Visiting Midtown today, it’s easy to forget the neighborhood could have taken an entirely different direction in 2003 when St. Anthony Hospital contemplated a move to southwest Oklahoma City.

The historic Plaza Court building across the street from the hospital was empty and dark. Prostitutes and drug dealers frequented a motel nestled among the hospital’s campus structures.

Boarded-up buildings, flop houses and dive bars had turned the neighborhood into a truly worthy candidate for a blight declaration.

Physicians were seeking to go to the suburbs, developers were offering incentives to the hospital to make the move as well, and civic leaders were stunned to learn St. Anthony was indeed contemplating abandoning its historic home for a new $250 million campus.

Civic leaders, led by then-Mayor Kirk Humphreys, made their best pitch to the hospital to stick it out. The city and county both pledged to assist the hospital in bringing the neighborhood back to life.

The turnaround was relatively rapid. Plaza Court and surrounding properties are now a bustling mix of restaurants, shops, salons, offices and housing. The area is home to both a YMCA and a bowling alley.

When I first started covering the plight of the neighborhood and the uncertain future of its anchor, about half of the hospital’s patients were traveling from out-of-town.

If they exited from Interstate 235 onto NW 10, they passed the Packard Building at Robinson Avenue, which was then largely empty except for Pat’s Lounge with a storefront consisting of plywood painted blue.

If they were exiting the old alignment of Interstate 40 onto Walker Avenue, they passed another stretch of vacant commercial properties and empty lots before crossing NW 10, the gateway to St. Anthony.

A walk to some of the doctor’s offices, meanwhile, might have required passing the Brass Lantern Inn, which in 2003 drew 33 calls for police and where at least one slaying transpired.

Those views are entirely different. The motel is gone, the flop houses were transformed by Midtown Renaissance Group into upscale apartments. Several hundred apartments have been built from the ground up, including The Edge and Lift.

People feel safe walking, jogging and strolling with their children through Midtown.

When civic leaders rallied around St. Anthony, the hospital pledged to invest $220 million in rebuilding the campus established by Catholic nuns in 1898.

The recent completion of a new emergency room and ambulatory wing for the hospital marks the completion of that plan. The hospital campus is no longer a mishmash of medical buildings built around seedy motels and boarded-up storefronts.

The whole story seems like a common sense outcome for Midtown. But in 2003, the city came very close to seeing a different direction for the hospital — one that would have left Midtown with a giant, abandoned cluster of buildings that might have doomed the neighborhood to a blight that would have taken years to recover.

The $220 million master plan changed everything for Midtown, and while it’s done, the area’s transformation continues. Both Midtown and the hospital will continue to evolve. Several developers have joined with St. Anthony in turning Midtown into an exciting mixed-use urban neighborhood.

But have no doubt; without St. Anthony, you don’t have Midtown.


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Author – Steve Lackmeyer on July 19, 2016

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