Tulsa Zoning: May 2011 Archives

Had hoped to write about Saturday's Oklahoma Republican Convention, Blake "Joe Momma" Ewing's announcement of his candidacy for Tulsa City Council District 4, and the disappointing State House redistricting map, but instead I solved an internet connection problem, monitored and prodded the oldest through his homework, did laundry, and organized digital photos of our homeschool coop. So here's something that was a bit easier to put together, but still interesting, I think.

Many years ago, I was involved in the Midtown Coalition of Neighborhood Associations, serving several years as the group's president. The story of that organization and my involvement in it deserves fuller elaboration at some point, but for now, here's an artifact to which I alluded in the previous entry.

For the 2000 Tulsa City Council elections, I wrote and, with the board's approval, sent to all City Council candidates a paper describing proposed zoning reforms and a questionnaire asking the candidates to respond to the proposals. (That link goes to a mirror of the Midtown Coalition's website -- hosted by Geocities!! -- where you can read responses from the candidates, including councilors Randi Miller, Gary Watts, Anna Falling, and Clay Bird, and current school board member (then a District 7 council candidate) Lois Jacobs.

The point was to get council candidates thinking about these issues and to see which candidates were committed to finding better ways to protect midtown neighborhoods against commercial encroachment into residential areas. Eleven years later, some progress has been made -- some neighborhoods that were upzoned but which remained single-family residential have since been downzoned -- but not as much as I'd have hoped. Only recently, after over a decade, have any of the three pilot neighborhood infill plans turned into actual changes to the zoning code -- the Pearl District pilot form-based land use code. With the passage of PLANiTULSA, we may finally begin to see "new [land use] categories for areas [like Cherry Street] that don't fall neatly into existing categories."

Here's the text of the cover letter and backgrounder from January 18, 2000:

18 January 2000

Dear City Council candidate:

On behalf of the Midtown Coalition of Neighborhood Associations, thank you for your willingness to run for public office. As someone who ran in 1998, I can appreciate the hard work involved - tired feet, tired voice, running here and there, all the while trying to keep up with the demands of home and work. Here's wishing you good weather and good health!

The Midtown Coalition of Neighborhood Associations seeks to put neighborhood issues in the forefront of this campaign, and so we are asking each council candidate to consider and respond to three specific proposals for zoning reform:

  1. Establish a procedure to allow neighborhoods to create formal neighborhood plans, setting standards for new development and redevelopment, which would be drawn up by neighborhoods, with the help of planning staff. These plans would become a binding part of the zoning code.
  2. Reverse the misguided planning policies of the 1960s by "down-zoning" land to reflect the way it is actually being used and to prevent it being converted to the high-intensity uses permitted under existing zoning, which are undesirable near residential areas. In the process, create new categories for areas that don't fall neatly into existing categories, such as the pedestrian-oriented neighborhood shopping areas along Peoria, 11th Street, 15th Street, and elsewhere.
  3. Create some breathing room to consider and implement the first two changes by putting a temporary hold on zoning changes involving the expansion of commercial activity into residential areas.

We are asking all candidates for City Council in 2000 to respond to these proposed reforms. The week before the primary election, the Midtown Coalition will publicly announce the positions taken by the candidates on these three proposals. In addition, your response to the attached questionnaires will be published on the Coalition's website (see address above). Please note that the Midtown Coalition will not be endorsing specific candidates, but merely reporting each candidate's position on zoning reform.

The intent of these proposals is to give every Tulsa neighborhood the power to shape its own future. That is why we are asking candidates in every district, even those beyond Midtown, to take a position on these reforms. Eventually, every neighborhood will face the conflicts brought by redevelopment. Action taken on these proposals this year will help the neighborhoods in your district in years to come.

Please read the attached article explaining the proposals and reply by returning the attached questionnaire to the address above. You may also reply by e-mail to tulsa_midtown_coalition@yahoo.com - an electronic version of the questionnaire can be downloaded from the website. Please make sure we receive your reply no later than Tuesday, January 25.

If you have any questions, please contact me at the above e-mail address, or evenings at 749-7816. Thank you for taking the time to read this and respond.


Michael D. Bates


In the 1960s and early 1970s, Tulsa's zoning ordinances were oriented toward new suburban development. Our historic, traditional neighborhoods were relegated to the past. Older Tulsa neighborhoods were expected to decline in popularity as young families moved out, never to return. The shopping streets that served as "Main Streets" for these neighborhoods were also considered outdated and were rezoned to encourage their redevelopment for high-intensity commercial activities, such as used car sales, auto repair, and warehouses. At the same time, some residential areas were rezoned for office and industrial redevelopment.

In the 1990s, large numbers of Tulsans rediscovered the pleasures of urban living, and traditional neighborhoods have become increasingly popular with homebuyers. Many Tulsans are attracted by shady streets, traditional architecture, sidewalks, and the variety of things to see and do within walking distance of home. Neighborhood shopping streets like Brookside and Cherry Street have come alive, attracting shoppers from all parts of Metropolitan Tulsa as well as those living nearby. Retailers are anxiously seeking good Midtown locations to take advantage of this growing market.

