OCU may soon kiss frog on west side of Downtown

As redevelopment efforts have flourished in the central business district, Bricktown, Deep Deuce and Midtown in the last decade, the west side of downtown has had a few victories. Overall, it is still littered with vacant lots, dilapidated buildings and a former automobile manufacturing plant largely underused.


That plant, the former Fred Jones manufacturing facility, 900 W. Main, could be the new home of Oklahoma City University's law school based on a letter of intent signed by the school and the building's owners, the Hall family. The possible move would bring roughly 700 students and faculty to the area and is contingent on the passage of MAPS 3.

Many in the area believe the move could jump-start future development on the west side of downtown.

OCU President Tom McDaniel and law school officials made their intentions public in March that they were looking to move the program downtown. Members of the Hall family approached the law school about possibly using their 189,000-square-foot manufacturing building, built in 1916 by Henry Ford, as its new home.

McDaniel was not put off by where the building was, or that one of its closest neighbors is the Oklahoma County jail. Instead, he saw opportunity.

"We are anxious to be a part of this great renaissance that's going on downtown," he said. "We understand that the west side differs from Bricktown and the from the east side development, but we think there's the possibility for us to make this the center of legal activity."

If MAPS 3 passes, one of the proposals is a downtown streetcar system that could take students from the front door of the Fred Jones building to the courthouse steps about six blocks to the east. 

Another possibility for the building is sharing some space with the newly minted University of Central Oklahoma's Academy of Contemporary Music, currently housed in Bricktown. 

But OCU won't be the first to take a chance on the west side.

Developer Chip Fudge is in the process of turning a pauper into a prince on a stretch of W. Sheridan Avenue downtown.

In 2005, Fudge, president of Claims Management Resources, began buying buildings in the 600 and 700 blocks of W. Sheridan after being introduced to the area by designer David Wanzer. At that time, the former film exchange district " a bustling regional motion picture distribution hub from the 1920s to the 1960s " had fallen into decline after movie studios started using airplanes to transport film reels around the country, and film distribution districts became obsolete.

In just a few short years, Fudge and Wanzer worked to revitalize the buildings, lure tenants and do a complete streetscape in the district. Tax increment financing dollars, coupled with funds from the city's 2007 general obligation bond, is funding the streetscape, which is set for completion in mid-2010.

Fudge later learned that Devon Energy was building its world headquarters two blocks east of Film Row. He said if the law school comes to downtown just blocks west of Film Row, it will make that area a key link between Devon and the school and be a great use for the Fred Jones building.

"That is such a significant historical building and such a cool building for Oklahoma City," Fudge said. "That's the anchor the west side of downtown really needs."

Wanzer has moved his company, 308 Design Collaborative, to Film Row, and said if the law school moves downtown it will further validate the efforts of those like him taking a chance on the west side.

"We all knew the Fred Jones building would hopefully one day be a strong anchor for the west side, whether it was housing or some commercial development," he said. "It's just another game changer for the west side of downtown."

Kim Searls, director of marketing for Downtown OKC Inc., admitted the west side of downtown has not had the revitalization efforts seen in other areas, but said it does fit into the larger picture of an expansive, thriving downtown.

"This is just going to confirm that vision if all the pieces move in the right direction," she said.

Searls pointed to Film Row's many storefronts that could potentially house retail businesses and give nearby law students places to eat or hang out just a short walk or streetcar ride from the Fred Jones building.

If the school moves downtown, future development around the building, especially housing, is likely, but will take time, said commercial real estate broker and downtown property owner Mark Beffort, of Grubb & Ellis/Levy Beffort. 

"You'll see some housing pop up. But people need to understand it's not going to happen overnight," Beffort said. "It will take years before you'll see a lot of concentration of housing in that area."

Fudge said the outcome of the MAPS vote will not change his work and revitalization in Film Row. As for McDaniel, he is sitting tight and hoping that MAPS passes so that plans for the law school can move forward.

And if it doesn't pass?

"If MAPS doesn't pass, we certainly will meet with the Hall brothers and talk about what the alternatives are," McDaniel said. "Kelley Chambers

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