Keeping the promise to the Pearl District

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UPDATE 2012/04/03: The City of Tulsa Planning Department has issued a "policy analysis" of the Pearl District regulating plan, "a supplemental review of adopted plans of the City intended to provide the Planning Commission with a full understanding of the issues and policies created to address them." Attached at the end of the document is a three-page memo describing concerns raised at the public meetings on the plan and how they can be addressed.

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On Wednesday, April 4, 2012, at 1:30 pm in the City Council chambers at City Hall, 2nd & Cincinnati, the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission (TMAPC) will hold a public hearing regarding the proposal to expand the Pearl District land-use regulations from its current pilot area to the entire 300 acres of the neighborhood. The Pearl District plan, developed over a 10-year period by area residents and business owners, faces opposition fueled by disinformation from the Build Anything Anywhere (BAA) Bunch, even though it actually expands the development options available to property owners in the district. Supporters of positive, growth-oriented, neighborhood-driven development policy need to email the TMAPC (bhuntsinger@incog.org) and, if possible, show up on Wednesday to support the Pearl District plan.

The proposed land use regulations implement an infill development plan that has been a part of the City's comprehensive plan since 2005, a plan that was the culmination of a grassroots-driven planning process that began in 1991. The proposed area -- bounded by I-244, the east leg of the Inner Dispersal Loop, 11th Street, and Utica Ave. including the lots facing the south side of 11th and the east side of Utica -- is identical to the area covered by the 2005 6th Street Infill Plan. The opponents who claim that this was a complete surprise and hasn't received sufficient scrutiny are, to be blunt, full of manure. Some of those opposing the current proposal noisily protested the infill plan's adoption seven years ago.

For the BAA Bunch, it's not enough to be able to throw up cookie-cutter suburban development on the other 99.75% of Tulsa's land area. They want to impose that same style of development on one of the few pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods in Tulsa that hasn't been wrecked by urban renewal, expressway construction, or institutional hypertrophy.

Contrary to rumor, the proposal grandfathers existing buildings, allows buildings to be rebuilt as-is in the event of a fire or other disaster, allows for some expansion of an existing building without requiring conformance to the new code, and was developed in public with the involvement of homeowners, developers, business owners, and other community leaders from around the neighborhood.

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Although our regional peer cities -- Oklahoma City, Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, Wichita, San Antonio, Kansas City, Little Rock, Denver, among many others -- have had form-based requirements in their zoning codes for decades, Tulsa's BAA bunch bleat like sheep at the slaughterhouse any time the most modest design guidelines are suggested. This is merely the latest example of their obstructionism.

Meanwhile, planning staff at INCOG seem as if they're trying to sabotage the plan. The backup material connected to Wednesday's agenda consists of two illegible maps and a few letters of protest from people who don't appear to have read the proposal. There is no "request for action," no legal document defining exactly what is proposed to be adopted, no explanatory material of any kind. Although the City of Tulsa pays INCOG handsomely to analyze zoning proposals and make recommendations in accordance with the City's comprehensive plan, INCOG has not made public any analysis or recommendations on this proposal. If INCOG development staff were willing, they could, as part of their analysis, dispel the inaccurate rumors about the effects of the proposal.

While the lack of complete online posting is not technically a violation of Oklahoma's Open Meetings law, it certainly violates the spirit of the law. Wednesday's hearing should be continued or postponed until all relevant material has been posted online for at least two weeks.

(It's overdue for Tulsa to fire INCOG as its land-use planning agency. The city would continue to work with INCOG on transportation planning and dialogue with other city, county, and tribal governments in the region, while bringing land-use planning in-house. Wayne Alberty's impending retirement as head of INCOG's development services department would be an excellent time to make the move. We could save INCOG the trouble of hiring a replacement.)

Approving the Pearl District regulatory plan for the entire district is an important step in fulfilling the promises made by city leaders to area residents and business owners for more than two decades, beginning with the 11th Street Corridor Task Force in the early '90s, the Oaklawn redevelopment committee in the late '90s, the 6th Street (Pearl District) Task Force in the 2000s, the 6th Street Plan approved in 2005, and Tulsa's new comprehensive plan (PLANiTULSA) approved in 2010.

