The Oklahoman

Cotter Ranch Tower future uncertain

Legal battles continue after death of tower’s owner

- BY STEVE LACKMEYER Business Writer slackmeyer@oklahoman.com

The looming presence of James Franklin Cotter at one of downtown’s most visible office towers may be coming to an end amid legal battles between his heirs over control of the former Liberty Bank tower.

Cotter, who died Jan. 25, bought the tower at 100 N Broadway in 2004 for $27,890,000 at a time when the property enjoyed a healthy occupancy with 15 floors leased to Devon Energy and Bank One, successor to Liberty Bank, as the anchor tenant.

But the tower has languished since with the latest report by Price Edwards showing occupancy at 63 percent.

Cotter was not someone who made a lot of local appearance­s even though his holdings also included Lakepointe Tower and Lake View Tower in northwest Oklahoma City. His last publicized appearance at his namesake tower came in 2009 when he unveiled a statue of himself, on horseback, at the tower’s north plaza.

It was a happy moment for Cotter, who decked out the plaza with chuck wagons and displays that would fit well in the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.

He cast a larger-thanlife figure, naming all three sons after himself. And according to his obituary, Cotter Ranch Tower, one of more than 70 office properties, was Cotter’s favorite. His ranch logo is seen by visitors checking in at the front desk where the building security officers are stationed wearing western attire and Texassized cowboy hats.

Cotter was 83 when he died, and court records indicate he was living in Oklahoma City at the time, though his residence remained in San Antonio in a mansion once owned by country western star George Straight.

“The last few years he lived here with (wife) Ruth because he loved this building,” said Mark Stoneciphe­r, attorney for Cotter’s widow Bettye Ruth Cotter. “He was really fond of it.”

Family feud

Discord among his heirs started soon after between the sons and daughters from Cotter’s first marriage and Bettye Ruth Cotter.

An initial will submitted by son James Adam Cotter and sister Valeri Marie Cotter Zaharie was disputed by Bettye Ruth Cotter. At the time, James Adam Cotter, who for a time called Oklahoma City a second home, was overseeing the tower’s operations as vice president of the family company.

The probate hearings resulted in changed locks and passwords and appointmen­t of San Antonio attorney Marcus Rogers as estate administra­tor. The estate is now working with CBRE to oversee the sprawling real estate portfolio.

Bexar County Court records show a series of property sales by the estate over the past few months. The estate also has sought to restructur­e loans as a means to avoid bankruptcy and at least one local lender, Bank SNB, has filed interests in the Oklahoma County litigation.

All of this has the downtown real estate community, including respected broker Jim Parrack with Price Edwards, expecting the property to “change hands” within the next several months.

If that occurs, it will end the legacy of a man who did not play well with the downtown crowd as he imprinted his personal country and western brand on one of the city’s landmark downtown office towers.

Cotter Ranch Tower was a demonstrat­ion of the city’s effort to reinvent its downtown when the 36-story building was built in 1971 as home to Liberty Bank and Trust Co. Liberty at the time was, along with First National Bank, the bedrock of Oklahoma City’s banking community and a major employer.

The oil bust hit both banks hard. First National collapsed, but Liberty survived only to be bought out by Bank One in 1997. That transactio­n, in turn, led to Chase Bank becoming the anchor tenant with a greatly reduced footprint.

Difficulti­es downtown

The former Liberty Tower was a personal favorite as noted in his obituary:

“His love for the west and the building inspired James to cast a horse with himself sitting high, looking upon his Cotter Tower Building in which he saw his greatest accomplish­ment in real estate.”

The sculpture still can be seen, facing the tower and turning its back on another nearby Native American sculpture that stands between the tower and the Skirvin Hilton Hotel.

The positionin­g wasn’t lost on downtown civic leaders, who frequently voiced frustratio­n with what they saw as a stubborn unwillingn­ess to cooperate with area improvemen­ts. Such moments included what would have been a showstoppi­ng entrance for The Undergroun­d Tunnels designed by architect Rand Elliott.

Cotter also was one of the only downtown property owners not to include the tunnels under the tower in the extensive makeover of The Undergroun­d led by Downtown Oklahoma City Inc. Cotter also declined to cooperate with a desired makeover of the plaza as part of improvemen­ts made to the neighborin­g city-owned Santa Fe Garage.

An uneasy relationsh­ip marked the final years of Devon’s time in the building, and when the company moved its operations to its new headquarte­rs in 2012, it left a void on several floors of the tower. Chase Bank, meanwhile, consolidat­ed its operations at a rebuilt drive-thru a block north, leaving the tower without a banking anchor for the first time in its history.

Cotter, however, did follow through on improvemen­ts to the tower that included converting the former firstfloor bank space into a lobby that doubled as event space for weddings and special gatherings. The Petroleum Club was recruited to open a ground-floor deli that has proved popular with daytime office workers.

Stoneciphe­r isn’t sure what’s next for the tower. He notes improvemen­ts were ongoing through Cotter’s death, and Globe Life Insurance is among recently added new tenants.

The property isn’t without potential buyers should it be listed, though any purchase could include conversion of part or all of the tower into housing as has transpired with similar properties in other states.

At that point, the only question remaining will be whether the likeness of Cotter on his horse will remain along with the horseshoe marks leading to the tower Cotter loved most.

 ?? [PHOTO BY STEVE LACKMEYER, THE OKLAHOMAN] ?? The late James F. Cotter set up chuck wagons and dressed in western attire to celebrate the unveiling of a sculpture showing him riding his horse outside Cotter Ranch Tower. The display includes hoof marks made in the cement plaza behind the sculpture.
[PHOTO BY STEVE LACKMEYER, THE OKLAHOMAN] The late James F. Cotter set up chuck wagons and dressed in western attire to celebrate the unveiling of a sculpture showing him riding his horse outside Cotter Ranch Tower. The display includes hoof marks made in the cement plaza behind the sculpture.
 ?? [PHOTO BY CHRIS LANDSBERGE­R, THE OKLAHOMAN] ?? The vault inside the closed Chase Bank branch in the lower level of The Cotter Tower is a reminder that the property was once home to one of the city’s largest banks.
[PHOTO BY CHRIS LANDSBERGE­R, THE OKLAHOMAN] The vault inside the closed Chase Bank branch in the lower level of The Cotter Tower is a reminder that the property was once home to one of the city’s largest banks.

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