While competitors were looking to expand into U.S. markets on the east and west coasts, London-based firm Allford Hall Monaghan Morris was looking in Oklahoma City. The firm’s past work has been far from the region—they have received acclaim for masterplanning projects in Ghana and for the London 2012 Olympic bid—but they have found fertile ground in Oklahoma City with a dozen independent projects in some of the city’s most dilapidated downtown neighborhoods.
“A lot of people there have taken an interest in urban renewal,” said Wade Scaramucci, a firm associate director now in charge of AHMM’s Oklahoma City projects. “We saw an opportunity to take some of our urban knowledge from projects in Europe and apply it in the U.S.” An Oklahoma City native, Scaramucci credits much of the downtown revitalization to a series of publicly funded MAPS (Metropolitan Area Projects) initiatives in the early 1990s, aimed at improving the city’s economy after years of decline. Several components of a core-to-shore project to unite downtown with the Oklahoma River were included in the MAPS 3 proposal passed last year.
So far, the firm has 12 projects underway. Most are clustered in neighborhoods like Automobile Alley, where investors and individuals have bought decrepit brick buildings that were home to the city’s car dealerships and mechanic shops in the earlier half of the 20th century. AHMM is developing designs to convert Mel’s Towing, a two-story brick warehouse, into a condominium building with first-floor commercial areas. The oblong, single-story Jackson Speedometer building could become a home oriented around an interior courtyard with a series of partial cuts and new walls slicing through its brick shell. An old bindery, painted with the words “Jesus Saves,” is already well on its way to being saved, too—AHMM has redesigned it as a 5,000-square-foot, single-family home scheduled for completion in late 2011.
The buildings’ existing features—large windows for workshop cooling and ventilation, high ceilings, and long clear spans—appeal to savvy developers aesthetically, and AHMM will repurpose other original elements to meet the goal of pedestrian-friendly living. At 1100 North Broadway, the firm is working with developer Midtown Renaissance to convert the former garage to one- and two-bedroom townhomes, transforming existing steep car ramps between levels into bicycle storage.
But Scaramucci admits most residents of Oklahoma City aren’t ready to trade in their cars for bikes just yet, so reconfiguring parking is a large component of the firm’s multifamily projects there. At 1100 North Broadway, parking spaces will be at 45-degree angles, making them more accessible for visitors to a new ground-floor gallery in the building’s base. Downtown, in the Deep Deuce neighborhood that was once home to jazz legends like the Count Basie Orchestra, Northeast 4th Street and Harrison and Oklahoma avenues form a triangular plot, mostly empty except for a gas station. “It’s a gateway to Oklahoma City,” Scaramucci said, “but it’s completely underused.” After approaching the property’s owner, AHMM was hired to design a 30,000-square-foot retail center called Maywood Flatiron, doubling the usable square footage with a rooftop parking lot, and proposing a dynamic louvered facade to shade full-height glass windows.
Nearby, the firm is working with developer City Center Properties on a four-story, 228-unit multifamily project that will include 5,000 square feet of retail space, and house private parking spaces in an internal courtyard, the rest of which will be landscaped. “This is about taking some of the experiences we gained doing the London 2012 Olympics masterplan, by doing housing that is very dense,” said Scaramucci. A robust natural gas economy has carried the city relatively unscathed through the recent recession and now, thanks in part to underdevelopment that has plagued the city since the mid-80s oil crash, it is posed to become a model of European-style urban planning in the U.S. “Over the last two years, we’ve had the very good fortune to find like-minded and ambitious clients,” said Scaramucci. “It’s a big move for Oklahoma City.”