OKC planners work with consultant to conduct sanctioned survey

Psst. It might be happening right in front of you, without you ever realizing it. Oklahoma City is once again taking stock of its historic buildings.


City planners are working with a consultant to conduct a federally sanctioned survey of more than 1,300 buildings in an area bordered roughly by Interstate 235, N.W 13th, the Oklahoma River and Classen Boulevard.

And this time, many of the buildings being evaluated actually are not thought of as historic at all.

"Mid-century, modern architecture is coming of age," said Catherine Montgomery, an architect who works with Oklahoma City's Historic Preservation Commission.

Montgomery means these types of buildings " smaller office buildings, banks and perhaps even some retail properties within Oklahoma City's urban development areas " have reached a threshold requirement of being at least 50 years in age. Generally, the age of a property is a factor in whether something is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

There are examples of buildings in Oklahoma City, of course, that were added to the register prior to reaching that age (such as the Gold Dome Building), but those are cases where the buildings featured exceptional designs or because of the roles they played as part of the community's history.

To Montgomery, a survey of this type is a critical first step to identifying not only potential new national register listings for individual buildings, but also for entire districts.

"We don't need to keep everything," she said, "but we don't need to tear everything down, either."

Why get a national register listing?

The short answer is, for the tax breaks.

The owner of a commercial building who wants to rehabilitate the structure " when it either is a contributing building to a register-listed district or on the register itself " can deduct 20 percent of that renovation cost from income taxes he or she owes to the federal government. The owner also can deduct 20 percent of the renovation cost from income taxes he or she owes to the state government.

The building owner's project also could qualify for New Markets Tax Credits, which are used on projects in low-income areas that otherwise could not get done without the assistance.

The Skirvin Hilton hotel is an example of a project that took advantage of all of these programs, officials noted.

Oklahoma City Ward 6 Councilwoman Meg Salyer believes those are powerful inducements to owners of these types of properties to opt to preserve what they have.

Salyer, herself part of a veteran development team that's worked along Oklahoma City's Automobile Alley, also is a big fan of the benefits a national register listing brings to someone trying to rehabilitate an old building. She added that she might have considered using them herself if they had been available back when her company was just moving into the Automobile Alley area.

"The Skirvin Hilton wouldn't have happened without those programs," she said.

The federal survey, which is already under way, is now evaluating buildings in the Central Business District.

Later, workers will move to areas north and east before shifting into the area west of the Central Business District. The survey will end in the Core to Shore area.

What makes a building eligible, besides age?

Federal regulations say a building must also meet at least one of the following criteria to be listed on the national register:

The building should have been associated with events that made a significant contribution to broad patterns of history. The building should have been associated with a significant person or people in the community's past. The building should display distinctive characteristics of a type, period or method of construction, represent the work of a master, or represent a significant and distinguishable entity.

Montgomery said the federally funded survey will take at least four years to complete unless additional sources of money are found.

She can't wait to see what is uncovered, however.

"My personal feelings are that I really believe that this type of work is worthwhile," she said. "When you are a little kid, and they take you to a place like a city hall or a state capitol, you are introduced to the idea that others have come before you and that you are part of a legacy, taking your place in the march of time.

"If we tear those kinds of places down, then we lose that," she said. "Our society tends to want to tear older buildings down. We need to continue reusing what we've already built, and avoid making the mistakes we have made in the past."

At the end of the survey, the city's historic preservation group will use the information to make decisions. "We get to decide what we want to do," Montgomery said. "If our consultant makes a recommendation for creating certain historic districts, we might pursue national register nominations for those. We might also pursue nominations for individual buildings.

"Certainly, we will be able to tell building owners that we will support them in their efforts to do that."

In Oklahoma City, the last time a survey of this type was conducted was 1994. The survey's findings became a useful tool for city planners as part of their response to the Oklahoma City bombing the following year.

Eva Osborne, a historic architect that worked with the Oklahoma City Historic Preservation Commission, today runs her own consulting business to help owners of historic properties rehabilitate their homes and buildings.

Osborne said she hopes that Oklahoma City, through this survey, finds building owners willing to pursue register listings so they can take advantage of today's financial incentives the listing brings with it.

"That's free money to these people, and they probably don't know it," Osborne said. "Jack Money

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