urban vibe.

"If you're down here on a Thursday night, it's still pretty quiet," he said. "We need 3,000 apartment units with people milling about all the time. I think we can get there."

Indeed, more than 600 downtown apartments are scheduled to open through 2015, according to the Tulsa chamber. Among other projects, seven hotels are also in various stages of planning or development, said Brittany Sawyer, executive director of the Metro Tulsa Hotel and Lodging Association.

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Bob Eggleston, a London native who moved to Tulsa from Marina del Rey, Calif., in 2005 to oversee the construction of the BOK Center, is pursuing an ambitious $120 million mixed-use project known as One Place on a block across the street from the arena.

Mr. Eggleston and a partner bought the property about five years ago and developed two office buildings with retail and restaurant space on about half the site, landing the oil and gas firm Cimarex Energy and Northwestern Mutual as anchor tenants.

Promise Hotels, based in Tulsa, recently bought a piece of the property and is planning to build a $15 million, 110-room Hampton Inn and Suites. That has left the partners with the last remaining quarter of the block, which is expected to be used for another office and retail project.

Even as construction of the BOK Center progressed, Mr. Eggleston said he was surprised that nobody seemed interested in the mostly empty lot right across the street. So he bought it, thinking he could flip it quickly. When that didn't happen, he decided to develop it.

Then he wondered whether it would pay off. While energy companies want Class A office space to keep employees happy, demand isn't very deep.

"Buying a property is the easy bit," he said, "but it's a tough out."

It's not getting any easier because downtown property prices are rising. Mr. Snyder, who has poured roughly $100 million into downtown renovations, is converting the old YMCA building into 82 apartments and paid $600,000 for it four years ago. An investor pursuing a similar development would have to pay three to four times that today, he said.

"There are fewer buildings in the right location," Mr. Snyder said. "They're getting harder to find. The worst thing you can do is overpay for a piece of real estate, because you'll never get your money back."

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