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Plaza, sweet

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The past two years have been a turning point for the arts district, largely spurred by the Lyric Theatre’s decision to save an old cinema in a hard-luck part of town.

“It’s a hidden gem because once people see it, people say, ‘I didn’t even know this was here,’” said Mike Turpen, an Oklahoma City attorney who recently completed a two-year stint as Lyric Theatre president.

In 2004 Turpen agreed to lead a $10 million fundraising campaign for Lyric to renovate the vacant Plaza movie theater and a nearby former grocery store into a stage and an arts academy.

“I felt like it was the most unique blend I’d ever seen between history, the arts and education,” Turpen said.


Saving Plaza Theatre

In 1999 Lyric purchased the movie house and a building next to it for administrative offices. The theater company moved into the office space in 2000, but the venue needed a lot of work. 

Vacancy had taken a toll on the building. Turpen recalled looking at gaping holes in the ceiling and wondering if the renovation was realistic. But the campaign was successful, and the theater opened its doors December 2007.

“I think that people are so generous in Oklahoma City, that if you have a good idea it’s yours for the asking,” he said.

The 279-seat theater is hosting most of Lyric’s 13 productions this season. Lyric Executive Director Paula Stover said 6,000 people attended its version of A Christmas Carol in December.

Production and facilities manager John Fowler compared the intimate space to smaller theaters in New York City. The holes in the ceiling have been replaced by a grid of metal mesh and stage lights. The stage itself can be expanded and cut back for different shows.

Below
the stage, an area that once housed machinery has been transformed into
dressing rooms. The history of the building, however, has not been
erased. Painted in red on a section of the original foundation is the
date “6-5-35.”

For
Shannon Primeau, owner of Everything Goes Dance Studio, the history of
the theater next door is personal. In 1985, her father opened a
Spanish-language movie theater, Cine Mexicana, in the old Plaza. When
they were children, she and her siblings ran the theater — from popcorn
to tickets — for about 10 years until their father fell ill.

“It felt like home,” Primeau said. “I felt comfortable.”

After
opening her dance studio in another part of town, Primeau said she was
drawn back to the Plaza when her sister, who owns her current studio
building, told her about Lyric’s plans. But Primeau was hesitant. As the
area fell into disrepair, rates of prostitution and drug-dealing rose.

“There were still all kinds of things going on around there,” she said.

Once
Primeau was convinced all the new projects would be finished, her
studio became the first new business on the Plaza. Since then she has
expanded into an old gas station next door, adding a small stage.


Rebuilding a neighborhood

Currently there are
32 businesses listed by the Plaza District Association, although some
don’t have storefronts, said Kristen Vails, executive director of the
Plaza District Association.

Commercial space in the neighborhood is now 100 percent occupied.

A
few years ago, however, developer Jeff Struble recalled opening a
renovated building just south of N.W. 16th Street on Gatewood Avenue
with 17,000 square feet of commercial space and only one tenant.

“It was sometimes month-tomonth,” Struble said.

He
and his wife, Aimee, also renovated several buildings on the north side
of 16th. They are currently changing the Eagle’s Nest Apartments on
Blackwelder Avenue into a mixed-use commercial space. Closing the
apartments has already helped reduce the amount of crime in the
neighborhood, Aimee Struble said.

“That’s a big piece of the puzzle there,” she said. “It’s been so bad for so long.”

Already
known for their work renovating historic homes, Jeff Struble said they
acquired their first building on the Plaza — which came with without a
roof or second floor — purely by luck.

“When I heard about the Lyric, it just kind of spurred me that, hey, these urban buildings can be something,” he said.

Recently,
Saints became the first restaurant, followed by Urban Wine Works, a
fully functional winery with wine accessories, tastings and a seasonal
menu. The Strubles said a new restaurant, The Mule, is slated this
summer in the redeveloped apartments.

“I think a restaurant really helps, and that was the missing element,” Aimee Struble said.

Fausto
Cifuentes, owner of a Guatemalan imports store at N. Indiana Avenue,
said he plans to move his store across the street so he can convert the
fresh-food counter in the back into a self-standing restaurant. He said
his business has been open for about 15 years, but the recent increase
in foot traffic encouraged him to take the risk.

Amanda
Bradway and her husband Dylan, both artists, moved into a space
renovated by the Strubles five years ago. They now live in a nearby
neighborhood, but their DNA Galleries is still downstairs from their old
home.

Entire days would pass
without seeing a single customer, Amanda Bradway said. And while she is
quick to say crime had never been a problem to them, people who made
their living on the streets were a regular site. All that changed in the
past year.

“I actually feel like we’re doing it,” she said. “We’re going to make it work.”


Finding an audience

When
the Bradways moved to the Plaza, it was a blank slate they hoped to
make into an arts district, she said. Now with general word of mouth and
the monthly event dubbed “Live on the Plaza,” Bradway said, it seems
like people have discovered it.

“It took a whole lot of people coming down here within a short period of time to make it what it is,” she said.

Vails also credited Live on the Plaza with drawing people to the neighborhood.

“A lot of people have to come and see the vision for what it’s going to be,” she said.

As
more people come to the district, the groups of people there become
more diverse, Bradway said. Students from the nearby Classen School of
Advanced Studies wander over in the afternoon. Lyric ticketholders may
drop by before a show, mixing with an artsy crowd that always seems to
be around.

”Everyone has their own identity and everyone is creative in some form,” Bradway said.

Reflecting
on the success of Lyric and the community growing around it, Turpen
said it’s an example of new ideas creating new realities. He credited
the determination and vision of residents and Lyric leaders for bringing
it to this point.

“If you catch fire with enthusiasm, they’ll come from miles away to watch it burn,” he said.

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