Tulsa Zoning: March 2010 Archives

A commenter on another website noticed that I hadn't said anything about behind-the-scenes machinations by the INCOG -- the Indian Nations Council of Governments -- to modify the PLANiTULSA vision and policy plan, particularly the part that recommends that the City of Tulsa bring in-house the planning functions it currently outsources to INCOG. Here are the paragraphs that have INCOG leadership's knickers in a twist, from the Strategies section of Our Vision for Tulsa, p. 44, Step 6: Organize Planning and Development Functions for Implementation:

Organization matters, and currently Tulsa's planning and development functions are spread between many agencies and departments. Development services and economic development functions reside in different departments. The city's redevelopment activities and programs are carried out by the Tulsa Development Authority, and staffed by the City's economic development and real estate management staffs. Neighborhood planning functions are a part of city government. While the city is leading PLANiTULSA, long range planning and zoning is staffed by INCOG under contract with the City, and the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission (TMAPC) with both county and city appointees is the key planning advisory body and is responsible for both zoning and comprehensive planning.

For PLANiTULSA to be successful it is critical that the city coordinate development-related activities so they work together to effectively address changes desired by Tulsans. The City of Tulsa should enhance staff capacity and technical skills and consolidate city development-related activities into a Community Development Department as well as bring the current and long range planning functions that are currently outsourced to the INCOG into this new structure. This would result in City staff providing the review and analysis of development requests as well as staffing the Tulsa Metropolitan Planning Commission. The City of Tulsa should continue to support INCOG's leadership role in regional planning and transportation. INCOG's support and regional leadership is critical to implementing the PLANiTULSA vision.

I could launch into commentary at this point, but I've noticed a lot of confusion about what INCOG is, how it relates to the TMAPC and the City of Tulsa, and what would be the practical consequences of implementing the strategy described above. Here are the facts:

INCOG has two core roles. It serves as the Council of Governments (COG) for a sub-state planning district, one of 11 established by the State of Oklahoma in 1970 to cover the entire state, and it is a Metropolitan Planning Organization, fulfilling federal regional planning requirements tied to federal funding.

The Oklahoma Association of Regional Councils (OARC) is the association of Oklahoma's 11 COGs, a group that includes INCOG, COEDD (Central Oklahoma Economic Development District), and SODA (Southern Oklahoma Development Association). The OARC website explains the origin of Oklahoma's COGs and their core responsibilities:

Regional Councils are voluntary associations of local governments formed under Oklahoma law. These associations deal with the problems and planning needs that cross the boundaries of individual local governments or that require regional attention. Regional councils coordinate planning and provide a regional approach to problem solving through cooperative action. Although known by several different names, including councils of governments, regional planning commissions, associations of governments and area councils, they are most commonly referred to as "regional councils" or COGs. No legal distinction exists among the different names.

Regional councils are defined by law as political subdivisions of the state, but they have no regulatory power or other authority possessed by cities, counties, or other local governments. Decisions by regional councils are not binding on member governments. These decisions are considered and adopted as members needs require. As political subdivisions, regional councils are subject to state laws governing open meetings, access to public records and conduct of public officials.

So a COG is a local government version of the United Nations -- a place for governments to talk, but with no power to tax or legislate. Any agreements are only enforced to the extent that member cities and counties choose to do so through their legislative process.

Here is a map of Oklahoma's sub-state planning districts. INCOG's district is Tulsa, Osage, and Creek Counties -- the Tulsa Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area from 1963 to 1973.

INCOG is also a Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). Wikipedia explains:

A metropolitan planning organization (MPO) is a federally-mandated and federally-funded transportation policy-making organization in the United States that is made up of representatives from local government and governmental transportation authorities. In 1962, the United States Congress passed legislation that required the formation of an MPO for any urbanized area (UZA) with a population greater than 50,000. Federal funding for transportation projects and programs are channeled through this planning process. Congress created MPOs in order to ensure that existing and future expenditures of governmental funds for transportation projects and programs are based on a continuing, cooperative, and comprehensive ("3-C") planning process. Statewide and metropolitan transportation planning processes are governed by federal law (23 U.S.C. § 134-135). Transparency through public access to participation in the planning process and electronic publication of plans now is required by federal law. As of 2005, there are 385 MPOs in the U.S.

As one of Oklahoma's three MPOs, INCOG coordinates regional transportation planning for the Tulsa Transportation Management Area (TMA), which covers Tulsa County and parts of four other counties: southeastern Osage (including Skiatook Lake), southwest Rogers (including Claremore), western Wagoner (including Coweta and all of Broken Arrow), and northeastern Creek (including Sapulpa, Kiefer, and Mounds). INCOG conducts ongoing 25-year long-range transportation planning in a five-year cycle -- the latest, Connections 2035, is underway.

(Two other MPOs serve Oklahoma: ACOG for the Oklahoma City TMA, which covers Oklahoma and Cleveland Counties, plus parts of Logan, McClain, Grady, and Canadian Counties, and the Lawton Metropolitan Planning Organization, which covers the urbanized central portion of Comanche County.)

INCOG provides these core services on behalf of its member local governments. Member governments pay dues proportional to population and have representation on the INCOG Board of Directors.

You may have noticed that the statement in the PLANiTULSA document affirms both of these core roles for INCOG.

What's at stake is INCOG's role in the City of Tulsa's zoning and land use planning process. Since 1980 (according to former State Rep. Bruce Niemi), the City of Tulsa has outsourced staffing for the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission and the City of Tulsa Board of Adjustment to INCOG, through an annual contract. Before 1980 these roles were performed by the City of Tulsa's planning department; PLANiTULSA proposes restoring that situation.

Staff at INCOG's Land Development Services, headed by Wayne Alberty, process applications for rezoning, subdivision plats, special exceptions, and variances. Land Development staff maintain the records of past zoning and planning decisions. They also analyze these zoning and planning applications and make recommendations to the TMAPC and the BoA to approve, approve with changes, or reject. Often, when a zoning application is not in accordance with the Comprehensive Plan, INCOG staff will recommend approving the rezoning and then amending the Comprehensive Plan to match the rezoning.

