Pearl District plan on TMAPC agenda today, September 5, 2012

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The Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission will cast its final vote today, September 5, 2012, on the Pearl District Association's request for a form-based land use ordinance covering the neighborhood. The new rules governing the Pearl District would be phased in to replace the existing use-based zoning code. The Pearl District proposal would better fit the neighborhood, designed for walkability when it was first developed over 90 years ago, and it would give property owners a great deal of flexibility in making the best and highest use of existing buildings and, ultimately, in building new facilities compatible with the walkable nature of the neighborhood.

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Back in April I wrote a lengthy post covering the twenty-year history of efforts by city planners and Pearl District neighborhood leaders to reverse a decline that began in the late 1980s. The Pearl District occupies a strategic location linking downtown, Cherry Street, Hillcrest Hospital, the University of Tulsa campus, and the Kendall-Whittier and Crutchfield neighborhoods. Much good investment has already occurred. The form-based development code is one of the last pieces of the puzzle. (Long-overdue stormwater improvements for Elm Creek are another important piece.) This could be the key to a general revival of near-downtown housing and employment, spreading to surrounding neighborhoods.

Certain developers and development attorneys have lobbied hard to defeat and undermine the hard work of the Pearl District residents and business owners that have put so many years into this plan. I suspect the development attorneys would prefer the situation under the present code, where they get paid to sit through long hearings for the multiple variances, special exceptions, and zoning changes required just to build the same sort of buildings that have been there for nearly a century.

The TMAPC meeting is today, September 5, 2012, starting at 1:30 pm, in the City Council chambers at Tulsa City Hall, 2nd and Cincinnati. It's at the end of the agenda, so if you're coming, be prepared to stay awhile.

Supporters of positive, growth-oriented, neighborhood-driven development policy need to email the TMAPC (bhuntsinger@incog.org) and, if possible, show up today to support the Pearl District plan.

UPDATE, after the vote: The proposal was voted down, and there's a new legal interpretation that the TMAPC's vote against means the City Council can't consider it. It's my understanding that for a zoning code amendment, it's only necessary for the TMAPC to consider it and make a recommendation (whether for or against) and at that point the City Council is free to adhere to the TMAPC's recommendation or override it. But even if the City Council had enough members bold enough to take this up, you can bet that someone would threaten to sue them individually and the mayor-controlled City Attorney's office would withhold any assistance, notwithstanding the legal merits of the situation.

From what I've been told, some of the TMAPC members may have put themselves in legal jeopardy by not being guided by the duly adopted comprehensive plan in making their decision. Zoning decisions should never be a popularity contest, but it sounds like that's exactly what happened today. Of course, legal jeopardy only becomes a reality if someone is willing to expend the time and treasure to prosecute a lawsuit. I have no doubt that the anti-Pearl District bunch have the resources and the will to punish any planning commissioner or city councilor that stands in their way. I am just as certain that the same is not true of the pro-Pearl District advocates.

All the same, I hope someone on the City Council will move for the Pearl District plan's adoption. Some of my midtown friends, who share my passion for sound urban planning policy, are getting an education in how power politics are played in Tulsa. They're learning that the people they thought were the good guys and the bad guys aren't. As I wrote earlier on a Facebook thread:

You remember that horrible, awful, bickering city council we got rid of? Part of what they were bickering about was trying to keep the Mayor from loading up TMAPC with developer types and instead trying to fill some of the seats with neighborhood leaders who are knowledgeable about zoning.

You remember when we had a neighborhood president on the TMAPC, and how the newly elected county commissioner made it a personal crusade to get rid the neighborhood president off of the TMAPC, at the behest of her developer buddies? The neighborhood president, Liz Wright, survived that attempt to force her out, but when her term expired the county commissioner replaced her with someone presumably more friendly to developers. Liz Wright was there today to speak in support of the Pearl District. The county commissioner is TulsaNow co-founder Karen Keith, who was re-elected with no opposition this year. Karen Keith paid absolutely no political price for her attempt to force a neighborhood leader off of the TMAPC.

Bottom line is that some of the politicians you think are your friends have been actively working behind the scenes, at the behest of their allies and campaign contributors in the development lobby, to undermine reasonable and modest zoning reforms like the one that was killed today.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on September 5, 2012 9:05 AM.

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