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Plaza, sweet

The 16th Street Plaza District makes a historic resurrection.

Peter Wright April 4th, 2012

After decades of neglect and disrepair, the 16th Street Plaza District is in the midst of a full-fledged resurgence.

Credits: Mark Hancock

The past two years have been a turning point for the arts district, largely spurred by the Lyric Theatre’s decision to save an old cinema in a hard-luck part of town.

“It’s a hidden gem because once people see it, people say, ‘I didn’t even know this was here,’” said Mike Turpen, an Oklahoma City attorney who recently completed a two-year stint as Lyric Theatre president.

In 2004 Turpen agreed to lead a $10 million fundraising campaign for Lyric to renovate the vacant Plaza movie theater and a nearby former grocery store into a stage and an arts academy.

“I felt like it was the most unique blend I’d ever seen between history, the arts and education,” Turpen said.

Saving Plaza Theatre

In 1999 Lyric purchased the movie house and a building next to it for administrative offices. The theater company moved into the office space in 2000, but the venue needed a lot of work. 

Vacancy had taken a toll on the building. Turpen recalled looking at gaping holes in the ceiling and wondering if the renovation was realistic. But the campaign was successful, and the theater opened its doors December 2007.

“I think that people are so generous in Oklahoma City, that if you have a good idea it’s yours for the asking,” he said.

The 279-seat theater is hosting most of Lyric’s 13 productions this season. Lyric Executive Director Paula Stover said 6,000 people attended its version of A Christmas Carol in December.

Production and facilities manager John Fowler compared the intimate space to smaller theaters in New York City. The holes in the ceiling have been replaced by a grid of metal mesh and stage lights. The stage itself can be expanded and cut back for different shows.

Below the stage, an area that once housed machinery has been transformed into dressing rooms. The history of the building, however, has not been erased. Painted in red on a section of the original foundation is the date “6-5-35.”

For Shannon Primeau, owner of Everything Goes Dance Studio, the history of the theater next door is personal. In 1985, her father opened a Spanish-language movie theater, Cine Mexicana, in the old Plaza. When they were children, she and her siblings ran the theater — from popcorn to tickets — for about 10 years until their father fell ill.

“It felt like home,” Primeau said. “I felt comfortable.”

After opening her dance studio in another part of town, Primeau said she was drawn back to the Plaza when her sister, who owns her current studio building, told her about Lyric’s plans. But Primeau was hesitant. As the area fell into disrepair, rates of prostitution and drug-dealing rose.

“There were still all kinds of things going on around there,” she said.

Once Primeau was convinced all the new projects would be finished, her studio became the first new business on the Plaza. Since then she has expanded into an old gas station next door, adding a small stage.

Aimee and Jeff Struble are among those at the forefront of development in the 16th Street Plaza District
Credits: Mark Hancock

Rebuilding a neighborhood

Currently there are 32 businesses listed by the Plaza District Association, although some don’t have storefronts, said Kristen Vails, executive director of the Plaza District Association.

Commercial space in the neighborhood is now 100 percent occupied.

A few years ago, however, developer Jeff Struble recalled opening a renovated building just south of N.W. 16th Street on Gatewood Avenue with 17,000 square feet of commercial space and only one tenant.

“It was sometimes month-tomonth,” Struble said.

He and his wife, Aimee, also renovated several buildings on the north side of 16th. They are currently changing the Eagle’s Nest Apartments on Blackwelder Avenue into a mixed-use commercial space. Closing the apartments has already helped reduce the amount of crime in the neighborhood, Aimee Struble said.

“That’s a big piece of the puzzle there,” she said. “It’s been so bad for so long.”

Already known for their work renovating historic homes, Jeff Struble said they acquired their first building on the Plaza — which came with without a roof or second floor — purely by luck.

“When I heard about the Lyric, it just kind of spurred me that, hey, these urban buildings can be something,” he said.

Recently, Saints became the first restaurant, followed by Urban Wine Works, a fully functional winery with wine accessories, tastings and a seasonal menu. The Strubles said a new restaurant, The Mule, is slated this summer in the redeveloped apartments.

“I think a restaurant really helps, and that was the missing element,” Aimee Struble said.

Fausto Cifuentes, owner of a Guatemalan imports store at N. Indiana Avenue, said he plans to move his store across the street so he can convert the fresh-food counter in the back into a self-standing restaurant. He said his business has been open for about 15 years, but the recent increase in foot traffic encouraged him to take the risk.

Amanda Bradway and her husband Dylan, both artists, moved into a space renovated by the Strubles five years ago. They now live in a nearby neighborhood, but their DNA Galleries is still downstairs from their old home.

Entire days would pass without seeing a single customer, Amanda Bradway said. And while she is quick to say crime had never been a problem to them, people who made their living on the streets were a regular site. All that changed in the past year.

“I actually feel like we’re doing it,” she said. “We’re going to make it work.”

Finding an audience

When the Bradways moved to the Plaza, it was a blank slate they hoped to make into an arts district, she said. Now with general word of mouth and the monthly event dubbed “Live on the Plaza,” Bradway said, it seems like people have discovered it.

“It took a whole lot of people coming down here within a short period of time to make it what it is,” she said.

Vails also credited Live on the Plaza with drawing people to the neighborhood.

“A lot of people have to come and see the vision for what it’s going to be,” she said.

As more people come to the district, the groups of people there become more diverse, Bradway said. Students from the nearby Classen School of Advanced Studies wander over in the afternoon. Lyric ticketholders may drop by before a show, mixing with an artsy crowd that always seems to be around.

”Everyone has their own identity and everyone is creative in some form,” Bradway said.

Reflecting on the success of Lyric and the community growing around it, Turpen said it’s an example of new ideas creating new realities. He credited the determination and vision of residents and Lyric leaders for bringing it to this point.

“If you catch fire with enthusiasm, they’ll come from miles away to watch it burn,” he said.

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