Even billionaires deserve scrutiny and skepticism from the media

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There are those who worry about the influence of the wealthy on federal politics but are quite blasé about the influence of the wealthy on local politics.

That slobbery, smooching sound you heard Saturday was Wayne Greene's column in the Saturday, December 31, 2016, Tulsa World, telling all of us we should accept with thanks and praise every perfect gift that comes from Our Kaiser Above.

The specific occasion is the news that a north Tulsa property owner has refused to sell his dream home and the acreage it sits on to the George Kaiser Family Foundation (GKFF), land that GKFF wants for an industrial park.

The triangle of land between 36th Street North, Mohawk Blvd, Peoria and Lewis Avenues is largely undeveloped. Dirty Butter Creek and its tributaries converge here, making it susceptible to flooding, which may explain why it was passed over by developers during Tulsa's period of northward suburban expansion in the 1950s.

This inexpensive land afforded some families the possibility of building their dream home, surrounded by woods, but close to the conveniences of the city. Along the north side of Mohawk Blvd, far from the creeks, several attractive, large homes were built on small acreages. All but one of these have now been acquired and removed; one remains, owned by Charles and Rebecca Williams, and they have refused to take an offer that is twice the assessor's estimate of their property's value.

The Tulsa World published a story about the Williamses early last week. A few mildly negative comments about Kaiser on that article prompted Greene's column.

It's ironic that whoever headlined Greene's column used the term "local hero" to refer to George Kaiser. There's a movie called Local Hero, one of my all-time favorites, set in a little seaside village in Scotland. The hero of the title is the one property owner who refuses to sell to an American billionaire for a massive industrial project.

Let's examine a few of the things Greene says in his column:

The city's $10 million infrastructure participation in the project was thoroughly debated during the Vision tax extension process. It had the support of the municipal political leadership for the area at the time and was approved by the City Council. Subsequently, voters signed off on the Vision package, including the industrial park.

I suspect the only topic of debate was "will this project get more votes for the dams?" As I wrote back before the vote, the suspiciously round numbers allocated for many of the projects suggest that no serious effort was made to estimate the actual cost for the proposed projects. "If I were a cynic, I might believe that the City Council had no interest in whether these projects were feasible or appropriately budgeted. I might believe, were I a cynic, that these items were included just to get a few more hundred voters to the polls in the mood to vote yes on everything." What exactly was $10 million supposed to cover? It looks like a payola project -- not a serious effort to fund a well-defined project.

The "municipal political leadership for the area at the time" appears to refer to City Councilor Jack Henderson. Northside community leaders complained that the priorities expressed by residents were ignored by Henderson and the council in favor of their own pet projects. Projects associated with a long-term neighborhood planning effort for the 36th Street North corridor were left on the cutting-room floor. Henderson lost his bid for re-election this November to one of the leading critics of his choice of projects.

As to how thoroughly it was debated: Going back through news coverage prior to the election, I find nothing that specified where the proposed industrial park would be located, nothing more specific than "North Peoria." It appears that it was only after the vote took place that the specific location, which isn't even adjacent to Peoria Ave., was identified.

In hindsight, it appears that the reason the 36th Street North small area plan was ignored in Vision Tulsa is because it conflicted with GKFF's intentions and two years of behind-the-scenes land acquisition. Neighborhood stakeholders, working with city planners, identified the undeveloped land between Dirty Butter Creek, Mohawk, and 36th Street North as ripe for new single-family residential development, not as the site for a major industrial facility. Was there anyone on the City Council or in the Mayor's office who would champion the wishes of local residents over the plans of a billionaire's foundation? There used to be. Now we have a mayor who used to be a lobbyist for the billionaire's foundation.

Greene mistakenly believes the new Macy's distribution center will be in Owasso:

Eventually, the project is envisioned to be the home to 1,000 quality jobs, which could be the beginning of the economic turnaround north Tulsa has wanted for years. Want to know why the Macy's distribution center ended up in Owasso and not Tulsa? Owasso had a site that was ready to go. Tulsa didn't.

While it's true that the Macy's center site is near Owasso, and the land used to be owned by an entity called the Owasso Land Trust (despite the name, a commercial entity, not governmental), the site is actually within the City of Tulsa's municipal fence line -- unincorporated land that Tulsa could annex but which is protected against annexation by Owasso or any other city or town. (Presumably Tulsa does not annex this property or other nearby facilities in the Cherokee Industrial Park because it's more attractive to businesses if they don't have to pay city sales tax, use tax, or property tax and if they don't have to put up with city regulations.)