According to INCOG's own website, this is an unusual arrangement:

INCOG is one of a few councils of government in the nation that also staffs local and metropolitan planning commissions. It provides staff services to the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission (TMAPC) and to the City of Tulsa and the Tulsa County Boards of Adjustment. INCOG also serves more than a dozen other local planning commissions and boards of adjustment in cities and counties in the Tulsa metropolitan area.

There's a lot of confusion about the relationship between the City of Tulsa, INCOG, and the TMAPC. Here are the facts:

INCOG Land Development Services provides staff for the City of Tulsa Board of Adjustment, the Tulsa County Board of Adjustment, and TMAPC.

Despite the word Metropolitan in its name, TMAPC only handles zoning and land use planning for the City of Tulsa and unincorporated portions of Tulsa County. Every other Tulsa County municipality has its own planning commission.

TMAPC, organized by the City of Tulsa and Tulsa County in 1953, is the only planning commission organized under Oklahoma Statutes, Title 19, Section 863.1 et seq. -- joint city-county metropolitan area planning commissions for counties over 180,000. (Oklahoma County/Oklahoma City would be eligible, but Oklahoma City has a city planning commission organized under Title 11, Chapter XLVII -- city planning commissions for cities over 200,000 -- and Oklahoma County has a planning commission under Title 19, Section 868.1 et seq. -- county planning commissions for counties over 500,000.)

INCOG's Community Planning division provides planning staff to a number of smaller municipalities, each of which has its own municipal planning commission.

The vital point here is that the City of Tulsa's relationship with INCOG as Metropolitan Planning Organization and the COG for the Sub-State Planning Area, its relationship with INCOG as provider of land planning services, and its relationship with TMAPC are not legally or logically interconnected. The City could choose not to renew its contract with INCOG for land use planning services and instead staff TMAPC and BoA internally. The City could move to a city planning commission like Oklahoma City's, while continuing to contract land use planning to INCOG. The City could even retain INCOG for land use record keeping but give City of Tulsa planners the job of analyzing and making recommendations on zoning applications and comprehensive plan modifications.

All of those choices are independent of each other, and none of them would affect Tulsa's relationship with INCOG as the COG for the sub-state planning area or as the Metropolitan Planning Organization for regional transportation planning.

There's the what. In a future post, I plan to address the why -- why some people want to take Tulsa's land use planning back into City Hall and why others want to be sure it stays put at INCOG.


The Census Bureau has lists of Metropolitan Areas going back to 1950 and historical info on metropolitan area definitions going back to 1910.

The Federal Highway Administration explains the special geographical entities -- urbanized zones, urban clusters, metropolitan planning areas, transportation management areas -- that play a role in transportation planning and funding.

Here is a map of the Tulsa Urbanized Area (UZA) based on the 2000 Census, which includes parts of Tulsa, Sand Springs, Sperry, Catoosa, Broken Arrow, Coweta, Bixby, Jenks, and Sapulpa. Note that Owasso, Glenpool, Skiatook, and Claremore are separate Urban Clusters, because of wide rural swaths separating them from Tulsa. Note too the large sections of north, east, and west Tulsa that are outside the urbanized area or were as of April 2000.

This directory covers the Tulsa urbanized area with seven more detailed maps showing the streets bounding urbanized areas.

A list of Oklahoma counties, municipalities, metropolitan and micropolitan areas, urbanized areas, urban clusters, school districts, and county subdivisions with their FIPS codes.

I wasn't able to attend the March 23, 2010, TMAPC hearing in person, but I watched the last hour or so of the hearing on TGOVonline.org. The on-demand version should be posted in a couple of days.

I submitted an email comment in response to an impassioned speech that seemed to be suggesting we could have a unanimously shared comprehensive plan if only we jettisoned the particulars that might upset one faction or another. Here's what I said:

"It is not possible to draft a plan with meaning and substance that will satisfy everyone. Surely [the speaker] would not want to delete all language in PLANiTULSA about sustainability and mixed-use development to satisfy conspiracy theorists who believe these terms mean Tulsa would be enslaved to the whims of an oppressive, UN-led one-world government. Likewise, we shouldn't begin jettisoning key components of this plan or severely limiting other components just to calm the irrational fears of some excitable members of Tulsa's development community.

"As a planning commission adopting a master plan for Tulsa's future development, you would be failing Tulsa if you allow this long-term vision and plan to be held hostage by a few voices motivated mainly by their own short-term gain.

"I agree strongly with homebuilder Will Wilkins' comments that Tulsa's development community can work successfully within this new plan, just as they have worked successfully under our existing comprehensive plan. There isn't any planning or land use concept in PLANiTULSA that hasn't already been successfully implemented in many other cities in the US."

Further arguments against jettisoning parts of the plan in hopes of unanimous consensus:

At this point in the process, anything TMAPC changes to make one faction happy is likely to make another faction upset.

There is an interconnectedness to elements of the plan, an internal consistency and cohesion. If key elements of the plan are removed, that cohesion begins to unravel.

I truly believe that, despite the fears of the homebuilders, the plan as released is a win-win for developers along with the rest of Tulsa. It opens the door to types of development not currently possible, and it reduces burdensome process and regulation.

I thought back to a comment by a developer during the 1998-9 infill task force. It may have been Joe Westervelt, who was at the time one of Susan Savage's appointees to the TMAPC. The gist of the comment was that if Tulsa had design guidelines for commercial districts like Brookside, national retailers wouldn't want to locate here. They have a standard building and site plan and that's all they want to build -- so the thinking goes.

But anyone who has traveled has seen national chains that have adapted their stores to meet the required characteristics. I've seen examples of McDonalds, Walgreens, Barnes and Noble, Wendy's, Kroger, Publix, and CVS designed to fit into a walkable urban environment. Tulsa needs to have as much self-esteem as our peer cities.

Regarding the plan to reopen public comments following a March 31 meeting by the TMAPC: The Tulsa Metro Chamber is trying to claim credit, but they had nothing to do with it. In fact, this is good for ordinary Tulsans, since before the public hearing is reopened, we'll see what kind of amendments to the plan the TMAPC will approve. Then we'll have the opportunity to persuade and rebut after those amendments are on the table.

