UTW Temp Archive Category
An edited version of this column appeared in the April 1, 2009, issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The published version is no longer available online. Posted online June 15, 2016.
Election Day 2009 is a mere seven months away, and a credible opponent to Mayor Kathy Taylor's bid for re-election has yet to emerge.
It is usual to set out one's reasons for seeking office in some form. In the U. S. we call such a document a platform; in the U.K. it's known as an election manifesto.
In that spirit, here then, on the 1st day of April, 2009, is my mayoral manifesto.
Transparency and accountability
We begin by acknowledging the financial constraints our city is under. The ideas listed below represent my priorities for spending the funds that we have. We will not propose or promote any measure that would increase the tax burden on the citizens of Tulsa, particularly in this time of financial uncertainty.
We will make the best use of the money that has already been entrusted to city government to provide basic services - police and fire protection, streets, water, sewer, trash, and stormwater. We will find the funds to conduct a thorough performance and financial audit of city government. We will insist on implementation of the recommendations and replace any department head that drags his feet.
We must increase the size and budget of our underfunded City Auditor's department. A properly-funded fiscal watchdog should be able to find more than enough savings to offset the additional cost.
To encourage transparency and accountability, a Bates administration will make as much city government information available on the internet as the law allows. A TGOV website will offer access to both live and archived video of public meetings.
A geographical information system (GIS) will make it easy for city workers and citizens alike to find information on zoning, crime, and construction in an area of interest. Accessible information will make it easier for citizens and media (both old and new) to keep an eye on city government and to uncover waste, fraud, and abuse.
Partnerships for progress
I pledge to build a collaborative relationship with the City Council, to respect their standing as the elected representatives of the citizens of Tulsa, and to treat them as partners, not adversaries.
If a councilor wants my ear, he won't have to go through three layers of underlings to get to me. If I'm attending a meeting or planning a project in a councilor's district, the councilor will hear about it ahead of time from me. Instead of sending out a flak-catcher, you'll see me at council committee meetings and delivering the weekly mayor's report. I won't agree to expensive legal settlements without the knowledge and consent of the Council.
Surveys have revealed a disconnect between City Hall and the citizens, particularly citizens in our less affluent neighborhoods in north, west, and east Tulsa. We need a sound civic infrastructure to keep citizens informed and to help citizens make their voices heard by city leaders.
One possibility is the district council plan used in St. Paul, Minn. My administration will survey best practices across the country and will work with the Council and neighborhood leaders to identify the model best suited to Tulsa's circumstances.
Membership of the city's authorities, boards, and commissions has been dominated by Tulsa's most affluent neighborhoods in midtown and south Tulsa. I will broaden the pool of mayoral appointees, starting by reaching out to the thousands of PLANiTULSA workshop participants.
I will collaborate with my suburban counterparts whenever appropriate, but I will never lose sight of the fact that I was hired to serve the citizens of Tulsa.
Planning and zoning
The PLANiTULSA process has been a great success to date, with thousands of Tulsans participating in citywide and small-area planning workshops. We should see the adoption of a new comprehensive plan prior to the city general election.
But the plan's adoption is only the beginning. Full implementation will almost certainly require modifications to Tulsa's zoning code. It will also require the political will to stick to the plan as individual zoning and planning decisions are made.
Tulsa's land-use planning system should be characterized by transparency, inclusiveness, consistency, clarity, and adaptability. Our land-use laws should allow as much freedom as possible while protecting against genuine threats to safety, quality of life, and property values.
We must get away from a one-size-fits-all zoning code. Development suitable for 71st and Memorial may not be right for 15th and Utica. Tulsa should establish special districts - some cities call them conservation districts - where rules can be customized to the neighborhood's circumstances. Form-based rules should be available for neighborhoods that want them.
Tulsa should do what every other city in the metro area has already done and establish our own city planning commission, one with a balanced membership that is geographically representative and not dominated by the development industry. All Tulsans have a stake in how our city grows, not just those who stand to make a buck on new construction.
We'll bring land-planning services in house as well, ending our contract with INCOG. (We will continue to collaborate with INCOG on regional transportation planning.)
The city's approach to economic development would change in a Bates administration. Some of Tulsa's biggest employers and biggest draws for new dollars started small and grew.
Instead of spending all our economic development funds luring large companies to relocate to Tulsa, we should emphasize removing any barriers to small business formation and expansion.
One of those barriers is the cost of a place to do business. We'll revisit rules that hinder operating a business out of your own home. While many neighborhoods will prefer to remain purely residential, others would welcome the live-work option, with a broader range of permitted home occupations. Here again, Tulsa can customize rules to fit the diversity of our neighborhoods.
We cannot afford to leave behind those Tulsans who are at the bottom of the economic ladder. We will partner with non-profits to help Tulsans develop basic financial life skills - the habits that enable someone to find and keep a job, spend his earnings wisely, and build assets over time.
Tulsa should become known as a city of educational choice from pre-K to college for families of all income levels, not just the well-to-do. I will work with the Oklahoma legislature to expand access to charter and private schools for Tulsans. My administration will seek a cooperative relationship with private schools, homeschooling families and support organizations, and all seven public school districts that overlap our city boundaries.
Under my administration, the city will hold a full and open competition to choose a contractor to promote our convention and tourism industry. The Tulsa Metro Chamber will be welcome to compete, but no longer will it enjoy sole-source status. Tulsa is home to many innovative marketing firms that could do a better job of communicating Tulsa's unique appeal.
The city center
There's been a great deal of focus and hundreds of millions of dollars in public investment in downtown over the last decade. The aim of that investment was to bring downtown back to life, not to turn more buildings into surface parking lots. I will push for adoption of the Tulsa Preservation Commission's "CORE Proposals," including an inventory of downtown buildings, a demolition review process, and standards for new development that reinforce downtown's walkable, urban character.
But Tulsa's urban core doesn't stop at the Inner Dispersal Loop. Downtown's long-term prosperity and revitalization depends on the vitality of the nearby neighborhoods.
Tulsa offers many choices for those who prefer a suburban lifestyle, but we also need to provide a viable urban living option for individuals, couples, and families who want to live close to work, shopping, school, church, healthcare, and entertainment.
There should be at least one part of our city where you can go everywhere you need to go without needing a car. Central Tulsa was built with the pedestrian in mind. New development should reinforce its walkable character.
The city's role would be to protect stable and historic single-family neighborhoods, improve regulations and raise awareness of tax incentives to encourage adaptive reuse of historic buildings, and encourage higher-density, urban infill development in neighborhoods that desire it.
Getting around town
In the future, it may make financial sense to build a light rail system. Right now, we can make better use of the transit system we already have by focusing on frequent, dependable bus service from early morning to late night within this pedestrian-friendly central zone.
Where it's impractical to provide frequent bus service, entrepreneurs should be allowed to fill in the gaps. It ought to be possible in Tulsa for someone with time and a vehicle to make money helping their neighbors get around town. We'll study what other cities have done to encourage privately-owned, publicly-accessible transportation like jitneys, taxis, and shuttles.
Preparing for the future
A Bates administration will not only focus on the near term but will plan for the future as well. Disaster preparedness is a part of that job. One area that deserves attention is the security of Tulsa's food supply. A food crisis could be triggered by financial collapse, soaring energy prices, or a terrorist attack on America's food supply system.
City Hall should study ways to help connect local farmers and growers with local consumers so that our region can attain a degree of self-sufficiency and insulation from an external crisis. We'll make sure that city regulations don't get in the way of community gardens and farmers' markets.
If elected, I will govern with the expectation that I will only serve a single term. I will reckon myself a political dead man, having stepped on so many toes that millions will be raised to prevent my re-election as mayor or my election to any other office.
Finally, my fellow Tulsans, as you find yourself elated or, more likely, outraged at the thought of a Michael Bates mayoral run, remember the old Roman motto: Caveat lector kalendas Apriles.
An edited version of this column appeared in the May 28, 2008, issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The published version is no longer available online. Posted online November 18, 2014.
Philip Larkin wrote, in a poem with an unforgettable and unprintable first line, that parents "fill you up with the faults they had, and add some extra, just for you," and advised, "don't have any kids yourself."
As a father of three, the fear that Philip Larkin was right (Google his poem, "This Be the Verse," if you wonder what I'm on about) has me constantly second-guessing my parenting decisions.
Am I being too strict? Too lenient? Am I overprotective? Am I teaching them to choose what is good, beautiful, and just? Am I a good role model?
But halfway between Mother's Day and Father's Day, as I think about my parents, I see all the good they built into my life, not only by precept but by example.
My parents sacrificed financially so that I could attend a private school, back in the day when that was rare for a middle class family, sacrificed to help me through MIT.
They brought me up "in the fear and admonition of the Lord," instilling a genuine faith in Christ and modeling the importance of being part of a community of believers.
They continue to show their love to me and my sister by showering their love on our children - their grandchildren. The desire to have them a constant part of my children's lives is a big reason why I've never seriously considered moving away.
They also demonstrated by their example the importance of community involvement and activism.
If you like the fact that I'm not afraid to step on toes, not afraid to speak passionately in a public forum, willing to put my name on a ballot and my opinions and reputation on the line again and again, you have my dad and mom to thank. Or to blame, if you'd just as soon I sat down and shut up.
David and Sandy Bates grew up in small towns north of Tulsa - Dad in Nowata, Mom in Dewey.
For Dad, civic involvement was an extracurricular activity; his days were spent in accounting and, later, in data processing for Cities Service for 20 years, followed by another 15 in data processing with St. Francis. Mom's activism was part and parcel of, but not limited to, the hundreds of Catoosa kindergarten students she taught over the course of 28 years.
They were and are frequent voters, going to the polls every election day and taking us along with them.
Soon after Cities Service brought our family from Bartlesville to Tulsa, we joined the little Southern Baptist church down the street.
Within a few years, Dad was asked to serve as a deacon. Both Mom and Dad at various times taught Sunday School and sang in the choir. Mom worked in the nursery and later helped with the bus ministry.
Our Baptist church provided my earliest lessons in participatory democracy and parliamentary procedure. We had monthly business meetings, and everything had to be brought before the membership for a vote. We reviewed finances, voted on appointments to committees, hired pastors and staff members, and debated over whether to move the church to a more visible location. Every baptized member, even me at age 8, had the right to speak and vote.
As chairman of the deacons, Dad served as moderator for these meetings, and was often asked to fill that role even when he wasn't chairman. He chaired the meeting in accordance with Robert's Rules of Order, keeping the meetings moving while giving everyone a chance to be heard.
Leadership meant dealing with unpleasantness, too, like the time he had to tell the pastor, on behalf of the deacon board, that it was time to look for a new job.
Dad also served several years as director of Church Training. For the non-Baptists, that was the name of the classes that preceded the Sunday evening worship service.
When I was about 13, Dad insisted on naming me as his assistant director, which meant collecting and tabulating the attendance records for all the classes (Baptists love statistics) and then delivering the attendance report at the beginning of the evening service.
As a spotty and self-conscious teen, I hated speaking in front of the congregation, but in time, I got used to it, which was Dad's intention.
Dad was involved outside the church, too. I remember being with him in the Port of Catoosa Jaycees' concession stand when President Nixon came to dedicate the port in 1971. It was a small group, but it was about all Catoosa had in the way of civic organizations, and they sponsored basketball tournaments and other special events.
In 1976, I was with him at the Republican 1st District Convention, where he was the lone Wagoner County delegate and convention secretary, a Ford man in a Reagan year. He took me along to county and state party conventions that year and in 1980, and to forums held by Cities Service's employee PAC.
Nowadays, he volunteers in the video booth at First Baptist Church and in the St. Francis Hospital gift shop. He let his beard grow out when he retired, and he spends his Christmas seasons as a Real Bearded Santa. (See santatulsa.com for details.)
Dad exemplified servant leadership - long-term commitment to an organization, sometimes to a fault - doing jobs that no one else wanted to do, and staying with the job until it was done.
A year after we came to Tulsa, Mom went back into teaching, taking a job at Catoosa Elementary School.
The elementary school was housed in the district's oldest facilities, built by the WPA in the '30s. The high school had just moved into a new, air conditioned campus at the south end of town.
The school board was all about athletics; bond issues focused on building and improving the high school's sports facilities, while the elementary campus was left to rot. Young children sweltered through August school days - they didn't even have window units to cool off the rooms.
Teachers' pay was appalling, and there was no budget for anything more than basic materials. Mom spent her own funds to decorate the room and purchase educational toys and books.
Mom's fellow elementary teachers were not inclined to rock the boat. Their place, as they saw it, was to keep their noses to the grindstone and to submit unquestioningly to the leadership of the administration and school board.
Mom was willing to take a stand. She found some like-minded colleagues and organized a classroom teachers' association. She brought the administration to the negotiating table and won better conditions for students and teachers. When the board was uncooperative, she helped elect new board members who shared the goal of a better education for Catoosa's children.
For her efforts she was tagged as a troublemaker and a naysayer. One administrator referred to her as a battleaxe, a label she wore with pride.
Mom was willing to challenge those in power because of the powerless little ones she taught.
She retired about 10 years ago, but she hasn't slowed down. She teaches English as a second language, helps immigrants prepare for their citizenship tests, helps in First Baptist Church's clothing room, and has gone on church mission trips to Mexico and Peru. But she spends much of her time as a doting grandma to her five grandchildren.
My kids don't get their heritage of community initiative from just one side of the family. My mother-in-law, Marjorie Marugg-Wolfe, was honored in 2002 with a President's Community Volunteer Award for the single parent scholarship program she founded in Benton County, Ark.
To you Tulsa moms and dads reading this, you have a golden opportunity this year to model civic involvement and to lay the groundwork for a better Tulsa for your children's future.
Our city is updating its comprehensive plan for the first time in a generation, and we've hired a planning firm, Fregonese Associates, that will try to build a vision for Tulsa's future from our individual dreams and desires.
We'll have a chance to provide our input through citywide workshops this fall and community workshops after the first of the year, and the chance to monitor and comment upon the work in progress online through the planitulsa.com website. Plan now to be as involved as you can.
(To be notified of upcoming opportunities for public input, sign up at planitulsa.com.)
You can lecture all you like about good citizenship, but nothing substitutes for being a model. The way my parents used their time and passion demonstrated for me the importance of caring for the community.
From Dad and Mom, I learned to step forward and lead, when others would rather sit and watch from the sidelines. They never pushed themselves forward, but when duty called they answered. When no one else would take the lead, they stepped forward. When others got bored or discouraged or disgusted and quit, they remained faithful. They persisted.
Happy belated Mother's Day, Mom. Happy early Father's Day, Dad. I love you, I'm proud of you, and I can't thank you enough for all you've done for me, particularly for the wonderful example you set of persistent and passionate community involvement.
An edited version of this piece was published in the July 25, 2007, issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The edited, published version of the piece is online, but badly formatted. Posted on the web November 3, 2012.
Out of Whole Terry Cloth
Simonson says, but it ain't necessarily so
What would you think of a merchant who sold you something, then told you you'd have to pay for it again to get what you've already paid for?
When Tulsa County voters approved Proposition No. 4 of the Vision 2025 sales tax, they approved $9.5 million to pay for the following items, spelled out very specifically in the ballot resolution passed by the Tulsa County Commission:
Construct two low water dams on Arkansas River the locations of which will be determined in the Arkansas River Corridor Plan -- $5.6 million
Zink Lake Shoreline Beautification -- $1.8 million
Design and construct Zink Lake Upstream Catch Basin and silt removal -- $2.1 million
Now Terry Simonson, the chief deputy and mouthpiece for Tulsa County Commissioner Randi Miller, is trying to convince Tulsans that we need to raise our taxes again to get what we thought we had already paid for. County Commissioners are likely to vote August 2 to put a $282 million sales tax increase on an October special election ballot.
Last week in UTW, Simonson tried to persuade readers that the line items you see above (and which you can see for yourself by following the Proposition #4 link at http://www.vision2025.info/newsletters.php) weren't really there.
Simonson wrote, "Though some may believe that Vision 2025 included funding to build a series of low water dams on the Arkansas River, this is not the case."
Simonson went on to claim that the $5.6 million was spent on "the study and environmental analysis by the Corp [sic] of Engineers." He correctly notes the amounts for the two improvements to Zink Lake, and claims that, "All of these are completed or, substantially engaged."
Simonson repeated these assertions last Wednesday morning, July 18, on 1170 KFAQ. Morning co-host Chris Medlock, who was on the City Council when Vision 2025 was put to a vote, called Simonson on his erroneous information, pointing to the official ballot resolution and promotional articles published in the daily paper at the time.
For example, on August 24, 2003, the daily paper published a column by editorial writer Julie DelCour, intended to deflect criticism that Vision 2025 neglected the public's interest in Arkansas River development. Taking up most of the front page of the Sunday opinion section, DelCour's piece was accompanied by full color illustrations showing a river full of water and mixed-use development on its banks. The caption on one drawing read, "Passage of Proposition 4 would provide funds to 'prep' the river for future, expanded uses."
Official campaign literature and other stories at the time hammered home the idea that a "yes" vote on Vision 2025 would put water in the river and make it suitable for the riverfront development that Tulsans were demanding.
Kirby Crowe, the project manager whose job is to track Vision 2025 funds and to make sure they are spent as promised, called KFAQ during Simonson's interview and told listeners that of the $9.5 million designated for dams and lake improvements, only $275,000 has been spent. That's a far cry from Simonson's claim that the projects were "completed or substantially engaged."
According to Crowe, none of the money for shoreline beautification and silt removal has been spent, in part because the master plan came up with a better approach to silt removal involving modifications to the Zink Lake Dam.
Crowe said that Phase 1 and 2 of the Arkansas River Corridor Master Plan was funded by municipalities and private contributions, not by the Vision 2025 sales tax. The $275,000 was to fund the Phase 3 work on environmental paperwork for the low-water dams, a necessary prerequisite for construction.
The remaining $9,225,000 for those three line items, Crowe said, is "unspent and protected."
Simonson claims that Hurricane Katrina siphoned off the hoped-for federal matching funds that would have paid for the dams. But Katrina didn't hit until September 2005, almost two full years after the Vision 2025 vote.
The real reason we didn't get the matching funds was reported by KOTV before the Vision 2025 vote even took place. The cleanup of the environmental disaster at Tar Creek, in the Tri-State mining area north of Miami, Okla., was using all Corps of Engineers funds available for Oklahoma.
Had our congressmen put river improvements ahead of Tar Creek remediation, it would have been like buying yourself a boob job and a tummy tuck when your kid needs chemotherapy.
