PLANiTULSA: My comments to the TMAPC

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bates-TMAPC-20100310-4.pngHere is the text of my email to the TMAPC, submitted prior to the March 10, 2010, public hearing on PLANiTULSA. I also spoke to the TMAPC at that hearing, which you can view at TGOV Online. My remarks begin at 2:46:30.

My list of five key qualities of an ideal land use planning process is an condensed version of my April 19, 2006, column.



I am writing to urge adoption of the PLANiTULSA vision and policy documents as our city's new comprehensive plan and to urge that they be adopted without substantial modification. If you choose to make substantial modifications, I urge you to forward both the original version (with minor scrivener's errors corrected) and the TMAPC-modified version for the City Council's consideration.

As a member of the PLANiTULSA citizens' team, I have watched the process unfold since its beginning. City of Tulsa planners Theron Warlick and Martha Schulz and the Fregonese Associates team have produced a plan that reflects the vision of the people of Tulsa. As Bob Sober observed, Tulsans spoke and the planners listened.

I've watched Tulsa's planning process for nearly two decades, and I've seen its flaws -- the conflict and uncertainty that our current system creates and the unnecessary limits it imposes. An ideal land use planning and zoning system would have five key qualities:

1. Protect the investments of all property owners, homeowners as well as investors and developers.

2. Be predictable: Clear, objective rules to produce a high degree of certainty about what you can and cannot do with your property and what your neighbors can and cannot do with theirs, not dependent on the whim of city officials or on hiring a expensive zoning attorney.

3. Regulate what matters and leave the rest alone: Stop "protecting" us against situations that really aren't problems, stop getting in the way of creative ideas that would enhance a neighborhood, but do protect us against situations that are harmful to the neighborhood and the city as a whole. A good system allows as much freedom as possible, while not losing sight of the fact that what I do with my property affects the value of my neighbor's property.

4. Accommodate a variety of neighborhood and development types in order to meet a variety of needs and interests. There needs to be a place in Tulsa for an urban, densely developed downtown, for big-box retail, for mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods where car-free living is possible, and for auto-oriented development and residential-only neighborhoods.

5. Be clear and straightforward. The fewer and simpler the rules the better. Extra points for expressing those rules visually, to make it apparent to developers and homeowners alike what is allowed and what is not.

PLANiTULSA meets those criteria. The PLANiTULSA Policy Plan does an admirable job of accommodating growth and redevelopment while protecting the qualities that make most of Tulsa's neighborhoods desirable places to live, shop, play, and work. If the plan's recommendations are adopted and ultimately implemented in the City of Tulsa zoning code, the result will be clear, objective standards and a predictable environment for all stakeholders, including both property owners and developers. That predictable environment will help to reduce conflicts, uncertainty, and costs in redevelopment.

Areas of stability and small-area planning are key components of PLANiTULSA, not mere add-ons. These concepts didn't emerge out of thin air but in response to feedback from Tulsans during the PLANiTULSA process. Tulsans want to see new development, but they don't want it to destroy the qualities that make our best neighborhoods and commercial districts attractive. Designating areas of change and areas of stability reflect that desired balance.

Small-area planning, with the ability to customize rules to the neighborhood, is a tool that nearly every one of our peer cities has under one name or another. Small-area planning is important both to areas of change and areas of stability. In areas of stability, the process can be used to establish objective standards, appropriate to a given neighborhood, for new infill development. Once a small area plan is complete and implemented in the zoning code, as PLANiTULSA recommends, developers would be able to build in accordance with the plan by right without needing a zoning change or a variance or to come before any other board or committee.

The last time I spoke to the TMAPC was to support Jim Glass's Eastbrooke townhouse and office development on 35th Place east of Peoria. I had no personal interest in the project, but I spoke in favor because Glass's proposal was in accord with the Brookside Infill Plan, and I believed it was important to the integrity of our city's planning process for this recently adopted component of the comprehensive plan to be followed. Had the PLANiTULSA approach been in place at that time, corresponding zoning rules would have been adopted to match the small-area plan, and Mr. Glass would have been able to proceed to construction without the delays of going through the TMAPC and the City Council.