Tonight, March 23, 2010, starting at 6 pm, is what may be the final session of the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission's public hearing on PLANiTULSA, Tulsa's first comprehensive plan in a generation. If not everyone can be heard who wishes to speak, the TMAPC has the option to continue the public hearing on a later date, as they did following the March 10 session, but the members seem antsy to move on to the deliberation phase. If you have a comment on the plan and you can't be there in person, you can complete an online comment card or email your comments to planning@cityoftulsa.org and TMAPC@incog.org.

The application of small-area planning -- a key component of PLANiTULSA -- continues to be a point of controversy, with the Home Builders Association of Greater Tulsa requesting that the use of the small-area planning process be restricted to "Areas of Change." It appears that the HBAGT wishes to preclude any planning process that might lead to adjustments in zoning for an area that they see as a target for redevelopment. The HBAGT also objects to using small-area planning in greenfield areas. Here (PDF format from original Microsoft Word file) are the HBAGT's comments on PLANiTULSA submitted by Paul Kane, CEO of the HBAGT, back on March 8, 2010.

In a nutshell, it would seem that the HBAGT doesn't want PLANiTULSA to change anything about the way they do business. It would seem that the HBAGT has no problem with other aspects of PLANiTULSA -- mixed-use development, redevelopment in north Tulsa and areas like the Pearl District, new, denser types of residential development -- because they don't have any plans to participate in those types of development.

Here is a link to the consolidated log to which Kane refers. (This link takes you to a collection of links to all submitted PLANiTULSA comments to date.)

I can't be at tonight's meeting, but I submitted a comment today urging the TMAPC to retain the original PLANiTULSA language regarding the use of small-area plans and not to accept language that would limit their use only to areas the HBAGT doesn't care about:

I am writing again to urge adoption of the PLANiTULSA vision and policy documents as our city's new comprehensive plan and to urge that they be adopted without substantial modification. If you choose to make substantial modifications, I urge you to forward both the original version (with minor scrivener's errors corrected) and the TMAPC-modified version for the City Council's consideration.

I am writing specifically to object to any modification that would rule out the use of small-area planning for Areas of Stability. Tulsa has already used the small-area planning process to develop an infill plan for Brookside, which covers an Area of Stability (residential) and the Area of Change (the business corridor along Peoria) it surrounds.

The same process would be useful for both Areas of Change and Areas of Stability: Define an area, identify the area's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, define the desired development for the area, define an implementation plan (zoning, infrastructure, capital improvements, incentives, etc.), approve the plan (via TMAPC and City Council). The process may be simpler and require less planning manpower for an area of stability than for an area of change, but the same general steps would be involved.

On p. 62, the PLANiTULSA Land Use document says, "A small area plan is any plan that addresses the issues of a portion of the city." Saying we will only use small area plans for Areas of Change would rule out the city's ability to work with area stakeholders to define such a plan to protect the desirable characteristics of a stable area from being undermined by destabilizing influences.

Blueprint Denver, a comprehensive plan developed by Fregonese Associates, identifies as criteria for selecting areas for Small Area Plans "stabilizing conditions that threaten Areas of Stability" and areas where there are "opportunities for substantial infill or redevelopment." Clearly, there are Areas of Stability in Tulsa where there are opportunities for substantial infill and where there are conditions that threaten stable areas. It is appropriate in such circumstances to gather area stakeholders and work with them to define the area's challenges and strengths, define the area's desired characteristics, and define an implementation plan to achieve those characteristics.

How small area plans for stable areas would be implemented in zoning is a matter for discussion and refinement during the implementation phase of PLANiTULSA. It is crucial, however, that at this phase we do not remove a useful tool -- small area plans -- from our planning toolbox and that we not restrict its use.
I also urge retaining the ability to use small area plans for greenfield development. It is crucial for traffic flow and for pedestrian and bicycle access to consider the development of new subdivisions in the context of abutting development, rather than in isolation. Tulsa has suffered from disconnected subdivision development patterns which force local traffic onto arterial streets and make it impractical for people to walk or bike to shopping, jobs, and recreation.

I regret that I will not be able to attend tonight's meeting in person. I would welcome the opportunity to answer any questions you may have.

I also made a suggestion for clarifying language regarding the use of small area plans in Areas of Stability. These ideas are scattered throughout the plan, but rather than be coy about these aims, we should say plainly what our goals are and how small area plans can help us reach those goals in a way that is predictable and stable for both homeowners and developers.

"We value our walkable traditional neighborhoods and commercial districts. Not only do we want to build more of them, we intend to protect the handful that have survived from before World War II and the dominance of auto-oriented development. We also value the stable, mature residential areas that have given Tulsa claim to the title 'America's Most Beautiful City.' Although these are in Areas of Stability, they are vulnerable to destabilizing influences.

"We intend to define objective design standards for infill development in these areas, standards that allow new development while protecting the attractive characteristics of these areas, and to incorporate those standards into our land use ordinance. We will use the small area planning process, involving area stakeholders at each phase of the process, to develop infill standards for these areas. Because these areas are developed and stable, an abbreviated version of the small area planning process will be used to plan these areas, which will not be as lengthy, intensive, or demanding on city planning resources as small area plan development for Areas of Change."

Before coming to Tulsa, Fregonese Associates consulted on a new comprehensive plan for Denver, called Blueprint Denver. It's interesting to see that some of what the homebuilders want excised from PLANiTULSA was adopted in Denver. On the main Blueprint Denver page, the following is listed as the first of three major themes (emphasis added):

Blueprint_denver_Cover.jpgAreas of Change and Areas of Stability. Direct growth to Areas of Change while preserving the character of Areas of Stability. Areas of Stability include the vast majority of Denver and are primarily the fairly stable residential neighborhoods where no significant changes in land use are expected over the next twenty years. The goal is to maintain the character of these areas and accommodate some new development and redevelopment that maintains the vitality of the area. The majority of new development will be directed to Areas of Change; areas that will benefit from, and thrive on, an infusion of population, economic activity and investment. These areas include the new growth areas of Lowry, Stapleton, the Gateway area, downtown, around transit stations, and along major street and/or transportation corridors.

