Is a confederacy of dunces running downtown?


The TulsaNow forum discussion about the Tulsa Whirled's plans to demolish the old Skelly Building at 4th & Boulder is evolving into a broader discussion of the gradual conversion of downtown into a suburban office park. Some of the talk is about legally constraining further demolition -- a moratorium on more surface parking lots, or tax rates that disadvantage demolition, but it's tricky to do this in a way that doesn't invoke the notion of a "taking" under the 5th Amendment and thus require compensating the landowner. Preservation easements have been used successfully with willing building owners -- the building owner signs over certain rights to a private organization, while retaining ownership of the building. This is mostly done as a tax-deductible donation, although sometimes the easement will be done in exchange for payment.

One of the writers on the forum ("Average Joe") wonders what book Tulsa's leaders are using for revitalizing downtown. It seems to recommend the following steps (my comments interspersed):

* Tear down historic structures, especially multi-story buildings that add density to the streetscape, for parking lots. That parking lot architect might turn out to be just as famous as the architect who designed the building you just hauled off to the landfill.

* Spend $183 million on a new arena away from any nightlife already happening downtown. If possible, build it smack up against the post office, city hall and social services. It'll be a big draw. All the vagrants will add "urban character" to the experience.

* When installing new sidewalks and lighting in your downtown districts, take care to avoid installing lighting in the entertainment district next to the jail, bail bondsmen, homeless shelters, and social services.

* Cut the local police force to the bone. Citizens enjoy the excitement of fending for themselves.

* Allow a bridge over railroad tracks to deteriorate to the point of having to close it. Leave it barricaded for years, with no plan to repair it in sight. This is most effective if said bridge would conveniently connect your new arena parking structure to an entertainment district and concert venue.

Guests to our arena would prefer to walk through the dark Denver viaduct, with its high walls that cut off any escape route from danger, past bail bonds shops and rescue missions to get to the Brady District. Or better yet, they would enjoy crossing railroad tracks at night and past the scene of a recent homicide.

* Plant lots of Bradford pear trees along your narrow downtown sidewalks, even when trees aren't historically accurate. Bradford pears are an important choice for plant material due to their low, wide, squatty shape and weak wood. Nobody wants to see the front of those buildings (and the businesses in them) anyway. Dodging fallen limbs is fun! And the dense shade cast they cast is particularly useful in turn a poorly lit sidewalk into a pitch-black tunnel at night. The 10 days that Bradford pears are in bloom will make up for the other 355 days a year.

Not to mention the trees' appeal as latrines for grackles.

* Move the Chamber of Commerce out of your historic Art Deco Chamber of Commerce building - but leave up the sign. Nobody wants to be able to find your C of C anyway.

* And finally, whenever possible, fill your downtown with drive-thru branch banks and flat parking lots for churches and community college students. Downtown should just be suburbia without the grass!

The real problem in Tulsa, one which laws and financial incentives cannot fix, is the absence of a preservation mindset among the city's leading families, developers, and property owners. The instinct in Tulsa is to tear down and build new, rather than adapt and reuse. In some cities, where the preservation mindset is dominant, you'd be cast out from polite society if you tore down a building for a parking lot. If we had the preservation mindset in Tulsa, we'd be able to pass laws to protect Tulsa's architectural history, but then if we had that mindset, laws wouldn't be necessary.

Beyond the issue of preservation, there's a lack of appreciation in Tulsa for the little buildings that form the connective tissue of the urban fabric. Most of downtown Tulsa's one to four story buildings have been torn down for parking lots. Downtown Tulsa has become a sea of isolated nodes of activity separated by vast parking lots.

In contrast, look at San Antonio, which still has a large and widespread stock of such buildings downtown, despite rising land values and demand for parking. These low-rise buildings provide pedestrian-friendly links between the Riverwalk and the Alamo and Market Square.

(A side note: I've been to San Antonio very recently, and I think the city may have more art deco buildings than Tulsa does. That's if you only count the buildings that haven't been torn down -- Tulsa may prevail if you count demolished buildings.)

As a first step toward making things better in Tulsa, we ought to make sure we do something useful with the $18 million set aside for downtown Tulsa from Vision 2025. Planting more pear trees, installing glare-producing acorn lights, and building brick sidewalks isn't going to fix what's wrong.

But more than that, Tulsa's powerful few need to get the vision of real downtown revitalization and historic preservation. Then they need to lead by example.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on July 8, 2004 1:04 AM.

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