Developers making headway in Midtown

Published: Tuesday, February 9, 2010 7:00 am By: Tom Lindley

The Journal Record

OKLAHOMA CITY - Saving buildings is hard work these days, but that doesn't mean Midtown revivalists have given up their quest.

Developers Bob Howard and Mickey Clagg, two of Midtown's most ardent disciples, hit the streets early Tuesday to preview three newly renovated residential properties at NW 12th and Francis Avenue and address lingering questions about the future of Midtown.

Unlike four years ago when Midtown's recovery roared out of the gate, this time they didn't bother to shoot off fireworks when a trial balloon seems to be more the order of the day given the uncertainty of the real estate market and the economy.

"We will use these three to gauge what demand is like in the market," said Clagg, president of Midtown Renaissance properties.

Most everyone with a major stake in Midtown agrees that the market has changed. What's harder to predict is when or if Midtown will fulfill Howard's vision of it as a place that feels like a township where "people can live, work, eat and walk like they did 50 years ago."

Apart from the economy, Midtown's future could be influenced most heavily by St. Anthony Hospital's expansion plans and by the amount of interest the former home of the American Red Cross at 323 NW 10th generates among developers along the 10th Street Medical Corridor District.

The original catalyst for Midtown's resurgence, St. Anthony's is developing plans for a new building on the east side of the hospital in 2013 that will house a new emergency department and critical care and inpatient units.

"It's still in the planning stage," hospital spokeswoman Sandra Payne said Tuesday. "That's all we can tell you right now. But we like being in Midtown and part of its growth."

Payne also said there is a possibility that a physicians' group could invest in a new dialysis building near the hospital.

"It's too early to provide any specifics," Payne said.

Midtown also could profit from development of the 10th Street Medical Corridor District.

Russell Claus, Oklahoma City planning director, said a Request for Proposal for the development of the block that housed the Red Cross building has generated a number of inquiries and he expects bids will be submitted for the project this spring.

That might help break the financial logjam that is holding back Midtown, developers say.

Large projects, in particular, are the toughest to sell right now, said developer Chuck Wiggin, which partly explains why the area has trended to smaller commercial and retail space and rental units, rather than condominiums.

One result has been that Wiggin's Overholser Green project at the former site of Mercy Hospital remains on hold with the Urban Renewal Authority and will have to be scaled back to be more compatible with financial market conditions.

"The project as originally designed and proposed is not feasible, but we are still looking for other ways to do a project that is as close as possible to the original project," Wiggin said.

As originally approved, it called for 109 units, spread out among four buildings, starting at about $350,000 per unit.

While the condo sales market has caved in, Wiggin said he is encouraged by Midtown's ability to attract more businesses and the success of those already in operation.

Developer R.D. Smith said he doesn't know what comes next for Midtown, either, although he said the natural barriers provided by St. Anthony's, downtown and Heritage Hills remain major selling points.

Smith, along with his brother, Scott, started buying up Midtown property in the late 1980s when it was what R.D. Smith called a disaster zone.

"It's beginning to mature but there's a lot of development to be done because the economy has put some things on hold," R.D. Smith said.

The Smiths, who operate the Corsair Cattle Co., sold about half of their property to Midtown Renaissance, including Plaza Court, which Smith said has become an important destination point in Midtown.

Today, they are concentrating on developing office space at Midtown Village on NW Seventh and Hudson, where about 50,000 square feet of mixed-use space has been leased.

"We are past the pioneering point," R.D. Smith said of Midtown's comeback. "What will ultimately revive Midtown is that people will want to be around a vibrant core."

The three residential properties Midtown Renaissance will soon have available for lease fit different subsets of the urban experience, from the more traditional style two-bedroom concept at 905 NW 12th to the more open, transitional one-bedroom look at 900 NW 12th, to the edginess of the modern one-bedroom apartments at 1217 N. Francis Ave.

While the units will serve as a test case for how and when Midtown Renaissance develops its other properties, Clagg said work will continue in Midtown in 2010.

Clagg said plans for the Packard building at 10th and Robinson are under review by the National Park Service and administrators of the historic preservation program.

Clagg said Hadden Hall, just west of the Packard, recently received National Park Service approval for rehabilitation as an 18-unit apartment building and that construction should begin this spring on the project. He also said the Osler and the Cline building are in various stages of historic preservation process, while construction plans for 12112 N. Walker are under development.

The Midtown Plaza is about 95 percent occupied, Clagg said, and discussions are under way with other potential tenants.

"We have other properties around the city and the only ones that we get calls on a regular basis are in Midtown," Clagg said. "We've signed several leases in the past few days."

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