Ironically, this approach might have already been in place, but developers successfully lobbied to water down a 1999 task force report dealing with infill development. Small-area planning coordinated with zoning was originally to be included in the task force recommendations, but the development lobby wanted it taken out, and so it was watered down to three pilot infill studies with no promise of future action. More than a decade later, we are still waiting for any of those small area infill studies' recommendations to be reflected in the zoning ordinance.

Back in 2008, at the beginning of this process, PLANiTULSA conducted in-depth interviews and polled a sample of 1000 Tulsans. The survey revealed deep cynicism about the outcome of any planning process. Robin Rather, the pollster, said "A lot of people feel like it doesn't matter how you plan. Folks that have a lot of money, or a lot of influence get to do what they want." Tulsans were telling her, "We engage in the public process, we go to these meetings, we do the hard work, but at the end of the day our expectations are not met." 70% of those polled agreed with the statement, "I'm concerned the plan will be too influenced by those who have a lot of money."

The open, collaborative approach taken by the PLANiTULSA team has done much to allay those fears. The planners listened to what Tulsans wanted, and it's reflected in this plan. But if the TMAPC takes PLANiTULSA, which was developed with the input of thousands of Tulsans, and removes key components to make a powerful special interest group happy, it will reignite that earlier cynicism. It will confirm the fears that at the end of the day, the big shots always get what they want in Tulsa.

In the normal course of business, the TMAPC deals with people who want to change something -- developers who are seeking some deviation from the existing zoning laws in order to build something new. But as you consider this comprehensive plan, remember that its purpose is not only to benefit Tulsa's small community of developers, but all Tulsans, including the vast majority of homeowners who are quite content with the character of the neighborhoods where they live. These homeowners, who have invested both money and love in their homes and neighborhoods, are happy to see a new development replace a run-down building, as long as the new development is generally consistent with the neighborhood.

It is regrettable that, rather than participate in the collaborative PLANiTULSA process and the give and take of citizens' team meetings to raise their concerns, the developers' lobby has opted to try to push its preferences through at the last minute, presuming upon using its influence with the TMAPC. It appears that the developers' lobby's hope is to get the TMAPC to strip out aspects of PLANiTULSA they don't like. These deletions, combined with the TMAPC attorney's opinion that the City Council cannot amend by adding to the plan forwarded from the TMAPC, would, they seem to hope, deprive the City Council of the chance to adopt these aspects of the plan.

The PLANiTULSA policy plan reflects the consensus view, expressed in citywide and small area planning workshops, in citizen team meetings, and in comments from the public, that healthy, stable neighborhoods should be protected against development that would radically change their character, and that small area planning is the best way to develop objective standards for new development in established areas. Removing those ideas from PLANiTULSA effectively destroys the careful balance in the plan.

I urge the TMAPC to forward the PLANiTULSA documents to the City Council as originally presented, with the minor scrivener's errors corrected. If you choose to make significant changes to the documents, I would ask that you forward both the original version (with the minor errors corrected) alongside your modified version, giving the City Council the option to choose between the two plans, rather than seeking to limit the City Council's options as the development lobby seems to want. The councilors are, after all, the elected representatives of the people, and the City Council is our city's legislative body, entrusted with making policy decisions on behalf of Tulsa's citizens.


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1 Comments

JW said:

I would like to submit the hypothesis that the johnny come lately detractors actually removed themselves from any public conversation a long time ago. The primary foes (per the comments log) of the HBA and John Bumgarner could be best summed up as the town bullies. They have a long track record of literally and figuratively bulldozing public input. Such a bully as Bumgarner could not attend any of these PLANiTulsa meetings because of the infamous history that has alienated him with the public. In fact, I would go as far to say that they have, through previous actions, exempted themselves from providing any input to PLANiTulsa and any input they would like to provide should be ignored at best and in fact thrown away and disregarded. Developers such as Bumgarner have had years to mend the wounds they have caused in neighborhoods but instead take every shot in any forum to attack neighborhood groups and interests (even in the PLANiTulsa comment logs). It is time for these types of developers to "serve their sentence" per se and be excluded from doing the types of development that has brought Tulsa to where it is today.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on March 20, 2010 8:40 AM.

PLANiTULSA notebook: Protecting the integrity of the process was the previous entry in this blog.

PLANiTULSA notebook: Denver, small-area planning in areas of stability is the next entry in this blog.

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