Historic preservation amendment deserves Tulsa Council support

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Updated, May 9, 2011: Scroll down for commentary on the outcome of the vote.

Tomorrow night, Thursday, May 5, 2011, the Tulsa City Council will vote on a very simple, crystal clear, eleven-word-long amendment that fixes a loophole in our zoning code, a loophole that endangers the investment that homeowners have made in Tulsa's beautiful historic neighborhoods.

Nearly all of the current city councilors were elected with strong grassroots and homeowner support, often in the face of opposition well-funded by the development lobby. So you would think that these councilors would understand the importance of plugging this loophole and would be resistant to the lobbying efforts of these developers, some of whom are the perpetrators of notable Midtown eyesores. The City Council's job is to consider the long-term health of the city, not just someone's opportunity to make a quick buck flipping real estate.

Instead I'm hearing that certain developers who hope to exploit this loophole are leaning heavily on councilors, and it's having an impact. The election is later this year, and the councilors already know they're going to be targeted by allies of the Tulsa Metro Chamber, already recruiting candidates to run against them. Some may be tempted to believe that, if they give the build-anything-anywhere bunch what they want, they may forestall a primary challenger, or they may have a better chance of raising money for re-election. That would be a grave political miscalculation.

Let me try to explain, briefly, the reason why fixing this loophole matters, why this issue is so important to certain developers, and why it would be a mistake for councilors to cave into developer pressure.

Here's an example, a bit simplified, but it represents developments that have actually been approved in Tulsa:

Let's say you've decided you want to live in a historic home, and you want to live next door to and across the street from other historic homes. You carefully research the zoning and find a house to buy in a historic preservation overlay (HP). The houses across the street are in the HP district too, albeit right on the edge, backing up to properties that are zoned office or commercial. So you have every reason to believe, based on the zoning map, that your house will remain surrounded by other historic homes indefinitely.

But then a developer buys the HP-zoned houses across the street, then goes to the planning commission with a zoning change proposal for a planned unit development (PUD), to include the historic residential lots across the street and the commercial lots on the same block. Under the zoning code, a developer can use a PUD to group together lots with different zoning classifications, and then move the uses permitted in those zoning classifications around within the PUD. So in a PUD encompassing a couple of residential lots, a couple of lots zoned commercial, and a lot zoned office, the developer could put a restaurant where the houses used to be, and put parking on the area zoned for offices and retail.

Suddenly, your historic home no longer faces other historic homes, as the zoning map led you to expect. Instead your front porch looks out over a dumpster, a surface parking lot, or, perhaps worst of all, a blank screening wall where the sidewalk used to be. Your investment in a historic home in a historic neighborhood has been significantly undermined. The HP zoning you thought would protect your investment turns out to be worthless.

The zoning code amendment, item 7.a. on Thursday's agenda, closes the loophole. A developer still might buy the houses across the street, but anything that replaces those houses would have to be residential and would have to conform to the customized rules that apply to that particular HP district.

Tulsa doesn't have many historic neighborhoods, and many of the handful that remain have been damaged by urban renewal, expressway construction, up-zoning, and commercial and institutional encroachment. Still, these graceful, tree-canopied neighborhoods are some of our city's most attractive assets.

Only five of our historic neighborhoods have historic preservation (HP) zoning to protect homeowners' investments against inappropriate redevelopment. These HP districts are quite small -- less than 1/4 sq. mile each -- the loss of even a few lots to commercial redevelopment on any side would have a big impact on the cohesiveness of the remaining neighborhood. And it sets a precedent: Over time, a large portion of a historic neighborhood could be eroded away, one row of houses, one block at a time.

There are complaints (mainly from the same developers fighting this current zoning code amendment) that HP district rules are too onerous. In fact, they are quite weak compared with those of other cities our size. A more flexible type of protection for cohesive, historic neighborhoods -- neighborhood conservation districts -- has met with vehement opposition from the very same development lobbyists.

I'm happy to say that I endorsed eight of our current set of nine councilors, and as far as I know, I'm now on good terms with all nine. Seven of them were elected thanks to grassroots support, despite a heavy financial advantage for their Cockroach Caucus-backed opponents.

Councilors will be tempted to succumb to lobbyist pressure, thinking they may gain an ally against a candidate backed by the Chamber-affiliated PAC. More than likely, the developers will back the Chamber Pots' designated candidates. Councilors who cave on this issue will not only fail to gain the affections of the special interests, but they'll also lose the support of the people who knocked doors, talked them up to their neighbors, and gave small contributions in hopes of having a true representative at City Hall.

Our current crop of councilors are good people. I'm hopeful that they'll "dance with who brung them" and continue to work for the benefit of all Tulsans, not just a favored few.

MORE: A reader calls my attention to a Tulsa World database story from April 17. The reader points out that homes in HP zoning districts appreciated two to three times as much the county average between 2006 and 2010, and in most cases appreciated faster than neighboring non-HP neighborhoods. For example, property values in the Orcutt Addition, which makes up the northern part of the Swan Lake HP district, increased by 27.4% vs. 8.62% county-wide. The number 1 and 2 subdivisions in the county in property value increases are both in the Yorktown HP district -- Weaver Addition (39%) and Maywood Addition (34%).

UPDATE 2011/05/09: As you may have heard, the City Council approved the amendment, but with a December 1 sunset clause. District 4 Councilor Maria Barnes and District 6 Councilor Jim Mautino were the strongest supporters of the zoning code amendment, but voted "no" on the final version because of the built-in expiration date.

As disappointing as the sunset clause may be, I can remember the cries of outrage way back in 2000 when a Midtown Coalition questionnaire asked Council candidates, "Will you support a temporary hold on zoning changes which increase commercial encroachment into residential areas, in order to encourage speedy adoption of [zoning code] reforms and to protect neighborhoods until the reforms are in place?" At that time, simply asking for a temporary hold was enough to get someone labeled as anti-growth. That this could get passed, even with a sunset clause, is a sign of progress, slow though it may be.

Charles G. Hill of Dustbury.com has made the controversy the subject of this week's Vent:

The argument was made that this would buy the city some time to hire a new planning director and to implement further changes in the comprehensive Tulsa Plan. Cynics might say that this buys developers some time to develop a counterstrategy.

Does this herald the second coming of what Bates called the Cockroach Cluster? Not necessarily. But the days of Business As Usual are far from over in America's Most Dutiful City.

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Tulsa City Council District 4 is unique in having two seriously contested primaries. In the Democratic primary, I'm pleased to endorse my friend Maria Barnes. I've known Maria Barnes for over a decade, through her role as Kendall-Whittier Neighborhood ... Read More

The American Planning Association has named Tulsa's historic Swan Lake neighborhood one of ten Great Neighborhoods for 2011, part of the APA's annual recognition of "Great Places In America." (Hat tip to KRMG News for the story.) From the APA's citatio... Read More


David Van Author Profile Page said:

I just want to know what makes a home "historic"? The Perryman Ranch is historic, yet we dismantled that to make much of the City of Tulsa. My home is historic to my family.
I just think the ordinance needs some objective criteria.

I also don't support unfunded mandates. If the city puts restrictions on my property, they ought to reimburse me for the loss of options that resulted. The constitution protects me from an unfunded seizure, but use restrictions are a slippery slope that leads to govt. confiscations without compensation.

I agree with the desired goal, but how do we accomplish the desired outcome?

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on May 4, 2011 10:23 PM.

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