Unfortunately, the misguided zoning policies of the 1960s are still in place, grounded though they are in assumptions that have proven false. While Midtown residents welcome the expanded choices brought by new merchants, they worry that redevelopment will destroy the very qualities that brought them to Midtown. Over and over again, developers have manipulated the system to bring suburban-style development to Midtown: enormous buildings and enormous parking lots that dwarf their surroundings. The inappropriate designation of small retail and office buildings as "high intensity commercial" allows developers to rezone nearby residences as commercial by lumping the commercial and residential areas together, all the while claiming to do the neighborhoods a favor by reducing the overall intensity of development. The result is that homes are demolished, and the homes that once overlooked houses and yards are left to overlook loading docks and parking lots. Whole neighborhoods have been demolished to make way for supermarkets and sports facilities. Streets once pleasant to walk along have become hostile environments for people on foot.

Neighborhood leaders have often tried to fight these damaging changes before the Planning Commission and the City Council, but rarely with any success. Although we have the right to speak, our voice carries no weight. Neighborhoods should have a formal role in the planning and zoning process - the ability to establish a neighborhood plan, which becomes part of the zoning code, and the right to review proposed changes to that plan. A proposed ordinance for neighborhood plans was discussed by the Mayor's Task Force on Infill Development, which completed its work nearly a year ago, but little has been done to make it a reality. (Last November, three neighborhoods were selected by the Mayor for development of pilot plans, but there is no timeline for changing the zoning code so that such plans can be made formal and binding.)

Oklahoma City neighborhoods have had this sort of protection for nearly 20 years. Neighborhoods covered by their "urban conservation districts" include older neighborhoods in central Oklahoma City, commercial districts, and newer, more suburban neighborhoods. Special districts encompass the historic Bricktown and Stockyard City areas. The neighborhood plans set standards for building height and scale, style, setbacks, permitted uses, and parking.

Developers and neighborhoods would benefit from neighborhood plans. Expectations would be set out in writing, so developers would know in advance what kind of development is allowed in an area. A neighborhood would be able to encourage compatible commerical development while protecting the characteristics that make the neighborhood special.

Some might claim that neighborhood plans with firm design and development standards would keep national retail chains out of Midtown, resulting in a loss of jobs and a loss of shopping variety and convenience. While it is true that chain retailers prefer to use their standard floor plans whenever possible, they have been willing, in cities throughout the nation, to adapt to local standards, where standards exist, in order to have access to a particular market. Tulsans need to set forth with confidence our vision of what our neighborhoods should be. The retailers want to sell to us, and they will work with us.

If the zoning code is to serve the interests of neighborhood residents throughout Tulsa, reform is necessary. The institution of the neighborhood plan process is an important step toward meaningful reform. Oklahoma City has had neighborhood plans for nearly 20 years - when will Tulsa catch up?

Additionally, the "up-zoning" that occurred in the '60s and '70s needs to be reversed. Land that is zoned for a higher intensity than its current use are like timebombs that could go off at any second. For example, the neighborhood north of the Broken Arrow Expressway, between Utica and Lewis is zoned for medium-intensity office use. If you lived in that neighborhood, you could wake up one morning to find the house next door demolished and a drive-in bank, a funeral home, a copy shop, or a travel agency being built. The developer would not need to go before the Planning Commission, the Board of Adjustment, or the City Council for approval, because those are all "uses by right" in a medium-intensity office district.

The relics of the misguided planning policy of the past should be replaced with zoning that reflects the reality of Midtown at the turn of the millennium. CH (commercial high-intensity) zoning in neighborhood shopping areas should be replaced with a new category for pedestrian-friendly, neighborhood commercial and office uses, which allows only uses compatible with nearby residential areas, and encourages new development to be consistent with existing buildings along the pleasant, walkable shopping streets Tulsans enjoy. Residential zoning should be restored for those neighborhoods which are still residential but had been rezoned for commercial, office or industrial uses. Part of the Riverview neighborhood, south of downtown, was recently down-zoned in this way.

It will take some time to put these reforms in place. In the meantime, developers will continue with business as usual, and Midtown neighborhoods will continue to be at risk. Developers may even seek to defeat these reforms by encouraging never-ending delays in the process of considering and implenting them. Neighborhoods will continue to lose battles while waiting for reforms to be studied and restudied. To protect neighborhoods in the interim, the City Council should put a hold on all zoning changes involving the expansion of commercial activity into residential areas. This includes PUDs which combine residential land with commerical land to create a bigger commercial area, as well as simple up-zoning from residential to other categories. The Council can simply table (postpone) such zoning applications until the reforms are in place. The hold should be long enough to allow some neighborhood plans to be drawn up and incorporated in the zoning code. This temporary hold will encourage developers to support timely implementation of these reforms by the Planning Commission and the City Council.


This mailing was approved by the board of the Midtown Coalition of Neighborhood Associations. The views expressed herein are not necessarily those of each neighborhood association in the Midtown Coalition or of each individual resident member of each neighborhood association.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Tulsa Zoning category from May 2011.

Tulsa Zoning: February 2011 is the previous archive.

Tulsa Zoning: July 2011 is the next archive.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.



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