Turning tragedy into triumph, Midtown’s meteoric rise from the ashes occurred, in part, because of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building, which killed 168 people and wounded hundreds more.
The blast damaged more than 300 buildings over a 16-block radius at a cost of $652 million.
“So many things brought it (Midtown district) down,” said Russell Claus, OKC’s planning director. “A lot of the businesses left the area, and there was no capacity to do anything with the properties.”
Indeed, the post-bombing recovery efforts, combined with the 1993 passage of MAPS, have provided the vital redevelopment underpinnings that reinforce the city’s continued growth.
Today, Midtown is “the hot place to be,” Claus said.
The district’s resurrection almost stopped in its tracks when St. Anthony Hospital officials considered leaving the area in 2003. However, hospital executives made the decision to stay put, investing more than $200 million in new buildings and programs. An agreement with OKC officials didn’t hurt either. The pact included improved street access to the hospital, a streetscape redevelopment plan and the demolition of dilapidated buildings surrounding the medical center.
Since then, a plethora of new restaurants, retail stores and residential buildings have sprung up in the 387-acre Midtown area extending from NW 13th Street south to NW Fourth Street and from one-half block east of Robinson Avenue to Classen Boulevard.
In 2006, development firm Midtown Renaissance, led by Bob Howard, Mickey Clagg and Chris Fleming, moved forward with grand plans. Since that time, the firm has bought and renovated 26 buildings, including Plaza Court, considered by many to be Midtown’s social center.
Their vision helped create an eclectic mix of restaurants including Stella’s Modern Italian Cuisine, 1492 New World Latin Cuisine and Louie’s Grill & Bar — all located in the 1200 block of N. Walker Avenue. Across the street and to the south sits Café Do Brasil, the first upscale restaurant to open in Midtown eight years ago.
Then there are the residential projects that include the Twelve Twelve apartment building, 430 NW 12th Apartments and The Cline, a former hotel built in 1910.
On the ground floor of the Twelve Twelve building is 4,000 square feet of retail space, which now houses two new businesses: Dry/Shop and Waffle Champion.
“It’s like night and day,” said Fleming, remembering the time before the renaissance.
But soon, Midtown will serve as a destination spot for travelers.
“When you go on vacation, you go to where the action is, where there’s interesting things to do and where there’s good restaurants. I like to go where the locals go, and that’s what Midtown can become.”
Clagg and Fleming are confident the three Rs — restaurants, retail and residents — will determine whether the Midtown uprising is only a passing fancy that will one day fade away or if it will become a “total sustainable community.”
“It’s all about heads and beds,” Fleming said. “Everything revolves around density.”
With dense neighborhoods comes the possibility of walkability, a popular, environment-friendly term that encourages people to use their feet instead of cars.
“Everything we do is designed for walkability,” Fleming said.
Midtown’s residential growth started with the Sieber, a luxury apartment building at NW 13th Street and Hudson Avenue. Formerly a hotel built in 1928, the Sieber’s owners were the first to risk a major investment in Midtown.
“We were at the beginning of the ramp-up stage,” co-owner Marva Ellard said. “A lot of people thought we were nuts wanting to do this. One banker asked us back then, ‘Why do you think anybody would want to live in that part of town?’ You’d be hard-pressed to find a banker today that would think it’s silly to start a residential project in Midtown.”
The result has been 38 luxury apartments ranging from 800 to 1,500 square feet, many with views of the downtown skyline and the state Capitol.
Ellard described Midtown as “pretty blighted, pretty bad” when she and the other investors purchased the old hotel in 1997 at an auction.
A lot has changed.
“There was a lot of vacant land then,” she recalled. “There were a few nearby businesses that existed, like Brown’s Bakery, St. Anthony and a few office buildings, but no restaurants or major housing developments.”
Another major residential development that is changing Midtown’s landscape is The Edge, a 250-unit luxury apartment complex at NW 13th Street and Walker Avenue. The $36 million project should be complete by fall 2014.
Location, location, location
According to Ellard, Midtown has one attraction no other OKC area will ever have: its location.
“Midtown always has had this fabulous location,” she said. “It’s like a sandwich with downtown on one side and Heritage Hills on the other. When we started renovations (to the Sieber) in 2006, we were seeing other cities having this downtown resurgence, and we thought it would come to Oklahoma City.”
Indeed it did with Chesapeake Energy Arena, new hotels, a worldclass riverfront project, millions in private investment and several more publicly funded initiatives still in the planning stages.
Ellard shies away from the notion that she’s a one-of-a-kind businesswoman with a special crystal ball.
“I think a lot of it is timing.
When we did it, it was the right time to do it. People wanted to come here. There was a general shift, to some extent, of people wanting to come back to the inner city. It never will be everybody’s first option, but we’re seeing more and more people who want to have fun and not be forced to take care of that big lawn or that 3,000-square-foot home,” she said.
Mixing it up
Viewed as the quintessential mixeduse district reminiscent of a small town in the 1950s, Midtown’s popularity continues to grow as new and more restaurants, retail stores and residents make their way here.
One special project is the Ambassador Hotel, 1200 N. Walker Ave., to open in January. The $12 million renovation of the former Osler building brings to Midtown a 54-room boutique hotel with large event space, a pool and a top-floor bar with upscale drinks and desserts.
Paul Coury, chairman of the Ambassador Hotel Collection, has a fondness for Midtown.
“For one thing, it’s a little bit of a throwback when you could walk from the homes in Heritage Hills, and in the context of the buildings, it creates a pedestrian-friendly environment,” he said.
Coury and other Midtown developers understand residents want a special connection with their community and neighborhood. Whether that’s talking to the bartender at James E. McNellie’s Public House or strolling down a tree-lined boulevard with the family dog, residents enjoy the district’s ambiance and low-key lifestyle.
“We’re creating an urban feel from the past when people lived, worked, ate and shopped in the same neighborhood,” Coury said.
However, the small-town feel isn’t so small, according to midtownokc.com, a website hosted by the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce.
According to the website, the Midtown area is three-quarters of a mile square with more than 10,000 people in 4,072 households within one mile of 1100 N. Walker Avenue, considered the heart of Midtown. Additionally, more than 200,000 people live in more than 81,000 households within five miles of the same location.
Experiencing the fun
The lure of Midtown involves its variety of restaurants, including Café Do Brasil, which operates out of a Spanish Mission-styled building at 440 NW 11th St.
Brazilian-born owner Ana Davis remembered the early days when “lunches were phenomenal, but dinners…nada. Nobody wanted to drive to Midtown at night.”
But suddenly, competition opened across the street. Instead of fearing more restaurants, Davis welcomed her rivals.
“It’s a marvelous thing happening to our city and the area. Thirty years ago, when I got here (to OKC), there was nothing in downtown. Now look at it. Now it’s our turn in Midtown. Imagine in three years what this area will be.”
Davis and her husband are developing an expansion project to enlarge the upstairs bar.
As part of the old-fashioned neighborhood experience, the Midtown community holds fun festivals and regularly scheduled events showcasing some of OKC’s top chefs, artists and entertainers. A complete schedule is available at www.midtownokc.com.