Matching funds or not, County officials made a commitment to complete the projects that were promised. In a July 23, 2003, story in the daily paper about the potential for revenues to exceed expected project costs, County Commissioner Bob Dick said that the Vision 2025 package was structured to be sure that no project would be left incomplete.
Commissioner Dick was quoted as saying, "I think the worst thing you could do is promise you are going to build something and then not have enough money to build it."
So any surplus was intended first to be used to finish the promised projects. Already, the Tulsa County Vision Authority, a seven-member body made up of the three County Commissioners, the Mayor of Tulsa, and three suburban mayors, has authorized $45.5 million in additional funds for the BOk Center and improvements to the Maxwell Convention Center.
Vision 2025 revenues are running well ahead of projections. If you were to take the roughly $54 million in actual revenue over the last 12 months, project it out over the remaining nine-and-a-half years, assuming a modest 2.5% annual growth rate, and add it to what has already been collected, the Vision 2025 tax would raise a total of $768 million, a surplus of $233 million.
Subtract out the extra money for the arena and convention center, and there is still a surplus of nearly $188 million, far more than we need to fund the two low water dams and the improvements to Zink Lake that were promised to Tulsa County residents if they approved the Vision 2025 tax.
While I'd like to see the Vision 2025 tax ended as soon as possible, the Tulsa County Commissioners have a moral obligation to complete promised projects. It would be far preferable to use an existing tax to complete those projects than to force voters to approve a new tax increase - one likely to be renewed ad infinitum - in order to get what they thought they had already paid for.
The rest of the projects in the proposed $282 million tax package, such as the downtown-to-river connection and the pedestrian bridges at 41st and 61st, are city-specific. Each city along the river could choose to fund those improvements - or not - based on their priorities. Tulsa's city leaders might decide that our appalling violent crime rate or the atrocious condition of our streets deserve more direct attention.
It's essential that the land acquisition for riverfront development be left to the cities. There is a real danger that City of Tulsa residents could vote for this package expecting that money to be spent toward riverside commercial development in Tulsa, only to have it designated instead for a suburban project.
Between the items already promised in Vision 2025 and the items that are specific to individual cities, there's nothing left that needs to be funded through the County. The only reason for the County Commissioners to put a tax on the ballot this fall is if they are intent on expanding their burgeoning empire.
I shouldn't be too hard on Terry. He's just saying what he's been paid to say. During his appearance on KFAQ he frequently reminded us that he wasn't around when the decisions regarding Vision 2025 were made, and he urged us to let go of the past and look to the future instead.
But Commissioner Randi Miller, whose water he is carrying, was around then, voted to send Vision 2025 to the voters, and campaigned for its passage. She of all people has a personal obligation to ensure that the projects that she and her colleagues promised, the projects that were approved by the voters, are delivered without burdening her constituents with higher taxes.
And Miller needs to make sure her spokesman has his facts straight before sending him out to flack for her tax hike.
This is the originally submitted version of a story that was published on January 31, 2007 as the cover story of the February 1-7, 2007, edition of Urban Tulsa Weekly, under the headline "The River Review: Planning Tulsa's Riverfront: A Brief History." The story as published can be found on the Internet Archive. Posted on BatesLine on March 23, 2016.
Planning Tulsa's Riverfront: A Brief History
By Michael D. Bates
The 12-year-old boy with a map fixation was entranced by the two-page-spread in the January 1976, edition of Tulsa magazine.
A stretched oval of water, held back by something called a "low water sill" was fringed top and bottom by belts of green. There were bicycle paths, ferry docks, an amphitheatre, a museum, restaurants. Best of all, there was a planetarium.
The article began with an imaginary conversation between a dad and his son, talking about their family's plans for a day on the river: Fishing, canoeing, archery, shopping, dinner at the floating restaurant - a fun-filled day capped by a concert at the amphitheatre, with a 150-foot-high lighted fountain providing a picture-perfect backdrop.
"If things go as planned," the article promised, "similar conversations will take place in and about Tulsa beginning as early as 1978.
The boy (the real one, not the imaginary one in the magazine story) flipped through the pages of the article. He scanned over words like "silt," "planning workshop," "contaminants," and "Urban Renewal funds" to get to the rest of the illustrations. There was the plan for the 21st Street Bridge, with nearby overlook and ferry landing. There were sailboats moored at a marina, down the bank from a gallery of shops. There was a cross-section of the museum and planetarium building:
"Portraying the natural and economic history of Tulsa, a museum will highlight the petroleum and transportation industries. A moderately priced restaurant will be incorporated in the upper floor to take maximum advantage of the river view. The planetarium will offer programs of the astronomical sciences, with emphasis on the aerospace industry."
It was already fun to ride bikes on the trails that were especially for bikes - he had thought that was a cool idea ever since he cajoled his parents into taking him to the Gilcrease Hills grand opening six or seven years before. Already you could even ride your bike halfway over the river on an old railroad bridge. But this plan - the "River Parks plan" - was going to be amazing when it was all finished in just a few years.
31 years later, that boy has a boy of his own, about the same age, and the 1976 River Parks plan, focusing on a two-mile long lake, has been superseded by an Arkansas River Corridor Master Plan, taking in the entire 42-mile length of the river through Tulsa County. And for a brief time last year, it seemed that a good third of that brand new plan would be wiped away by an even newer plan - The Channels - for a 12-mile-long lake and three high-rise-encrusted islands in the middle of the river.
The River Parks plan wasn't the first plan, and The Channels certainly won't be the last. For almost as long as there has been some sort of settlement near this bend of the Arkansas, there have been dreams of making the river more than the shallow, salty stream that it naturally is.
In 1962, Tulsa World Sunday editor Russell Gideon wrote, "The plus-and-minus values of the Arkansas River, so far as Tulsans are concerned, probably have added up to a whacking big minus figure over the 80 years of the town's existence."
Gideon enumerated the minuses of the river in the early days of Tulsa: It was an obstacle to travel, its water was unfit for drinking or even bathing, it flooded, it smelled from being used as a sewer, it attracted "shanty-boat dwellers" (Tent City on the water, evidently), it was "a source of worry to mothers of venturesome boys." Even when dry it was a nuisance: "During the dust bowl days the river bed contributed its share to the 'black blizzards' of the era."
Accordingly, Tulsa turned its back on the river, aligning itself instead with the railroad that was its lifeline to the outside world. Tulsa abandoned it as a source of water, built bridges across it, and piped sewage into it, but otherwise left it to its own devices.
Factories and refineries found it useful as a source of water for cooling equipment and a handy place to dump industrial waste. Views of the river were desirable, but not close-up views or the accompanying close-up smells. Oil barons like Josh Cosden and Harry Sinclair built mansions well up the hill from the river's bank.
Early hopes for improving the river were all about transportation, not recreation.
There had been a few successful attempts to navigate the river by steamboat in the 19th century . In 1834, the steamboat William Parsons made it all the way to the mouth of the Cimarron River (now in Keystone Lake) with supplies for Camp Arbuckle, a new Army post. In June 1878, the steamer Aunt Sally made her way from Little Rock to Arkansas City, Kansas. In July 1886 the Kansas Millers towed two barges of flour from Arkansas City to Fort Smith, Ark., but the pilot house had to be removed from the boat in order to clear the Frisco railroad bridge at Tulsa.
In 1909 , the Tulsa Democrat reported a plan to make the Arkansas River navigable from the Mississippi to the mouth of the Cimarron River (now part of Keystone Lake). It would have required a dam, a lock, and a harbor for loading at four points on the river: Little Rock, Fort Smith, Muskogee, and Tulsa. Each dam and lock was projected to cost $300,000.
The plan died a quiet death, but the idea lived on. In the 1920s , civic leaders from Oklahoma and Arkansas began to talk up the idea of Arkansas River navigation. It wasn't until 1946 that the Federal government authorized the project. Even then the two states' congressional delegations had to fight for funding a year at a time, one lock-and-dam at a time, fending off those, like Life magazine and President Eisenhower, who attacked the plan as a massive pork barrel scheme.
At long last, in 1971, the first barges arrived at the Tulsa Port of Catoosa. President Nixon arrived a few months later to formally dedicate the Kerr-McClellan Navigation System (and to mispronounce a few Indian place names - oo-LOG-uh? - in the process).
But the new barge canal bypassed the City of Tulsa, and while the port is certainly an important contributor to the local economy, there hasn't been the kind of development along its shores - New port towns! Industrial development to rival the Ohio Valley! Population growth in the millions! - that its boosters expected.
For the navigation system to work, they had to be able to control the flow of the river from upstream. That also meant the ability to prevent a catastrophic flood on the Arkansas River in Tulsa. In 1945, levees were built to protect industries and refineries in Sand Springs, west Tulsa, and along the Sand Springs Line. In 1950 Congress authorized the construction of Keystone Dam, which, it was hoped, would make the levees redundant.
Also in the late '40s, Tulsa's leaders began making plans for a US 66 bypass that would cross the Arkansas at 51st Street. Someone had the idea to build the bridge strong enough to buttress a dam big enough to create a five-mile-long lake which would reach all the way to the bend in the river near downtown. Perhaps the idea was inspired by Lake Austin in Texas, but wherever it came from, it seems to be the first appearance of the notion of using Tulsa's stretch of the Arkansas River for recreational purposes.
But the Federal government wasn't keen on providing the extra funds needed to make the bridge that sturdy, and the idea was dropped. (In 1964, the idea would re-emerge, this time using the Red Fork Expressway bridge as the buttress of a dam that would back the water up to Sand Springs.)
According to Tulsa architect Rex Ball, a mid-'60s feasibility study, prepared by his firm, retrospectively revealed some major flaws in the single-lake concept. A dam big enough to create that kind of lake would have endangered neighborhoods along Crow Creek (the brook for which Brookside is named, which enters the river near 32nd Street) and would have interfered with PSO's use of river water for their generating plant on the west bank at 36th Street. The larger dam might have raised the water table, something that wasn't found to be a problem for a series of smaller, low-water dams.
Meanwhile, the idea of a riverfront park began to take hold. In 1951, the city acquired land for a Riverside Park extending from 11th south to 51st Street, and the following year, city prisoners were working to clear underbrush, trash, and driftwood.
But the river was still not seen as an attraction or an amenity. In 1957, the chamber of commerce published Tulsa, I.T., a glossy 44-page tourism magazine aimed at visitors to Oklahoma's 1957, semi-centennial celebration. It included a driving tour ("The Tulsa Tour") of the city, and lengthy descriptions of the city's recreational attractions. The Arkansas River doesn't rate a mention. Water gets a page to itself, but only to make the point that Tulsa had plenty of it for residents and industry and had plans to get more.
If anything, the river was still a threat to life and property. The Arkansas flooded over three dozen times between 1907 and 1951. In May 1957, after a six-year respite, heavy rains upstream caused a near-record flood and forced the evacuation of part of Brookside. A flood of similar magnitude hit the city in October 1959.
Nevertheless, the idea of the river as a place for recreation continued to simmer. A September 1957 study by the Mayor's Committee on Recreation urged development of the east bank from Newblock Park to 51st Street for park use, recommending that the anticipated Riverside Expressway be built to preserve views and access to parking areas and picnic spots along the river.
The near-downtown riverfront was included in the 1959 A Plan for Central Tulsa, a document written by California architects and packed with daring new concepts in urban design. (Tulsa implemented those concepts decades later, waiting until other cities had had a chance to discover that they didn't work. How did downtown get so bollixed up? Read this book and you will understand.)
A page of that study was devoted to "The Marina," a concept for the river between 11th and 21st Streets. The accompanying illustration showed an artificial lagoon for boats near 15th and Riverside, a floating restaurant and boat club just to the south, a "picnic island" accessible by pedestrian bridge just to the north, and a larger island, accessible only by boat, where the west bank used to be.
Yes, used to be. The drawing showed the river almost twice as wide as its existing width at the 21st Street bridge, backed up by a dam at some unspecified location downstream, with the new shoreline just below the west bank levee. The resemblance to last year's "The Channels" plan is uncanny.
The plan evidently had some research behind it. Excluding the dam, construction costs were estimated at $117,300, and they projected annual revenues of $24,700, which could cover operating expenses ($8,000) and debt service ($9,300) with $7,400 left over.
The lake would accommodate boating, fishing, and water skiing. "The Marina would make living in central Tulsa the envy of every western city dweller."
In 1961, the City of Tulsa's engineering department began looking into the idea of low-water dams. Core drilling was done to test possible dam sites. A trip was made to Pennsylvania to see an inflatable "fabridam" in operation. Soon thereafter civic leaders began pitching the idea of "riverfront beautification" at meetings all over Tulsa.
By the end of 1963, a Chamber of Commerce subcommittee had designated low-water dams on the river as a priority project and set out to find funding for a detailed plan and to whip up public support for the idea.
In May 1964, things began to happen. The County and City jointly hired Hudgins, Thompson, Ball and Associates (HTB) to do a feasibility study and master plan for low-water dams. The Chamber sent a nine-member Tulsa delegation, including Street Commissioner (and future Mayor) Bob LaFortune and County Attorney (and future Governor) David Hall, to tour the Riverwalk in San Antonio, the world's largest inflatable dam in Bay City, Texas, and Town Lake in Austin, completed just four years earlier.
Austin's seven-mile lake, with its dam built into a road bridge, was described by news stories at the time as close to what Tulsa's leaders were wanting. The Tulsa Tribune recommended following Austin's lead in another important respect - establishing a plan for the kind of development desired for the waterfront and putting a commission in place to evaluate all construction permits for compliance with the plan.
The May 19, 1964, lead editorial in the Tribune enthused that the proposal would mean "a whole new pattern of commercial and civic stimulus for the very heart of Tulsa. If the pollution and planning studies make the concept feasible, there is no doubt that our turgid, smelly, desert-like waste of a river will become one of the beauty spots of the nation. And we shall find, as Texas has found, that beautification is very good business."
The "if" was a big one. A 1964 study identified 14 major sources of pollution upstream of Tulsa, including animal wastes from a packing plant, chemical effluents from refineries, oil storage facilities, and a fertilizer plant, sewage from Sand Springs. Completion of the Keystone Dam ended the heavy river flows which diluted the filth and washed it down the river. Low-water dams would only make matters worse. An April 2, 1967, Tulsa World, story on river pollution carried the subhead "Park Plans Moot."
But the planners pressed on. On April 11, 1968, the development plan for "River Lakes Park" was presented to the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission (TMAPC), and in August it was officially added to the region's master plan.
The HTB plan called for three low-water dams to be built - near Newblock Park, just upstream from the 11th Street bridge; near 36th Street; and at the mouth of Joe Creek north of 81st Street.
(A fourth dam, to be built by the Corps of Engineers upstream of the Sand Springs bridge, was mentioned in the plan. Its purpose was re-regulation, ensuring a consistent flow of water to carry pollutants downstream, regardless of the operating schedule of Keystone Dam. This dam was actually built in 1968, but was removed in the mid '80s as a hazard and no longer needed for pollution control.)
Shadow Bluff Lake would stretch upstream from near downtown Tulsa to the Sand Springs bridge. Adams Road would be transformed into the South River Parkway, tying together an expanded Chandler Park and the south shore, which would have baseball and football fields, tennis courts, a marina and boat ramps. The shore opposite, across the levee from downtown Sand Springs, would cater to hunters, with ranges for field archery, skeet and trap shooting, and "stalking."
Further east, across the river from Chandler Park, a "Marina Market" would be located on the natural harbor formed by a creek inlet, along with a community center and tennis courts. A large sandbar near 49th West Avenue, would be transformed into an island park with an amphitheatre - and even more tennis courts. An access road would run the full six-mile length of the north shore.
Four-mile long Southside Lake would have bike trails on both shores. On the east bank, near present-day Helmerich Park, there would be an amphitheatre and tennis courts, and a small community building. Peoria would be extended north from Jenks along the west bank to a new 71st Street bridge, providing access to campsites near the dam. Turkey Mountain would be incorporated into the park system, with hiking and horse trails and a trailer campground atop the hill, with a road along the east side of the hill providing easier access to the park from north and south.
Because the planned Riverside Expressway would run right up to the edge of the river bank, the east side facilities would sit on islands built out of sand banks - mainly open space with a few small buildings for community use.
Just north of the I-44 on the west bank, the plan showed an amusement park, and an inland marina along Cherry Creek west of Elwood Ave.
The centerpiece of the plan was Tulcenter Lake. (The name originated in the aforementioned Plan for Central Tulsa.) The lake would be dammed near 36th Street. Crow Creek's outlet to the Arkansas would be the site of a canoe center and an expressway underpass linking the riverfront to Brookside. An 18-hole golf course would straddle 23rd Street on the west side, stretching from 17th Street south to the Texaco Refinery.
The east bank between 11th and 21st would include a lagoon, an oil museum and museum of natural history, more tennis courts and playgrounds, and frequent pedestrian overpasses spanning Riverside Drive.
In comparison to our most recent river plan, the 1968 plan is remarkable for its lack of commercial development. River Lakes Park was all about open space and outdoor recreation, with one notable exception.
Linking the two shores would be Pier 15, a pedestrian bridge lined with specialty shops, sidewalk cafes, theatres, and restaurants, with a view of a spectacular water display in the middle of the river. Pier 15 would connect 15th & Houston to the west bank at 17th, near the west Tulsa urban renewal area, which was originally planned for high-density residential and commercial redevelopment.
The development plan predicted that "Pier 15 could become for Tulsa what the Farmers' Market in Los Angeles or the Vieux Carre District in New Orleans have become for those cities; nationally known areas which not only serve local residents but are major features that continue to attract tourists and provide the cities with distinctive identifications."
It's a commonplace claim nowadays - "This development plan is what we need to put Tulsa on the map" - but this seems to be the first time that river development was promoted as a potential tourist magnet, not just a local amenity.
The cost estimate for full implementation of the plan, including all the amenities, was $65 million. The basic cost to get started included $8 million for dam construction, and $7.5 million for land acquisition along the lakefront.
Once the plan was presented, it was heavily promoted with speeches to civic groups, models on display at banks and libraries, and a 30-minute TV special. $16.3 million for construction of the lakes, to be funded by a property tax increase, was included in a set of 15 city bond issues on the September 9, 1969, ballot. A record turnout - described as a taxpayer's revolt - defeated 13 of the 15 propositions; the River Lakes Park bond received only 29% of the vote.
River promoters began looking for ways to get federal grants to pay for part of the plan. Some minor improvements were begun - a bike trail was started on the east shore between 31st and 51st. But for the next few years, major river development was on hold.
