When the early believers met in 1996 to consider a revitalization effort for Plaza District, one of their first tasks was to catalog the area's characteristics and assets. Unmistakable among them was the area's cultural and socioeconomic diversity.
Now, more than a decade later, that multifaceted diversity is one of Plaza District's greatest strengths - and part of what gives the neighborhood its vibrancy and flavor.
Originally developed in the 1930s as a "neighborhood commercial district," Plaza District is, through the guidance and efforts of the Plaza District Association, returning to its original purpose as a compact, walkable, mixed-use community - this time with an emphasis on arts and entertainment.
Spreading the vision
The district's location on NW 16 Street between Classen Boulevard and Pennsylvania Avenue - six blocks from Oklahoma City University and its young and artistic student body - reinforced what was considered early on to be an appropriate redevelopment concept for the area as an entrepreneurial district.
But gentrification has never been the objective for Plaza District.
"The area is diverse socioeconomically," says Susan Hogan, former executive director of the Plaza District Association. "And the thought is to keep it that way, supporting people on all ends to have a neighborhood that can provide a range of things."
Initially, the job of the association was to "spread the vision," she says. "And when people started to believe that something could happen, we actively tried to recruit new property owners who had the interest and the means to update the buildings. Now we are at a point where we are getting new tenants - 'new urban' tenants."
"New urbanism" refers to a concept for the efficient use of urban areas, she said.
In addition to anchor tenant Lyric Theater, the neighborhood now includes a rapidly expanding mix of businesses ranging from galleries to restaurants, retail, professional and others.
"It is a really artsy, eclectic group," says Kristin Vales, current executive director of the association.
Vales says future plans include adding a market and a restaurant tenant that can "offer a place where people can anchor and hang out, have a drink and a bite to eat" after various art events.
Early pioneers of the new urbanism concept are photographer Keith Rinearson, whose renovated studio/residence has won acclaim for its striking design, and Estrella Evans, who is renovating a former ice house as space for her residence and her business, the Velvet Monkey Salon.
According to Hogan, one of the next big goals in the redevelopment process will likely be an application for Business Improvement District status. With BID status, an area agrees to a type of "self-tax" that is administered by the city.
"Early on, we had a large number of property owners who were unwilling to put any money into their buildings, so they were, obviously, unwilling to support a self-tax," Hogan says, adding that the current group of owners are better able to see the benefits of BID status. "When the property owners are receiving lease revenues, they can appreciate the value of joining together to maintain and promote the area."
Ups and downs
As in any redevelopment effort, the revitalization of Plaza District did not come without challenges.
"The biggest challenge in the beginning was identifying people who have the vision to see what an area can become," Hogan says, adding that she believes there is "an inherent characteristic within neighborhood commercial districts that gives them a jump start on loyalty and a feeling of community, because there is a history there."
Developing that niche of people who view an area as "their community" is a significant part of developing a strong and sustainable neighborhood commercial district, she says.
"So the challenge is to find people with the combination of that vision and the capital. Because you must have a substantial capital capacity and be in a position to make an investment and understand that it will take a while before it starts cash flowing," Hogan says.
More than a decade later, as Plaza District revitalization continues to gain momentum, the vision its early supporters had for the area is much easier to see.