Tired old thinking is hard to shake


"But not the downtown arena!" whined the Tulsa Whirled editorial board, in Saturday's lead editorial. I was encouraged by the news that a $100 million sports arena (alias "events center", alias "coliseum", alias "multipurpose facility") did not appear in a draft of the first Dialog / Visioning package prepared by Tulsa County's mayors and managers, but this development seems to have shaken the sensitive souls who labor in the Bunker on Main Street.

Sadly, the Whirled's thinking on downtown revitalization is still stuck on a now-discredited mid-20th-century fad dubbed "Project Planning" by urbanist and journalist Roberta Brandes Gratz. The basic concept of Project Planning is to take a lot of public money, clear a lot of land (usually through urban renewal condemnation), build something big in the middle of downtown, and expect revitalization to result. The actual project may have been a mall, an arena, a stadium, a pedestrian mall, or some combination, but the result was rarely as anticipated. St. Louis, for example, has three major league sports facilities, a large national monument, and a shopping mall downtown, but downtown St. Louis is still very, very dead.

Let's do a paragraph by paragraph dissection of the Whirled's editorial:

The yearlong Dialog/Visioning 2025 process got off to a good start. There was considerable enthusiasm for developing a plan for revitalizing the Tulsa area and citizens and civic leaders participated by the hundreds in helping to craft a plan.

They actually get a couple of things right here. The purpose of Dialog/Visioning 2025 is to develop a plan for the Tulsa area. Enough people were hopeful that their ideas would be heeded that 1100 came to the Mayor's Vision Summit, and many more submitted ideas by e-mail. Hundreds of formal proposals were submitted to the Dialog / Visioning process this spring.

But now, a year later, the economy has taken a nosedive and new issues have arisen. What once was to be a $750 million plan is being pared down to something in the neighborhood of $500 million, with the aim of adding several million dollars for aviation industry proposals.

Revising the plan to entice or maintain aviation jobs is a justifiable and reasonable objective. Cutting out some projects to achieve that end obviously is necessary.

OK. Still fairly bland and reasonable at this point. But now their little faces turn red, they shake their little fists, and they throw themselves on the floor and begin to kick:

But not the downtown arena! Rebuilding downtown Tulsa to bring in more business and tourism was one of the main objectives of the original “visioning” process; in fact, originally, that was the whole point. Adding an arena and improvements to the convention center are central to saving downtown.

Rebuilding downtown Tulsa to bring in more business and tourism was not one of the main objectives, much less "the whole point," of the original visioning process. The point, as articulated by Bill LaFortune during his campaign for Mayor, was to develop a "shared regional vision" -- a concept of Tulsa's future built from the grass roots up, not imposed from the top down, and including the entire region in the decision-making process, rather than having downtown Tulsa dictate to the rest of the region. As it was sold to the public, the vision process was a chance for residents of the Tulsa area to define what we wanted our region to become, not a PR campaign to get residents to sign on to the vision of Tulsa's elite. Here's what the Mayor said at the Vision Summit: “As mayor of the City of Tulsa, I believe there are three critical areas that I must excel in,” Mayor Bill LaFortune said as he opened his Vision Summit. “First, minding the store; that is, delivering the basic services. Second, growing the Tulsa economy by retaining and expanding our existing businesses, and bringing new ones to Tulsa. And third, bringing together business leaders, political leaders and all interested citizens for the purpose creating a shared vision for our future. Then, communicating that vision with enthusiasm and clarity and implementing it. This vision summit is about the beginning of the creation of a vision for the future of Tulsa and our metropolitan area.”

Perhaps the Whirled and the other arena pushers thought they had an "understanding" with the Mayor that the vision process would just be a ruse to get the same old "Tulsa Project" back on the ballot for a third time.

Next, we come to this assertion: "Adding an arena and improvements to the convention center are central to saving downtown."

Saving downtown from what? For what? We have to define the problem before we can determine the appropriate solution. For the Whirled writers and their pals the Chamber Pots, the problem seems to be, "We don't have a big arena and a fancy convention center like they do in Oklahoma City." If this is how you define the problem, then the solution is obvious.

For those of us who want to see downtown Tulsa become a vital, bustling urban place once again, the problem is that most of downtown Tulsa's streets are devoid of human life apart from brief bursts around starting and quitting time. The question to ask is, "How do we re-create Downtown as an exciting place to be, as it once was?" The strategic answer is to get people living downtown once again, and to make visiting downtown a pleasant and inviting experience. To get to that goal, you look for positive trends and opportunities and find ways to encourage and facilitate those trends -- fan the sparks into a flame. It is an incremental approach employing a variety of tactics. Roberta Brandes Gratz calls it "Urban Husbandry" because it's like tending a garden -- you work with the uniqueness of the material you have on hand and help it to flourish. (Read the intro to her book Cities Back from the Edge: New Life for Downtown to get a better feel for this concept. Better yet, buy and read the whole book!)

Arenas don't put people on the streets, they put people in seats for a couple of hours. Except for brief periods before and after games, as people dash between their cars and the arena, arena-goers don't interact with their surroundings.

