Tulsa Zoning: May 2012 Archives

Congratulations to the Riverview Neighborhood Association and well done to the City of Tulsa Board of Adjustment (BoA). On Tuesday, May 8, 2012, the BoA denied variances that would have allowed a 10-unit townhouse complex on a single lot, once occupied by a single home, at 21st and Cheyenne. (BOA case 21413 at 1935 S. Cheyenne -- click to review the application.)

Although the lot was zoned Residential Multifamily (RM-2), the proposed development violated several setback and height requirements of the zoning code, requiring the developer to seek variances from the zoning code in order to get a construction permit, specifically:

  • Variance of building setback from an arterial street from 35 ft to 10 ft (Section 403 Table 3),
  • Variance of the single-story limitation for multi-family dwellings within 50 ft of an RS district (Section 403.A.1),
  • Variance of height limitation from 35 ft to 40 ft. (Section 403 Table 3).

Please note that these requirements come from the existing zoning code, which has been in place for well over 30 years. Note that they deal with the proposed building's form. Some people of my acquaintance are of the misapprehension that property owners could do as they pleased until recently, but now soldiers in blue helmets have descended upon us in their black helicopters to impose PLANiTULSA and enslave us with their form-based codes to turn us all into United Nations drones. Or something like that. In fact, we have a zoning code now, we've had land-use regulations of some sort since Tulsa was incorporated, and we've had zoning since the 1920s. While the new comprehensive plan, known as PLANiTULSA, recommends changes to the zoning code, those changes haven't been drafted yet, much less approved.

Please also note this lot that, until recently, housed a single family home was zoned multifamily as a result of an ill-considered blanket "upzoning" imposed by the city decades ago under a previous version of the comprehensive plan, which saw this wedge-shaped area of single-family homes and brick low-rise apartment buildings, between I-244, the Inner Dispersal Loop, and the proposed Riverside Expressway, as the perfect place for squat cinder-block apartment complexes.

So the BoA evaluated these proposals in accordance with the existing zoning code, which requires the applicant for a variance to show a hardship. The hardship can't be self-imposed -- "I can't make my money back on the lot unless you let me build this" isn't sufficient. A good example of a hardship is a curved or unusually shaped lot, where the proposed building meets the setback requirement for most of the lot, but misses it by a foot or two where the lot curves. Rather than make the owner curve the building to match the setback line, the BoA would grant a variance to allow a straight building wall. The BoA is a quasi-judicial body, required to follow the law and precedent, required to consider impact of the proposed changes on neighboring properties. An appeal of a BoA decision would be made in District Court. The BoA can't whimsically waive the zoning code to allow a developer to build whatever he wants.

The BoA voted unanimously to deny the variances. The BoA's composition is a positive legacy from Mayor Bill LaFortune's administration, which his successors have wisely left untouched. LaFortune appointed Frazier Henke, Mike Tidwell, and Clayda Stead to the board. Surveyor David White had served as chairman during the Savage administration (the best member of the pre-LaFortune board) and was brought back to the BoA by Kathy Taylor, who also appointed Stuart Van De Wiele. LaFortune's three appointees reestablished the principle that the zoning code was to be followed as written, with variances granted only where a true hardship exists. Getting a variance shouldn't be just a matter of hiring an influential zoning attorney.

Realtor Lori Cain, who lives next door to the subject property, led the opposition to the variances and notes on her blog that the owner has several profitable options within the existing zoning code.

Urban infill is the process of developing vacant or under-used parcels within existing urban areas that are already largely developed. While we ENCOURAGE infill, we expect that the infill be appropriate for the neighborhood, accommodate existing architectural style, -- and not create additional public safety and storm water issues.

Why should the developer's right to make a profit be given more consideration than OUR investments in our personal homesteads? Why should he not build within the zoning restrictions KNOWN to him at the time of his purchase? He could easily build a single-family dwelling and sell it at a profit. Or, if he's insistent on rentals, he could build an upscale duplex or triplex within existing zoning restrictions.

You can watch the May 8, 2012, City of Tulsa Board of Adjustment hearing online via TGOVonline.org. Here's a direct link to the video stream of the May 8, 2012, City of Tulsa Board of Adjustment hearing.

MORE: If Frazier Henke's name seems familiar, it's because his wife, Katie Henke, was the Republican nominee for the recent House District 71 special election and almost certainly will be again for the regular fall election. Katie led by one vote after a recount, but there were more disputed ballots than the margin of victory, leading the Oklahoma Supreme Court to throw out the election and leave the seat vacant until the regular election. Frazier Henke is also the son of Bonnie Henke, a neighborhood leader and advocate for compatible infill development. (Because of that advocacy, Bonnie was targeted for defeat by certain developers when she ran for the District 9 city council seat in 2002, losing the GOP primary by a very narrow margin to Susan Neal.) Frazier is a fair and honorable decision-maker, Tulsa is blessed to have him as BoA chairman, and I'm blessed to count him as a friend.

