Apt findings

Richard McKown is not psychic; he does not gaze into a crystal ball or read tea leaves, but he was on target when he began work on an upscale apartment community Downtown months before a study showed that his product was exactly what potential tenants wanted.

People want to live in Downtown Oklahoma City – specifically, in apartments – and city officials have the data to prove it.

A report from City Manager James Couch to the mayor and City Council in September was the culmination of a housing study that began in January to look at market potential, financial gaps for development and strategies to encourage new development. Downtown Oklahoma City Inc., the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber and the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority brought in

Development Concepts Inc. to conduct the study.

right, Level Urban Apartments are under construction at N.W. Second Street and Walnut Avenue, bordered by Deep Deuce and Bricktown.

The findings included a growing demand for Downtown housing with a preference of rental over for-sale units. DCI was charged with generating market-based strategies and an implementation program to leverage Downtown housing. Development hurdles cited were a perception that Downtown is too expensive, land costs, deteriorating infrastructure, unfamiliarity with urban housing product, limited urban amenities and market uncertainty.

The case for apartments was strengthened in the findings: The data showed that while Downtown rental units have higher rents than the rest of the city, they also have higher occupancy rates at 95%, compared to 88% for the rest of the metro area. The numbers were bleak for Downtown for-sale products, with an average occupancy rate of 61%, showing weak demand or wrong-product availability.

McKown is modest, and does not boast that he knew what people would want in residential units and communities. Instead, he brought his years as a suburban developer Downtown to create an urban community to embrace many of the things missing in the suburbs. He targeted a buyer with a healthy income — and often single — who was looking for a sense of community not found in suburban neighborhood additions.

“Many of our potential tenants cite a lack of connection in the suburbs,” he says. “They want a sense of community.”

And community is exactly what he is working to build. Level Urban Apartments, located at N.W. Second Street and Walnut Avenue, is bordered by Deep Deuce and Bricktown. Just south of the project will sit an ALoft Hotel, which caters to a younger, “hip” crowd. In Level, McKown will bring a branch of Norman-based Native Roots Market to one corner, and have additional retail and restaurant space. No restaurant is lined up yet, but McKown wants a local concept.

“We want a restaurant that will become a cornerstone of the community,” he says. “It’s got to be the kind of place where residents will hang out.”

Level
will include 228 units. One-bedroom units will range from $850- $1,150
per month, and two-bedroom units will range from $1,190-$1,500 per
month. McKown says, so far, no one has scoffed at the prices.

“We
have renters by choice,” he says. “These are people who can buy houses
anywhere they want, but they want to rent their freedom and live
Downtown.”

That
freedom includes the ability to pick up and move if something better
comes along. McKown isn’t etching anyone’s name in stone, as he knows
his tenants will be highly mobile and likely live at Level for a while,
then look around for newer options, or perhaps start a family and then
move to one of his suburban communities.

To
meet the anticipated demand, Cornerstone Development in Edmond is
constructing an apartment community in MidTown, on a block at N.W. 13th
Street and Walker Avenue, and led by Gary Brooks. Plans call for 252
residential units, 462 parking spaces, and about 8,400 square feet of
retail space.

“We’re
trying to create a project that the market needs, and where people want
to live,” he says. “Sure, we anticipate many people who will look at our
project could buy a house, but they want to live Downtown.”

Brooks
plans to break ground Aug. 1, 2012, and is still ironing out design
details with OCURA, which controls the land. McKown plans to have 58
units finished and ready to lease in April. The entire project is set
for completion next fall.

“Everything’s on track so far,” he says.

Photo by Mark Hancock

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