From the Small Area Plan page (emphasis added):

A small area plan is any plan that addresses the issues of a portion of the city. Small area plans can cover three different geographic scales -- neighborhood, corridor, and district. They can cover as few as 10 acres or as many as 4,500 acres. Small area plans cover a specific geography that often has a cohesive set of characteristics. The result can be a richly detailed plan that addresses the area's unique issues with tailored solutions.

There are three major types of Small Area Plans:

  • Station Area Plans (learn more at www.denvergov.org/tod)
  • Neighborhood Plans
  • Corridor Plans
Criteria for selecting areas for Small Area Plans:

  • Evidence of disinvestment, deteriorating housing, and high vacancy, unemployment and poverty rates.
  • Significant change is occurring or anticipated.
  • Public facilities and/or physical improvements need to be addressed.
  • Opportunities for substantial infill or redevelopment are present.
  • Opportunities arise to influence site selection, development or major expansion of a single large activity generator.
  • Transit station development opportunities.

Also important are criteria that more specifically address the goals of Blueprint Denver:

  • Creating opportunity for appropriate development in Areas of Change.
  • Stabilizing conditions that threaten Areas of Stability.
  • Promoting public investment that increase transportation choice.
Chapter 8 of Blueprint Denver covers Small Area Planning in depth. The idea is to have a standardized process and set of tools to handle planning for a specific area. Pp. 154-155 describes a list of tools for implementing small area plans, including regulatory tools:


  • Zoning tools include:
  • Keep zoning as is
  • Amend language in code
  • Rezone selected parcels to a new district
  • Apply fundamental overlay zones -- e.g. transit or pedestrian overlay
  • Utilize a specific overlay zone district
  • Evaluate the need for additional development guidelines review

Landmark district

For those buildings or districts with architectural, historical or geographical significance, a landmark district may be recommended to provide protection from demolition or inappropriate remodeling.

View protection

A view of downtown or the mountains from a point in an important public place can be recommended for protection through a view preservation ordinance.
Denver is a growing, healthy city, and it seems to be doing all right with a small area planning process that can be applied (by means of zoning) to both areas of change and areas of stability.
bates-TMAPC-20100310-4.pngHere is the text of my email to the TMAPC, submitted prior to the March 10, 2010, public hearing on PLANiTULSA. I also spoke to the TMAPC at that hearing, which you can view at TGOV Online. My remarks begin at 2:46:30.

My list of five key qualities of an ideal land use planning process is an condensed version of my April 19, 2006, column.

I am writing to urge adoption of the PLANiTULSA vision and policy documents as our city's new comprehensive plan and to urge that they be adopted without substantial modification. If you choose to make substantial modifications, I urge you to forward both the original version (with minor scrivener's errors corrected) and the TMAPC-modified version for the City Council's consideration.

As a member of the PLANiTULSA citizens' team, I have watched the process unfold since its beginning. City of Tulsa planners Theron Warlick and Martha Schulz and the Fregonese Associates team have produced a plan that reflects the vision of the people of Tulsa. As Bob Sober observed, Tulsans spoke and the planners listened.

I've watched Tulsa's planning process for nearly two decades, and I've seen its flaws -- the conflict and uncertainty that our current system creates and the unnecessary limits it imposes. An ideal land use planning and zoning system would have five key qualities:

1. Protect the investments of all property owners, homeowners as well as investors and developers.

2. Be predictable: Clear, objective rules to produce a high degree of certainty about what you can and cannot do with your property and what your neighbors can and cannot do with theirs, not dependent on the whim of city officials or on hiring a expensive zoning attorney.

3. Regulate what matters and leave the rest alone: Stop "protecting" us against situations that really aren't problems, stop getting in the way of creative ideas that would enhance a neighborhood, but do protect us against situations that are harmful to the neighborhood and the city as a whole. A good system allows as much freedom as possible, while not losing sight of the fact that what I do with my property affects the value of my neighbor's property.

4. Accommodate a variety of neighborhood and development types in order to meet a variety of needs and interests. There needs to be a place in Tulsa for an urban, densely developed downtown, for big-box retail, for mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods where car-free living is possible, and for auto-oriented development and residential-only neighborhoods.

5. Be clear and straightforward. The fewer and simpler the rules the better. Extra points for expressing those rules visually, to make it apparent to developers and homeowners alike what is allowed and what is not.

PLANiTULSA meets those criteria. The PLANiTULSA Policy Plan does an admirable job of accommodating growth and redevelopment while protecting the qualities that make most of Tulsa's neighborhoods desirable places to live, shop, play, and work. If the plan's recommendations are adopted and ultimately implemented in the City of Tulsa zoning code, the result will be clear, objective standards and a predictable environment for all stakeholders, including both property owners and developers. That predictable environment will help to reduce conflicts, uncertainty, and costs in redevelopment.

Areas of stability and small-area planning are key components of PLANiTULSA, not mere add-ons. These concepts didn't emerge out of thin air but in response to feedback from Tulsans during the PLANiTULSA process. Tulsans want to see new development, but they don't want it to destroy the qualities that make our best neighborhoods and commercial districts attractive. Designating areas of change and areas of stability reflect that desired balance.

Small-area planning, with the ability to customize rules to the neighborhood, is a tool that nearly every one of our peer cities has under one name or another. Small-area planning is important both to areas of change and areas of stability. In areas of stability, the process can be used to establish objective standards, appropriate to a given neighborhood, for new infill development. Once a small area plan is complete and implemented in the zoning code, as PLANiTULSA recommends, developers would be able to build in accordance with the plan by right without needing a zoning change or a variance or to come before any other board or committee.

The last time I spoke to the TMAPC was to support Jim Glass's Eastbrooke townhouse and office development on 35th Place east of Peoria. I had no personal interest in the project, but I spoke in favor because Glass's proposal was in accord with the Brookside Infill Plan, and I believed it was important to the integrity of our city's planning process for this recently adopted component of the comprehensive plan to be followed. Had the PLANiTULSA approach been in place at that time, corresponding zoning rules would have been adopted to match the small-area plan, and Mr. Glass would have been able to proceed to construction without the delays of going through the TMAPC and the City Council.

