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Stand Tall, Shop Small for OKC: Britton District is OKC's newest and oldest retail district
The Britton District bills itself as “Oklahoma City’s newest developing district” but in reality, it is one of Oklahoma City’s oldest commercial districts.
The district is centered around Britton Road that connects Lake Hefner Parkway and I-235. The heart of the district is old Britton, a stretch of buildings that have the charm of a small-town main street.
The history of the area stretches back more than 130 years. The town of Britton was founded in 1889 and by 1910 was an important stop on the Interurban Trolley system that connected Oklahoma City and Guthrie. Britton was also located on historic Route 66 and travelers from all over the country would pass through as they crisscrossed the country. The town thrived with more than 6,000 residents and was home to multiple movie theatres, gas stations, retail businesses and more.
Rapid growth in the metro led to the town being annexed by Oklahoma City in 1950.
“Britton is unique in that it was once a completely independent township. It has a rich history apart from, as well as inside, of Oklahoma City. Geographically, it sits right in the middle of the OKC metro, yet it's bordered by two still independent towns, Nichols Hills and The Village,” said Grace Powell, executive director of the Britton District. “This means that we have a unique relationship to a diverse community of people and businesses with really different mindsets, economic situations and lifestyles that isn't as cookie-cutter as what you'll find in other urban districts in the city. There are a lot of residents who grew up here and clearly remember when their town lost its autonomy. There is this new feeling now that it's okay to honor that identity and that Britton's individuality is worth preserving and cherishing for its own value. That's a really beautiful story of renaissance to be a part of.”
Powell said critical investment in two of the most historic properties in Britton helped jump start the revitalization of the area.
“Two groups organically invested at about the same time in some of Britton's more dilapidated historic properties. One was Owl Court, which was slated for demolition. The other was the Ritz Theater. Both are keystone properties in the district,” said Powell. “The amount of private investment it takes to take something that's so far gone and return it to a viable community asset is pretty unbelievable. Both groups had the vision to retain the original character of these spaces instead of tearing them down. It created a lot of attention for the area and inspired others to pay attention and join them. The Owl Court group worked hard to formally create the Britton District and a couple of years later the Ritz group joined us. It's been a real grassroots effort to get buy-in from existing businesses and draw new ones to the area.”
Mark Inman, a senior vice president for CBRE, is one individual who has played an important role in revitalizing Britton having invested heavily to restore buildings to attract new retail to the area.
“We recognize the Britton District as one of the last remaining main street style, pedestrian-oriented retail, restaurant, and entertainment settings being redeveloped in the OKC area,” said Inman. “With restaurants, breweries, art, coffee, deserts now open, or opening soon, we think the main street is and will thrive again.”
A quick tour of the Britton district highlights an eclectic mix of retail that has something for everyone. Some businesses have had their doors open for less than a month, others for half of a century, but all had passion and excitement for how much the district has grown in a short time and the untapped potential the future holds.
One of the newest establishments on Britton is Venn Pizza. They serve specialty pizzas and opened their doors in early June. Venn Pizza also has a great drink menu with the centerpiece being its reverence for an Oklahoma City standard – the club special. They offer eight different flavors of the legendary Oklahoma drink.
“This restaurant and this concept were basically formulated in our living rooms while we were in quarantine. That is where it all started,” said Co-Owner Chris Gomez.
Gomez said his partners, Annie Gray and Jay Iaquinta, and he looked all over the metro for a location but Britton’s main street feel is a big reason they located where they did.
“We were looking all over the metro to see where we wanted to do this,” said Gomez. “We used to have an office nearby, so this area had always been on our radar. Zero Tolerance Coffee opened up here and that got us a little more excited. This area has a charm to it. We are lucky in Oklahoma City that we have these little pockets that we can try to revitalize.”
And the name Venn Pizza? Location played a big role in how that came about.
“We came up with a few other names but settled on Venn because of a Venn diagram. One of our taglines is, meet you in the middle,” said Gomez. “This area connects Edmond to Downtown. I live in Edmond. Jay lives around here and Annie lives closer to downtown so this area connects us.”
