I was recently asked about the prospects for Bricktown retail. Probably the best place to start is to discuss what Bricktown has become: an entertainment district containing primarily restaurants and clubs with a focus on tourism. It tends to draw most of its traffic in the evenings and particularly on the weekends. And, much of the traffic is out of town visitors and people from the suburbs.
Of the roughly 150,000 square feet of retail added to all of downtown over the past three years, just under a third was in Bricktown, 90 percent of which was restaurants, clubs, and the Red Pin bowling/restaurant. Of the less than 5,000 square feet of non-restaurant retail, it was all focused on tourism traffic. For all the traffic Bass Pro drives to the area, it has not helped attract more traditional retail. I tend to agree that the location of the new convention center near the Core to Shore Park will hurt Bricktown in the long-run as some restaurants and business will gravitate toward the park. Putting it on the lumberyard site or near Bricktown will build on the restaurant/club business already there, but will most likely cement Bricktown’s fate as strictly a tourism and entertainment district.
A discussion of what Bricktown is not is also helpful. It is not a significant office market. A handful of buildings have tried to attract office users on upper floors but most have struggled. The recent conversion of the Candy Factory is helped by access to parking. But, most of the upper floors of Bricktown buildings remain vacant or underutilized. I don’t see this changing due to lack of parking, access issues for office visitors, and the functionality of existing buildings. Housing is not a big part of the Bricktown mix either. The Centennial sold out its condo units as it is located in the heart of Bricktown and was the first high-end project out of the gate. However, many were purchased by corporations and few of them are occupied as primary residences. Several of the Bricktown buildings would make nice conversions but not at the prices owners are asking for their buildings. High land prices also make new construction problematic, particularly given the fate of high-end residential to date in downtown. None of the above is changing anytime soon, which brings us back to retail.
Can retail be attracted and survive in a primarily entertainment environment? The short-answer is not in this retail market. Retail is not doing well anywhere at the moment and national retailers in particular continue to stand by the sidelines. So, nothing is going to happen until a general retail turnaround. But, what then? Retail needs one of two things to survive, either lots of people living near it (rooftops as it were) or a project of scale and uniqueness that would draw people to the area. Counting rooftops and their underlying demographics is the traditional retail model. This won’t work in Bricktown. Even with the most optimistic projections of downtown housing growth, we won’t get enough people with enough money living downtown to attract the attention of traditional retailers. We will get some one-off projects and the occasional local retailer, but not the kind of retailers or projects that are going to get people excited.
Which leaves us needing a project of a scale or uniqueness that brings people to Bricktown to shop. Bass Pro was supposed to do this, but it tends to draw from outside Oklahoma City and a very narrow profile of shopper…a bit too much of a shotgun blast. But, it could be a nice complement in a larger piece of the puzzle. Luck, a good site, incentives from the City, a large national developer, an improvement in the capital markets, the previously mentioned improvement in the national retail economy and, did I mention, luck will be required to make it work. All the above were in play when Kansas City did the Power & Light District in their downtown but the retail market fell apart while the project was under construction and they have a cool project with little retail, a new Bricktown without the bricks. And, Kansas City has a lot more folks living downtown than we do. It will be a while before we can get the perfect storm of site, incentives, developer and market conditions together to make a significant retail development happen. And, even then there will and should be debate as to whether that development should be in Bricktown, around the Core to Shore Park, or some other downtown location. It’s too far down the road to move it, but the planned and, hopefully soon to break ground, Horizon outlet development on I-40 and McArthur would have had a chance of succeeding in Bricktown. It’s a unique project with retailers not in Oklahoma City now. Yes, it is an outlet Mall, but our market needs a Grapevine Mall long before it needs a Michigan Avenue.
The prognosis? Nothing soon, so embrace and build on the entertainment characteristics of Bricktown. Help local retailers who want to be in Bricktown, be happy with incremental progress. While we wait, plan for the big project and cross your fingers that all the pieces can come together at the right time.