From Urban Tulsa, written by Katie Sullivan
Downtown is once again a magnet for development and living. As the urban lifestyle becomes more accessible, hipsters are finding a place of their own around the downtown fringe.
A chain reaction has ignited the streets of downtown Tulsa and surrounding areas. You’ve seen the various stages of construction on Brookside, Cherry Street, 18th and Boston and downtown. Although enticing due to its rarity in our young city, the modern architecture sticks out like a sore thumb.
The loft industry finally made its boom. A market that is well underway in Dallas and Kansas City is now flourishing around our parts at a rate that some developers consider too much too fast. The neighborhood between Cherry Street and the Broken Arrow Expressway is hardly recognizable, with the bungalows that once lined Quincy, Rockford, St. Louis and Trenton Streets now sparse against the two and three-story, loft-style condos and townhomes.
Real estate developers are claiming land in the area like it’s the Oklahoma Land Rush. A few of the projects include the Lofts at Cherry Street, 18th and Boston Lofts, First Street Lofts, The Mayo Hotel Lofts and Metro Lofts. Most of these developers have both finished lofts and projects under construction. Downtown’s Tribune Lofts and Philtower Loft Apartments are readily available for rent. More hotel projects with residential space are becoming an option for those brave individuals looking to call downtown Tulsa home.
The idea behind much of the growth is to create a place for Tulsans to live, work and play. The problem that the city has long faced is a lack of people who want to take that first risky step. Developers from out of town have said that, while Tulsans preach for change, as soon as anyone presents an idea that can spark change, the beggars and pleaders are quick to pinpoint something wrong with every plan (think river development).
Most agree that the BOK Center and the downtown ballpark are examples of people or groups who were willing to take the plunge. Finally, it seems, the city is serious about making downtown a livable environment.
Michael Sager, downtown property owner and developer of First Street Lofts, has dreamed to redevelop Tulsa for almost 30 years. Sager was born and raised in Tulsa and now, after years of traveling and living all over the world, he is ready to restore the area according to the way he remembers it from his childhood.
“I grew up downtown when downtown was good,” Sager said. “I have fond memories of this area.”
He bought the old Jacobs Hotel on First Street in 1979 and quickly made plans to restore the building into loft apartments. The hotel was built in 1916 and sat vacant from the second floor up for more than 80 years. Today, 18 loft units are under construction and slated for completion next summer. Sager was one of four developers selected to receive Vision 2025 funds. The four projects were chosen based on quality and location. The First Street Lofts project received $1.3 million. Sager estimated the completed project to cost about $3 million.
According to Sager, you need two things for redevelopment of a neighborhood. First, he said, you need people who are able to affect a dream, to fix what is broken. Second, you need property owners who are willing to participate and who are willing to liquidate property and let it happen. The perfect blend would be to mix components from people of the past and to get them to work with people concerned for the future.
“A neighborhood is a living thing,” he said.
Ready or Not
Whether for sale or for rent, the loft market is targeting a specific type of dweller, and it is exactly who you might expect. While lofts were once for starving artists who couldn’t afford housing and resorted to calling their workspace home, today’s loft buyer is the single, young professional; the single, traveling businessman; the empty nester or the retiree who doesn’t want the extra square footage or yard to maintain. Families who still want more for less can head to south Tulsa, Bixby or Broken Arrow–and pay dearly for gas. The loft buyer wants less for more. They’re ready for something a little different in a lifestyle–urban access, a creative vibe and walkability to restaurants, entertainment and art venues, and they are willing to sacrifice living space to have these things.
The loft market in Tulsa attempts to vary its offerings, with each loft differing slightly from the others. Mary Keane, developer for The Lofts at Cherry Street, 1419 South Rockford, said she chose the 15th Street area because of the shops, bars, retail, hospitals and restaurants nearby. Her two and three-bedroom units are available for purchase and run between $359,000 and $425,000.