In September 1969, Tulsa's voters forcefully rebuffed an ambitious set of bond issues for civic improvements. They said no to the controversial plan for a Riverside Expressway and its destructive path through the Brookside and Maple Ridge neighborhoods. They said no to a new municipal auditorium at the Civic Center.
And, by a 30% to 70% margin, they said no to $16.3 million to fund the beginning of a dramatic plan for three lakes on the Arkansas River - River Lakes Park - lined with marinas, amphitheatres, tennis courts, ball fields, a golf course, campgrounds, trails, and open space. Its centerpiece would have been a 100-foot-wide shopping and entertainment center spanning the river which would become a nationally-known icon, putting Tulsa on the map.
But the idea of riverfront recreation wasn't dead. There was an ongoing effort to find federal funds to implement part of the plan. And as the city's 1973 diamond jubilee approached, there was a renewed push by Mayor Bob LaFortune to make a river project the focus of the celebration.
1973 came and went, but in April 1974, the City Commission and County Commission created the River Parks Authority (RPA), tasked in its trust indenture with "development, redevelopment, preservation and/or renewal of the ... natural resources and community resources known... as the Arkansas River Lakes Park."
At the same time, the Tulsa Urban Renewal Authority (TURA) expanded its west-bank urban renewal area to include both banks of the river between the 11th Street and the Midland Valley railroad bridges, allowing it to supply $2.8 million from the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to the RPA for riverfront park development. Work began to extend the east bank bike trail north to 11th Street.
In July 1974, the city received title to the Midland Valley bridge and began plans to convert it to bicycle and pedestrian use. The same month, Jackie Bubenik, a city planner from Lubbock, Texas, was hired as the RPA's director, and the RPA began sifting through development proposals.
Unlike the 1968 plan, this development effort would be narrowly focused on the two-mile stretch between 11th and 31st Streets. Working quickly, in August 1974 RPA selected a group headed by Memphis architect Roy Harrover, whose firm planned the development of that city's Mud Island. The hope was to have a plan in place and construction underway in a year's time. Late that year the design team hosted public workshops to find out what Tulsans wanted along the river.
The resulting plan, unveiled in the fall of 1975, called for a low-water dam south of the new pedestrian bridge to create water depth of about 6', enough to support boating and a six-stop route for passenger ferries. Near Houston Avenue, there would be a lighted mid-river fountain, shooting water 150 feet in the air. The east bank would largely remain green space, with bike paths and playgrounds. A restaurant would extend out over the river, beneath the east end of the 21st Street bridge. A wide pedestrian overpass spanning Riverside between Houston and Indian Avenues would serve as the gateway to the park, connecting to a landscaped path to downtown.
Commercial and entertainment facilities would be located on the west bank between the 11th Street bridge and the McMichael Concrete plant, anchored at the south end by an amphitheatre. (In the original plan the stage was onshore, not floating.) North of the amphitheatre along the shore would be a small marina. Above the shore would be a row of specialty shops, and a three-story museum building with a planetarium and a restaurant on the top floor. The northern end of the development area, next to the 11th Street bridge, would be reserved for a hotel.
$30.3 million was the total estimated cost for park development and all the proposed amenities. The low-water dam, thought to be the key to the whole project, would cost $3.1 million. The initial $2.8 million in federal money would be used for west bank improvements, completion of the Midland Valley pedestrian bridge all the way to the west bank of the river, and, at Denver and Riverside on the east bank, a "model park" to give Tulsans a taste of what to expect when the plan was fully implemented.
While the plans were still being planned, Tulsans actually began recreating on the river, jogging and biking on the trails and attending festivals and special events. KRMG held the first Great Raft Race on Labor Day 1973, starting a tradition that would last 19 years. The Tulsa parks department started an annual sandcastle competition. The first Oktoberfest was held on the east bank in 1979 and moved to the west side in 1981.
Before the new plan ever got off the drawing board, it began to change.
In 1979, a parks survey of county residents revealed a lack of interest in large-scale commercial and entertainment development on the river:
"Tulsans view River Parks as a place to enjoy outdoor or somewhat unstructured facilities and atmosphere, and the possibility of formal entertainment or facilities through an Amphitheater or museum is not consistent with what they view for the River Parks area."
The low-water dam was still on the table. Funding for it was included in a 1979 one-cent city sales tax for capital improvements which went down to defeat. The following year, the sales tax was re-presented to the voters, with a five-year time limit, an ordinance that firmly committed the city to spending the money on a specific set of projects, and an oversight committee. It became the first in Tulsa's long-running series of "third-penny" packages, but it was stripped down to essentials and didn't include any funds for the river.
As soon as the 1979 proposal was defeated, Mayor Jim Inhofe began looking for another way to fund the dam. He found enough city money to pay for the engineering work, which kept the environmental permit active.
In November 1980, Lincoln Property Company proposed to purchase land from the city on the west bank - the planned site for the unwanted museum and retail development - and at 61st and Riverside to develop as mid-range apartment complexes. The city would use the $3.5 million raised by the land sale, plus private donations, to pay for construction of the dam.
By the mid '80s, the dam was completed, along with the adjacent Blair Fountain, the west bank festival park, and the amphitheater. At that point, the mid-'70s plan was as complete as it would ever be.
The River Parks Authority (RPA) continued to acquire more land, including Turkey Mountain, added playgrounds along the river, and improved and extended the trails, which became the starting point for a network of trails encompassing the entire metro area. But there was no grand plan in place and little interest in creating one.
Two developments in the mid '90s changed that attitude.
In December 1993, Oklahoma City passed a one-cent sales tax for MAPS - Metropolitan Area Projects - which included funding for a canal through the Bricktown entertainment district as well as money for low-water dams and shoreline improvements on the North Canadian River.
Oklahoma City's low-intensity riverfront plans didn't grab the imagination of Tulsans, but the Bricktown Canal did. We already had a river, but Oklahoma City built river and made it the centerpiece of a lively entertainment district. Dreams of replicating the success of San Antonio's Riverwalk seemed to be coming true just 100 miles down the turnpike.
The success of Baltimore's Inner Harbor development was in the national spotlight at about the same time with the 1992 opening of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the first neo-traditional major league ballpark. The public notion of riverfront development began to shift away from passive recreation and toward intense mixed-use development. The Bricktown plan contained strong echoes of Baltimore.
The second wake-up call for Tulsa was the Oklahoma Aquarium in Jenks.
In September 1984 , a group led by Doug Kemper, former director of the Seattle Aquarium, approached RPA with a concept for an aquarium and an adjoining wharf-like retail development, modeled after the Seattle facility. They only asked for the opportunity to lease land from the city for the development.
After six years of discussions and hearings, slowed by influential zoo supporters who wanted any aquarium to be built at Mohawk Park, in February 1990 the City of Tulsa gave the Tulsa Aquarium Foundation an option on 11 acres north of 71st Street and gave the group three years to raise the funds to build the aquarium. Wrangling over the aquarium's business plan, a lack of support (or, some say, outright hostility) from Mayor Susan Savage, fundraising difficulties, and concerns about the impact on the endangered least tern went on for four years. RPA finally rejected the plan, by a 4-3 vote, in November 1994.
Three months later, the City of Jenks reached an agreement with the aquarium group to provide land along the river between 96th Street and the Creek Turnpike and to have the city's industrial authority float revenue bonds to finance construction. Ground was finally broken in 2000.
In July 2002, just as the aquarium was nearing completion and talk of nearby riverfront commercial development began, Tulsa Mayor Bill LaFortune convened a regional "Vision Summit." 1100 Tulsans attended and contributed their ideas toward a Tulsa vision, defined by keynote speaker Glenn Heimstra as "a compelling description of your preferred future."
River development was a frequently recurring theme in the long list of ideas supplied by the summiteers, and while there was still support for the river as a greenbelt and a place for passive recreation, it was San Antonio Riverwalk-style, Oklahoma City Bricktown Canal-style retail and entertainment that received the most interest and support.
In September 2002, the Indian Nations Council of Governments (INCOG), the planning agency for the Tulsa area, kicked off the development of a master plan for the entire length of the Arkansas River in Tulsa County. But selection of a planning consultant was delayed for a full year, yielding to the promotion and passage of Vision 2025, a downtown-centric tax package containing a token amount of funding for river development infrastructure. The selection of Texas firm Carter Burgess was announced two days after the passage of Vision 2025.
Phase I centered around a massive effort to gather public input. INCOG and Carter Burgess held a series of open house meetings, conducted a public survey, and held a design workshop with nightly opportunities for public review. For their work, Carter Burgess received an award from the Texas Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects.
The resulting plan, released in August 2004, reflected the desire of Tulsans for a balance between new commercial development and new on-the-water recreation opportunities on the one hand and retaining the environmental protection and outdoor recreation purposes that River Parks had been serving for over a quarter of a century. The plan also included, for the first time, concepts for riverfront developments in Broken Arrow and Bixby.
Another distinctive of the new plan: Rather than focusing on public developments, the plan designated some type of use for every inch of the river. And rather than planning a narrow belt along the river banks, this plan covered a swath extending in places as much as a mile from the banks, in order to plan for connections with surrounding neighborhoods and centers of activity.
That desire for better connections to the river is a kind of rebuff to the cherished dream of the Tulsa World, south Tulsa developers, and some city officials to turn Riverside Drive and Houston Avenue into a 100-foot wide high-speed parkway. That plan, added to the Comprehensive Plan in 1993, generated a huge public outcry from those who opposed encroachment on neighborhoods and park land. An ordinance sponsored by Councilor Dewey Bartlett, Jr., and named in his honor, stymied implementation by requiring a standalone vote on public funding for widening Riverside.
With the approval of the new master plan, it could be argued that the plan for a wide Riverside has been officially superseded.
Phase II of the INCOG plan got into the nitty-gritty of engineering, environmental impact, and funding sources, with detailed plans for major development areas along the river.
The Phase II plan was officially adopted as part of the Comprehensive Plan last year, not long before a challenger, The Channels, emerged in the fall of '06.
Phase III kicked off last September. According to the Corps of Engineers' website, this phase involves gathering data on animal habitat in and along the river, creating an inventory of existing cultural resources, and modeling different low-water dam designs.
The Corps says, "The objective of this effort is to achieve optimum water quality, fish passage, and other environmental parameters while optimizing public safety" - particularly by preventing the "drowning machine" effect that can capsize boaters and trap them at the base of a low-water dam.
As we wait for the study's completion, ideas for the river keep coming. In Jenks, Riverwalk Crossing developer Jerry Gordon showed that you didn't need to wait on massive public investment to create riverside development that attracts the crowds.
So far, Tulsa's side of the river has only attracted a convenience store, a strip shopping center, and a few restaurants, all of which turn their back on the river, which ought to be a clue that Tulsa needs an Austin-like ordinance setting development guidelines for our limited miles of shoreline.
The developers of Branson Landing in Missouri have proposed building a similar open-air retail and mixed-use center on the west bank of the river between 11th and 21st, suggesting creation of a tax-increment finance (TIF) district as a funding source.
The Channels, the $788 million big-dam-and-island plan which made a huge splash last fall, appears to have run aground - too expensive and too much doubt about the wisdom and feasibility of the idea.
But don't be surprised to find, in whatever is ultimately built along the river, elements of The Channels, alongside bits and pieces of the 1975 plan, the 1968 design, the 1959 concept, and every other river-related plan that's been proposed over the last century.
The Arkansas River could not be reached for comment on this story. It must know something, but doesn't say anything. It just keeps rolling along.
A postscript, added on March 23, 2016: In the online comments for the article, Steve Smith, known on online forums as "Waterboy" and "Aquaman" was aggrieved by my failure to mention him in my history of the river:
What does a man have to do to be included in a history of the river? I enjoyed your history. It paralleled the research I did before starting my boat business on the river in 2002. I spent 3 years of my life, over $100,000 investment and bankrupted myself in the effort. I carried over a 1000 riders upstream to the Keystone Dam and hundreds of locals on my ferry. I helped to renew an interest in developing the river through many interviews, and even merited a segment on Discover Oklahoma. Yet, no mention of my effort in your history? Who did I anger over there?
Smith ran airboat tours for several years. I regret overlooking his contribution and am happy to note it here for the record. I did devote an entire column, published in Urban Tulsa Weekly on September 20, 2006, to Steve Smith and his ideas about improving the river using wing dams to modify the flow without blocking the river entirely.
This is the originally submitted version of a story that was published on October 4, 2006, in the October 5-11, 2006, edition of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The story as published can be found at the Internet Archive. Posted on BatesLine on March 23, 2016.
A promenade on the river
By Michael D. Bates
Last week we asked the question, "What are Tulsans really after when they say they want river development?" The answer is a lively public place, the sort of thing we've seen along the river in San Antonio or along the canal in Oklahoma City's Bricktown. We can see it closer to home, at Riverwalk Crossing in Jenks, where the chance to be in a place bustling with people is a draw regardless of the amount of water in the river.
We want a place where a short stroll takes you past a variety of activities and a variety of people. This kind of place has a name: A promenade.
The book A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction, provides this description:
"The promenade, 'paseo,' 'passegiata,' evening stroll, is common in the small towns of Italy, Spain, Mexico, Greece, Yugoslavia, Sicily, and South America. People go there to walk up and down, to meet their friends, to stare at strangers, and to let strangers stare at them.
"Throughout history there have been places in the city where people who shared a set of values could go to get in touch with each other. These places have always been like street theaters: They invite people to watch others, to stroll and browse, and to loiter...."
The human impulse still manifests itself, even in Oklahoma's car-dependent culture. Small-town teens cruise Main Street on a Friday night, while suburban teens gather at the mall not just to shop, but to connect with friends. Elements of the promenade pattern can be found in Tulsa's older neighborhood commercial areas, places like Cherry Street and Brookside and 18th and Boston, where it's possible to walk from your house to a neighborhood coffee shop or pub or restaurant.
I believe we can create this sort of place along the banks of the river. We can do it in accordance with the existing Arkansas River Corridor Master Plan. We can do it without sacrificing the natural qualities of the river. We can do it without raising taxes by $600 million.
The east bank between the 11th and 21st Street bridges may provide the best opportunity for creating that kind of place along Tulsa's stretch of the river.
One of the elements of a successful promenade is a concentration of people within a 10 or 15 minute walk -- close enough to be a realistic destination for an evening stroll. The neighboring area is one of the more densely settled parts of Tulsa: a historic neighborhood of single-family homes, several high-rise apartment and condominium buildings, and a number of low-rise apartment and condo complexes. It's within walking distance of the convention center and could be an amenity for out-of-town visitors as well.
It's also a convenient drive-to destination. The major commuter route along Riverside and Denver passes right by, making it an easy place to stop before heading home to south Tulsa. It's close to the hub of Tulsa's expressway network. At the same time, the two-lane continuation of Riverside north of Denver means that the park isn't cut off from the neighborhood.
(It also isn't cut off from the rest of the city by a 300-foot-wide moat, which means that people won't feel compelled to drive to get there.)
But convenience isn't sufficient to make a place work as a promenade. A Pattern Language observes that it must provide people with some sort of destination, "for example, clusters of eating places and small shops," and the centers of activity must be close enough together - they reckon no more than 150 feet apart - to prevent desolate and dead spots on the path. There needs to be a series of interesting places, each close enough to the next one to entice you a little further down the path. Finally, a promenade needs significant points of attraction at both ends to act as anchors.
The Arkansas River Master Corridor Plan calls for building a "promenade" - a kind of boardwalk - along the east bank between 11th and 21st. An expanded café near Riverside and Denver would act as the south anchor and the planned Route 66 museum and restaurant will provide an anchor for the north end of the site. There's already public money committed for improvements in this area - $5.25 million in the 2006 third-penny sales tax plan for the park, plus Vision 2025 money for the Route 66 facility.
What's missing is the in-between stuff. The space needs to be more commercial than it is, but not so developed that the natural beauty of the river is obscured or that joggers, dog walkers, and cyclists feel unwelcome.
Bryant Park in Manhattan is a good example of balancing the natural and the man-made in an outdoor public space. Although the context is different, many of the same amenities would work well here.
Like Bryant Park, this park should have free WiFi (to allow some people to do their work in the park), several food kiosks (at least one serving good coffee), and well-maintained restrooms. There ought to be chairs you can move, so you can choose to sit in the sun or the shade. It ought to be a place you could comfortably spend the whole day.
In Bryant Park, the public library has a small reading "room" - really an outdoor area - with novels and magazines and newspapers available to read. Another part of the park has tables for playing games - you can rent chess and backgammon sets. We could do something similar here.
There ought to be a couple of places to rent bicycles and rollerblades, and some place where you can buy sunscreen and bug spray in case you forgot yours at home. A carousel would be a summer-evening attraction, perhaps along with one or two other small, relatively quiet kiddie rides.
The actual mix of activities and amenities could change over time as we observe what attracts people and what doesn't. The kiosks and other permanent facilities should be flexible in their design. But they should be spread along the length of the park, with a major cluster of activity about halfway along, perhaps near Riverside and Galveston.
The area would be further enhanced by neighborhood-friendly mixed-use redevelopment along the east side of Riverside Drive between Galveston and Denver.
We shouldn't force it, but we should allow those aging apartment complexes, built in the '60s and '70s, to be replaced with well-built three- and four-story buildings which front the sidewalk with retail space on the ground floor, office space and apartments above, and maybe restaurants with roof gardens on the top floor, to take advantage of the view.
In the process of redeveloping that stretch, we should improve the connections between the neighborhood and the park, adding public stairways from Riverside up to streets like Elwood and Frisco that dead-end on top of the hill. Perhaps there could be a grand staircase connecting the Sophian Plaza building, done in the same majestic style as that landmark structure, leading to a major focal point of the park, like a sculpture fountain or the carousel.
This park isn't going to be the blockbuster destination that makes the world stand up and notice Tulsa. Indeed, no single project in one place, no matter how extravagant, will fix what ails our city.
Instead, we need to repair and enhance the urban fabric and the quality of life throughout the city. This park would be a model as we create pleasant and safe gathering places throughout the city, even the farthest reaches of north, east, south, and west Tulsa. At the same time, we need to take care of the basics - preventing crime, maintaining our streets, providing good schools.
That kind of steady and comprehensive strategy, not a desperate billion-dollar gamble, will make our city more beautiful and more attractive as a place to live, work, and visit.
If you'd like to talk more about this approach to river development, I invite you to visit thevoiceoftulsa.com, my favorite online discussion forum about local issues.