Ironically, this approach might have already been in place, but developers successfully lobbied to water down a 1999 task force report dealing with infill development. Small-area planning coordinated with zoning was originally to be included in the task force recommendations, but the development lobby wanted it taken out, and so it was watered down to three pilot infill studies with no promise of future action. More than a decade later, we are still waiting for any of those small area infill studies' recommendations to be reflected in the zoning ordinance.

Back in 2008, at the beginning of this process, PLANiTULSA conducted in-depth interviews and polled a sample of 1000 Tulsans. The survey revealed deep cynicism about the outcome of any planning process. Robin Rather, the pollster, said "A lot of people feel like it doesn't matter how you plan. Folks that have a lot of money, or a lot of influence get to do what they want." Tulsans were telling her, "We engage in the public process, we go to these meetings, we do the hard work, but at the end of the day our expectations are not met." 70% of those polled agreed with the statement, "I'm concerned the plan will be too influenced by those who have a lot of money."

The open, collaborative approach taken by the PLANiTULSA team has done much to allay those fears. The planners listened to what Tulsans wanted, and it's reflected in this plan. But if the TMAPC takes PLANiTULSA, which was developed with the input of thousands of Tulsans, and removes key components to make a powerful special interest group happy, it will reignite that earlier cynicism. It will confirm the fears that at the end of the day, the big shots always get what they want in Tulsa.

In the normal course of business, the TMAPC deals with people who want to change something -- developers who are seeking some deviation from the existing zoning laws in order to build something new. But as you consider this comprehensive plan, remember that its purpose is not only to benefit Tulsa's small community of developers, but all Tulsans, including the vast majority of homeowners who are quite content with the character of the neighborhoods where they live. These homeowners, who have invested both money and love in their homes and neighborhoods, are happy to see a new development replace a run-down building, as long as the new development is generally consistent with the neighborhood.

It is regrettable that, rather than participate in the collaborative PLANiTULSA process and the give and take of citizens' team meetings to raise their concerns, the developers' lobby has opted to try to push its preferences through at the last minute, presuming upon using its influence with the TMAPC. It appears that the developers' lobby's hope is to get the TMAPC to strip out aspects of PLANiTULSA they don't like. These deletions, combined with the TMAPC attorney's opinion that the City Council cannot amend by adding to the plan forwarded from the TMAPC, would, they seem to hope, deprive the City Council of the chance to adopt these aspects of the plan.

The PLANiTULSA policy plan reflects the consensus view, expressed in citywide and small area planning workshops, in citizen team meetings, and in comments from the public, that healthy, stable neighborhoods should be protected against development that would radically change their character, and that small area planning is the best way to develop objective standards for new development in established areas. Removing those ideas from PLANiTULSA effectively destroys the careful balance in the plan.

I urge the TMAPC to forward the PLANiTULSA documents to the City Council as originally presented, with the minor scrivener's errors corrected. If you choose to make significant changes to the documents, I would ask that you forward both the original version (with the minor errors corrected) alongside your modified version, giving the City Council the option to choose between the two plans, rather than seeking to limit the City Council's options as the development lobby seems to want. The councilors are, after all, the elected representatives of the people, and the City Council is our city's legislative body, entrusted with making policy decisions on behalf of Tulsa's citizens.


In addition to the lovely winter storm we're enjoying on the first day of spring, there's a storm swirling around PLANiTULSA, Tulsa's first comprehensive plan since the late '70s.

After almost two years of public input from thousands of Tulsans, the PLANiTULSA policy plan, vision document, and land use map have been submitted to the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission (TMAPC). The TMAPC is in the midst of a public hearing on PLANiTULSA, with the third and possibly final session of that hearing this coming Tuesday, March 23, 2010, at 6 p.m. in the City Council chambers. After the public hearing is closed, the TMAPC will stop taking public comments and will deliberate, possibly making significant modifications to the plan. They will then forward the plan to the City Council for final approval, at which point there will be another public hearing.

Here at the end of the process, several groups -- traditional Tulsa power brokers with declining influence -- have emerged asking for significant, even radical, changes to the plan and are asking for an extension of the public comment period to give them more time to twist arms for their pet provisions. They were given a seat at the table, had representatives on the citizens' advisory team, and even had private meetings with the PLANiTULSA consultant team. Now they claim they haven't had enough time to read and evaluate the plan, and they're presenting changes that would unbalance the plan to suit their self-interests.

Jim Beach, a former INCOG land use planner and now a land use consultant for Wallace Engineering, has a blog post asking these groups, "Where have you been the last two years?"

Over 6,000 individual Tulsans took their opportunity seriously when invited to attend numerous workshops and have their opinions heard openly during the past two years of PLANiTULSA. The result is a world class Comprehensive Plan proposal that an unprecedented number of people have helped create in a healthy, open, engaging, and democratic process. It has been inspiring and refreshing.

This process didn't happen behind closed doors. It's not the product of special interest deal making. It didn't happen by following the old familiar back scratching methods we're all familiar with and with which many are vaguely uncomfortable but generally accept as "the way it's done."

If you are a member of one of the groups just now opening your door and coming out to delay, derail, or dilute the work of thousands of people over thousands of hours, you are demonstrating exactly the behavior that creates a vast divide between "us and them".

Read the whole thing. (And you'll also want to read his remarks to the TMAPC, urging approval of PLANiTULSA.)

Beach points out that what's at stake is not just the substance of the plan but also how we handle major public decisions in this town. If you've been involved at all in Tulsa civic matters, you know the old pattern of task forces and vision processes: a public input phase, followed by the special interests hijacking the process for their own purposes, with the resulting conclusion being whatever the powers-that-be wanted in the first place. PLANiTULSA -- so far -- is a complete break with that pattern, but we need to show up and speak out if we don't want a relapse to occur:

If left unchallenged, the old methods will continue to be effective in their tried and true, subversive ways.