UPDATE 2012/05/04: The answer is no, by a 5-4 vote to approve the PUD "amendment" and close the street. Thanks to Councilors Blake Ewing, Karen Gilbert, Skip Steele, and G. T. Bynum for upholding the plan and the notion of public infrastructure for public use over the demands of a private business. I'm not surprised that David Patrick and Tom Mansur voted with the developer. I'm disappointed that Jack Henderson, who used to be a reliable supporter of neighborhood interests, and Jeannie Cue, whom I perceived to appreciate the concerns of homeowners, voted in favor of the street closing.

Phil Lakin's vote reinforced the golden rule in Tulsa politics -- he who has the gold makes the rules. For years, developers and INCOG staffers excused deviations to the comprehensive plan because the plan was so old and out of date. Now we have a plan adopted within the last two years and a specific small area plan adopted just seven years ago, and yet Lakin is willing to vote to set it aside. Why would any Tulsan want to take the time to participate in small-area planning without the confidence that the TMAPC and the City Council will follow the plans that they've already approved?

Several items on tonight's City Council agenda involve a proposal to expand the QuikTrip at 11th and Utica by closing 10th Street west of Utica. (Here (PDF format) is a link to the backup information for the QuikTrip street closing agenda item.)

QuikTrip is asking the City Council to surrender to them -- the technical term is "vacate" -- a section of 10th Street west of Utica, so they can build a store and gas station with a bigger footprint, to include what is now 10th Street and the lots to the north.

The City Council should deny the request and encourage QuikTrip to find a creative solution to build within the existing site, rather than surrender a public through street for private use. This issue is a test of whether this City Council is committed to protect public infrastructure and to ensure that its development decisions are consistent with the City's long-range transportation and development plans.

I am a frequent customer of QuikTrip, and I admire the way they've transformed the convenience store industry that they pioneered over 50 years ago. You can expect that a QT store will be clean, well-stocked with high-quality, reasonably priced items, with procedures in place to keep customers and employees safe, even late at night. It's always nice to find a bit of Tulsa in other regions, like St. Louis, Wichita, and Dallas/Ft. Worth, where QT operates. I'd love to see them expand into the Oklahoma City metro area and offer ethanol-free gasoline.

For all of QT's positive aspects, it's not right for city government to turn a through street into a dead end simply to satisfy the aims of a private enterprise. There ought to be a compelling public interest in closing the street before the City Council consents to vacating a through street.

Once upon a time, QuikTrip knew how to adapt itself to a variety of urban and suburban settings. In the '70s and '80s there was a QuikTrip on the Main Mall in downtown Tulsa -- no gas pumps, no vehicular access at all. Some QuikTrip stores were standalone, some anchored strip shopping centers.

Now it appears that QuikTrip is big enough they seem to think they should be able to install their cookie-cutter store plan everywhere, without regard to the impact on public infrastructure.

The advantages of a grid street pattern are well established. Traffic can distribute itself across multiple paths through the grid. If one path is blocked, say, by construction, an accident, or emergency vehicles, traffic can reroute to another path. Through access to the surrounding arterials means it's usually possible to avoid taking a difficult left turn across arterial traffic.

In suburbia, a single residential collector street becomes a choke point for traffic in and out of a neighborhood and a speedway for those who live along it, but in an urban neighborhood with a street grid, traffic in and out is distributed across a dozen or more intersections and no one street bears the brunt of "cut-through" traffic.

10th Street is one of only three streets connecting the neighborhood to Utica Avenue. Those three streets are through all the way to Peoria -- for now.

But the City's stormwater master drainage plan for the Elm Creek basin calls for a major detention pond in the neighborhood that will necessarily interrupt the street grid, interrupting 8th Street and possibly 7th Street as well, leaving 10th Street the only through east-west neighborhood street -- unless QuikTrip gets its way and 10th is closed as well.

In his letter objecting to the proposal, developer Jamie Jamieson points out that the 6th Street Plan, part of the City's Comprehensive Plan, calls for higher density redevelopment in the area northwest of this site, making it imperative to maintain as many access points as possible to the neighborhood. In her letter, neighborhood resident Teddi Allen explains the importance of 10th Street to neighborhood ingress and egress:

According to [INCOG] staff, closure of 10th street would have minimal effect and would not be detrimental to the neighborhood. They argue that residents could either use 11th Street, or weave down Troost to exit the neighborhood via 7th or 8th Streets. Both of these concepts completely disregard the safety of the driving public.