This is the originally submitted version of a story that was published on September 27, 2006, in the September 28 - October 4, 2006, edition of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The story is not available in the Internet Archive but was previously online at http://archives.urbantulsa.com/article.asp?id=3657. Posted on BatesLine on March 23, 2016.
Wanted: A Promenade
By Michael D. Bates
For years, Tulsans have been saying that they want "river development." That exact phrase occurred dozens of times in the responses collected at the 2002 City of Tulsa Vision Summit. There's a widespread sense that this "river development" thing is something that Tulsa sorely lacks.
A smart aleck would point out that we already have development along Tulsa's stretch of the river. We have two aging oil refineries, a vintage mid-'80s apartment complex at 11th Street, a vintage mid-'90s complex south of 71st, a concrete batch plant, a power station and a sewage treatment plant. And a windowless casino. And a couple of chain restaurants that turn their backs to the river.
That, of course, is not at all what Tulsans mean by river development. They visit waterfronts in other cities and come back with tales of lively places bustling with locals and tourists, enjoying shopping, restaurants, and nightclubs. San Antonio's Riverwalk is frequently mentioned, as is Oklahoma City's Bricktown Canal. OKC had to build a waterway, but we already have one, and yet we can't seem to do anything interesting with it.
Adding to the frustration, we can look across the river and see that a private developer has used private dollars to create a place, Jenks' Riverwalk Crossing, that draws huge crowds on weekend evenings.
Tulsa has a need for a great public space, a thriving place where you would be almost always guaranteed to find a crowd.
Tulsa Stakeholders Inc, the group promoting The Channels - the $788 million notion to dam the Arkansas at 21st Street and build a sixteenth of a square mile worth of islands in it - have made it clear that a great public space is what they are seeking. They say that we need a place where a newcomer to Tulsa can get a great first impression of the city, a place where there's guaranteed to be something fun going on, no matter what the weather. Given six months, anyone would fall in love with Tulsa, but, they say, when competing with other cities for a skilled professional, Tulsa may only have day or two to make a good impression.
Tulsa has tried to create this kind of public space before -- Oakley Plaza (aka the Civic Center Plaza), the Main Mall and Bartlett Square (RIP), the Williams Center Forum, the Williams Center Green. In each case, there were the requisite conceptual sketches showing throngs of people happily milling about. The problem is that those sketches don't come with a money-back guarantee when the people don't throng as expected.
Humans are finicky about the places they choose to frequent, and if the right qualities aren't present in a place, it won't attract people. There's an organization called the Project for Public Spaces which studies what factors make for a successful public space and how to turn an underperforming place into something exciting. Their website (pps.org) shows dozens of examples of great public places - like Bryant Park in New York and the squares of Savannah, Georgia - and explains what makes them tick.
Tulsans have the sense that, like many other cities, we could create a great public place along the banks of the river, but that it won't happen without allowing a certain amount of commercial development.
If you're not a cyclist or a runner, River Parks can be a boring place. For several miles, the view of the river is obscured by trees - great for wildlife habitat, not so great for people.
We want to be near natural beauty, but we want to have civilization close at hand. If you're at the park and get hungry or thirsty, you'd better hope that you're close to the little café in the park at Denver and Riverside and hope that it's open. Otherwise, you'll have to cross a busy parkway and walk at least half a mile to find any sort of restaurant or convenience store.
There are occasional festivals and concerts on the west bank, an occasional music act plays the café on the east bank, but for the most part River Parks is BYOE - Bring Your Own Entertainment.
I lived on the east side of Riverside Drive for five years, and during that time my wife and I often went for evening walks, but we almost never crossed Riverside to use the park.
We were far more likely to walk a half-mile east and stroll along Peoria, enjoying the variety of homes and businesses that Brookside had to offer. If we wanted to get a bite to eat, we had many choices along Peoria. We could even walk to the grocery store or the hardware store and back. We might even run into someone we knew who was out enjoying the same kind of walk.
If, on the other hand, we dodged the cars to get across Riverside to the park, there were no points of interest within practical walking distance. We'd just pick some arbitrary park bench as a place to turn around and walk home.
And there are plenty of benches in River Parks, but without a place that acts as a magnet for park visitors, the individual bench is a lonely place, and one feels odd and exposed sitting there for any length of time. It is not a place where one feels comfortable lingering.
What kind of public place along the river would invite us to linger, would be attractive enough to pull us away from the TV and out of our houses?
We want a place where we know we can find other people, a place where we can have lunch or dinner, where we can buy a cup of coffee or something stronger, or a place where we can bring our own picnic and not spend a dime. We want a place where we can read, write, and people-watch, a place where we might bump into someone we know, a place where we can be alone in a crowd or where we could make a new acquaintance.
The kind of place we have in mind is linear, a place that connects two or more hubs of activity, a place that provides different levels of activity along its length, but with no dead spots anywhere along the path. It invites you to walk the full length of the path, or to sample a few blocks, or just to sit in one place and watch the passing parade.
Back in the '70s, architect Christopher Alexander and his colleagues at the University of California identified this sort of place as a recurring pattern found in healthy urban places. They cataloged the successful patterns they observed in the book A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. This pattern they called a promenade, "a place where you can go to see people, and to be seen."
In an ideal city, you should be able to find a promenade within walking distance of every home. You find elements of a promenade in Cherry Street, Brookside, Brady Village, the Blue Dome District, and at 18th & Boston. Even The Promenade (the shopping mall) is something of a promenade, although the effect is blunted by the fact that it's limited to certain hours and is isolated from its surrounding neighborhoods. (Also, national chain mall stores aren't the public draw that they once were.)
The Channels backers assert that their plan is the only way to give Tulsa the kind of great public space we need. They say we can't create it downtown or along the river bank. We need the dam and the islands and the microclimate and the $788 million to make it all happen.
I believe that we can create that kind of place along the banks of the river, and that it can be done in accordance with the existing plan for the Arkansas River. It can be done in a way that doesn't require us to gamble hundreds of millions on one roll of the dice. We can test ideas and make adjustments as we go along, and still have enough money to enhance and repair public places in other parts of the city. Next week I'll give you the details.
This is the originally submitted version of a story that was published on September 20, 2006, as my column in the September 21-27, 2006, edition of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The story as published can be found on the Internet Archive. Posted on BatesLine on March 23, 2016.
By Michael D. Bates
"We're trying to beat nature on this river, and we're going to lose."
For three years, Steve Smith ran airboat tours up and down the Arkansas River, from the 21st Street bridge to the Keystone Dam - the part of the river that would be most affected if The Channels plan for damming the river gets the green light. I recently spoke with him to get his perspective on the proposal.
To most Tulsans, the river is an abstraction, a half-mile wide strip of water and/or sand dividing West Tulsa from the rest of the city - the details don't matter. Most of us seem to think it would be a better river if it were a simple, homogenous body of water, more like a canal. To many Tulsans a sandbar on the river is as attractive and welcome as a zit on your nose on prom night.
During his three years on the river, Smith came to know every nook and cranny, every island, sandbar, and creek mouth. He discovered the variety of wildlife that makes a home in and near the river. Even when the flow is down to a trickle, the river is a lively place. Few Tulsans ever get close enough to see it.
The river bed provides habitat for the endangered least tern and many other types of waterfowl, along with small mammals, and the fish that make this stretch of the river an attractive wintering area for the bald eagle.
Smith says that the backers of The Channels ought to get in a canoe and see what will be covered up by their plan for a 12-mile-long lake, a lake where the natural banks would be replaced by a kind of seawall. Smith is unaware of any groups or individuals that use the river and know it - the rowing club, for example - that were consulted by Tulsa Stakeholders, Inc., before their big unveiling.
As it flows through Tulsa, the Arkansas is an old river. While young rivers are still cutting rock in the mountains, old rivers have finished their work of shaping the land, but they still have a contribution to make. The salt and silt that make the river murky are there to replenish the farmland along its banks by flooding it from time to time. That's how Bixby came to be such a fertile place for growing vegetables and sod. But our tendency is to hem the river in, to keep it from doing that work, so that the river is no longer a distributor of nutrients, but a receptacle for pollutants.
Smith says that there are ways to improve the river as a recreational resource while working with, not against, the river's natural tendencies. We need to work with the Corps of Engineers to reorient their upstream flow policies so that we see a more constant flow through Tulsa. Recreational use below the dam isn't currently a consideration in the Corps' management of Keystone Reservoir, but that can be changed. Similar accommodations have been made on similar stretches of Corps-regulated rivers elsewhere.
The river's flow can be directed and improved to create recreational opportunities. Wing dams, which extend only part of the way into the river, can be used to direct the flow of the river to scour out a central channel, which is also less prone to sediment build-up because of the faster current. Sand would build up behind the wing dams, which creating areas that could be used like many of our stormwater detention areas - recreation space during normal conditions, but open to carry flood waters when needed.
This kind of dam, used to create a very narrow waterway near the PSO plant at 31st Street on the west bank of the river, is responsible for the existence of the Tulsa Wave, considered to be the best kayaking spot between the Rockies and the Appalachians. A wider gap between wing dams in other parts of the river would provide a tamer current for the rest of us to enjoy.
But supposing The Channels dam is built and a lake created. Smith says there are public safety issues that our public officials don't seem to have considered. In cities along the ocean or the Intercoastal Waterway, they understand that you have to have equipment and trained personnel to deal with crimes, fires, and rescue situations on water. Tulsa's leaders have yet to count the cost.
If a high-rise apartment building on one of the islands catches fire, we'll need specially equipped fire rescue boats to put it out. If there's a problem at the Keystone Dam - think of the 1986 flood, where the dam was nearly overtopped - how quickly can the islands be evacuated?
Once we've got boaters on the river, we'll need law enforcement there, too. The Oklahoma Highway Patrol would have jurisdiction; is the OHP prepared to commit the resources of its Lake Patrol troop to this new lake?
The recent rescue of two teenagers from a sandbar near the Jenks Riverwalk demonstrates how unprepared we are to deal with the interaction between people and the river. As much as Jenks has touted its riverfront, the city doesn't have a boat that can handle rescues on the river. Jenks had to call the Tulsa Fire Department, and the TFD first sent a boat that wouldn't work in that depth of water. An hour later a second boat was able to complete the rescue.
Steve Smith has plenty of ideas for how to make the most of this river while respecting the Arkansas for what it is. Over the years he has taken local leaders on boat rides to try to help them see the possibilities that he sees. But it's hard for one ordinary person to get a hearing.
When he first started his airboat tours, Smith would hear one comment over and over again: "This is a brilliant idea, but who are you, and why are they letting you do this?"
That comment may capture one of Tulsa's besetting weaknesses. The ideas of ordinary Tulsans - homeowners, small business owners, students, young adults - ideas that have been sorted, sifted, filtered, and organized in the form of plans for improving our neighborhoods, our downtown, and our river - these ideas are in danger of being set aside because someone with a lot of money, a famous name, and a PR firm has come along with his own plan.
We're told that these islands will give Tulsa the kind of excitement that will "leapfrog" us past competing cities. But Tulsa will never be a hospitable place for risk-takers and entrepreneurs, and thus won't draw the talented, creative people that will make Tulsa a place of energy and excitement, as long as who you are matters more than what you have to offer.
An edited version of this piece was published in the August 23, 2006, issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The edited, published version of the piece is online in the Internet Archive. Posted on the web September 17, 2013.
Property owners owe Tulsans downtown preservation
By Michael D. Bates
A memo from the not-too-distant future
Welcome to Tulsa and the 2008 National Preservation Conference! We want to do everything we can to make your stay a pleasant and memorable one.
Tulsa is a young city, but one with a rich history. As you walk the streets of downtown, we invite you to imagine the bygone days of wildcatters and oil barons and to imagine the bygone buildings where they did their deals, dined, shopped, and were entertained.
For those of you staying at the Westin Adam's Mark Crowne Plaza whatever the heck it's called now, you're sure to enjoy the history of the walk between the Convention Center and your hotel.
Fourth Street was once Tulsa's Great White Way, home to vaudeville and cinematic spectaculars. Close your eyes and you can imagine the Ritz (southeast corner of 4th and Boulder, now a parking garage), the Majestic (southwest corner of 4th and Main, part of the same parking garage), and the Orpheum (east of Main, south of 4th, now part of one of downtown Tulsa's foremost attractions, the Heap Big Hole in the Ground).
Don't miss the site of the Skelly Building on the northeast corner of 4th and Boulder, designed by famed architect Bruce Goff, now an exclusive deluxe gated parking community owned by the Tulsa World.
As you head north on Main Street, you'll be awed by the Totalitarian-Moderne Tulsa World building, a design inspired by the pillbox gun emplacements built by longtime Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha.
Main Street dead-ends at 3rd, cut off by your hotel's conference rooms, symbolically celebrating the irreparable division between north and south Tulsa.
We hope you'll take time to get some kicks on old Route 66. 11th Street, also known as the Mother Road, is today a lovely tree-lined boulevard, no longer cluttered with unsightly old motels and diners, which were cleared out to provide an attractive approach to the gateway to the portal to the grand entrance to the University of Tulsa.
We've got an "explosive" event planned for the final night of the conference - or should we say implosive! This town will rock! Promptly at sunset, every downtown building at least 50 years old will be simultaneously demolished in a symphony of light, sound, and debris. "Clean Slate 2008" is made possible through the generous sponsorship of Twenty-First Properties, the Tulsa World, Ark Wrecking, the Tulsa Parking Authority, and Downtown Tulsa Unlamented.
Enjoy your visit!
Tulsa Convention and Visitors Bureau
A bit farfetched? Perhaps, but the National Preservation Conference is coming to Tulsa in October 2008, and you have to wonder how many historic downtown buildings Tulsa will have left to show the visiting delegates.
The conference is put on each year by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, bringing preservation and urban planning professionals and lay people from all over the world for five days to exchange ideas and to tour local preservation success stories. I have no idea why they agreed to come to Tulsa, except perhaps to learn what not to do.
In the last two years we've seen the demolition of the Skelly Building and the 3rd and Main Froug's, two small retail buildings on the east side of Main just south of the Heap Big Hole in the Ground, and the Tulsa Auto Hotel, a parking garage that was demolished for - naturally - a surface parking lot. An aerial view of downtown reveals the effects of fifty years of heedless demolition.
The NTHP's local affiliate, Preservation Oklahoma, has named downtown Tulsa one of Oklahoma's most endangered historic places. While many Tulsans are rightly embarrassed by this and are working on a practical plan for action, the big downtown property owners are whining about the prospect any effective downtown preservation initiative.
Last week, a group called CORE Tulsa issued a set of five modest recommendations to the Tulsa Preservation Commission:
- Review all downtown buildings.
- Be proactive in meeting parking demand with structured parking, and discourage surface parking.
- Make downtown preservation a key component of Tulsa's new comprehensive plan.
- Create and promote incentives for redevelopment.
- Create a demolition review panel, to be designated by the Preservation Commission, that could halt demolition of a significant building for up to four months.
These measures have been a long time coming. Most cities took similar steps many years ago. Even many of Oklahoma's small cities have been more proactive than Tulsa in protecting their historic business districts.
I would have hoped that downtown property owners would get behind this effort, but instead their loud complaints have pushed these recommendations back to the drawing board, where they will no doubt be watered down.
I would have hoped that Mayor Kathy Taylor, who during the mayoral campaign praised the "Main Street" preservation efforts that she observed as Secretary of Commerce, would show some leadership and bring these recommendations forward. Instead, she seems to be heeding the advice of her aide Susan Neal, a former vice president of Downtown Tulsa Unlamented, who applauded the decision to withhold the recommendations.
(I know - it's really "Unlimited" not "Unlamented" - but the organization deserves the name change for their longstanding lack of resistance to the paving of downtown.)
In her Sunday Tulsa World column, Janet Pearson writes that "developers and building owners saw [the CORE recommendations] as potential project-killers." I'd be more impressed by that concern if it looked like the complaining property owners were actually doing anything with the land they've been sitting on. Other than the slow-but-steady renovation of the Mayo Hotel, there's not much happening in the downtown core.
What was most ironic and outrageous about the response of the development industry was the assertion that these preservation measures trampled on property rights and the free market.
Donovan D. Rypkema, a self-described "crass, unrepentant, real estate capitalist Republican type," gave a speech called "Property Rights and Public Values," in which he makes the case, from the basis of free markets and limited government, for land use regulation.
(You can find Rypkema's speech on the web at http://www.law.georgetown.edu/gelpi/takings/rypkema.htm)
These sentences from the speech are particularly relevant to the topic at hand:
"Most of the value of an individual parcel of real estate comes from beyond the property lines from the investments others - usually taxpayers - have made. And land use controls are an appropriate recompense for having publicly created that value."
Think about public investment in downtown Tulsa. Tulsa County taxpayers are investing over a quarter-billion dollars in downtown through Vision 2025. City of Tulsa taxpayers have invested tens or maybe hundreds of millions through bond issues and the third-penny -- building Main Mall, removing it, providing incentives to downtown residential development, acquiring land for the Williams Center through eminent domain, streetscaping, changing streets from one-way to two-way, etc. Then there's the federal and state investment in the highway network that provides rapid access to downtown from every part of the metropolitan area.
We didn't pay all that money to accelerate the conversion of downtown to an enormous surface parking lot.
The express purpose of much of that public investment is the revitalization of downtown. Many Tulsans want a downtown where historic buildings are protected, a downtown that is an attractive and interesting place to walk around, not a downtown that looks like the Woodland Hills Mall parking lot.
Every time a property owner knocks a building down for surface parking, it devalues that public investment. It is legitimate and reasonable for local government to protect that investment with modest regulations.
Oklahoma City has an Urban Design Commission with the power to block demolition.
That's how they saved the Gold Dome building at 23rd and Classen, now a multicultural center anchoring the city's Asian District.
In 2002, during a bus tour of Oklahoma City's downtown and Bricktown, I asked then-Mayor Kirk Humphreys how they convinced developers to go along with restrictions on what they could do with their property. Humphreys said that the City pointed out how many millions of dollars the City had invested in that area (the canal, the ballpark, the Ford Center, and more), and that it was reasonable for the City to take steps to protect its investment.
It's high time that our elected officials, the stewards of Tulsa's public investment in downtown, made that same case to our downtown property owners.
An edited version of this piece was published in the August 9, 2006, issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The edited, published version of the piece is online in the Internet Archive. Posted on the web April 28, 2013.
By Michael D. Bates
Usually it's the daily paper's editorial page that gets my dander up, but it was an article about the University of Tulsa's campus expansion in last week's edition of this paper that nearly had steam coming out of my ears.
