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Plans for nation's tallest building would transform Oklahoma City. But residents are skeptical 

In Downtown Oklahoma City, an L-shaped parking lot sprawls alongside the train tracks. These four acres of asphalt aren’t a hotbed of activity right now. But in a few years, this could be the site of the tallest building in the United States — the sixth tallest in the world.

The Boardwalk at Bricktown Development
The Boardwalk at Bricktown Development

Shane Cooley teaches yoga a few blocks north of the proposed skyscraper. He’s still weighing whether it’s a good idea.

“I've not done a pro and con list, but I'm sure it would somehow be pretty close,” Cooley said. “I think it's a pretty ambitious thing to do.”

The man behind the project is California-based developer Scot Matteson. He said inspiration hit when he first came to the city for a medical visit.

“I wouldn't say that the project idea came dragging me to Oklahoma City,” he said. “But once I got there, I saw the amazing opportunities to do something exciting and new.”

But some Oklahoma City residents are skeptical the building will go up.

“I feel like it's kind of a PR stunt,” said Shannon Burke, who lives just a few blocks from the proposed skyscraper. “Like, hey, let's just make something really funny and unrealistic and talk about it. But I think people are kind of serious about it.”

In April, Oklahoma City’s Planning Commission advanced a proposal allowing the towers to be built without height restrictions. They didn’t approve the electronic displays that would span the entire height of the tower.

We’re not New York or Las Vegas, I don’t think,” Commissioner Mike Privett said. “Not yet, anyways.”

Looking south on the parking lot that could soon be the site of America's tallest building.
Graycen Wheeler
Looking south on the parking lot that could soon be the site of America's tallest building.
A rendering of the Boardwalk at Bricktown looking south from Reno Ave.
A rendering of the Boardwalk at Bricktown looking south from Reno Ave.

A glass tower in a brick town?

The project, christened the Boardwalk at Bricktown, is slated for one of Oklahoma City’s oldest neighborhoods. Today, Bricktown is full of restaurants, bars and museums that used to be warehouses. Its buildings, streets and walkways heavily feature — you guessed it — bricks.

Lead architect Rob Budetti with AO says Matteson didn’t want to draw inspiration from the skyscraper’s surroundings.

“He just felt like that wasn't the right vibe that he was trying to create,” he said. “He was trying to kind of elevate Oklahoma City.”

To California-based developers and architects, an “elevated” concept looks a lot like the country’s existing tallest buildings.

“It's definitely more in the modern,” Budetti said. “You know, a lot of glass.”

The neighborhood’s long-standing brick buildings and the region’s tendency to spin up tornadoes raise a question: Have these developers heard of The Three Little Pigs? But Budetti said the skyscraper won’t get blown down.

“It's basically a math problem,” he said. “Okay, here's the force. Here's what I have to do to resist it.”

The base of the building would be three levels of restaurants and shops surrounding a central court with a water feature. Above that will stand four towers of residences and hotels. Three will be 22 or 23 stories, not out of place in the existing skyline.

But the fourth, called Legends Tower, would loom more than twice as tall as OKC’s current tallest building.

The skyscraper would be 1,907 feet high to commemorate the year Oklahoma became a state. It’s both an homage and a one-up to the country’s current tallest building, One World Trade, which stands at 1,776 feet high.

Randy Hogan is a local developer who’s helped build lower Bricktown out for the past two decades, and he’s working with Matteson on the Boardwalk. Hogan said he sees the project as a place for Oklahomans who want to spend more time in the city.

“You'll see people from all over the state either acquire a condominium or rent an apartment just because, again, it is so big for this area. For our region, frankly,” he said.

Mark Gillett, Executive Director of the Oklahoma City Housing Authority, said the project will help the city meet its housing needs. The plans set aside 140 apartments and condos for “workforce housing.” That’s intended for people who make 60-80% of the area’s median income, like teachers, first responders and hospitality workers.

Graycen Wheeler

That makes the project “especially unique,” Gillett said in an email. “All too often this group is not included in housing plans.”

There are also 48 units of designated affordable housing.

Cooley, the yoga instructor, said he’s not sure the city has enough people to fill all the space.

“Sure, you can find a restaurant or, you know, some kind of spa in there and bring people in, but you need tenants all the way up,” he said. “And that's a lot of tenants.”

Matteson says the spaces for shops and restaurants on the lower floors are 90% spoken for. But no companies will be officing in the towers.

“We don't have any office space — that’s one thing we're not building,” Matteson said. “We think there's plenty of office space available in today's world.”

‘Something to look at’

Matteson said he sees the Boardwalk at Bricktown as a pioneering project for Oklahoma City.

“We go into these areas where we see an opportunity of land that's being underutilized and an idea that concept,” Matteson said. “And others will follow and kind of latch on to our concept and what we're doing and help grow the city even more.”

The tower’s appearance would reflect that growth.

“The initial design is like this transformation, this metamorphosis,” Budetti said. “We ended it with almost a butterfly shape at the top, symbolizing kind of the transformation a butterfly goes through.”

Burke, who’s lived in Oklahoma her whole life, said the city and the neighborhood have already undergone a metamorphosis largely thanks to the Oklahoma City Thunder NBA basketball team.

“You just used to not have as much stuff going on,” she said. “But once the Thunder came in in the early 2000s, that really helped build up downtown and has really brought in a lot of growth.”

That growth is built on the shoulders of a penny sales tax voters passed in the early 90s. The city poured that money into quality-of-life projects, including the then-largely abandoned Bricktown warehouse district. The neighborhood became home to a minor league ballpark, a canal and a riverwalk.

Oklahoma City residents recently voted to build a $900 million new basketball arena for the Thunder. The City Council approved a development agreement that places the arena across the railroad tracks from the proposed skyscraper. It’s tentatively slated to open in 2029.

The Devon Energy Center, Oklahoma City's current tallest building, seen from Bricktown.
Graycen Wheeler
The Devon Energy Center, Oklahoma City's current tallest building, seen from Bricktown.

The Thunder arrived in Oklahoma City in 2008, around the same time developers announced the city’s current tallest building, the Devon Energy Center. It’s already 1.7 times taller than the next-highest building in the city. Burke said the proposed tower would throw the skyline out of whack.

“I think it would be a big eyesore,” Burke said. “But if it gets people talking and bringing them to Oklahoma to go see this crazy skyscraper, then it could help the economy.”

She said she can see the appeal of the Boardwalk at Bricktown if you think about the building as a roadside novelty.

“Chickasha has the giant leg lamp from A Christmas Story, and that brings in a lot of people,” she said. “I kind of see it as something like that. It's just something to look at.”

The City Council is expected to vote in June on whether to lift the height restriction for the tower. And they’ll have at least one vote in favor.

“As a matter of philosophy, I generally don’t believe in height restrictions, so I will vote for the request,” Mayor David Holt said in an email. “That is more a reflection of my philosophy relative to private property rights than any value judgment on the project.”

Matteson said the financing is fully secured and if the project gets city approval, the building will start its trip upward by the end of the summer.

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Graycen Wheeler is a reporter covering water issues at KOSU as a corps member with Report for America.
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