Flashback: 2000 paper on neighborhood conservation

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Had hoped to write about Saturday's Oklahoma Republican Convention, Blake "Joe Momma" Ewing's announcement of his candidacy for Tulsa City Council District 4, and the disappointing State House redistricting map, but instead I solved an internet connection problem, monitored and prodded the oldest through his homework, did laundry, and organized digital photos of our homeschool coop. So here's something that was a bit easier to put together, but still interesting, I think.

Many years ago, I was involved in the Midtown Coalition of Neighborhood Associations, serving several years as the group's president. The story of that organization and my involvement in it deserves fuller elaboration at some point, but for now, here's an artifact to which I alluded in the previous entry.

For the 2000 Tulsa City Council elections, I wrote and, with the board's approval, sent to all City Council candidates a paper describing proposed zoning reforms and a questionnaire asking the candidates to respond to the proposals. (That link goes to a mirror of the Midtown Coalition's website -- hosted by Geocities!! -- where you can read responses from the candidates, including councilors Randi Miller, Gary Watts, Anna Falling, and Clay Bird, and current school board member (then a District 7 council candidate) Lois Jacobs.

The point was to get council candidates thinking about these issues and to see which candidates were committed to finding better ways to protect midtown neighborhoods against commercial encroachment into residential areas. Eleven years later, some progress has been made -- some neighborhoods that were upzoned but which remained single-family residential have since been downzoned -- but not as much as I'd have hoped. Only recently, after over a decade, have any of the three pilot neighborhood infill plans turned into actual changes to the zoning code -- the Pearl District pilot form-based land use code. With the passage of PLANiTULSA, we may finally begin to see "new [land use] categories for areas [like Cherry Street] that don't fall neatly into existing categories."

Here's the text of the cover letter and backgrounder from January 18, 2000:


18 January 2000

Dear City Council candidate:

On behalf of the Midtown Coalition of Neighborhood Associations, thank you for your willingness to run for public office. As someone who ran in 1998, I can appreciate the hard work involved - tired feet, tired voice, running here and there, all the while trying to keep up with the demands of home and work. Here's wishing you good weather and good health!

The Midtown Coalition of Neighborhood Associations seeks to put neighborhood issues in the forefront of this campaign, and so we are asking each council candidate to consider and respond to three specific proposals for zoning reform:

  1. Establish a procedure to allow neighborhoods to create formal neighborhood plans, setting standards for new development and redevelopment, which would be drawn up by neighborhoods, with the help of planning staff. These plans would become a binding part of the zoning code.
  2. Reverse the misguided planning policies of the 1960s by "down-zoning" land to reflect the way it is actually being used and to prevent it being converted to the high-intensity uses permitted under existing zoning, which are undesirable near residential areas. In the process, create new categories for areas that don't fall neatly into existing categories, such as the pedestrian-oriented neighborhood shopping areas along Peoria, 11th Street, 15th Street, and elsewhere.
  3. Create some breathing room to consider and implement the first two changes by putting a temporary hold on zoning changes involving the expansion of commercial activity into residential areas.

We are asking all candidates for City Council in 2000 to respond to these proposed reforms. The week before the primary election, the Midtown Coalition will publicly announce the positions taken by the candidates on these three proposals. In addition, your response to the attached questionnaires will be published on the Coalition's website (see address above). Please note that the Midtown Coalition will not be endorsing specific candidates, but merely reporting each candidate's position on zoning reform.

The intent of these proposals is to give every Tulsa neighborhood the power to shape its own future. That is why we are asking candidates in every district, even those beyond Midtown, to take a position on these reforms. Eventually, every neighborhood will face the conflicts brought by redevelopment. Action taken on these proposals this year will help the neighborhoods in your district in years to come.

Please read the attached article explaining the proposals and reply by returning the attached questionnaire to the address above. You may also reply by e-mail to tulsa_midtown_coalition@yahoo.com - an electronic version of the questionnaire can be downloaded from the website. Please make sure we receive your reply no later than Tuesday, January 25.

If you have any questions, please contact me at the above e-mail address, or evenings at 749-7816. Thank you for taking the time to read this and respond.

Sincerely,

Michael D. Bates
President


BACKGROUND ON THE PROPOSED ZONING REFORMS

In the 1960s and early 1970s, Tulsa's zoning ordinances were oriented toward new suburban development. Our historic, traditional neighborhoods were relegated to the past. Older Tulsa neighborhoods were expected to decline in popularity as young families moved out, never to return. The shopping streets that served as "Main Streets" for these neighborhoods were also considered outdated and were rezoned to encourage their redevelopment for high-intensity commercial activities, such as used car sales, auto repair, and warehouses. At the same time, some residential areas were rezoned for office and industrial redevelopment.

In the 1990s, large numbers of Tulsans rediscovered the pleasures of urban living, and traditional neighborhoods have become increasingly popular with homebuyers. Many Tulsans are attracted by shady streets, traditional architecture, sidewalks, and the variety of things to see and do within walking distance of home. Neighborhood shopping streets like Brookside and Cherry Street have come alive, attracting shoppers from all parts of Metropolitan Tulsa as well as those living nearby. Retailers are anxiously seeking good Midtown locations to take advantage of this growing market.