It wasn't the way the story was reported, written or edited - Ginger Shepherd did a fine job - but the arrogance of TU's officials as this private institution uses the threat of government force to property owners to sell their land to TU.
2005's U. S. Supreme Court decision in the Kelo v. City of New London case drew national attention to the government's power of eminent domain - the ability to condemn property, forcing someone to sell their land to the government. But that wrongly-decided case didn't open the door to the abuse of this public power for private benefit. The City of Tulsa has been blighting and then condemning property on TU's behalf for decades.
TU's latest blitzkrieg is to the south, to create a grand entrance on 11th Street. Never mind that TU is already very visible on 11th, thanks to Skelly Stadium and the Reynolds Center. Never mind that TU already has a grand entrance on Delaware at 6th Street, with a grassy mall providing a dramatic view of the tower of McFarlin Library.
TU even had a chance to create a grand entrance on land it already owned. TU VP Kevan Buck told UTW that they kicked around building a main entrance next to the Reynolds Center on Harvard, but they didn't follow up on it at the time. Later, evidently, they changed their mind.
Most organizations would decide that they had their chance and missed it. They would make do with what they had, maybe use some signage and landscaping along Harvard south of Keplinger Hall to lead visitors into the heart of campus.
But if you're TU, you don't have to make do. Like Jezebel telling Ahab that she wanted Naboth's vineyard (see I Kings 21 for the first recorded use of eminent domain in history), TU just has to clear its institutional throat and the Tulsa Development Authority (TDA, the city's urban renewal trust) will step and fetch the land TU wants.
The City's willingness to condemn property for TU has allowed TU to be thoughtless about how they use the property they own. They have a half-mile of arterial frontage along Harvard. They have a quarter-mile of frontage along 11th.
Rather than building up - taller classroom buildings, parking structures - TU has sprawled outward. They don't have to worry about persuading a property owner to sell; the city will make the owner an offer he can't refuse.
Now, this is not a new story. TU and the TDA have been doing this little dance for decades, and this particular expansion has been in progress for a year or more - Starship Records was forced to move last year.
What got to me last week is the realization that the purpose of this grand entrance is purely for the sake of marketing TU. It won't improve the quality of the education, but it will impress the parents of prospective students.
On what planet is marketing a private college a legitimate public purpose justifying the use of eminent domain?
Would we use condemnation to improve a retail store's visibility? If Wal-Mart said to the City, that Macaroni Grill makes it hard for drivers on Memorial to see our new store, should the city force the Macaroni Grill to sell to Wal-Mart?
You say that's an unfair comparison - TU is a non-profit, a private university affiliated with the Presbyterian Church USA. All right - my church (also Presbyterian, but PCA) is on 51st Street east of Lewis. I'll bet it could attract more congregants if it could be seen by passing traffic on I-44. Should the City condemn land so that our church can acquire and demolish the apartment complex that stands in our way?
Of course not, and city officials would never do such a thing for my church, even if we asked nicely. TU can make it happen because they have some very powerful people on their board of directors, including Robert E. Lorton, chairman of World Publishing Co., and his wife Roxana.
But city officials shouldn't be doing it for TU anyway. It's a violation of the Oklahoma Constitution.
It's too late for Starship Records and Tapes, but I hope the owners of Metro Diner will take note of this May's Oklahoma Supreme Court ruling in Board of County Commissioners of Muskogee County v. Lowery. The Oklahoma court noted that the Oklahoma constitution has more stringent and specific requirements for the use of eminent domain than the U. S. Constitution.
According to the Institute for Justice, the Lowery case involved Muskogee County taking "an easement for water pipelines for a private electric generation plant." Surely there is even less constitutional warrant for taking a private business for the sake of an unobstructed view of a private institution.
TU apologists will argue that the university serves an important public role in Tulsa as an institution of higher learning. The City's assistance to TU may have been justified in the 1950s, when it was the only degree-granting institution in town, and many if not most TU students were Tulsa kids still living at home. Today Tulsa has a community college, four public colleges, a second private university, and extensions of a half-dozen other colleges which offer programs for non-traditional students.
And commuter students are no longer TU's target demographic. TU is trying to compete with other regional private colleges for affluent high school grads from other cities; they're not fighting with state schools over local yokels. Helping TU's marketing program isn't a valid use of government force.
No doubt someone will point to blight as a rationale for condemnation. But if anything, neighborhood blight has been created by TU's aggressive acquisitions and other public policies designed to aid TU. In the '60s, the area west of TU was blanket rezoned for multifamily dwellings, which encouraged developers to bulldoze craftsman-style homes and put up crummy little apartment buildings that could fit in a single house lot. Later, the constant threat of condemnation discouraged people from upgrading and maintaining their homes.
I remember, back in '79 or '80, walking to Roughnecks games through the neighborhood east of Skelly Stadium, where the Reynolds Center now stands. The homes there were attractive and well-maintained. The only way they could be considered blighted is under the overly broad definition of "blight" in our state statutes.
Because the Comprehensive Plan designated the area for TU expansion, the homes were "blighted" by virtue of not being in accordance with the Comprehensive Plan. No one's home or business is safe under that loophole, and the legislature needs to close it.
There is another, better way for a private university campus to co-exist with the surrounding city. The Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) has been in existence for just shy of 30 years, but they already have twice the enrollment of TU. (And that's despite charging more for tuition, too.)
Rather than create an enclave, isolated from the city, SCAD has restored and repurposed dozens of buildings throughout the historic district of Savannah - everything from the old 19th century Armory (now the admin building), to a 1960s Quality Inn (a dorm), to a block-long department store (the library), to two historic movie theaters (the drama department and the school auditorium). The integration of school and city has made the school a more attractive place for students and has made the city a livelier place for residents and tourists.
It was an approach born out of the founders' values, but also out of necessity. SCAD didn't have the money for new construction or the political clout for eminent domain, but it did have sweat equity and students and faculty with the skills to make an old building new again.
SCAD's approach is the kind of imaginative win-win solution that never seems to occur to Tulsa's leaders. It's said that creativity loves constraints, and TU hasn't had any constraints on its territorial ambitions, allowing it to take a ham-handed brute force approach. Perhaps a court challenge to the unconstitutional and immoral abuse of eminent domain that has fueled TU's expansion will help the university to take a more creative approach to campus building in the future.
A version of this column was published on August 2, 2006, in the August 3-10, 2006, issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly under the headline, "Intelligent Design." Below is the column as originally submitted. The as-published version of the story is available on the Internet Archive. Submitted version posted on BatesLine on March 29, 2016.
Making the most of Tulsa's unique places
By Michael D. Bates
So I was changing my baby boy's diaper in the men's room of the Johnny Carino's at 98th and Riverside - they have those nice changing surfaces that pull down from the wall - and I was thinking: "If they just had a window here in the men's room, I'd have a lovely view of the Arkansas River and the Oklahoma Aquarium."
The diners at Johnny Carino's don't have that lovely view. The building is a franchise-standard, cookie-cutter design, oriented toward the street, and what windows there are face the parking lot and Riverside Drive.
For all the talk of development along the river and in light of the standard that has been set by Riverwalk Crossing in Jenks, it's hard to understand why all the development to date on the Tulsa side turns its back to the river. Here we are, poised to spend millions on low-water dams, and for what? So that the Kum-n-Go dumpster and the Red Robin grease pit can have spectacular views of the water?
Even the greatly anticipated Kings Landing is oriented away from the river. Just a couple of the spaces appear to have windows (and small ones at that) facing the Arkansas.
I had hoped that private developers would have the imagination to see and exploit the unique opportunities presented by riverfront property. My guess is that the financing and construction process, with the focus on reducing risk to the investors, is enough to quench anything imaginative.
As much as possible, we ought to leave it to the free market to decide the best use for a piece of land. But there are certain places which, by virtue of some natural feature (e.g., a river) or publicly-funded facility (e.g., a freeway, an arena), offer unique opportunities for a city's growth, quality of life, tourist appeal, and economic development.
Many cities have concluded that the only way to make the most of their unique places is to establish special design requirements and a design review process for nearby developments.
Oklahoma City has done this for its river, establishing a "scenic river overlay" zone that follows the path of the Oklahoma River (nee North Canadian) through the city. New developments are scrutinized for compliance with the city's String of Pearls Master Plan, helping to ensure that OKC taxpayers get what the kind of riverfront experience they hoped for when they approved funding for low-water dams.
The river isn't the only special place that Oklahoma City protects through special regulation. In Bricktown, new construction and exterior modifications must be approved by the Bricktown Urban Design Committee, using guidelines designed to maintain consistency with the historic brick warehouses that give the district its name. The design review process protects both the massive public investment in the area.
They aren't making any more Main Streets, so a similar design review process is in place for Oklahoma City's pedestrian-oriented shopping streets, in recognition of the way places like NW 23rd and Capitol Hill add to the appeal of city living.
Southwest of downtown, Stockyards City is an authentic remnant of Oklahoma City's history as a cowtown, and there are special zoning regulations that apply to the commercial district and its main approaches.
Oklahoma City has also made it a priority to protect one of its front doors. I-44 & I-35 funnel traffic in from Wichita, Kansas City and points north, and Tulsa, St. Louis, Chicago, the Great Lakes region, and the northeastern U. S., heading to Texas or Southern California.
The area just south and west of where the two roads divide has a high concentration of tourist attractions - the Oklahoma City Zoo, the Omniplex, Remington Park, the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, the National Softball Hall of Fame, and the National Firefighters Hall of Fame.
In 1981 - 25 years ago - Oklahoma City recognized the importance of this area by designating it the Northeast Gateway Urban Conservation District. The purpose of the district, as designated by ordinance, is "to ensure continued conservation of aesthetic appeal within a unique area; to encourage quality development; and to recognize the unique quality and character of the Northeast Gateway."
In the Northeast Gateway district, building facades must be of stone, masonry, glass or wood. Metal buildings aren't allowed to front onto public streets. There are special requirements for landscaping, screening, street setback, building height, and noise. Heavy equipment repair, truckstops, outdoor swap meets, and sewage treatment plants are prohibited. These extra requirements are designed to help the city make a good first impression.
Tulsa's leaders haven't been as foresighted in protecting our special places.
Here's one example: We've allowed our own northeast gateway, the heavily-traveled stretch where I-44, US 412, and State Highway 66 join together, to develop in an ugly way. Instead being lined with places for tourists to spend money and generate sales tax, this corridor is filling up with industrial uses, auto auctions, and truck storage.
The area has developed in this way partly because, 40 years after Tulsa annexed the area, the city still hasn't provided the infrastructure needed for more profitable uses. The lack of city sewer is a particular hindrance.
To the south of this corridor are some of the largest blocks of undeveloped land remaining within the city limits. Historic Route 66 is just a mile to the south.
Tulsa needs to be smart about how this region develops. And while we can't do anything about what's already there, city officials can make planning decisions that will begin to turn the area around.
Last Thursday the City Council approved a zoning change that is a step in the wrong direction. Some property in this corridor, near 145th East Ave and Admiral, was rezoned industrial. I'm told that the rezoning will make it harder for neighboring property owners to develop their land as anything but industrial.
Some of those nearby parcels were potential sites for residential development. Just within the last month, a sewer line was completed to the area which would make residential development feasible, but it is unlikely to happen if industrial development springs up nearby. The industrial rezoning could also hinder retail development at 129th East Ave and I-44, a site identified as a prime retail location.
Tulsa needs a comprehensive plan that reflects the importance of this and other strategic areas, and we need ordinances that help us put the plan into action.
Oklahoma City's zoning overlays may not be the best approach - they're really an attempt to superimpose the form-based planning approach onto an outdated use-based system - but OKC's example gives Tulsa a place to start.
Tulsa only has so much highway frontage, so much open space, so much riverfront. They aren't making any more of the stuff (to paraphrase Will Rogers), so we need to make the most of what we have.
An edited version of this piece was published in the June 21, 2006, issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The archived version is no longer online. Posted on the web August 2, 2009.
At-large barge runs aground
By Michael D. Bates
Over the next four weeks, between now and the state primary election, this column will focus on the statewide, legislative, county, and judicial races that will be on the July 25th ballot.
Before we launch ourselves headlong into state politics, let's get caught up on a city issue that we've been following for over half a year: the Citizen's Commission's recommendations for changing the City Charter.
Back on June 9, the Citizens' Commission on City Government wrapped up its work and issued its final report. This was the panel which was established last December by then-Mayor Bill LaFortune just as an initiative petition seeking to replace three City Council districts with three at-large supercouncilor seats stalled for lack of popular support and was shelved.
It appeared to many opponents of at-large supercouncilors that this commission was another means to push the measure through: Get the idea endorsed by a blue-ribbon panel so as to pressure the Council to put the idea on the ballot.
It didn't turn out that way. The commission's final report makes it clear that most of its members oppose any change to the structure of the City Council. A few supported the idea of adding at-large or super-district seats to the Council, without reducing the existing number of districts. (At the meeting I attended, the only commissioners to express support for the idea were Realtor Joe McGraw and attorney Steve Schuller. Schuller replaced at-large Council advocate Howard Barnett when he stepped aside to begin his run for State Treasurer.)
The report cited three reasons for keeping the Council structure as it is: the numerical reality that at-large seats would dilute district representation; the "racial divides that still afflict" Tulsa (which was a major reason for moving to district representation in 1989); and the sense that the division that provided a rationale for at-large councilors wasn't really a structural problem, but a function of the people in office at the time.
In this Sunday's edition of the monopoly daily paper, Ken Neal, a vocal opponent of any degree of popular sovereignty and a leader in the call for at-large councilors, did his best to spin the report his way, claiming that the commission "put aside the contentious question of district versus at-large councilors," when in fact they dealt with it quite decisively.
You can read the report for yourself and draw your own conclusions - there's a copy posted at tulsansdefendingdemocracy.com.
The commission did recommend three charter changes: non-partisan elections, making the city auditor an appointive office, and moving elections to November in odd-numbered years.
Changing the election date, something proposed in this space last December, seems to be the most broadly supported and simplest change, one that would be worth putting on the ballot at the earliest opportunity, perhaps this November.
The move would give new elected officials nearly half a year to find their way around City Hall before the budget cycle begins. Under the current calendar, a draft budget is due within weeks of the inauguration. Had there been a longer lead time this year, it would have given Councilor John Eagleton, who ran on a platform of fiscal conservatism, more time to build support for keeping the growth of the city budget within the rate of inflation. Under the pressure of time, most councilors felt the need to swallow whatever was proposed.
Fall elections would also mean better weather and more daylight hours for face-to-face, door-to-door campaigning, and avoiding the Christmas and New Year's holidays.
The Council that sends this to the voters will have to sacrifice three months of their term, which would likely end in January instead of April. That might be the only thing that might prevent this proposal from moving forward right away.
The matter of non-partisan elections will take longer to sort out. The commission recommended the change, calling party politics a distraction and an impediment to unity, but they couldn't reach a consensus on how to implement the change, and there were even a few dissenters who prefer no change at all.
It was noted that a few members "embraced" my proposal for "multi-partisan" elections, outlined here in the April 5 edition, which would leave party labels in place, encourage the formation of locally-focused political groups, and make a candidate's local affiliations evident to the voter on the ballot. However much we desire unity, there will be factions - it's a function of human nature - and our system should acknowledge and accommodate that reality.
The strongest recommendation was to have the City Auditor appointed by and accountable to an audit committee whose five members would be appointed by the Mayor and confirmed by the City Council.
The report claims, "No longer subjecting the auditor to periodic elections, the task force believes, would safeguard the independence and integrity of the audit office." Quite the opposite: An elected auditor is accountable only to the voters, while an appointed auditor would be dependent on the goodwill of people handpicked by the Mayor, the head of the executive branch of government, the principal object of the auditor's investigations.
Overall, the report was thoughtful, deliberate, and didn't overreach. On two issues, civil service reform and city/county consolidation, the commission felt it was "ill-equipped to make major recommendations." Where there were conflicting views on a recommendation, the report makes that plain.
Why did things turn out so well, contrary to the expectations and fears of many? The members of the commission heard and heeded those concerns, and worked diligently to allay them.
While most commissioners didn't come in with years of city government dealings to shape their understanding of the issue, they weren't about to be led by the nose. It was apparent that most of these busy leaders were doing their own study and research, seeking out different perspectives, filling in the gaps in their own knowledge of Tulsa's governmental history and alternative ways to organize City Hall.
They sought out different perspectives for presentation at commission meetings.
It didn't hurt that, under re-election pressure, LaFortune nominated members of Tulsans Defending Democracy, the at-large opposition group, to the commission. One of those commissioners, Jane Malone, gave powerful personal testimony of the impact that diluting district representation would have on racial equality in Tulsa.
There was one significant shortcoming in the process: The commission's meetings were all held during normal working hours, making it difficult for citizens with full-time jobs to attend and participate during opportunities for public comment.
Co-chairmen Ken Levit and Hans Helmerich did a fine job of running the meetings and focusing the issues. Their innate intellectual honesty and appreciation of the gravity of the task deserves a good deal of credit for the positive outcome of the commission's work.
Congratulations to them and the commission members for a job well done.
Elsewhere at City Hall:
Last week we wrote about the controversy over Mayor Taylor's appointment of Jim Beach to the Board of Adjustment. The groundswell of opposition to the appointment from neighborhood leaders expressed itself in a letter to the City Council and the Mayor, calling on the Mayor to withdraw the appointment.
Beach's appointment was scheduled for a vote at last Thursday's City Council meeting, but Mayor Taylor, apparently aware that she lacked the five votes needed for approval, asked the Council for a delay.
The letter, sent by a bipartisan group of neighborhood association leaders and community activists, refers to Beach as an "insider in an insider's game." In addition to the concerns about conflict of interest on specific cases where Beach's employer, Sack and Associates, is a part of the development team, the letter mentions the possibility that Beach may have an inherent conflict of interest under the Oklahoma Constitution on every case, because his employer is a contractor to the City.
The letter urges the Council to research the conflict issues thoroughly before considering Beach's appointment, rather than dealing with them after Beach has been confirmed.
The neighborhood leaders aren't likely to back down. It will be interesting to see whether Taylor insists on pushing ahead, no matter how fierce the opposition.
An edited version of this piece was published in the June 7, 2006, issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The edited, published version of the piece is online in the Internet Archive. Posted on the web September 17, 2013.
Remembering Jane Jacobs
By Michael D. Bates
"This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding. It is also, and mostly, an attempt to introduce new principles of city planning and rebuilding, different and even opposite from those now taught in everything from schools of architecture and planning to the Sunday supplements and women's magazines.... It is an attack... on the principles and aims that have shaped modern, orthodox city planning and rebuilding."