The existing use-based land use regulations date back to the '70s and '80s, a typical post-World-War-Two zoning code focused on new development on undeveloped suburban land. Neighborhoods like the Pearl District, which developed just after World War One, were treated almost as an afterthought in the zoning code and comprehensive plan, a dumping ground for whatever activities weren't desired in the nice new parts of the city. It didn't occur to planners of the period that some people might prefer to live, work, and play in a neighborhood convenient to downtown that was built around people rather than cars.

The subdivisions that make up the Pearl District were platted by 1915, and were fully developed by the early '20s. From the beginning there were industrial uses along the MK&T mainline (including a cotton mill and a glass factory) and mixed in with residences and commercial uses. Three streetcar lines served the neighborhood -- a Tulsa Street Railway branch on 1st street, another on 5th Place (Fostoria), turning onto Quincy Ave., and an Oklahoma Union Traction branch along 11th Street. Route 66's original alignment traveled 2nd Street through the neighborhood from 1926 to 1932; US 66 was rerouted to 11th St. in 1932. Broadcaster Paul Harvey grew up in the neighborhood on 5th Place, attending Longfellow School, which was once located on the northwest corner of 6th and Peoria.

The neighborhood was still regarded as a pleasant place to live in the late 1970s, according to newspaper accounts quoting Pearl District leader Dave Strader, who moved into the neighborhood circa 1979. But in the last half of the '80s, prostitution, drug use, and gang activity moved into the area.

A determined group of local residents and business owners were persistent in getting the city to take action to clean up the area, facing death threats from the criminals who were abusing their neighborhood. An 11th Street Corridor Task Force was created in 1991, resulting in a plan that was adopted by the city in 1993. A TIF district was established, and some of the increased property tax revenues generated by The Home Depot became available for implementing the 11th Street Corridor plan.

One of the plan's recommendations involved redeveloping Oaklawn, a small subdivision wedged between Central (now Centennial) Park and Oaklawn Cemetery. In 1999, the Tulsa Development Authority issued a Request for Proposals and formed a task force to evaluate and recommend one proposal for adoption. I served on the task force along with Strader, Paul Wilson of Twenty-First Properties, Dwain Midget from the Mayor's office, and City Councilor Anna Falling, among others. The Village Builders, a team led by developer Jamie Jamieson, was the unanimous selection. Unlike some of the proposals, the Village at Central Park proposal was designed to connect with and encourage improvements in the surrounding area. In the decade since, the area has seen a new Family and Children's Services building, refurbishment of an existing building into a boutique hotel, a facelift for the VFW in the old armory building, the reopening of the historic Church Studios, with many more projects currently in the works.

(One of the unsuccessful proposals came from a leading detractor of the current Pearl District plan. He wanted to build a gated community walled off from the surrounding neighborhood.)

Jamieson immediately joined forces with the Central Park Neighborhood Association. They succeeded in becoming one of three target areas for pilot small-area infill plans as recommended by the 1998-9 Infill Task Force. The new 6th Street Task Force began meeting on a monthly basis sometime around 1999 or 2000. The group eventually adopted the name "Pearl District," inspired by the original name of Peoria Avenue in the area.

One of the challenges faced by the Pearl District group was stormwater control. The Elm Creek basin was the last watershed in the city where no stormwater improvements had been made, and the potential for flooding was a deterrent to redevelopment. The stormwater plan in place would have obliterated Centennial Park to create a giant, treeless detention pond. The Pearl District task force proposed and won acceptance of an alternate plan, with a smaller, landscaped pond in Centennial Park, a new recreation center, and two additional small ponds in other parts of the district. The result is one of the city's most beautiful vistas, looking west across the Centennial Park pond to the downtown skyline.

The 6th Street task force report was issued and adopted by the City in 2005, covering the exact same area now covered by the proposed form-based land use code.

The Pearl District was originally developed under land use regulations that were much less stringent than those currently in force. The new Pearl District form-based code would restore a great deal of flexibility for landowners, while preserving its pedestrian-friendly character, and repairing the urban fabric where it's been compromised by the careless planning decisions of the past. Under the new Pearl District code, you can use more of your land area for your building, because there are smaller, more reasonable requirements for parking, landscaping, and setbacks. You have more options for what uses are allowed on your property, without needing to seek special permission from the city.

Under the current zoning code, any new development in this district requires some combination of rezoning, special exceptions, and zoning variances. It adds expense and uncertainty, hindering redevelopment. The proposed new land-use code is clear and specific, and its aim is to reduce drastically the need to spend money on lawyers and paperwork to move forward with a new development.