But residents, shoppers, club-hoppers, and diners move in and out of buildings at their own paces, coming and going at all hours. With more people moving about, and with interesting storefronts around them, visitors to the area feel more comfortable, safer.

The $200 million they want for a sports arena and convention center improvements could pay for dozens of improvements, each one small in itself, but with a far greater cumulative impact to make downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods livelier, safer, and more interesting places to be.

And if the Whirled thinks the arena is so essential to our city, why don't the Whirled's owners set out to build it themselves? The Lortons are a wealthy family -- check out Bobby's new 12,000 square foot fortress across the street from Philbrook -- and while I don't know that they could build it all on their own dime, I'm sure they could put together an investment team, if they really believe it is a financially sound project.

What I don't understand is the Whirled's fixation on the arena. Is it a matter of being unable to shake off the conventional wisdom about downtown projects, no matter how thoroughly it's been disproven? Or do the Whirled publishers or their friends and allies have some financial interests that would be served by the building of a taxpayer-funded arena, but wouldn't be served by a true revival of downtown?

Back to the Whirled editorial:

Early in the process, Mayor Bill LaFortune concluded that an areawide plan would benefit the entire region, so Tulsa County and area municipalities were invited to join the process.

Not so. The County Commission had launched its own process (Dialog 2025), in addition to the process tied to Bill LaFortune's campaign pledge, and it made sense to combine the two efforts. The awkward name, about which they complain at the end of their editorial, is a product of the merger of the two processes. And the idea of including the entire region was an explicit part of his "shared regional vision" platform plank. What part of "shared" and "regional" don't you understand?

The result has been scores of proposals and extensive review of them, leading to the draft $750 million plan announced a few weeks ago. Then it became necessary to consider making a bid for the Boeing Co. 7E7 plant and to also find a way to help our own local aviation giant, American Airlines. So the two teams charged with finalizing a project package went to work with the paring knife. One team called for deleting the downtown arena.

If their own report is to be believed, that team consists of the Mayors and City Managers of Tulsa County's cities and towns.

Someone is going to be unhappy with the final list, regardless of what’s on it. But there are some things that absolutely have to be on it or the whole exercise will have been futile. They include improvements to downtown Tulsa, including a new arena; substantial sums for the two local campuses of Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma; major development on the Arkansas River; and of course the aviation proposals.

Yes, someone is going to be unhappy with the proposal. Why shouldn't we let the Whirled and the Chamber Pots be disappointed in the proposal this time around? It's their turn. They have had their proposal on the ballot twice now. They lost twice, thanks to the tens of thousands of Tulsans who were disappointed with the Whirled/Chamber proposals. I think it's my turn to be delighted by a proposal.

Now to the suggestion that a certain collection of projects have to come out of the process, or the process was an exercise in futility. The way the Whirled puts this seems to suggest, once again, that they assumed their old favorites would get a third chance at the ballot box, that the whole Vision process was just a ruse to get more people to buy into a predetermined final outcome. Could it be that our elected leaders have fooled the Whirled by honoring their stated commitments to an open, grassroots-driven process?

My understanding of the process is that it was to develop a 25-year vision that reflects the dreams of Tulsa area residents for their community. We were told that there was no short-list, no preconceived notions. If that long-term vision process isn't brought to completion, if that process is preempted by plopping the same old stale package of projects on the ballot, then it will have been truly futile, and the hundreds of hours I have put into it over the last two years (through Tulsa Now and the Dialog / Visioning Downtowns and Neighborhoods Task Force) will have been wasted.

There is a possibility, or at least a growing perception, that the process is spinning out of control. Now is the time to seize it back and re-emphasize the original objectives: projects that will enhance the entire region. The downtown Tulsa, university and river projects are without question among the most significant in that regard.

"Out of control" is a telling phrase. Time and again, the Whirled editorial writers have demonstrated that they don't really care for government by the consent of the governed. Autocracy and Latin American crony capitalism is more their style. So who was supposed to have control of the vision process? They were, I suppose.

To whom are they talking to when they say, "Now is the time to seize it back"? Not to ordinary Tulsans. This is a warning to Bill LaFortune and the County Commissioners to toe the Whirled line: "Make it come out our way, or face our wrath!"

If the process is out of control, it's only that the rush to get an initial package on the ballot has put the cart before the horse. First we ought to nail down the long term plan, then we select the projects that make the most sense as first steps toward the long-term vision.

And since it looks like retooling is necessary, could someone please come up with a better name than that infernal Dialog/Visioning?

Yes, it's an awkward name, and it's an awkward process. But an open process to develop a long-term vision that reflects the shared aspirations of nearly a million souls who live in this region is bound to be complicated and messy. The Whirled would love a little "smoke-filled room" action right about now. Let's hope and pray they don't get it.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on June 24, 2003 12:36 AM.

Has the secret agenda been revealed? was the previous entry in this blog.

Bob and Ray on urban renewal is the next entry in this blog.

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