Part of the paradigm shift that has already occurred through the PLANiTULSA process includes fundamental changes in how we approach the process of public engagement. There is a renewed expectation that everyone has a place at the adult table and if you want to be part of the discussion, you need to show up on time and have your say.

It is absolutely crucial that as many of us as possible make it clear to the TMAPC that we want them to recommend approval of our new Comprehensive Plan - as we created it, with a solid and well documented background of vision development and citizen input.

My intention is to write something specific today about each of three groups who feel threatened by PLANiTULSA and are trying to alter the plan for their own purposes. I hope to explain why the points of the plan they are challenging are worth defending. (Will I get that done? I'm trying to juggle time with family and the hectic final stages of a major project at work -- the job that actually pays the bills -- with staying engaged on this important process through its conclusion.)

But even before we get to the the 11th-hour complainers and the substance of their complaints, the integrity of the PLANiTULSA deserves to be defended. The city planners running PLANiTULSA and the consultant team have been committed to an open and above-board process, driven by public input. We shouldn't sit complacently while traditional power brokers with a sense of entitlement try to remake our plan to serve their narrow interests.

I spoke at Wednesday's TMAPC public hearing on PLANiTULSA, Tulsa's first comprehensive plan in a generation. I haven't had time to write my thoughts on the event, but my friend Jamie Jamieson copied me on an email to a Pearl District neighborhood leader. He did a fine job describing yesterday's PLANiTULSA hearing at the TMAPC and analyzing the undercurrents among the special interest groups seeking to delay the process and dismember the plan. With his permission I'm publishing it here.

At the end of the meeting, the TMAPC decided not to end the public hearing, but to continue it until March 23, at 6 p.m. The public will again have the opportunity to speak, and comments may be also submitted online between now and the end of that meeting (unless the commissioners decide again to extend the time).

Let me underscore what Jamie says about the need for ordinary Tulsans to make your voices heard. If you participated in PLANiTULSA, in the citywide workshops, the small-area workshops, the survey, or some other way, if you want your input to matter, you need to express your support for the plan to the TMAPC.

I will be [unavailable for the March 23 meeting]. I delayed [an event] so that I could be present at and speak at yesterday's meeting, which I believed would be the last such hearing. As it was, so many people spoke - at length and to good purpose - that I didn't get to speak. It was a well-run hearing in that many people had their say and the Commissioners took time to engage closely with speakers in detail. The Commissioners handled it pretty well, particularly Bill Leighty and Liz Wright who both asked incisive questions. All the fog of misinformation circulated in recent days evaporated after a series of close questioning by BIll Leighty at the very outset of the hearing. I think it is imperative that the official voice of the Pearl District is heard, from the President at the next hearing. Christine [Booth] did very well, at short notice at the first hearing, and I spoke at that meeting too. We both sat through yesterday's 3.5 hour hearing, when we could have been doing our day jobs. We now need others to take up the slack.

It's starkly clear that the homebuilders, realtors and the Chamber, all of whom showed up to complain yesterday, are mounting a serious effort to torpedo key features of PLANiTULSA. They give the impression of having lain in wait for two years.

It looks as if the strategy is to drag out, obfuscate, confuse, conflate, alienate, discredit and ultimately emasculate the Plan to suit a myopic view of their own narrow interests, at the expense of Tulsa and Tulsans. A tactic in this is (i) to show up at the tail-end of the process when normal people have made their contribution to the process, and are at their day jobs, (ii) to gradually wear everyone else out to a point where no one else shows up except them, and (iii) to connive and lobby behind closed doors. They are now variously asking for a 60 or more days delay for their 'members' to consider PLANiTULSA's 200 pages. Never mind that everyone else has already read it. Perhaps - being charitable - they're just slow readers.

The Chamber, of which I am a long-time and slightly embarrassed member in particular made itself look hopelessly out of touch: it sent a new and floundering employee along to ask for a delay with the flimsiest of rationales. It seemed pretty clear that it's been 'got at' by the Home Builders, who merely succeeded in making the Chamber look stupid - to the extent that the audience laughed at the Chamber's first utterances. Their representative left early. 'Mission accomplished'. Engagement Over.

It seems to have escaped these organizations' notice that their respective, individual members are also Tulsans, who have had the opportunity to engage at any point in the last two years with PLANiTULSA. In fact many individual members such as I have actually done so. I am hoping that the Commissioners, who are an intelligent group of mature people, see through this for the sham - and shame - that it is.

While these respective groups have every right - and indeed duty - to speak at hearings, their seemingly calculated absence from the PLANiTULSA discussion process until the last minute is at best negligent, and at worst cynical, irresponsible and reprehensible. Up to 6,000 other Tulsans like them spent more than two years working on this project, as individuals. Now these organizations think they can come in and over-ride it at the last minute with a torrent of proposed corrections (most of which have actually been accommodated - almost to a fault - by the PLANiTULSA team).

An inspired, progressive, constructive, mature, public process is threatening to turn into a tedious yet predictable struggle of unimaginative, vested interests wishing to preserve a crumbling status quo (characterized by back-room deals, with scant regard to the real world) versus Tulsa's residents and the true interests of Tulsa and its economic and fiscal viability.

It's enough to make me want to move to Portland, along with everyone else under 30: the vocabulary there is about progress, adaptation to a radically changing world, innovation, new ideas. Our public policies here in contrast seem orientated around protecting the interests and personal feelings of a bunch of good ole boys whose time has... gone. The intellectual and policy high ground has transferred to the neighborhoods and to hitherto sidelined planners. Philanthropists and tax-payers meanwhile pay for the intellectual deficit - in hard cash.

So I trust you and other neighborhoods will show up and speak on March 23. Whilst the critics of PLANiTULSA were heavily out-numbered yesterday some opponents still haven't spoken, and will take up their right to do so at the next - and, I trust, final - hearing.

This is, sadly, a fight that in my view will determine whether Tulsa has much of a future.