She was labeled a naysayer and an obstructionist, anti-growth and anti-progress. She had no training in city planning or architecture, but she challenged the professionals and the experts. In the mid-'50s, when her neighborhood was threatened with demolition by New York's orgy of expressway construction, she and her neighbors fought back and won. Their victory opened the door for the economic resurgence of the neighborhoods of lower Manhattan.
She transcended political boundaries. In the late '60s, she and her family left the United States for Toronto to keep her son out of the Vietnam War draft, and yet two of her books were listed among the hundred best non-fiction works of the 20th century by the conservative fortnightly National Review.
What Jane Jacobs had was a keen eye for detail, a gift for description, and a stubborn determination to see streets, neighborhoods, and cities as they really are, not distorted through the lens of academic theory. It is that quality that makes her landmark book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, still fresh and relevant nearly half a century after its publication.
Her death on April 25, at the age of 89, brought to an end Jane Jacobs' long and productive life. She deserves to be remembered, and so do her observations about what makes a city a safe and pleasant place to live and work and, just as important, an incubator for new businesses and new ideas.
Here are just three of the lessons she taught, lessons that many of Tulsa's leaders have yet to learn:
1. Believe your eyes, not your theories:
Jacobs' ideas about cities ran counter to the accepted wisdom of city planning, which she considered a dangerous kind of quackery, as apt to kill the patient as heal it: "As in the pseudoscience of bloodletting, just so in the pseudoscience of city rebuilding and planning, years of learning and a plethora of subtle and complicated dogma have arisen on a foundation of nonsense."
Planners clung to their dogma, regardless of its real-world effects: "The pseudoscience of planning seems almost neurotic in its determination to imitate empiric failure and ignore empiric success."
Jacobs wrote of a friend who was a city planner in Boston, who told her that the North End, the old Italian district with its chaotic tangle of narrow streets and untidy mixture of homes and businesses, was a dreadful, crowded, unhealthy slum that needed to be cleared. And although he concurred with her observation that the neighborhood was a lively, pleasant, and safe place, an observation backed up by low crime and mortality rates, he chose to believe the negative view of the neighborhood dictated by accepted planning theory.
Here in Tulsa there seems to be a reluctance to catalog and acknowledge the planning failures of the last fifty years. Perhaps it is because many of the responsible decision makers of the '60s, '70s, and '80s are still living and still influential. But until we are willing to admit that following the fads of the past - urban renewal, superblocks, pedestrian malls, urban expressway loops - caused more damage than good, we will remain susceptible to ignoring reality and uncritically embracing the next fashionable concept.
2. The safety of a city is a function of its design:
Jacobs saw, in the traditional urban neighborhoods that had escaped dismemberment by urban renewal and expressway construction, a complex organic system that planners tamper with at their peril.
The mixture of residences, jobs, and shopping gives people a reason to be on the sidewalks, coming into or through the neighborhood from early in the morning until late at night. That, combined with buildings that overlook those sidewalks, creates a kind of natural surveillance - a phenomenon she called "eyes on the street." She wrote, "No amount of police can enforce civilization where the normal, casual enforcement of it has broken down."
Contrast that with a typical 1970s Tulsa subdivision. The neighborhood has sidewalks, but they don't lead anywhere you would need to go. The houses turn a blind eye to the street; living rooms look out on the back yard, with no windows facing the street. It doesn't matter how many street lights you put up; if no one needs to be walking down the street, and no one can easily look out to observe the street, you have only managed to create a well-lit workplace for vandals and car thieves.
3. Old buildings matter:
"Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them. By old buildings I mean not museum-piece old buildings... but also a good lot of plain, ordinary, low-value old buildings, including some rundown old buildings."
Think about the most lively and interesting places in Tulsa, the kind of places you'd take a visitor for a night on the town: Brookside, the Blue Dome District, Brady Village, Cherry Street, 18th and Boston. Each of those districts had an abundance of old buildings, buildings that are for the most part unremarkable. But those buildings provided an inexpensive place for someone with a dream to start a new business.
You might have seen the same kind of vitality develop in the south part of downtown, with business springing up to serve the tens of thousands who attend classes at TCC's Metro Campus or participate in activities at the downtown churches, but so many of the buildings have been taken for parking by the churches and by TCC that a prospective business owner would be hard-pressed to find a location.
"As for really new ideas of any kind - no matter how ultimately profitable or otherwise successful some of them might prove to be - there is no leeway for such chancy trial, error and experimentation in the high-overhead economy of new construction. Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings."
Time and space allow us only to scratch the surface of Jacobs' wisdom here. You will have to read The Death and Life of Great American Cities for yourselves to see what she had to say about why some parks are lively and safe and others are dull and dangerous, why certain areas become magnets for used car lots and other unattractive uses, how to accommodate cars without killing an urban neighborhood, and how to keep a successful district from self-destructing.
The principles Jacobs drew from her observations are timeless because they are grounded in unchanging human nature, although the application of those principles will vary from one place to another. Would that every City Councilor and every planning commissioner would read and ponder Jacobs' works.
As Tulsa revisits its Comprehensive Plan for the first time in 30 years, as we consider moving from use-based to form-based planning, we have the opportunity to align our practices with those timeless principles, so that once again our urban core can become a lively and dynamic engine for the culture and prosperity of our city and our region.
Jane Jacobs showed us the way. Perhaps, a half-century later, Tulsa is ready to follow her path.
An edited version of this piece was published on May 31, 2006, in Urban Tulsa Weekly. The archived version is no longer online. Posted on the web, with hyperlinks to related articles, on August 18, 2010.
"No man's property is safe while the legislature is in session." So goes the old saying, and it very nearly held true this year, as two bills at the State Capitol, SB 1324 and HB 2559, threatened property values by trying to undermine local control of zoning and historic preservation.
But HB 2559 died in conference committee, and SB 1324 emerged last Tuesday only to be blown out of the water by a humiliating vote of 42 to 3 in the full State Senate.
We've been following these bills for about six weeks, ever since historic preservation groups sounded the alarm. We've learned several lessons in the process.
The first lesson is that if you care about your city, the State Legislature deserves every bit as much scrutiny as City Hall. In Oklahoma, municipalities are creatures of the state, limited to the authority granted them by the Oklahoma Constitution and Statutes. A lot of good work locally could be undone at the state level.
Lesson two: It's very hard to get a clear idea of where a bill stands. Striking the title, shell bills, committee substitutes, riders -- there are so many different ways to derail or completely change a piece of legislation. We've only begun to get an education in the legislative process as it is practiced in Oklahoma City. Don't assume that you get it just because you watch C-SPAN as your daily soap opera; Oklahoma's procedures and traditions are very different from those of Congress.
Lesson three: Legislators are forced to consider an incredible amount of legislation each year - thousands of bills and resolutions are introduced, and hundreds make it to the floor for debate and a vote. They can't possibly give each bill the attention it deserves.
Consequently, they put a lot of trust in their colleagues and in lobbyists to decide whether a bill deserves scrutiny. In the case of HB 2559 and SB 1324, the bill's sponsors - Sen. Brian Crain and Reps. Ron Peters and Jeannie McDaniel, all from Tulsa - told their colleagues that the provisions weren't controversial at all.
The same message was carried by lobbyists Karl Ahlgren and Russ Roach, representing the interests of "Utica Partners". Roach used to live in Swan Lake, a zoned historic preservation neighborhood in midtown Tulsa. Nowadays Roach lives south of Southern Hills Country Club, living large and milking his connections to his former colleagues for all their worth. He seems to have forgotten the challenges faced by homeowners in older parts of Tulsa.
Until preservationists got wind of the bill, and word spread to neighborhood associations, city councilors, and others concerned about urban planning and zoning policy, legislators weren't hearing any message to the contrary. SB 1324 passed unanimously the first time through in both houses.
How did ordinary Oklahomans turn a unanimous vote in favor to a nearly unanimous vote against? We became aware of the legislation and understood its implications, and then we expressed our concerns to our representatives. Once we educated the members of the House and Senate about the problems with the bill, that tipped the balance in the right direction.
While I'd hope that our legislators would be inclined to vote against any measure they haven't had time to study, it's our job to keep an eye on the bills that are introduced and to lobby just as hard as hired guns like Russ Roach.
One more lesson to learn: There are elected officials that desperately need to be replaced, but it's likely that most of them will get free rides to re-election when the filing period closes on June 7.
Ron Peters, who represents House District 70 in midtown, is one of those who need to go. Off the record, his Republican colleagues will tell you that he is one of the least cooperative, least trustworthy, least principled members of their caucus. They'd be happy to see him go.
Peters was one of a half-dozen Republicans who broke with the party to support the lottery and the introduction of full-fledged casino gambling, with all their accompanying social ills.
SB 1324 and HB 2559 are not his first assaults on homeowners' rights and local control of land use issues. In 2005, Peters and Crain co-authored HB 1911.
In addition to the Board of Adjustment provisions that made their way into SB 1324, the earlier bill would have removed notice requirements for property owners within a redevelopment (i.e., urban renewal) district. Owners would not have had to be notified about public hearings regarding redevelopment plans affecting their property. It also would have removed a requirement for redevelopment plans to be approved by the City Council.
Peters hasn't had a challenger since he first won the seat in the 2000 Republican primary. A conservative Republican challenger could unseat him, if only one would step forward.
It must have surprised some of her constituents that Jeannie McDaniel, a Democrat who represents House District 78 in the northern part of midtown, would have supported a bill undermining historic preservation zoning. After all, she was head of the Mayor's Office for Neighborhoods under Mayor Susan Savage, and she did a great deal to help neighborhood associations organize and help them deal with City Hall bureaucracy.
But residents of central Maple Ridge will remember how, in 1999 and 2000, McDaniel and the Savage administration worked to undermine their efforts to get historic preservation zoning for their neighborhood, which is arguably Tulsa's most historic neighborhood without that protection.
McDaniel was not only out of step with this land use bill, she was one of only five state reps to oppose SB 1742, the pro-life legislation which makes crucial information available to women in crisis pregnancies. The bill takes concrete actions toward the stated goal of making abortion rare (as in Bill Clinton's phrase "safe, legal, and rare"), by giving women solid alternatives to killing their unborn children.
McDaniel represents quite a turn to the left from her predecessor, pro-life Democrat Mary Easley, who voted for SB 1742 in the State Senate.
McDaniel won by only 24 votes over Republican David Schaffer, and she faces a tough challenger in Tulsa police officer and Republican Jesse Guardiola. Guardiola has been campaigning hard for over six months.
The only other Tulsa state representative to oppose this year's landmark pro-life legislation was Democrat Darrell Gilbert, who represents District 72 in north-central Tulsa. Gilbert, a former Republican, hasn't had a general election opponent since his first race in 1996, and hasn't had a primary election opponent since 1998.
Our list of elected officials who deserve a strong challenge would not be complete without mentioning Tulsa County Commissioners Bob Dick and Wilbert Collins, both up for re-election this year. In previous columns, we've documented their aversion to competitive bidding and their disdain for the concerns of Tulsa homeowners.
Collins has a challenger, Owasso State Rep. John Smaligo. Both of Democrat Collins's previous wins have been very narrow, and his district, which includes north Tulsa County and east Tulsa, is becoming increasingly Republican.
Bob Dick got a free ride four years ago, and so far he has not drawn a challenger. City Councilor Bill Christiansen has been rumored as a candidate, but it hasn't been clear whether he would oppose Dick or whether Dick would retire and anoint him as his successor. Christiansen would be better on the south Tulsa bridge issue, but otherwise he wouldn't be much of an improvement.
Christiansen may be waiting to see how much damage there is from the FAA investigation into allegations of anti-competitive practices at Jones Riverside Airport, practices that are alleged to have helped his Christiansen Aviation at the expense of competing fixed-base operator Roadhouse Aviation. The FAA report was due out at press time.
Whatever Christiansen decides to do, Tulsa County needs someone to run for Commission District 3 who will work to make county government more open and efficient, someone who will give deference to city government, rather than engaging in empire-building at the County Courthouse.
You may be used to waiting until Election Day to pay attention to these races. But if you want a real choice to available to you on the ballot, you need to do some homework between now and June 7.
If you're reading this, you're obviously intelligent and concerned about good government. Take a close look at your elected representatives, and consider whether you should step forward and challenge them. Or perhaps someone you know would be the perfect candidate.
Competition is a good thing. It gives us a chance to replace those officials who need replacing and helps those who survive a challenge to get back on the straight and narrow.
Someone needs to provide that competition. That someone could be you.
MORE ON SB 1324 and HB 2559:
- BatesLine, April 25, 2006: HB 2559: Attacking local control of zoning
- Urban Tulsa Weekly, April 26, 2006: Scary Bypass
- Dustbury, April 26, 2006: Local zoning be damned
- BatesLine, April 28, 2006: Legislature interferes in local control of land use -- HB 2559 and SB 1324
- BatesLine, May 1, 2006: Call your State Senators today -- kill SB 1324
- Urban Tulsa Weekly, May 10, 2006: City Hall Update
- BatesLine, May 10, 2006: SB 1324, HB 2559, Susan Neal, and non-partisan elections
- BatesLine, May 12, 2006: SB 1324 is still lurking
- BatesLine, May 23, 2006: SB 1324 is out of conference committee -- final vote may be tomorrow
- BatesLine, May 24, 2006: SB 1324 defeated in Senate
- Dustbury, May 25, 2006: Some people are just so zoned out
An edited version of this piece was published in the May 24, 2006, issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The archived version is no longer online. Posted on the web July 3, 2010.
Flunking the Yellow Pages Test
By Michael D. Bates
When he was Mayor of Indianapolis, Stephen Goldsmith had a simple test for whether city government ought to be performing a service or whether it should be left to the private sector:
"Look at the city's yellow pages. If the phone book lists three companies that provide a certain service, the city probably should not be in that business, at least not exclusively."
Using the Yellow Pages Test, Goldsmith cut hundreds of millions in city expenses, money that was then spent on city improvements. City government focused on the tasks that only it could provide. Dozens of functions were completely turned over to the private sector or contracted out. In order to keep a task in-house, a city department had to compete successfully on cost and quality with private providers.
Goldsmith's example is more often applauded than followed. Oklahoma politicians have been all too anxious to get into businesses like entertainment, resorts, and commercial aviation, providing public funds to help private enterprises that are in competition with other private businesses.
These interventions are always justified as essential to the public good, but instead they always seem to drain money away from the basic functions of government.
On Sunday, May 14, the Oklahoman reported that the $27 million in transferable state tax credits used to finance Great Plains Airlines was coming out of fuel taxes, money that would otherwise go to replace
Oklahoma's roads and bridges. Rather than fund the rehabilitation of 90 bridges or the resurfacing of 135 miles of highway, Oklahomans are paying for a failed airline that never got close to its stated purpose of providing air service between Oklahoma and the coasts.
(Don't go looking for that story in the Tulsa World, whose parent company was a major investor in the failed airline.)
With that lesson on the front page of the state's biggest paper, you'd think it would deter the Legislature from making the same mistake again.
Instead, there's a push to approve $30 million in state tax credits for redevelopment of Grand Lake's Shangri-La resort. Earlier this session, a bill containing the credits stalled in the House, but they may be inserted into the massive budget and tax cut bill.
There's no question that Shangri-La is not much of an attraction any more. My wife and I spent our fifth anniversary there 12 years ago and were so bored with the place we left early to visit Buffalo Ranch and the Precious Moments Chapel.
Backers of the plan claim we need a revived Shangri-La to compete with convention centers and resorts in other states. It seems more likely that it would compete for convention business with city-owned convention centers in Oklahoma City and Tulsa and with tribal and privately-owned facilities like the Cherokee Resort in Catoosa and Tulsa's Renaissance Hotel.
Left to its own devices, the free market would be unlikely to pick the southern end of Monkey Island for a major resort. Shangri-La is nearly as inaccessible as its literary namesake. It's over 80 miles away from the nearest commercial airport, and there's only one two-lane highway leading to it.
By now, GOP leadership in the House should have poured cold water on the plan, but they have remained silent. Perhaps they're concerned about protecting the bill's sponsor, Doug Cox, a freshman representative from Grove serving a traditionally Democratic district.
House Republicans should be more concerned about protecting a reputation for common sense and integrity. That will do more in the long run for maintaining their majority and building popular support for their platform than meddling in an area that should be left to the private sector.
Closer to home, there was much ado last week about the city's meddling in the competition for local entertainment dollars.
Last Thursday night, the City Council authorized payments to the Tulsa Oilers hockey team, the Tulsa Talons arena football team, and the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA).
Former Mayor Bill LaFortune changed the formula for splitting concession revenues with the Oilers and Talons. As a result, each team will receive more money back in concession revenues than they paid in rent, about $20,000 more for the Talons and $50,000 more for the Oilers.
The PRCA and Professional Bull Riders (PBR) are each getting a $50,000 sponsorship payment from the city.
During Thursday's Council meeting, Council Chairman "Landslide" Bill Martinson called the payments corporate welfare and said they were offensive. That's ironic: The same Bill Martinson now fretting about $100,000 was just a few months ago pushing to have the city bail out Bank of Oklahoma to the tune of $7.5 million for the bad loan it made to Great Plains Airlines, a loan for which the city has no liability.
The Tulsa World's Friday front-page graphic painted a distorted picture of the payments to the teams by omitting the money the city received in concession revenues from the events. Between rent and concessions, the city made $187,952 from Oilers' games and $63,409 from Talons' games. That's after paying the teams their share of concession cash.
The real question, one the monopoly daily paper doesn't want to address, is whether the city makes enough money from these events to cover the expense of operating the facility. Conventions and major concerts might bring in a significant number of out-of-town visitors, so that theoretically, the increased sales tax revenue from those visitors would offset any operating loss.
But the Talons and Oilers draw mainly from the local area, so the revenues need to be enough by themselves to cover the expenses. Otherwise, we'd be better off keeping the place closed.
LaFortune was quoted in the World as defending the deals on the grounds of quality of life: "Professional teams in our city are absolutely critical to our city's economic well-being."
Minor league sports are really just one entertainment option among many in this city, competing with night clubs, restaurants, and movie theaters for the disposable income of Tulsa residents. There's no more justification for subsidizing them than there would be for a city-funded Western Swing band. (Actually, the latter would be far more likely to bring in outside tourist dollars.)
There's something else ironic about Martinson's fussing about corporate welfare. The amounts in question are three orders of magnitude smaller than what we're spending on the new arena - around 100 grand compared to $200 million. Talk about straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel!
