NORMAN — It was hard not to notice the difference when the crime-ridden, 33-unit Scholars West apartments transformed into Warehouse Flats, behind Norman’s iconic Legend’s restaurant on West Lindsey Street.
Gone — the dingy, off-white paint job, rundown exterior and interiors. In their place were industrially styled, chic treatments like red brick-colored paint applied with a dry brush technique on the white-painted bricks, concrete block interior walls to make them look vintage and new landscaping. Inside the units were black open-grid ceilings replacing dirty and damaged drop ceilings, polished concrete on the floors and corrugated metal wainscoting in the bathrooms.
It was the brainchild of Sean Harshaw, the lead investor, and Margie Harshaw, his mother and a former interior designer and space planner.
“(Scholars West) had been nasty, and the smell with dirty places I just cannot describe,” Margie said. “I wanted to be able to elevate the quality of the properties ... I’m pretty hands-on and used to working with contractors.”
She originally started managing a four-plex for Sean and his various partners. Their businesses grew, with investors that include BMFS Investments and Armored Properties acquiring other properties. Other property owners also tapped her management talents.
Her company Destination Management now manages about 600 units for various property owners in Norman, Oklahoma City, Chickasha and Edmond, with many of them rehabbed and reimagined or in the process.
Many of those formerly rundown properties, were mostly built in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
“I bought probably the worst three apartment complexes in Norman,” Sean said. “We are putting about 50 percent of our acquisition budget into rehabbing these places.”
The group often brings themes to the projects.
“We like themes. We’re into themes,” she said. She credits Sean for having a lot of the vision for improvements on the properties as well.
Another apartment complex that had fallen on bad times was the former Sunrise Ridge on Hal Muldrow Drive just south of West Main Street.
“It was just a larger, nastier place,” Margie said.
The 70-unit Sunrise Ridge — newly renamed Tuscan Village — was formerly a regular stop for Norman Police, and is now getting an about $1 million upgrade throughout with a Tuscan theme and warm Italian colors and details including exposed brick in places, a central pergola that will be covered with ivy, skinny trees, tall flower pots and a fire pit where the pool was for apartment gatherings.
Tuscan Village manager Kourtney Davis pointed out they’ve been inspired by places around the world, like New York City for Warehouse Flats and Tuscany for Italian touches in Tuscan Village.
“We’re bringing a little bit of the world to places around Norman,” Davis said.
They said they are updating everything from new wiring, new doors, reworked heat-and-air and extensively revamped landscaping, among other new details in Tuscan Village.
In a model apartment there, dark wood-look vinyl flooring lends a warm touch to the interior, which is thoughtfully finished with upgraded fixtures and wall and granite-look counter treatments.
The investors also purchased the ailing 48-unit Dutch Hollow apartments on Oakhurst off East Lindsey Street, which had prostitution and drug dealers living there.
“We had drive-through drug sales going on,” Margie said. “The interiors — we’ve really jazzed these up.”
Another newly improved apartment complex owned by the groups and managed by Destination Management is the 98-unit West Oaks on Southwest 24th Street, which was also hit by last spring’s tornado.
Several factors made the renovations possible.
A new program sponsored by the Norman Police Department, Crime Free Norman, is in a trial period that started in October 2012.
It allows landlords or management companies to add an addendum to a new or renewing leases with the tenant agreeing not to engage in any criminal behavior or be subject to a 24-hour eviction notice.
The Harshaws said they immediately signed up to go through the three-phase process to begin the journey to make their properties Crime Free-certified.
The first phase is an eight-hour class taught by the Norman Police Department. Several of their complexes are in the second phase of reworking environmental elements like landscaping and strengthening exteriors to make the properties more of a hard target against crime elements. In that phase, the properties are then inspected and approved by the NPD.
Margie said they try to work with good current tenants after acquiring a complex, and by law leases are not terminated by a sale. But eventually, the tenants must make a choice when the lease is up.
“Are you going to move to a nice, new apartment and pay higher rent or are you going to move out,” she said. “If they are decent tenants, I want to keep them.”
And because the property owners can do a better job of providing a quality of life and increase personal safety for their tenants, she said many existing and new tenants are willing to pay market value for their rents.
For example, rents that were about $300 for a one-bedroom in the rundown Scholars West are now at a market value of $575 in the slick, attractive Warehouse Flats and include water, sewer, trash and Cox high-speed Internet.
Sean said banks and financing entities are more likely to finance renovations when it’s a new owner with a track record of successful renovations and rehabilitations.
“Banks aren’t just giving cash out,” he said. “New acquisitions have different rules. It puts me in a better position.”