As Jamie says, the hearing was very well handled. I felt I was heard. At many public hearings of this sort, the committee or board hears the speaker without response or interaction, and the speaker doesn't know how the members will process the information until the board discussion has begun, at which point there's no opportunity to clarify or rebut. After I spoke at Wednesday's hearing, however, a number of TMAPC members asked me questions that indicated they'd been paying attention and that gave me a chance to clarify and expand on my prepared comments. They did this for all the speakers, and that's why it seemed to take 20 minutes to hear each person, despite the 5 minute time limit.

As for the special interests asking for a delay and/or at the last minute requesting massive changes to the plan: These groups all were given a seat at the table. Home Builders Association executive VP Paul Kane and homebuilder Ken Klein were both members of the Citizens Advisory Team for PLANiTULSA, as was Al Unser, the head of the Greater Tulsa Association of Realtors, and Mike Neal, president and CEO of the Tulsa Metro Chamber. Many more people connected with the Chamber and the development industry were appointed by Mayor Taylor to those committees. (I was rather worried about it. I needn't have worried, apparently, as they opted not to participate actively. The two-tier distinction between advisers and partners was quickly collapsed into the single tier of the citizens team.)

These interest groups should have been following the process all the way through and should have raised their concerns earlier on, to be discussed by the Citizens Team. If they came to the meetings, they never seemed to have much to say. It's as if they thought it beneath their dignity to have their concerns aired amongst οἱ πολλοί. The concept of "Areas of Change and Stability," the issue that has the Home Builders Association upset, has been under discussion since spring 2009. It was included in the online background material for the "Which Way Tulsa" survey, issued in May, and it was in the draft Vision document issued on September 15, 2009.

Today is the final public hearing before the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission for adoption of the PLANiTULSA vision and policy documents as Tulsa's first comprehensive plan in a generation. The hearing is in the City Council chambers today at 1:30, and I urge you either to attend and speak in support of the plan or send in a comment card for the TMAPC's consideration. Comments must be received before the close of the public hearing in order to be considered.

If you cannot appear in person, but would like to submit your testimony to the Planning Commission, please complete this online comment card or email your comments to planning@cityoftulsa.org and TMAPC@incog.org

PLANiTULSA supporters need to speak up. Elements of the developers' lobby in Tulsa are trying to strip away key components of the plan. These developers -- particularly the homebuilders -- object to the notion of "areas of stability" as it would appear to interfere with their ability to scrape midtown lots and turn leafy midtown neighborhoods into subdivisions full of Plano Palaces. (Here are the comments on the plan submitted Monday by Paul Kane, Home Builders Association of Greater Tulsa Executive Vice President.)

P. 75 of the land use chapter of the PLANiTULSA policy plan defines areas of stability and the kind of development the plan anticipates for such areas:

2.9 Establish criteria for identifying areas of stability. Define areas of stability as:
  • Established neighborhoods
  • High performing commercial and industrial areas
  • Historic districts and areas with concentrations of historic structures

Planning/investment priorities for areas of stability include:

  • Connectivity and streetscapes improvements

  • Housing/neighborhood revitalization and rehabilitation programs

  • Redevelopment of aging strip centers or corridors

  • Small-scale infill that complements the character of the neighborhood and is consistent in form, scale, rhythm and proportion, as seen from the street

The developers also want to gut the small-area planning concept. PLANiTULSA proposes an extension of the sort of thing we're already doing (e.g. the Pearl District Plan, the Brookside Infill Plan), but the PLANiTULSA approach is to turn those plans, once they're complete and have been adopted, into zoning rules, so that a developer would be able to build something in accordance with the plan by right, rather than needing special TMAPC or BOA permission to proceed. This approach would make things much easier for developers in areas targeted for redevelopment, but the developers want things easier for themselves everywhere. The developers particularly don't want small-area planning applied to areas of stability, where the process could be used to develop design standards for infill redevelopment in established neighborhoods.

The developers' lobby strategy seems to be grounded in a legal theory that if the TMAPC takes elements out of the plan, the City Council can't put them back in. As seven of the nine city councilors were elected over the developers' lobby's objections, the TMAPC is their best shot at getting their way and blocking the council from adopting the complete plan. That's why it's important for ordinary Tulsans to have their voices heard by the TMAPC today.

While leaders of development and real estate organizations and prominent developers were appointed to the PLANiTULSA Citizens' Advisory Committee, they never seemed to participate in the give-and-take of the plan development process. I guess they thought they could swoop in at the last minute and have the TMAPC remake the plan to their liking.

Back in April 2006, I wrote a column in which I described five characteristics of an ideal land use planning and zoning system for Tulsa. Here are those five characteristics:

1. The aim of an ideal system would be to protect the investments of all property owners. That means homeowners as well as investors and developers.

2. My ideal system would be predictable. Before you invest in a piece of property you should be able to know with a high degree of certainty what you can and cannot do with your property and what your neighbors can and cannot do with theirs. If permission is dependent on the whim of city officials or on hiring a sufficiently expensive zoning attorney, the system isn't working as it should.

3. My ideal system would regulate what matters and leave the rest alone. Too often, our zoning code "protects" us against situations that really aren't problems, getting in the way of creative ideas that would enhance a neighborhood, while blithely permitting situations that are harmful to the neighborhood and the city as a whole. A good system allows as much freedom as possible, while not losing sight of the fact that what I do with my property affects the value of my neighbor's property.

4. My ideal system would accommodate a variety of neighborhood and development types in order to meet the variety of needs and interests in a city as big as Tulsa. There needs to be a place in Tulsa for an urban, densely developed downtown, as well as for big-box retail. There needs to be a place for both mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods where car-free living is possible, and for auto-oriented development with big-box stores and residential-only neighborhoods.

5. My ideal system would be clear and straightforward. The fewer and simpler the rules the better. Extra points for expressing those rules visually, to make it apparent to developers and homeowners alike what is allowed and what is not.

I support adoption of PLANiTULSA because, if adopted and if implemented, it will come close to creating the ideal system I outlined.

URGENT UPDATE: I've heard that Ms. Cobb sent an email blast that's generating some panicked comments attacking PLANiTULSA. If her email is as misinformative as her remarks to the TMAPC (see below), her influence will need to be countered by those who have actually read the PLANiTULSA policy plan and understand it. Your last opportunity to weigh in is tomorrow (March 10, 2010), at the TMAPC public hearing, beginning at 1:30. You can also fill in a comment card but it must be submitted before the TMAPC public hearing tomorrow in order to be considered by the TMAPC.