A bit further on in the column, Greene praises the many donations GKFF has made to keep local non-profits running. He continues:

Of course, that hardly scratches the surface of the efforts of the Kaiser foundation to improve Tulsa. From the city's national model early childhood education program to the game-changing A Gathering Place for Tulsa under construction along Riverside Drive, almost all of the good things going on in our community have the leadership (and funding) of the Kaiser foundation.

Whatever you may think of the two specific items mentioned in this paragraph, that last line goes way over the top in its praise of GKFF, or else it reveals Greene's tunnel vision, limiting civic life to a handful of big, highly publicized projects. I could list dozens of job-creating companies, innovative entrepreneurs, charitable and educational initiatives, none of which have anything to do with Kaiser or his foundation.

As to those two examples: Research has failed to show a positive impact on learning outcomes for all the massive public and private investment in putting what we used to call preschool-aged children into classrooms. Making it more affordable for one parent to stay home, parents being married and staying married, connection with a faith community all do more to help children learn and grow. The Gathering Place looks like it will be a lovely park, but hardly "game-changing." GKFF is putting another park in walking distance of a number of other lovely parks and some of Tulsa's wealthiest neighborhoods, while working-class neighborhoods often lack parks, shopping, or any other outdoor space where neighbors might gather. North Tulsa has been particularly hard hit with the removal of recreation centers and swimming pools in recent years.

Greene confesses to having a small flowering plant related to the pea and legume families with GKFF:

You can complain about whatever your particular vetch is with the Kaiser foundation. Personally, I wish the Gathering Place project would get done faster. I miss running along the river and when I drive south the Peoria Avenue detour taunts me with the memories of Riverside Drive.

But that doesn't prevent me from recognizing that my relatively minor inconveniences and the hundreds of millions of dollars marshaled by the Kaiser foundation are going to one day give Tulsa one of the most magnificent community parks in the world, the sort of thing that could help propel Tulsa socially and economically.

I think he means "kvetch," a Yiddish word that can either be a verb (to complain) or a noun (a persistent complainer). One dictionary says it can be used to mean "complaint," but I've never come across that.

The notion that a park, however magnificent, could "propel Tulsa socially and economically" again reveals that Greene's view of civic life is far too narrow.

Greene's little complaint ought to stir a doubt in his mind: How is it that a private organization is granted permission to shut down major public thoroughfares for two years? Even public construction projects are rarely permitted to shutdown a road completely. Ordinarily, public need and convenience would be balanced against the presumed cost and schedule savings of a total shutdown.

That GKFF was able to get a two-year total shutdown of Riverside Drive and the Midland Valley Trail without a murmur of protest from city officials ought to frighten Greene. We can be appreciative of a billionaire's generosity, but we need city officials and the media to remain on guard, to scrutinize his plans and his actions, particularly as they interact with public infrastructure and public policy.

There are strong incentives for city officials and columnists to be good yacht guests, fending off criticisms and keeping their own qualms to themselves. They might want GKFF's support for their own pet projects. They might hope someday to work for a GKFF-funded organization or might have a relative who works for one. The elected officials don't want Kaiser and affiliated donors and PACs to fund an opponent in the next election.

Wouldn't it be lovely if Tulsa had leaders willing to defend plans developed by their fellow citizens against changes pushed by billionaires? We did, about 10 years ago, but they've all been run off and replaced with rubber stamps. I won't hold my breath waiting for things to change.

MORE: There's an interesting pattern in the sales records for the parcels that are proposed to become an industrial park. Nearly all of the parcels I checked were first acquired by Mapleview Acquisitions I LLC, whose registered agent is former Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission chairman Joseph M. Westervelt. Many of the properties were then conveyed to NP36 LLC (registered agent Frederic Dorwart) in a multi-parcel transaction on December 8, 2016, although some parcels appear to be owned still by Mapleview Acquisitions I LLC, according to records on the county assessor's website. Westervelt is notable for his efforts to frustrate and undermine implementation of the Pearl District small-area plan; makes sense that he'd be involved in a development that undermines the 36th Street North small-area plan.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on January 2, 2017 10:39 AM.

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