She said that focus groups and demographic studies showed her that walkability and convenience were key elements. Her lofts are geared toward young professionals who prefer city living. Keane is also building at 18th and Boston. Those lofts are intended for the young, single crowd that wants the bar atmosphere in the neighborhood.
Keane decided to buy property, clear it and build from the ground up. While this is not clearly in line with the definition of a loft, Keane said the trend these days is to fake it.
“It is extremely expensive to do a conversion of an old building and make a real New York-style loft,” she explained. “We looked at buildings and the money was just never worth it. Remodeling costs much more money than building new.”
Her lofts do not offer the exposed brick walls, pipes, ducts and beams that Sager’s project does. Her lofts focus on luxury and sophistication.
“We didn’t want to bring south Tulsa into our lofts,” Keane said. “But we focused on contemporary architecture and design. We used all straight lines, no curves.”
Keane and her building partner Aaron Talton hosted a grand opening event this past summer and gave tours to the 200 or so people who attended. With such a positive response after the event, Keane and Talton were surprised that the three units did not instantly sell. She attributed this to interested buyers’ inability to sell their current homes, and she also expressed the concern that Tulsa might be offering too much product too fast.
Talton said he feels downtown is ready for the loft lifestyle, but Tulsans expect too much instant gratification.
“Businesses are waiting for residents and residents are waiting for businesses. They have to come together,” he said.
He feels that Tulsans are always willing to find something wrong with an idea and as a result nothing ever happens.
“Developers are ready, though,” he said. “They are ready to get on board. But it takes the landowners, citizens and municipality.”
Where to Start
Sisters Amanda and Amy Daily offer a product that blends Sager’s classic structural design and Keane’s contemporary details. Amy came to Tulsa from Houston to visit friends and saw the Cherry Street area as prime real estate. The sisters’ company, Metro Development Group, has literally taken over the neighborhood north of Cherry Street. From Amanda’s experience as a builder and financer, downtown development begins rippling out before it can ripple in. She said that cities follow suit with one another and estimated Tulsa to be behind larger regional cities by about five years.
“Tulsans aren’t ready to walk around downtown at night. We wanted to move out a bit, offer some green space and safety. Our area serves as a buffer,” Amanda said.
She and her sister decided to build 10 townhouses, but banks kept telling them there was no way the product would sell in Tulsa. After months of begging from the girls, the bank approved the project and building began in 2005. Amanda said, in the beginning, it took forever to sell the properties, but she and her sister remained patient because they believed so strongly in their project.
By early 2007, the sisters had 21 presales. Now, 61 units are available in the neighborhood and Amanda said most sell before they are even built.
“We found people in Tulsa really wanted to customize their space,” she explained. “So, we decided to cater to their modern style and let them do what they want.”
The sisters assist buyers each step of the way and found that many buyers are interested in reinventing modern and designing each aspect of their home.
“Loft living is a fad, but it is not something that is going to fade out like it did in the ’80s. Our lofts are timeless because our buyers are a step ahead. They put thoughtfulness in the architecture,” Amanda said.
The Dailys also emphasized function for their townhomes (Amanda explained that their homes are not technically lofts, but it was an easily identifiable term for Tulsans and one that catches people’s attention). Amanda said spatial architecture is something women pay more attention to. She employs mostly women because she said they have a better sense of space and how to use it functionally.
“Women can take a space and say, ‘This is how it works and this is how you live in it,’” Amanda said.
The Metro Development Group aimed to offer something for every range of buyer. Townhomes range from $165,000 to $250,000. The group is also building at 35th and Peoria and plans to sell those townhomes for about $500,000.
“One issue we are finding is that Tulsans want all that comes in a loft but for $120,000,” Amanda said. “And we are trying to make it affordable.
“We have also found that there are certain things that Tulsans really want. They don’t want siding. They demand less stairs and elevator access. They love customizing and to be a part of the process. And they want to be surrounded by similar buildings. Basically, we’ve found that Tulsans want a really cool house in a shitty neighborhood instead of a really cool neighborhood with a couple shitty houses.”