Despite the hectic schedule that comes with opening a new restaurant, the owners of Venn Pizza have thrown themselves into being a good partner in the district helping with efforts to clean up the district and donating to new signage.
“We really wanted to jump into the area,” said Gomez. “Grace (Powell) has done a great job promoting the district but it is new. It is going to take some time but we feel like it is important to bring the district back.”
While Venn Pizza is the new kid on the block, on the other end of the spectrum you have Nearly New. The 12,000-square-foot store has been in Britton for almost 60 years. John and Hattie Santore have owned it for the past 18 years. Nearly New is a consignment boutique for fashion-minded shoppers.
“We have to keep it current. We have to keep it cute and stylish,” said Hattie. “Because I'm telling you, the ladies that shop with us, they're fashion-conscious.”
The Santores are also quick to point out that consignment is not just about saving money.
“This is not about saving money. It is about getting better stuff. We want people to get better stuff,” said John. “There are people that shop here because it is just fun. It is the adventure. You can go to Dillard’s or something, next week and it is the same products. The same stuff. Here, it's always different.”
When asked what about the Britton District made it a great destination for retail, a similar refrain about the location came across.
“It's just a perfect location. It's just perfect,” said John. “You've got Edmond and downtown. It takes just five minutes to get here from most of Western. It is just incredible. The traffic counts are the same as May Avenue buy you don’t have to pay those prices.”
Being open as long as Nearly New means generations of families loyally shop there.
“We've watched not only people that shopped here when it was first here,” said Hattie. “We have customers whose mom brought them here when they were a kid to buy school clothes. They bring their kids to buy school clothes and prom dresses. And then, those kids grow up and bring their babies.”
One thing you will find at Nearly New that you do not see at many consignment shops are wedding dresses- and lots of them. John said 99.9% of them are brand new samples acquired from bridal stores. John said one strength of their store is they just do not sell you a dress, Hattie is great at working with customers to find the right dress that fits their body type and complexion. Dress shopping is by appointment only.
Like all retail, the pandemic put a lot of uncertainty around the business that has been a community staple for decades. John said there were many sleepless nights pondering the future of the establishment and how best to communicate to loyal customers that the shop was back open for business. John came up with a subtle solution to that problem.
“Weirdest thing we did was, we got eight-foot signs, that say we're open,” said John. “The smartest advertising thing I've ever done. Open. One word. That's it.”
Like other businesses in the community, improving the area is important to John and Hattie. They recently acquired an empty lot directly north of their store and plan to turn it into a community garden.
Zero Tolerance Coffee is another new establishment on Britton. As the name implies, owners Roy and Maura Baker have little tolerance for low-quality coffee and their offerings back up that sentiment. Besides offering great coffee, Maura is one of the few in the state of Oklahoma who roast and temper her own chocolate.
Britton District can also scratch your artistic itch with Hideout Art. Owner and Founder Lisa Lampton will help you create your next truly unique masterpiece through abstract art lessons and parties.
Orange Peel is one of the retail establishments that set up shop in the renovated Owl Court. Orange Peel sells vintage clothes and their own t-shirts.
More investment is coming to Britton through the City of Oklahoma City. According to Powell, they will soon be receiving money through the CANEAB surplus allocation to focus on improving streetscaping. They will also be getting resurfacing through the Better Streets, Safer Cities bond package as well as MAPS 4 funding for sidewalks.
“We are really fortunate to have so many people looking in this direction and realizing that it has been way, way too long since any infrastructure improvements were made in this area,” said Powell.
One way to experience everything the Britton District has to offer is by attending the annual Britton District Day. This year’s event will be held Saturday, July 31st from 4 to 9 p.m.
Join us in supporting local by looking out for the latest district highlight on VeloCityOKC.com, using the hashtag #ShopSmallForOKC, and following @okcchamber on social media to get the latest updates on the campaign.