11th Street rises in elevation between Utica and Troost, making any effort to turn out left onto 11th from Troost or Trenton problematic at best, and outright dangerous at worst due to the lack of visibility of oncoming traffic. The situation is compounded by traffic entering and exiting 11th street from the Hillcrest parking garage during peak periods and shift changes. In addition there is a great deal of pedestrian traffic crossing from the south side to the north side of 11th which compounds the problem.

Diverting traffic onto Troost Avenue as well as 7th and 8th Streets is not a viable solution either. 7th and 8th Streets are short residential streets, each a block long and filled with rental properties whose tenants often park on both sides of the street. This makes safe implementation of two way traffic virtually impossible to guarantee. Moreover, Troost Avenue as well as 7th and 8th Streets are at the lowest elevations in the neighborhood, subject to street flooding during periods of heavy rain. The staff analysis appears to ignore the fact that areas of the Pearl District, including these particular streets, lie within the Elm Creek flood basin. In an effort to resolve flooding issues in the Elm Creek Basin, the city has already built one flood detention pond in Centennial park, and there are 3 more ponds planned. Preliminary plans approved by the City (and available on its website) show that one of those ponds will detain water at the level of lowest elevation, i.e., in the area of Troost between 7th and 8th. These streets will not be available long term to provide the access the planners allude to in the application.

As Teddi Allen notes, any proper analysis of the impact of this development on traffic flow must also include the impact of the street closings required for the City's planned detention pond. If city officials surrender 10th Street now and only later realize the negative interaction with the detention pond, they won't be able to get 10th Street reopened without condemnation and compensation to QuikTrip, which would be cost-prohibitive.

And speaking of stormwater, it appears that the new store with its expanded gas canopy and parking area will require converting a large currently vacant grassy area into an impermeable surface. And yet I see nothing in the proposal explaining how additional stormwater runoff will be contained. The store is in the Elm Creek watershed, which is one of the few stormwater basins in the city for which the mitigation plan has not been fully implemented.

In fact, this question was asked at the TMAPC Technical Advisory Committee meeting: "Please address the Environmental, Stormwater Quality, Issues involved with the
Stormwater Runoff flowing into the Stormwater Drainage System from the Vehicle Fueling Areas, and the Tank Excavation Area." Apparently no answer was given: Nothing in the proposal or the INCOG staff analysis addresses additional stormwater runoff at all, much less stormwater than may be carrying toxic, flammable liquids into Elm Creek, into Centennial Park Lake, and ultimately into Zink Lake and the Arkansas River at 21st Street.

As Pearl District Association president Dave Strader pointed out in his letter to the TMAPC, the existing footprint is adequate for QT to construct a Gen 3 (QT Kitchens) store. They have nearly as much space in their existing lot (68,092 sq. ft.) as the lot at 15th and Denver (70,008) where a Gen 3 store was recently built.

In the same letter (pp. 78-85 of the PDF), Strader details the long history of area plans for the neighborhood adopted by the City, the result of years of volunteer effort. The wrong decision here will deter residents and businesspeople from getting involved in developing small area plans for other neighborhoods.

Many of you may be aware that Patrick Fox with The City of Tulsa just announced three new Small Area Plans. Once completed they will be standing in front of you asking you for your support with their plans. Will you support them or will you only support them on the condition that no one complains? What happens when QuikTrip or some other business doesn't want to play by the rules in their neighborhood? Will you tell them that their plan doesn't matter?

You can't roll over every time someone asks you to.

The point is that there are much broader implications to your decisions concerning the 6Th Street Infill Plan and The QT PUD.

Why should people like us volunteer thousands of hours making plans if you aren't going to support us? Why should we make plans at all?

The QuikTrip PUD is contrary to our plan, contrary to the comprehensive plan and increases the risk of our public safety.

Strader goes on to point out that, in 2005, the City declined to vacate a street in another part of the Pearl District (west of the Indian Health Center), citing the clear language in the Pearl District Plan that calls for maintaining the street grid.3

Dear Councilors, please do the right thing tonight and deny QuikTrip's request to vacate 10th Street.


My earlier entry, Keeping the Promise to the Pearl District, on why the City must honor the promises it has made over a 20-year period to this neighborhood.

It is possible to build a convenience store that fits into an urban context. Here are just a few examples:

7-11 in Stockholm

Photo of an urban 7-Eleven in Stockholm by meiburgin, Flickr attribution license

Random 7-11

Photo of an urban 7-Eleven in Singapore by Cimexus, Flickr attribution license

stunned at 7-11

Photo of an urban 7-Eleven in Hong Kong by kenyee, Flickr attribution license

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Tulsa Zoning category from May 2012.

Tulsa Zoning: April 2012 is the previous archive.

Tulsa Zoning: July 2012 is the next archive.

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