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OKLAHOMA CITY-The 75-year-old, three-quarters of a mile-long underground Concourse tunnels are getting a $1.5-million facelift and a new name, the Underground. The redevelopment is expected to be completed in early 2007.

The tunnels in the city-beneath-the-city project connect 30 Downtown buildings in a 20-square-block area. They have been called one of the most extensive, all-enclosed pedestrian and retail systems in the country. Other US cities with underground retail and office components are Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, Houston, Minneapolis, Seattle, Duluth and Rochester, MN, Crystal City, VA, Havre, MT and Rochester, NY.

The original tunnel link, conceived by local developer and banker Jack T. Conn, was built in 1931 to allow guests at the Skirvin Hotel to avoid car traffic and safely reach the Skirvin Tower, now the 101 Park Ave. building. The remaining tunnels were developed in the 1970s. The entire system opened in 1974 at a hard construction cost of $1.3 million.

“There are few people who worked Downtown in the early ‘80s who did not appreciate the vibrancy of the Downtown tunnels,” Alison Oshel, vice president of operations for Downtown Oklahoma City Inc., tells GlobeSt.com. “There was a food court under the Skirvin Hotel that was the hub of lunchtime crowds. There were a number of service shops and retailers, as well. But without the necessary operating budget, the tunnels fell into disrepair, not coincidentally with the oil bust and the domino effect that this created.”

Oshel explains that “because the tunnels pass from and through so many different land parcels, the identification of final ownership and oversight authority has caused problems in its upkeep” in the past. Rand Elliott, president, Elliott + Associates Architects in Oklahoma City, is spearheading the redevelopment effort. He anticipates renewed interest in retail development at the Underground.

“Because of its configuration, the tunnels in some areas offer limited opportunities for retail growth,” Elliott tells GlobeSt.com. “However, at ground level, there are key access points for new development in the lower level. For example, a coffee shop at ground level at an existing building could be a focal point for development interest at the lower level.”

The architect tells GlobeSt.com a grand entrance location for the Underground is still being reviewed and will be announced before year end. “It will most definitely be a major Downtown attraction.”

“The design concept that Elliott + Associates has created will accomplish a number of objectives,” Oshel says. “First, we’ll update and clean up the ‘70s vintage finishes. Then, the lighting galleries will provide visitors with visual interest. The new way-finding system will allow visitors to confidently navigate the system which currently confuses even the most confident explorer.” The tunnels have 12 entrances.

Additionally, framed historical photos in the tunnels are expected to bring visitors to Downtown “for the specific purpose of learning about Oklahoma City history,” Oshel says. “All of this activity will bring the foot traffic, so crucial to retailers. The heightened interest and crowds should enable the buildings with leasable sf to better market their space.” Oshel estimates that 10 businesses are still operating in the tunnels. They include a style salon, two banks, a post office, shoe shine stand, three restaurants, a health club and the Gymnastics Hall of Fame.

The public-private partnership’s original project estimate of $2.1 million was reduced to $1.5 million in June, largely due to Downey Contracting Co.’s winning low bid, which was about $300,000 under budget, and the elimination of the enclosed exterior entrance at Chase Tower “when we were unable to obtain the necessary easement from the Chase Tower owner,” Oshel tells GlobeSt.com.

The Skirvin Hotel is expected to reopen in spring 2007 and also plans to reopen the system’s original tunnel connecting the hotel to the 101 Park Ave. building, Oshel says. “That reopening should closely coincide with the completion of our renovations in February or March of next year.” She adds, “It symbolizes to me, a rebirth of the tunnel system.”

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