Ordinarily, a private business has to pay for a place to conduct business. You might buy or lease an existing building, or you might build something new, but the cost of a place is part of the cost of doing business. If you're leasing, your rent is paying for the landlord's cost of building and maintaining the place.
But in all the financial projections for the new arena, the cost of construction is left out of the picture. If we exceed all reasonable expectations, we may cover the costs of operation, but there's no expectation that taxpayers should recover the funds we spent to build a place for sports teams and musical acts to make money. If anything is corporate welfare, that surely is.
Taxpayers don't build movie theaters or dance halls, and there's no reason we should be funding a location for entertainment options that compete with those private businesses.
An edited version of this piece was published on May 10, 2006, in Urban Tulsa Weekly. The archived version is no longer online. Posted on the web, with hyperlinks to related articles, on August 18, 2010.
We're now a month past the city election, and it's time to follow up on a few stories that we've been watching.
First, let's look to the State Legislature, where Tulsa's development lobby has taken its battle to regain total control of zoning and land use planning. HB 2559 has been sent to conference committee. The bill, sponsored by three Tulsa legislators (State Reps. Ron Peters and Jeannie McDaniel, and State Sen. Brian Crain), would interfere with local control of the zoning process, requiring appeals to Board of Adjustment (BoA) decisions to go directly to District Court and making it easier to remove lots from historic preservation districts (and ensuring the eventual erosion of these districts to non-existence).
The companion Senate bill, SB 1324, is awaiting the Senate's consideration of House amendments, but it appears to be on hold while HB 2559 is in conference. SB 1324 includes a section that would give the BoA oversight of design guidelines, which would affect historic preservation districts and Oklahoma City's neighborhood conservation districts. Combined with the BoA appeal requirement, it would make it tougher to enforce these zoning provisions which aim to preserve the character of a neighborhood. It's likely that this provision will be included in the conference negotiations over HB 2559.
Legislators have gotten an earful about these bills from neighborhood association leaders and historic preservation activists over the last two weeks. We'll see if the voice of the people is enough to overcome the loud voice of campaign contributions from builders' PACs and individual developers. One encouraging sign: State Sen. Randy Brogdon, a former Mayor of Owasso, and one of the most principled members of the State Legislature, has come out in opposition to the bill.
The local monopoly daily weighed in with an editorial on the bill, predictably siding against local control of land use decisions. The editorial set forth a false alternative: Do you want zoning decisions made by professionals or by politicians?
In fact, the BoA is not made up of professionals. It consists of five private citizens, nominated to the board by the Mayor for three-year terms and confirmed by the City Council.
And although much of what the Board does is cut-and-dried, there is a strong subjective element to the approval of special exceptions, where the Board's role is more legislative, rather than "quasi-judicial." Neighborhood compatibility is involved in special exceptions, and it would be reasonable to provide a level of review that doesn't require the expense of hiring an attorney.
Whatever the merits of changing the BoA appeals process or changing historic preservation rules, the issue should be debated and decided locally - a point the World's editorial avoids. The bottom line is that the World and the development lobby don't want land-use decisions made by a body that they don't control.
Keep calling the State Capitol. Our legislators need to get the message - keep local issues under local control.
Mayor Kathy Taylor is being lauded for reaching across partisan lines to hire former City Councilor Susan Neal, a Republican, to serve on her staff as a legislative and education liaison. Neal and former Council colleague Tom Baker were Taylor's first two permanent hires.
The reality is that, when it comes to local political factions, Neal's hiring doesn't cross any ideological boundaries at all. Neal is very much a part of the Midtown Money Belt faction that crosses national party lines and includes Taylor, Baker, and former Mayor Susan Savage. She and Baker were the Tulsa World editorial board's favorite councilors. The pair was nicknamed Bakerneal by their colleagues for voting in lockstep.
Although she worked for a Republican congressman a decade and a half ago, Neal is considered a RINO (Republican In Name Only) by most local activists. As a councilor, she would show up at the annual Tulsa County Republican Convention just long enough to wave when the elected officials were introduced.
I'm only aware of one occasion where Neal took a discernibly Republican position on an issue: She voted twice against allowing more city employees to unionize. Then again, that's a position many Money Belt Democrats share, including Mayor Taylor and former Mayor Savage.
Her appointment as a legislative liaison is ironic. In choosing a liaison, you want someone who has the respect of those you're going to be lobbying.
Neal's ties to Tulsa's mostly-Republican legislative delegation are rather tenuous. When Republican elected officials gathered in late 2004 to announce their opposition to the recall of two Republican city councilors, Neal was nowhere in sight. Of the local delegation, she's known to have a good rapport with only Ron Peters and Jeannie McDaniel, both of whom sponsored the aforementioned HB 2559, working to keep a reform-minded City Council from exercising local control over zoning.
Neal isn't Taylor's worst choice for a liaison to the City Council - that would have been Baker - but she comes close. She wasn't highly regarded by the reformers on the Council, a perspective that now holds a solid majority on that body. During Council debates, Neal would try her colleagues' patience with her lengthy soliloquies on the agony of decision-making, complete with sighs and anguished facial expressions. Her wilderness wanderings invariably led her to whatever position the Tulsa World editorial board favored.
I received a good deal of flack for endorsing Bill LaFortune against Taylor in the general, after working for his defeat in the Republican primary. I was accused (ironically, by someone married to a member of Taylor's campaign staff and transition team) of selling out for a chance at an unpaid appointment to the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission (TMAPC); others said I was acting out of pure Republican partisanship.
I wrote at the time that a chastened LaFortune was Tulsa's best chance for City Hall reform. The primary result opened LaFortune's eyes. The voices he had dismissed as a fringe group turned out to represent a broad, bipartisan, and geographically diverse coalition that prevailed in most of the contested council seats and, if it hadn't been for Randi Miller's spoiler role, would have taken him out in the primary.
Taylor obviously hasn't had that wake-up call yet. Taylor's choice of Baker and Neal confirms my suspicion that she will do nothing to challenge the City Hall status quo. If you were a Medlock or McCorkell voter, if you're from north, east, or west Tulsa, she won't be listening to you. She appears to be encasing herself in a Money Belt bubble, where she can remain uncontaminated by the concerns and opinions of the rest of Tulsa.
I'd be happy to be proven wrong. Taylor's appointments to expired terms on the TMAPC, the BoA, and Tulsa Airport Authority will be very telling.
Speaking of partisanship and city government, this Friday I will be speaking about non-partisan municipal elections to the Citizens' Commission on City Government, a body appointed by former Mayor LaFortune to study changing the City Charter. I'll be presenting the alternative of multi-partisan elections, which I described in this space back in April, and advocating for instant runoff voting, which I wrote about in March.
The Commission is meeting at the TCC West Campus (a strange venue - it's not within Tulsa's City Limits) on Friday at 1:30pm.
I've been hearing that the two recommendations most likely to emerge from the commission are non-partisan elections and appointment of the City Auditor. The commission has been told in no uncertain terms that the addition of any number of at-large or supercouncilor seats would provoke a Federal Voting Rights Act case because of the diluting effect such a move would have on minority representation. (Attorney Greg Bledsoe, representing the group opposing at-large councilors, set out the legal issues in great detail. You can read his testimony in detail at tulsansdefendingdemocracy.com.)
Non-partisan elections would deprive voters of useful information in the voting booth. My alternative, spelled out in full in my April 6th column, would put all candidates on a single ballot, giving every voter a choice of every candidate. But rather than concealing the reality of factions and interest groups by stripping the ballot of any partisan labels, my idea would allow both national party labels and the names of locally-based political action committees to appear on the ballot, so that voters would know how the candidates line up on local issues.
Instead of pretending that these divisions don't exist, let's make them apparent.
One issue the commission should examine, but hasn't: Moving city elections to the fall of odd-numbered years. It would give candidates more daylight hours and better campaigning weather, and it would give new officials a full six months to find their way around City Hall before the next budget cycle begins.
The City Auditor's post has worked well for decades as an elected post. If it must be changed to an appointed position, let the Council make the appointment, not the Mayor. Above all, the Auditor should act as a check and a watchdog over the executive branch of government, which the Mayor heads. Many Tulsans were uneasy enough with the idea of a mayoral staffer running for City Auditor this year; imagine if Bill LaFortune had been able to appoint Michael Willis directly to the post.
The commission will wrap up work and issue their recommendations in June. I doubt the new Council will do anything with them right away, given the other issues on their plate. At the earliest, the commission's ideas may be given a hearing as part of the usual charter review cycle which will begin in the summer of 2007.
An edited version of this piece was published on April 26, 2006, in Urban Tulsa Weekly. The archived version is no longer online. Posted on the web on August 18, 2010.
It appears that Tulsa's development lobby, discouraged by the results of the Tulsa City Council elections, has decided to take its fight to the next level. Three Tulsa legislators have sponsored a bill that would interfere with local control of Board of Adjustment (BoA) appeals.
The bill, HB 2559, would require all appeals of Board of Adjustment decisions, whether variances or special exceptions, to go to District Court, with the attendant expenses of attorneys and court costs. The BoA can grant a variance to zoning ordinances if a hardship exists. The BoA can grant a special exception to allow certain uses that aren't allowed by right by the zoning of a piece of property.
In the past, Councilor Roscoe Turner and then-Councilor Jim Mautino have argued that certain BoA decisions should be first appealed to the City Council. While the BoA acts as a quasi-judicial body in many cases, in special exception cases it has the discretion to consider subjective matters like neighborhood compatibility. A special exception can have the impact of a zoning change, and neighborhood advocates argue that the City Council should have the opportunity to review such decisions before the courts are involved.
Under current law, Tulsa's City Council could modify our ordinances to tailor the BoA appeals process to balance the concerns of developers and neighboring property owners. HB 2559, sponsored by State Reps. Ron Peters and Jeannie McDaniel and Sen. Brian Crain, would take away this local discretion over the process and would dictate a one-size-fits-all solution for the entire state.
HB 2559 passed the House on March 8 and passed the Senate on April 19. Because the House "struck the title," the bill must go back to the House for one more vote before it can go to the Governor's desk. All of Tulsa's state representatives and all but two of our state senators supported the measure. (Republican Senators Randy Brogdon and Scott Pruitt voted against.)
An amendment to the bill that would have interfered with local control over historic preservation (HP) overlay zoning was also considered by the State Senate on April 19, but it failed by a 21-24 vote. Of Tulsa's senators, only Judy Eason-McEntyre voted yes.
Five historic Tulsa neighborhoods (and the park around the Council Oak) have special protection under Tulsa's zoning code. Exterior modifications and new construction within an HP zoning district need a certificate of appropriateness from the Tulsa Preservation Commission (TPC) before proceeding, to ensure that the historic character of the neighborhood is maintained. Demolition permits can be delayed for up to 60 days.
HP protection serves the same value-protecting purpose that deed restrictions serve in newer subdivisions. If you buy a home in an HP neighborhood, you can invest in maintaining your home to historic standards with the assurance that your neighbors are subject to the same rules.
But the protection is undermined if someone can easily buy a property in an HP-zoned neighborhood and have it removed from the district. The failed amendment to HB 2559 would have cut the TPC and the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission (TMAPC) completely out of the process of removing lots from an HP district.
In contrast, the process of creating an HP district or expanding its boundaries requires a great deal of time, historical research, and public input. As a rule of thumb, HP districts need the support of 80% of property owners in the district to move forward through three separate levels of review. Removing a property from the district ought to require a similar high standard of review.
Tulsa's development lobby is used to getting its way 100%. Rather than sitting down with other Tulsans to develop a land-use system that will serve the needs of everyone, they have tried and failed to recall two councilors from office, tried and failed to dismember three City Council districts and replace them with citywide supercouncilor seats, and tried and failed to pack the Council with people they can control. In a move akin to plugging your ears with your fingers and singing "The Star-Spangled Banner," they excluded then-Councilor Chris Medlock from their mayoral candidate forum.
I was hopeful when I learned of the departure earlier this year of Josh Fowler from his post as the Home Builders Association of Greater Tulsa's executive director. I was hopeful that the development lobby had finally recognized that the pit bull tactics he epitomized were no longer working. I was hopeful that the developers were ready to take a more conciliatory approach to public policy. This legislative end-around shows that my hopes weren't well-founded.
Frustrated by the fact that ordinary Tulsans are paying attention to City Hall, Tulsa's development lobby is now trying to dictate local land-use policy from Oklahoma City. Whatever the merits of BoA appeals or of moving parcels in and out of HP districts, those are local matters that should be settled locally.
We need to let our state legislators know that HB 2559 is unacceptable. Homeowners and other property owners should object to local decisions being made a hundred miles away, where it's harder to keep an eye on things. Our City Council and municipal officials across the state ought to object loudly to this infringement on their prerogatives.
In his 2000 campaign book, A Charge to Keep, George W. Bush wrote that he is a conservative because he believes that government closest to the people governs best. I expect to see my fellow Republicans at the State Capitol uphold this fundamental Republican principle, and I expect them to defeat HB 2559 when it comes back to the State House of Representatives for a final vote.
In other City Hall news:
Last Friday the latest round of bids on subcontracts for the construction of the BOk Center were opened.
This was after a two-week delay to give bidders "more preparation time," according a report to the Tulsa World. Despite reassurances that all was well, there was good reason to assume that the delay was because of concerns that bids were coming in way over budget.
As it turned out, the lowest bids on each item exceeded budget by $32 million, about a 50% overage. The total of all five bid packages, plus the cost of land acquisition, plus the amount paid for architectural, project management, and other professional services comes to just shy of $150 million. The remaining bid packages are budgeted at around $30 million, which would bring the total for the arena alone to $180 million.
Remember that the Vision 2025 package allocated $183 million of that sales tax to pay for both the construction of an arena and improvements to the Convention Center, including the conversion of the existing arena into ballroom space. It looks like we won't have anything left to fix the facility that, we have been told again and again, is crucial to bringing outside dollars into the local economy.
When Councilor Chris Medlock raised concerns last fall about money being shifted from the Convention Center to the arena, he was shouted down by the monopoly daily paper and even by members of the overview committee who are supposedly keeping an eye on project finances on behalf of us taxpayers.
Back during the mayoral campaign, Democratic candidate Don McCorkell said he would stop work on the arena in order to get a handle on how much the facility would cost to complete and how much it would cost to operate and maintain. If the cost is going to exceed the budget by a wide margin, Tulsa's voters ought to decide whether or not it's worth proceeding. McCorkell's idea looks better all the time.
The fact that we've already put tens of millions into the arena doesn't mean it makes sense to throw good money after bad. (See "sunk costs, fallacy of.")
Meanwhile, County Commissioner Randi Miller, who had been mum about potential overages, not wanting to jeopardize renewal of the County's 4-to-Fix-Tax, now seems to be trying to recast herself as a taxpayer watchdog.
Some of us can remember when she was asked by Republican leaders, back in 2003, to make the arena a separate item on the Vision 2025 ballot, to give the voters a clear opportunity to vote against the arena without having to vote against the higher education improvements that were tied with it.
Miller stood by and did nothing at the time. She continued to go along to get along, voting with the other commissioners to sole-source the Vision 2025 financial contracts to favored vendors. After Vision 2025 was approved, when Medlock raised concerns about oversight and governance, Miller was silent.
On the other hand, Miller was more than happy, back on March 20, to grant a Murphy Brothers a 10-year exclusive contract to operate the Tulsa State Fair midway, despite complaints about rising prices and declining quality of the Murphy Brothers operation. The midway contract was not put out for competitive bids. Miller's support for the sweetheart deal with Murphy Brothers came after her mayoral campaign received a $5,000 contribution from Loretta Murphy, wife of Murphy Brothers owner Jerry Murphy.
Medlock, a genuine taxpayer watchdog, is continuing to keep an eye on arena expenditures at his blog, medblogged.blogspot.com.
An edited version of this column was published in Urban Tulsa Weekly on April 19, 2006. Posted to BatesLine on March 10, 2010. The archived column is no longer available on the UTW website.
By Michael D. Bates
Toward the end of his late campaign for re-election as Mayor of Tulsa, Bill LaFortune was looking for a bold, concrete way to demonstrate that his pledge to change direction in a second term as mayor was in earnest.
One possibility was to withdraw two pending reappointments of longtime members of the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission (TMAPC). The idea was that, in their stead, LaFortune would submit nominees who would bring new perspectives to the TMAPC, which is dominated by members who are connected in some way to the development industry. Mine was one of three names that were discussed to fill one of these unpaid positions.
When the monopoly daily newspaper got wind of it, their editorial writers went ballistic. In a March 28 editorial, they wrote, "If [LaFortune] does place Bates on the planning commission, then the city might as well erect billboards at the edges of the city instructing developers to just keep on moving to the suburbs.
Developers already were leery of trying to develop in Tulsa because of the anti-development attitude that has taken root here in recent years -- including in some officials' offices."
It's funny: The last three times I've appeared before the Board of Adjustment (BOA), the TMAPC, or the City Council on a land use matter, it was in support of a development.
For example, last fall I spoke to the City Council in support of the Eastbrook townhouse/office development, going in on 35th Place east of Peoria. The development was opposed by a number of Brookside homeowners. I argued that the Council should strictly apply the Brookside Infill Plan, which had been developed jointly over several years by homeowners, business owners, and the City, and had been incorporated into the Comprehensive Plan. If the plan were set aside in this one case, it would leave both developers and homeowners uncertain about whether it would be honored in the future.
Even if I were named to the TMAPC, I'd only be one vote among eleven, so even assuming I were anti-development, as the World claims, my lone voice shouldn't be enough to deter builders and investors.
But even if I were named Zoning Czar of Tulsa and could redesign Tulsa's land-use planning and regulation policy single-handedly, developers would in time see me as a benevolent zoning despot. The system I'd design would Make Life Better™ for homeowners, developers, real estate investors, building managers, tenants - in short, for everyone who lives or does business in Tulsa, because it would decrease risk and uncertainty while improving quality of life.
What would my ideal land-use system look like?
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.
The present use-based zoning system fails all those criteria. Our current system is based on the assumption that what goes on inside a building has more of an impact on the neighbors than what's true about the outside of the building -- how big the building is, where it sits on the lot, how big the parking lot is.
Our current system follows the post-World-War-II assumption that homes and shops and offices have to be segregated from each other, despite centuries of experience that in the right sizes and proportions they can work together to make a great neighborhood.