Unfortunately, the misguided zoning policies of the 1960s are still in place, grounded though they are in assumptions that have proven false. While Midtown residents welcome the expanded choices brought by new merchants, they worry that redevelopment will destroy the very qualities that brought them to Midtown. Over and over again, developers have manipulated the system to bring suburban-style development to Midtown: enormous buildings and enormous parking lots that dwarf their surroundings. The inappropriate designation of small retail and office buildings as "high intensity commercial" allows developers to rezone nearby residences as commercial by lumping the commercial and residential areas together, all the while claiming to do the neighborhoods a favor by reducing the overall intensity of development. The result is that homes are demolished, and the homes that once overlooked houses and yards are left to overlook loading docks and parking lots. Whole neighborhoods have been demolished to make way for supermarkets and sports facilities. Streets once pleasant to walk along have become hostile environments for people on foot.

Neighborhood leaders have often tried to fight these damaging changes before the Planning Commission and the City Council, but rarely with any success. Although we have the right to speak, our voice carries no weight. Neighborhoods should have a formal role in the planning and zoning process - the ability to establish a neighborhood plan, which becomes part of the zoning code, and the right to review proposed changes to that plan. A proposed ordinance for neighborhood plans was discussed by the Mayor's Task Force on Infill Development, which completed its work nearly a year ago, but little has been done to make it a reality. (Last November, three neighborhoods were selected by the Mayor for development of pilot plans, but there is no timeline for changing the zoning code so that such plans can be made formal and binding.)

Oklahoma City neighborhoods have had this sort of protection for nearly 20 years. Neighborhoods covered by their "urban conservation districts" include older neighborhoods in central Oklahoma City, commercial districts, and newer, more suburban neighborhoods. Special districts encompass the historic Bricktown and Stockyard City areas. The neighborhood plans set standards for building height and scale, style, setbacks, permitted uses, and parking.

Developers and neighborhoods would benefit from neighborhood plans. Expectations would be set out in writing, so developers would know in advance what kind of development is allowed in an area. A neighborhood would be able to encourage compatible commerical development while protecting the characteristics that make the neighborhood special.

Some might claim that neighborhood plans with firm design and development standards would keep national retail chains out of Midtown, resulting in a loss of jobs and a loss of shopping variety and convenience. While it is true that chain retailers prefer to use their standard floor plans whenever possible, they have been willing, in cities throughout the nation, to adapt to local standards, where standards exist, in order to have access to a particular market. Tulsans need to set forth with confidence our vision of what our neighborhoods should be. The retailers want to sell to us, and they will work with us.

If the zoning code is to serve the interests of neighborhood residents throughout Tulsa, reform is necessary. The institution of the neighborhood plan process is an important step toward meaningful reform. Oklahoma City has had neighborhood plans for nearly 20 years - when will Tulsa catch up?

Additionally, the "up-zoning" that occurred in the '60s and '70s needs to be reversed. Land that is zoned for a higher intensity than its current use are like timebombs that could go off at any second. For example, the neighborhood north of the Broken Arrow Expressway, between Utica and Lewis is zoned for medium-intensity office use. If you lived in that neighborhood, you could wake up one morning to find the house next door demolished and a drive-in bank, a funeral home, a copy shop, or a travel agency being built. The developer would not need to go before the Planning Commission, the Board of Adjustment, or the City Council for approval, because those are all "uses by right" in a medium-intensity office district.

The relics of the misguided planning policy of the past should be replaced with zoning that reflects the reality of Midtown at the turn of the millennium. CH (commercial high-intensity) zoning in neighborhood shopping areas should be replaced with a new category for pedestrian-friendly, neighborhood commercial and office uses, which allows only uses compatible with nearby residential areas, and encourages new development to be consistent with existing buildings along the pleasant, walkable shopping streets Tulsans enjoy. Residential zoning should be restored for those neighborhoods which are still residential but had been rezoned for commercial, office or industrial uses. Part of the Riverview neighborhood, south of downtown, was recently down-zoned in this way.

It will take some time to put these reforms in place. In the meantime, developers will continue with business as usual, and Midtown neighborhoods will continue to be at risk. Developers may even seek to defeat these reforms by encouraging never-ending delays in the process of considering and implenting them. Neighborhoods will continue to lose battles while waiting for reforms to be studied and restudied. To protect neighborhoods in the interim, the City Council should put a hold on all zoning changes involving the expansion of commercial activity into residential areas. This includes PUDs which combine residential land with commerical land to create a bigger commercial area, as well as simple up-zoning from residential to other categories. The Council can simply table (postpone) such zoning applications until the reforms are in place. The hold should be long enough to allow some neighborhood plans to be drawn up and incorporated in the zoning code. This temporary hold will encourage developers to support timely implementation of these reforms by the Planning Commission and the City Council.

NOTE

This mailing was approved by the board of the Midtown Coalition of Neighborhood Associations. The views expressed herein are not necessarily those of each neighborhood association in the Midtown Coalition or of each individual resident member of each neighborhood association.

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1 Comments

Paul said:

I didn't realize Blake was running for the D4 seat. His campaign will be for the 12 month term ending in December 2012?

I live in that district now, and I think I'll still be in D4 after re-districting, but I'm not certain because I haven't followed that discussion or spent much time looking at the proposed boundary changes.

Anyway, that's interesting. I think Blake might be a very good candidate.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on May 10, 2011 2:43 AM.

Historic preservation amendment deserves Tulsa Council support was the previous entry in this blog.

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