First National sale set to close Wednesday

By Steve Lackmeyer

The Oklahoman


The long-awaited sale of First National Center is on track to close Wednesday with the buyers, a local development team, preparing to convert it into housing, retail and a hotel.


The Art Deco landmark closed last summer after years of instability and financial turmoil while controlled by out-of-state interests. The building was ordered into receivership in October 2015, and this week's sale to Gary Brooks and Charlie Nicholas coincides with the anniversary of their $23 million contract being approved by U.S. District Judge Stephen Friot.


Previous closing dates came and went as complications and challenges arose with obtaining clear title for a property that had no clear owner as it faced utility shut-offs and a maze of lawsuits by parties battling for control. Brooks also discovered that contrary to claims by previous owners, much of the asbestos in the property was not removed.


“One of the many challenges was to make sure we had an accurate understanding of the physical structure,” Brooks said. “It required a substantial number of engineers and various experts to do detailed evaluations of every square foot of the 1.1 million square feet, both interior and exterior. And we had to go deep into the design stage to make sure the team could verify that our plan was feasible given the building conditions.”


Brooks estimates his team spent about $50,000 a week over the last year in due diligence, engineering and design.


“It took longer to get to closing than I anticipated,” Brooks said. “But we went into this believing it would be extremely complicated, and that has proven to be true. While getting to closing is a very important step, the hard work is really just beginning.”


In an exclusive interview with The Oklahoman, Brooks shared details of the project and provided renderings of how key spaces in the tower will be redeveloped.


The development cost estimate tops $200 million with renovations to include a restoration of the historic Great Banking Hall, a gutting of the office floors, window replacements and all new air conditioning, heating, mechanical systems and elevators.


Plans call for the ninth through 30th floors to be converted into housing, and the second through eighth floors to be a hotel that is set to be branded as an Autograph by Marriott, an upscale boutique operation.


“Though we have spent months on designing and programming the various spaces, it will take the majority of 2017 to compete all the construction documents and related specification books,” Brooks said. “The environmental work will begin in early March followed immediately by demolition of all nonhistoric elements.”


A three-year revival


Brooks said current scheduling suggests the redevelopment will take about three years to complete. Some plans have changed since the sale contract was first announced. A 1957 office annex immediately east of the tower was originally set to be torn down and replaced with a new garage with retail on the first two floors.


The National Park Service, which oversees the historic tax credit program, ruled the building as a contributing part of the historic tower and couldn't be torn down. So plans now call for retaining the facade, while the east 1972 annex will be gutted to add in an entrance and ramps for the garage still planned in the center of the block.


A retail “gallery” will span the first two floors along Park Avenue. Visitors will see a two-story mural of historic photos of First National, which was the city's leading bank until it failed during the 1980s oil bust.


“We want retail facing Park Avenue,” Brooks said. “Our goal is to activate Park Avenue, and having a complete frontage along Park is important to us.”


At the corner of Park and Robinson avenues, the revolving doors that originally opened into a coffee shop when the tower first opened in 1931 are set to remain as the entrance for what Brooks is hoping will be the “ideal fit.”


The main entrance to the tower will remain at 120 N Robinson Ave. When a visitor first walks through the doors, they see local and express elevators serving the bottom and top halves of the tower. The next view is of a grand stairway with escalators on each side that take visitors into the Great Banking Hall.


The former bank lobby, almost three stories high, was compared to a palace when it first opened. The Great Banking Hall is considered the city's most ornate commercial space, lined with 16 sandstone columns each 35 feet tall, the caps of the columns embellished with Egyptian birds and foliage. Floors built from travertine marble shipped from Italy are complimented by murals depicting state history, ornate fixtures and dozens of original bank teller windows.


Redevelopment plans call for turning the Great Banking Hall into a hotel lobby with side offices to be converted into a restaurant, bar and a historical display.


“The Great Hall is of course the centerpiece of the building,” Brooks said. “Ironically, the cost to properly restore all the elements of the hall will exceed the original cost to build the building. We will go to great lengths to protect the hall and the other historical elements in the building from further damage during the renovation.”


The east end of the banking hall, closed off for more than a quarter century, will be opened to connect to the two-story Gallery that will extend all along Park Avenue. Below the Gallery, the bank vaults that were protected by massive steel doors will be converted into an Italian restaurant and bar.


Brooks said discussions also are underway to open a bar in the top floor that was once home to the Beacon Club.


The original tower includes a podium that tops out at the 14th floor. Two amenity decks, one with a dog park, the other with a pool, patio and outdoor kitchen, will be built on the building rooftop extending east.


Skirvin 'dream team' set to assist


All involved in the development agree it wouldn't be possible without the possibility of public assistance and the city's experience in helping bring yet another landmark, the Skirvin hotel, back to life a decade ago.


Cathy O'Connor, president of The Alliance for Economic Development of Oklahoma City, anticipates the entire team of legal and finance experts that worked on the Skirvin will be involved in assembling the mix of public and private financing needed to overcome the problems that have plagued First National for the past 20 years.


The city already has taken steps to prepare for the redevelopment, including creating a targeted tax increment finance district that could provide up to $45 million toward the project.


“We rely and fall back on our Skirvin experience over and over,” O'Connor said. “We have the experience with how to structure these deals and how to protect the city's interests with a high level of accountability. Once he closes, we are prepared to begin evaluating his pro formas on the project to determine the gap and how the city might help with the gap.”


Challenges ahead


The tower's challenges are well documented — most restrooms are located in between floors and are not ADA accessible. Tenants on upper floors long complained of problems with plumbing, heating and air conditioning. The windows are in rough shape, decades old and leak heat and air.


But First National, unlike the Skirvin, was never abandoned. Even after it went into receivership and was closed, upkeep and repairs continued under receiver Jim Parrack.


Broken windows on the upper floors were repaired, as were elevators, the roof and mechanical systems.


“We've had security on site and have regularly inspected the building,” Parrack said. “We've also ensured that heat and air was on as needed and that repairs were done to keep the building protected.”


Brooks promised his team will ensure that effort won't go to waste.


“The building is in fantastic shape considering the neglect from the recent ownership groups,” Brooks said. “We're excited to be a part of the First National story and the next phase of her life. Our team understands the challenge and the responsibility that we have undertaken. I think the city will be proud of the plans we have for this great building.”