But the Daily sisters are working to change that notion, and the neighbors’ response has been supportive. When they began construction in the neighborhood, the first thing they had to do was rid the area of the crack houses, rundown buildings and crime.
“We were not trying to destroy a neighborhood at all,” Amanda said. “We didn’t receive any help from the city in our efforts either. We didn’t ask for anything. We did it ourselves and lost a lot of money, but you keep going and eventually we’ve built a great neighborhood. We’ve built a dog park. We’ve turned one of our homes into a temporary art gallery for the neighbors’ use.”
Amanda said she doesn’t think the loft market has grown too big too fast. She said it’s perfect; the products are selling and banks are letting developers build.
“It’s not an overbuilt market. It’s a niche market. We are cutting our number of projects in half next year. This is a good thing because it means we are avoiding flooding the market,” she explained. “We are really listening to the people who want to live in these. Plus, we (the developers) aren’t building these things and then going back to our mansions in South Tulsa. We live in it, right here.”
Future projects for Metro Development Group include building a true-by-definition loft at 15th and Carson and buying what land remains behind Cherry Street, including the fire station at 1402 S. Trenton Ave., which Amy said would make a perfect loft space. For now, Amy and Amanda push forward with their work, learning more about Tulsa and Tulsans along the way. Amanda, along with Keane and Talton, said her biggest frustration thus far has been that she meets a lot of people who want to see the city change and a lot of people who don’t, and that for the people who do want change, they are awfully critical.
“I know not everyone is going to like the style, but in the end it is change,” Amanda said. “I would like to see Tulsans more positive. There seems to be a lot of double standards. They want everything but they don’t want to make it happen.”
Time to Move (Downtown)
Sager has his hands wrapped in the closest thing Tulsa has to loft living. He has strategically preserved as much of the 80-year-old building as possible. He kept the original skylights, the exterior brick walls, which make up parts of the interior as well. His lofts feature up to 23-foot-tall ceilings and he has used his travels around the world to teach him about textures, colors and design of these raw spaces.
“The more important things to me are not the fancier fixtures, but the better environment,” said Sager.
Using lofts in Portland, Denver and Seattle as examples, he strives for true loft quality, which requires the adaptive reuse of the building in his effort to salvage each part of the building and to import materials from local or regional suppliers. Sager said he tried to make the project as green as possible, an endeavor that has held the project at a slower pace than what other developers expected from his project.
The First Street Lofts range from about 800 to 1,600 square feet. The smaller units will run at about $800 a month. This price runs at a similar rate for an apartment of this size in downtown Dallas or Kansas City, and while Sager would like to make them more affordable, he thinks he has made them as low as he possibly can.
“This project is a diehard, industrial conversion. It is an Andy Warhol space. The spatial and structural elements are indicative of loft principles,” Sager said.
Sager also believes that it is businesses that downtown Tulsa is waiting for.
“The people are here,” he argued. “Thirty-four thousand workers are down here five days of the week. Thirty-nine thousand church goers are here on the weekends.”
Sager commends those who are willing to take the step, mentioning Elliot Nelson as someone who wasn’t afraid.
“Have you been to Burger Night on Wednesday?” Sager asked.
And what about the missing grocery store that everyone inquires about?
“The Reasor’s at 15th and Lewis is probably six minutes from here. That is not that much farther than many of us already drive to the store,” he answered. “One day, there will be a small market where we can buy flowers and coffee and we can stop in the deli.”
He has a philosophy he shares with audiences when giving speeches on city development. He says, “When anything happens three doors down from your business, pay attention. Clean your shop up. Capitalize.”
The problem now is that three doors down from Sager’s First Street Lofts project is more property owned by Sager. And just as Keane, Talton and Daily mentioned, the time for everyone to get on board is now, and they aren’t just speaking as builders looking to make an instant profit.
They want to instill change and see Tulsa progress with other cities. And while plenty of citizens don’t see why Tulsa needs to grow at all, it is happening. The question is, how long are Tulsans willing to wait? How tolerable and patient can they be before they pack up and move elsewhere?