If you're wondering about the opposition to PLANiTULSA, Tulsa's first comprehensive plan update in a generation, here is one example, from the Feb. 23, 2010 TMAPC public hearing on the plan. Martha Thomas Cobb is a Realtor, and during her remarks to the TMAPC, she says that she tells her potential buyers that they can't remodel a house in a Historic Preservation zoning district without their neighbors' permission, and so the buyers decide they'd rather not buy houses in those districts. Therefore, in her view, overlay zoning and design guidelines are harmful to a neighborhood. She objects to the PLANiTULSA policy plan because of its advocacy of "areas of stability" where infill should be compatible with existing development.

Watch her comments for yourself in the TGOV video of the Feb. 23, 2010, TMAPC public hearing on PLANiTULSA. The key quote is about 1:20:36 into the video:

Swan Lake and North Maple Ridge are areas that have also added designations of preservation. As a Realtor, once I explain the fact that somebody cannot remodel without the plan being approved by their neighbors, unless they are happy with the house as it stands -- which nobody ever is when you're showing them property -- they choose other locations in town without this obstacle.

There are a couple of significant errors in her statement. In the first place, HP overlay zoning in Tulsa governs only what is visible from the street. You can remodel the interior of a home in an HP district to your heart's content without needing any special approval peculiar to the HP district. See Title 42, Chapter 10 A, for all the details, but here's the key provision, section 1053 C:

Within a Historic Preservation District, work, as defined in this Chapter, shall not commence unless a Certificate of Appropriateness has been first issued; provided however, that work related to the following shall not require a Certificate of Appropriateness:

1. Ordinary maintenance and repair which shall include the removal, installation, or replacement of guttering; the removal or replacement of roof covering with like material; and the application of any paint color to non-masonry surfaces.

2. Interior of buildings and structures.

3. Portions or parts of buildings, structures, or sites not visible from adjoining streets.

4. Accessory structures or buildings, such as storage sheds, garages, decks, patios, fencing, swimming pools and pool houses that are not part of the primary structure, provided however, such structures and buildings are not located in front yards.

5. Installation of radio or television antenna.

6. General landscape maintenance and planting of new organic materials.

7. Work required for temporary stablization of a building or structure due to damage.

And if you do want to change the exterior facade of the house, your neighbors don't have the power to veto it. Approval is handled by the Tulsa Preservation Commission and is granted or denied on the basis of clear standards in the zoning ordinances, and if you're not happy with the TPC's decision you can appeal it to the City Board of Adjustment.

The kind of design standards anticipated by the PLANiTULSA land use plan to define compatible infill would generally be less stringent than HP standards. From p. 33 of the land use chapter of the policy plan:

The Existing Residential Neighborhood category is intended to preserve and enhance Tulsa's existing single family neighborhoods. Development activities in these areas should be limited to the rehabilitation or improvement of existing homes, or small-scale infill that that complements the character of the neighborhood and is consistent in form, scale, rhythm and proportion as seen from the street.

But getting back to Cobb's comments: Suppose you owned a home in an HP district but had to sell it because your company was relocating you to another city. How would it make you feel, knowing that a Realtor was deterring buyers who were interested in your house with inaccurate comments about the impact of HP zoning on their ability to remodel the house? Those inaccurate comments might mean you're paying on two houses for several months more. I am not a lawyer, but I wonder whether such comments might be grounds for a tortious interference claim. I am not a Realtor either, but as a layman I would think that, at the very least, a Realtor who would let his personal prejudice against and/or misunderstanding of historic preservation overlay districts interfere with acting in the seller's interests could be at odds with state real estate regulations or the Realtor ethics code.

TMAPC member Phil Marshall, himself a Realtor and homebuilder as well as a past president of the Brookside Neighborhood Association, asked Cobb, "Do you find a lot of rundown homes in these areas [Swan Lake and North Maple Ridge]?" Her reply, "Yeah, pretty much." (Marshall's question seemed tongue-in-cheek to me.)

To the contrary, here's a heat map showing the value of recent home sales in the Tulsa area, with North Maple Ridge and Swan Lake right on the $250K border. A quick scan of Zillow for recent home sales show that most homes in these areas are going for around $100 per square foot or better. In Tulsa, that's an indication of strong demand.

The general thrust of Cobb's remarks were that overlay districts with design guidelines are a violation of a homeowner's constitutionally protected property rights. But every parcel in the city has restrictions on setback, lot coverage, height, and use. In an overlay district, those restrictions are customized.

Oklahoma City
has had districts of this sort since 1981, governing both residential and commercial areas, including Bricktown and downtown. Wichita, Kansas City, Dallas, Fort Worth, Denver, San Antonio, Austin, St. Louis -- nearly all of our peer cities in this region and beyond have some type of land use district where design requirements for new development are customized to be compatible with existing development in a district. They go by many names -- overlay, conservation, special review, special use.

One more thing: Cobb said she didn't think there were real estate builders and brokers and attorneys involved in the PLANiTULSA process. In fact, representatives from the Home Builders Association and other real estate organizations, including Paul Kane, Executive Vice President of the Home Builders Association of Greater Tulsa, and Al Unser, CEO of the Greater Tulsa Association of Realtors, along with other prominent members of the real estate and development community (e.g. Bruce Bolzle of KMO, Ken Klein of Kleinco, and Paul Wilson of Twenty-First Properties) were members of the PLANiTULSA citizens' team that provided oversight and advice throughout the process.

MORE: If the name Martha Thomas Cobb seems familiar, I wrote about a mass email she sent prior to the 2008 city election that began "CALL YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD COUNCIL REPRESENTATIVE AND TELL THEM YOU ARE AGAINST MIDTOWN TULSA."

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Tulsa Zoning category from March 2010.

Tulsa Zoning: February 2010 is the previous archive.

Tulsa Zoning: April 2010 is the next archive.

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