If you want to support efforts to revitalize a key inner city neighborhood, one that links downtown, Cherry Street, and the TU campus, if you want the City of Tulsa to keep its promise to a group of long-suffering property owners who have been working on this for two decades, please email (bhuntsinger@incog.org) or attend in person to show your support for the Pearl District plan.

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MORE:

The Pearl District Association website.

The 6th Street Task Force Infill Plan, adopted as part of the City's comprehensive plan in 2005. There is a very informative and comprehensive section on the history of the Pearl District's development and the history of the city's revitalization plans and efforts.

My UTW column from November 2007 on teardowns and infill development, in which I mention that the Pearl District was seeking to become a pilot area for a form-based land-use code. That's almost five years ago.

My UTW column from February 2009 on the Pearl District's creative approach to stormwater mitigation, related links, and then-UTW reporter Mike Easterling's July 2011 story on the same topic.

From 2006, a modest suggestion that the private foundation wanting to spend $100 million of its own money (plus $600 million from taxpayers) to build a pedestrian-friendly district on new islands in the Arkansas River could instead implement the Pearl District plan and revive a pedestrian-friendly district for a fraction of the cost.

My very first UTW column in September 2005 dealt with the the need to have at least one truly walkable neighborhood in Tulsa for the sake of Tulsans with disabilities. Although I didn't mention the Pearl District by name, it's a prime location for a walkable neighborhood to serve disabled Tulsans by virtue of being near the Ailene Murdock Villa and the Center for Individuals with Physical Challenges.

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3 Comments

Dave Strader said:

Thanks for a great article Michael. We appreciate your help. I hope you can make it to the meeting on Wednesday. There is organized opposition who are spreading fear through misinformation, lies and deceit about the code. As usual, we have an uphill battle on our hands.

Dave

Alan Bates said:

Great article Michael

Anonymous said:

Your article may be a little dated as far as my comments are concerned. Unfortunately, I don't believe my comments are dated. I don't believe the subject of this article is an isolated case, in fact I know it's not. Last year I had a debate with some of the Perl District members on FB. In the end it sounds like they eventually “rolled over” for the city. I'm not surprised. When a large, organized group such as the Perl District Association gives up, how does that affect smaller groups? Smaller groups that need the confidence to pursue similar justice?

As I understand it, the original Perl District Plan, put simply, the City of Tulsa decided to violate. It's not unusual when interlopers enter the scene, in the name of so-called progress, to become controversial. After all, development can have a major impact on citizens residing in the potentially affected area. Citizens have a vested interest in having their voices and concerns aired. The manner in which a jurisdiction handles this controversy can lead to disastrous results for citizens. There's nothing wrong with a municipality having flexibility in land use and zoning. Conversely, when it decides to violate a plan that has deeply involved citizens' input and participation, that must be considered in a different light.

When these agreements, plans, ect. are violated, it disenfranchises and diminishes the desire by ordinary citizens to become participants in their own governance. It reduces the confidence that their participation will be meaningful and fruitful. What sense does it make for a plan, developed through significant citizens participation, to be invalidated?

Part of the problem lies in the fact that most citizens are not very literate when it pertains to government operations. It's not our expertise. If it was we would all be running for city council seats or an integral part of government. And why should we? Isn't that why we elect representatives? The point I'm trying to express here is that average citizen, especially in smaller jurisdictions, often approach their local government with an innocence and blind trust that their local government will “do the right thing” for them, making allowance for their lack of experience. These situations lead to naive and defenseless citizens against city officials that want to play politics and are less then forth coming about their real agenda. Lobbyists and big money lurking around the corner.

When cities violate their trust with the citizens, citizens need to be empowered. It's been my experience that too often there's no where to turn except expensive attorney's, often out of reach for average income folks. No support groups, no citizens advocates to advise before or after, no knowledge base ..... nothing! The Internet does little to help. There's no Wikipedia for this! We like to think that we live in a sophisticated, so-called modern society. A place in which help is just around the corner. Support to help solve nearly every problem. But, when it comes to dealing with city hall, the cold, hard reality tells us otherwise. It reinforces the old notion that “you can't fight city hall”. A phrase I despise and should no longer be part of our vernacular, but unfortunately it is alive and well. The residents on my street (not in Tulsa), can attest to that! That needs to change! We need to “level the playing field” between citizens and their municipal governments. Governments who like to pursue total dominance over the citizens. A notion I hope most of us find repulsive!

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on April 2, 2012 7:58 PM.

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