A one-time cow town, oil town, and even a tent city (when it was founded during the 1889 land rush), Oklahoma City is urgently trying to reinvent itself as the next big city in America. If “America is the Saudi Arabia of natural gas,” as T. Boone Pickens puts it, then Oklahoma City is its Riyadh. It’s home to three of the largest independent producers–Chesapeake, Devon, and Sandridge–which are helping to underwrite its urban ambitions.
This afternoon, Sandridge will unveil an over $100 million expansion of its downtown headquarters across three city blocks. The plans include a renovated 1960s tower by architect Pietro Belluschi, a restored Braniff Building–built in 1923 by the brothers who started their namesake airline–and a public park recycled from a pair of windswept plazas. The New York-based architecture firm of Rogers Marvel will incorporate features like green roofs, native plantings, and storm-water management to meet LEED standards. Sandridge, which is the youngest and smallest of the city’s gas giants, is touting the project as the largest private downtown development in its history–for the time being, at least.
What’s unusual about the plan by local standards is that Sandridge is reusing existing buildings, rather than relocating to an exurban campus. Part of this has to do with timing–the company acquired a million square feet on the cheap when yet another energy firm, Kerr-McGee, was sold to Anadarko Petroleum in 2007 and immediately left town for Houston. Sandridge CEO Tom Ward had considered a campus, but found it was both too expensive and too inflexible for his plans to grow the company from 600 to 1,500 employees. Ward went against his own employees’ wishes by electing to remain downtown instead. “Their first response was that it was going to be a longer commute, and the idea was not one they embraced originally,” Ward says. “And then the Thunder came to town and a lot of things started changing.” (Ward is also a minority owner in the Oklahoma City Thunder, the city’s two-year-old NBA team.)
Downtown Oklahoma City once boasted trolley lines, grand hotels, and stockyards. Oil was discovered directly below the city in 1928, leading to its first boom. By the 1960s, however, downtown suffered from white flight, suburban sprawl, and an elevated Interstate highways cleaving it in two. Drastic measures to fix the situation only made it worse. “We really messed up in the 1970s with urban renewal,” says Craig Tucker, a senior vice president at the commercial real estate firm Price Edwards. “We tore down buildings we should have kept, going with I.M. Pei plans that left us with generic ones.” Then the oil glut of the 1980s devastated the city’s tax base.
Unable to attract new businesses, the city bottomed out in the early ’90s. In response, voters approved the Metropolitan Area Projects Plan (MAPS) to help finance downtown’s reconstruction. The first-of-its-kind one-cent sales tax, with a strict time limit of five years (later extended) raised $360 million in public funds, supplemented by more than a billion dollars in private money to build a minor-league ballpark, the Bricktown entertainment district, a new central library, and other improvements. A second plan, dubbed “MAPS for Kids,” paid for city schools, and the third, passed by voters in December, will underwrite the city’s “Core to Shore” plan, which calls for rerouting the I-40 Crosstown elevated expressway and expanding downtown toward the Oklahoma River. The centerpiece of the plan is a 70-acre Central Park, and $777 million has been earmarked for a restored trolley network, mass transit hub, new convention center, running and biking trails, and even sidewalks. (For decades, the city refused to pave them.)
“It’s the best possible example of how a populace must tax themselves if they want public works,” says Rogers Marvel principal Rob Rogers. “I just wish we would recognize that nationally.” The new Sandridge headquarters and adjacent park is only the first piece. “Downtown has nice open spaces, but they’re not particularly organized.” By contrast, the new park will have restaurants open onto the plaza, on-site daycare for Sandridge employees, and enough furniture, shade, and privacy to stimulate traffic. Downtown needs it; the vacancy rate is still 27%.
“If you’re an urbanist, vacancy of any kind is super tough,” adds Rogers. “So the decision to go downtown and be a part of the city, to redevelop and reuse, is fundamentally about reinvigorating downtown. Everybody talks about being green, but one of the greenest things you can do is simply reuse things.”
Ward’s rationale is more practical: “Oklahoma City has become the second largest energy hub in the U.S. We have the ability to recruit people from Houston, and they’re finally confident they could live here. We even have some advantages–less traffic, for one.”