Our current system ignores our thirty-year-old Comprehensive Plan as often as it honors it. More often than not, the Comprehensive Plan is amended after a parcel has been rezoned in a way that is contrary to the plan. It is not a reliable guide to homeowners or developers.
Our current system is one-size-fits-all. The same rules apply to Cherry Street and to 71st and Mingo. There's no recognition that development that would fit an auto-oriented strip of new development would not be appropriate as infill in a pedestrian-oriented traditional neighborhood. Under our current code, commercial is commercial - a Wal-Mart Supercenter is no different than an independent coffee house.
To make the current system work, exception after exception and patch upon patch have been added to the zoning code. In choosing to grant or deny a development, much weight is given to "neighborhood compatibility," but what that phrase means is left to the whim of the TMAPC and the City Council. Infill plans like Brookside's are the first attempt to define what neighborhood compatibility means, but for now those plans are not binding, only advisory.
The first steps have been made toward a new and improved system. The previous mayor and council approved work on a new Comprehensive Plan. Mayor Taylor called on her campaign website for the development of a form-based land-use code, which puts the emphasis on the size, shape, and position of buildings, rather than on what happens inside.
Before the election, Mayor LaFortune did withdraw the reappointments of Mary Hill and Brandon Jackson but didn't name any replacements. Mayor Taylor has the chance to name two new planning commissioners who will be fair in their application of the existing system, but who also have the vision and wisdom to help the city through the transition to a new and better system.
The best choices would bring a homeowner's perspective to the table - developers and associated industries are already well-represented on the TMAPC - but would have significant experience and knowledge about zoning and planning. We need new planning commissioners who are aware of Tulsa's zoning practices, but are also students of best practices elsewhere.
The Tulsa World likes to fearmonger about NIMBYs, but the so-called neighborhood naysayers that I know want nothing more than a fair system consistently applied. The World seems to want a system where the most expensive development attorney always wins.
I don't expect I'll ever be named to the TMAPC, much less be named the Pope of Planning, but if it were to happen, the City of Tulsa should erect billboards at the city limits saying, "Tulsa offers a fair, transparent, and up-to-date land-use system that maximizes freedom while protecting the investments of all property owners and our city's quality of life. Tulsa welcomes developers who will work with us to build a better Tulsa."
Of course, signs that wordy would probably violate some ordinance or another.
An edited version of this piece was published in the April 5, 2006, issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The archived version is no longer online. Posted on the web August 8, 2009.
For multi-partisan city elections
By Michael D. Bates
Once again, dear reader, you have me at a disadvantage. As you read this, you know who will be the next Mayor of Tulsa. As I write this, the election is still in the future. So let's look together at an issue that will be on the table no matter who wins Tuesday's election: the role of party politics in city elections.
A couple of weeks ago I received an e-mail from a prominent supporter of Kathy Taylor. He was expressing dismay that Republican leaders were trying to bring the other Republican candidates and their supporters behind Bill LaFortune, the Republican nominee.
I was amused by the tut-tutting about partisanship from the Taylor camp. Shut out as they are from both U. S. Senate seats and all but one congressional district, Democratic strategists are salivating at the prospect of once again having a Democrat as mayor of the state's second-largest city, someone who can attract donations to Democratic candidates for the State Legislature. According to Oologah Lake Leader editor John Wylie, State Rep. Jari Askins said at a recent Democratic fundraiser that "the election of Taylor would be a huge first step in taking back the [State] House and preserving the [State] Senate in 2006" for the Democratic Party.
Even if we strip partisan labels from the city election ballot, politics at all levels are too closely linked to keep the national parties from having an interest and an influence in local elections.
That said, I'm sympathetic to the idea of non-partisan city elections. Twice I proposed a charter amendment that would have eliminated party primaries and replaced them with an all-candidate election, preferably using Instant Runoff Voting (see my March 9th UTW column) or, failing that, a two-round system, with a separate runoff election between the top two if no candidate gets 50% in the first round.
Non-partisan elections are appealing because local political factions don't break neatly along national partisan lines. Chris Medlock says that there are really six "parties" in Tulsa politics, three factions which each have supporters in both national parties.
You have the Midtown old-money elites who are behind the paternalistic plan to replace three of the nine council districts with three citywide supercouncilors; in their view the hayseeds in North, West, and East Tulsa can't be trusted with self-government. Then there are the developers and the Chamber bureaucrats, who look at City government as a way to serve their institutional and business interests and don't want homeowners and small business to have even a seat at the table.
Finally, there are the populist grass-roots - the rest of us - who believe that city government should serve the interests of all Tulsans, not just a favored few, and that Tulsans from all classes and all parts of the city deserve a seat at the table.
There are Democrats and Republicans in all three factions, and they often find more kinship with those who share their outlook on city government than with their fellow Ds or Rs. That's how you wind up with a reform alliance on the city council made up of two Democrats and two Republican, opposed by a status quo caucus consisting of four Republicans and one Democrat.
Because our city primary system follows national party lines, the struggle between the three trans-partisan factions is often settled in the primary, and the general election doesn't offer much of a choice. Also, party labels on a general election ballot can be misleading. You'd think a Republican would oppose higher taxes or that a Democrat would oppose corporate welfare, but that ain't necessarily so. An R or a D doesn't tell the voter with which of the three city factions a candidate is aligned.
Would stripping party labels entirely be helpful to voters? In fact, it gives voters even less information to work with. Labels are helpful aids to memory. You may have trouble remembering the name of the candidates you plan to support, and knowing that you decided to vote with your party in the mayor's race and with the other party in the council race gives you an extra hook to recall your decision.
It's indisputable that non-partisan elections have lower turnout. You see this in judicial and school board elections here in Oklahoma, and it's borne out across the country. The theory is that voters, lacking even the little sliver of information that a party label provides, don't feel they know enough to make a choice and so they stay away.
On the same day that 60,000 Tulsans turned out to vote in our city primaries, only 14,000 Oklahoma City voters participated in their non-partisan mayor's race. That number was inflated above normal levels by the Oklahoma Republican Party chairman urging support for the re-election of Mayor Mick Cornett, a registered Republican. Just shy of 11,000 voted in the 2002 OKC mayor's race.
So how do we change Tulsa's system to expand both choice and information for voters?
Instead of non-partisan city elections, let's have multi-partisan elections. Put all candidates for a city office on the ballot, but instead of stripping away the party labels, let's let candidates apply the label or labels of their choosing. Maybe that would be a major party label, maybe that would be the name of a political action committee (PAC), or even both.
The actual mechanics would go something like this: Candidates would file their petitions for office. (With no primaries to filter candidates, everyone should have to collect 300 signatures in order to run.) Each PAC registered with the City Clerk's office would then have a week to submit to the election board the list of candidates they are endorsing. The county political parties would have the same opportunity if they choose to exercise it. Each candidate would then choose which party and PAC endorsements would appear next to his name on the ballot.
For example, this year the District 6 Council ballot might have looked like this:
- James Mautino - Republican, Homeowners for Fair Zoning
- Theresa Buchert - Grow Tulsa PAC, Bank of Oklahoma PAC
- Dennis Troyer - Democrat, N. E. Oklahoma Labor Council
With at least three candidates likely in every race on the ballot, we'd have to have some form of runoff; Instant Runoff Voting would be the best way to ensure that the winner would be chosen by a majority of voters. (Again, see my March 9th UTW column or www.fairvote.org for details.)
Non-partisan municipal elections would give Tulsans fewer and murkier choices. A multi-partisan ballot with a sound runoff system is the best way to give Tulsa's voters clearer, better, and more plentiful options when we choose our representatives at City Hall.
An edited version of this piece was published in the March 8, 2006, issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The archived version is no longer online. Posted on the web July 1, 2010.
The case for Instant Runoff Voting
By Michael D. Bates
The polls haven't even opened as I write this, but by the time you read this, the votes will have been counted.
Let me make this one prediction: Whoever wins the Republican nomination for Mayor will win with less than a 50% of the vote. Whoever the winner will be wasn't the top choice of a majority of Republican voters.
As I write this, I don't know if my favorite candidate won or lost, so this isn't sour grapes. I believe in majority rule, and there's something wrong about a candidate winning when most of the voters preferred someone else. Instead of the office going to the candidate who could put together a majority coalition of voters, it goes to the candidate with the most motivated, cohesive minority bloc of voters.
For state offices, Oklahoma deals with this problem by holding a primary runoff election if the primary doesn't produce a candidate with at least 50% of the vote. Tulsa's city charter doesn't provide for a runoff, and in special elections, Tulsa doesn't even have party primaries.
When a primary has three or more viable candidates, and there is no runoff, the voter is faced with a difficult choice. He may have a favorite candidate, other candidates that might be marginally acceptable, and a candidate he doesn't want to win. Does his favorite have a chance to win? If not, it might be more strategic to vote for a marginally acceptable candidate with a chance of winning in order to defeat the utterly unacceptable candidate.
At that point, the problem is knowing who really has a chance to win. You could look to polls, but if the numbers between second and third place are close, that doesn't help your decision. You could try to measure candidate viability by the number of dollars raised and spent.
Wouldn't it be nice to have a system of voting that allowed you to vote your conscience, a system that didn't require you to guess how your neighbors are likely to vote?
Hold that thought.
Adding a runoff for city elections would be a good start. A single runoff works well when you have two candidates neck-and-neck in the 40% range, and a group of other candidates splitting the rest of the vote. The primary reveals who the two most popular candidates are; the runoff settles the question, for whom would you vote if these were the only candidates in the race.
But a single runoff breaks down when you have three or more candidates who are clustered around 30%, with other candidates splitting the remainder.
The legendary example of this situation was the 1991 Governor's race in Louisiana. Incumbent governor Buddy Roemer, a moderate and respectable political figure, finished a very close third, giving voters a runoff choice between "The Crook" (Edwin Edwards) and "The Klansman" (David Duke). The also-ran candidates had enough votes between them that, had they not been in the race, would have been enough to put Roemer in first or second place and into the runoff.
There are plenty of Oklahoma examples of close three-or-more-way primaries where the single runoff system broke down. In 1990 both parties had gubernatorial primaries with three closely bunched candidates and a lot of also-rans. Burns Hargis might well have placed second in the GOP primary had it been a three man race. For the Democrats, Steve Lewis easily could have finished ahead of David Walters and Wes Watkins, if a couple of minor candidates had not been in the race.
Wouldn't it be nice to have a system of voting where there is no such thing as a spoiler candidate or splitting the vote? Where the winner would have won even in a one-on-one race with each other candidate?
Of course it would.
In the ideal system, you'd have a series of runoffs, and in each round, you'd eliminate the lowest vote-getter and vote on the rest, until someone gets 50% of the vote in a round.
Some civic organizations handle their elections in this way, but that's because they can count their votes in a matter of minutes and hold another round of voting right away. It would be burdensome enough to add a runoff election date to the city election calendar, much less multiple runoffs.
There is a way to get the effect of multiple runoff rounds without having the expense of multiple elections. Historically it's been called the "alternative vote," but recently it's been given the more descriptive name of "instant runoff voting" (IRV).
I first encountered this voting technique in my college fraternity. When voting in an election with multiple candidates, you'd write the candidates' names on the ballot in order of preference. As a voter, you'd ask yourself, if my favorite candidate weren't in the race, for whom would I vote? And if my two favorites were out, who would be my choice? And so on through the list of candidates.
The vote counters would take all the ballots to the table in the chapter room, and for each candidate there'd be a stack of the ballots that had his name marked as first choice. If no candidate had a majority, they would take the smallest stack of ballots - eliminating the candidate with the fewest first choice votes - and sort them into the other stacks based on the second choice listed. The process would repeat until one candidate had a majority of the ballots in his stack.
Xi Chapter of Zeta Beta Tau, I later learned, isn't the only place that instant runoff voting is used. Ireland uses IRV to elect its president. Australia uses it to elect its House of Representatives. London uses it to elect a mayor.
In 2002, the Utah Republican Convention used IRV to pick the top two candidates to compete in their congressional primary election in two districts and to pick a nominee for the third district.
Right here in Tulsa, the 1st District Republican Convention used instant runoff voting to choose delegates and alternates to the 2000 and 2004 Republican National Conventions.
San Francisco has adopted IRV. San Diego is looking at it - their last mayor was elected with only 35% of the vote.
Although our fraternity hand-counted our IRV ballots, modern voting machine technology makes it possible to scan preferential ballots optically and then conduct the sorting, elimination, and resorting by computer.
Some sort of runoff will become even more important if Tulsa ever switches to non-partisan elections. As it is now, primaries present general election voters with two candidates with a credible chance to win, and most officials are elected with over 50% of the vote.
We don't have to guess about the dynamics of a non-partisan winner-take-all election, because our city special elections are structured that way.
Last May's District 5 special election had seven candidates, four of whom had a significant base of support. The winner, Bill Martinson, only managed 29% of the vote, just 11 votes ahead of second-place finisher Andy Phillips. Based on the results, you could make the case that Martinson would not have won head-to-head races against any of the other major candidates; the split vote gave him the election.
Without a runoff, non-partisan city elections would give us a set of elected officials who lack the mandate of the majority.
Adopting IRV would require some changes to the City Charter, but since we're already taking another look at the charter and at the role of partisanship in city elections, let's not overlook the voting system we use.
An edited version of this piece was published in the October 26, 2005, issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The archived version is no longer online. Posted on the web October 27, 2009.
It's been a tough couple of years for Tulsa's traditional political establishment. The bunch that for years has had control over city government - a group I call the Cockroach Caucus, after their aversion to the light of public scrutiny - saw their grip on public opinion beginning to slip.
Despairing of their long-term chances to regain full control of city government under the current rules, they've got a scheme to change the rules so that money will count for more than grass-roots support. The plan is to dilute geographic diversity on the Council and guarantee that big money will control at least a third of the city's legislative body.
Last Thursday, a group calling themselves "Tulsans for Better Government" filed an initiative petition to reduce the number of Tulsa City Council districts to 6 and to create three at-large "supercouncilor" seats.
The group is headed by Arthur H. "Chip" McElroy II, whose company played host to Bill LaFortune's re-election announcement. The three supercouncilors would be elected citywide to four-year terms, beginning in 2008, while the six district councilors would continue to serve two years at a time.
The idea has been pushed enthusiastically by the Tulsa World editorial board, distraught by their fading influence over city politics. (The World routinely waits three weeks before publishing a letter to the editor, so it's telling that the paper fast-tracked a Sunday "Readers' Forum" guest opinion in support of the campaign just two days after it was launched.)
After the 2004 elections, the Council had, for the first time ever, a majority of members that were elected contrary to the endorsements of the Tulsa World and the money of the developers' lobby. In four contested primaries and four contested general elections, reform-minded candidates received 59% of the vote to 41% for the World's endorsees.*
The empire struck back in May of this year, with Bill Martinson replacing Sam Roop in a special election. But Martinson won with only 29% of the vote, aided by the unusual structure of a special election. The result gave the anti-reform bunch an apparent majority in the short term, but they can't have been encouraged about the long-term prospects of maintaining control.
The results of July 12 had to have been a shock to the Cockroach Caucus. Despite a year-long barrage of criticism from the Tulsa World and now-retired radio host John Erling and a well-financed and relentlessly dirty campaign against Councilors Jim Mautino and Chris Medlock, the two survived a recall election by overwhelming percentages.
What has become apparent is that, in a district race, feet on the ground - enthusiastic volunteers willing to go door-to-door on behalf of a candidate - can beat money and a monopoly daily newspaper. With passionate grass-roots support, a candidate can get a message out to counter direct mail, robo-calls, and the potshots taken on the news and editorial pages of the World. Tulsa's Council districts each have a population of 43,000, still small enough to be reachable by grass-roots methods.
It really seems to frighten the Cockroach Caucus that there are four councilors who don't feel the need to grovel before them for campaign money. In the past, the occasional maverick would rise up and challenge business as usual at City Hall, but the old guard was always successful in isolating them and either defeating them or wearing them down into submission. Councilors Medlock, Mautino, Turner, and Henderson are all men of devout Christian faith. They are willing to risk their political careers to do what they believe is best for the city, and they are confident that in seeking what is right, they will have the support of their constituents. And they've stood by each other through thick and thin, thwarting the old divide-and-conquer strategy.
By making three of the council seats citywide, money comes back into the picture. TV and radio advertising come into play, and for that you need plenty of campaign cash. Grass-roots campaigns can succeed at that level - Tom Coburn and John Sullivan beat elite-supported candidates at the congressional district and state levels - but are much harder to pull off.
Not only would big money have the best shot at winning the three at-large seats, but the process of consolidating nine districts into six would allow the Cockroach Caucus to eliminate the incumbents they hate the most by throwing them into the same districts as other incumbents.
North Tulsa would go from two councilors to one, putting reform Councilors Roscoe Turner and Jack Henderson into the same district. West Tulsa's concerns would be drowned out under the plan - its population currently makes up half of District 2; under the new plan it would only be a third of a district.
Bigger districts are also easier to gerrymander, and with all the support for this effort coming from the Midtown "Money Belt" - that band of affluence stretching from Utica Square to Southern Hills - don't be surprised to see the new lines drawn so that nearly every district includes a Money Belt precinct. That's a time-honored technique used at the state legislative level to allow the affluent to represent working class citizens without having to actually (ick!) live among them. Diversity of representation, the reason we went to districts with the new charter in 1989, would disappear.
Supporters of at-large councilors make the bogus claim that "ward politics" are damaging the city. They say that district councilors are focused on the parochial concerns of their constituents at the expense of the best interests of the city as a whole. But if you look back at the most controversial issues of the last two years, they've been citywide issues. Great Plains Airlines and airport operations, creation of a city-focused economic development policy, oversight for funding to the Chamber of Commerce, fairness in the zoning process, north Tulsa County annexation, the water line to Owasso and the reappointment of two suburbs-focused members of the city's water board, the IVI toll bridge - in each case the councilors under attack by the World-led establishment have been seeking the City of Tulsa's best interests, in many cases where they conflicted with the interests of the suburbs.
Councilors Henderson, Mautino, Medlock, and Turner are each devoted to the needs of their own constituents, but they've also worked together to ensure that the citizens of the historically neglected east, west, and north sections of our city receive the city services they are owed.
And that seems to be what really bugs the bunch behind the at-large council proposal. It's the Money Belt denizens backing this plan that tend to take a parochial view, seeing Tulsa as a small, close-knit, fabulously wealthy town centered on Utica Square. Neighborhoods like West Highlands and Garden City, Rose Dew and Wagon Wheel, Sequoyah and Suburban Acres may as well be foreign countries to them.
We finally have a critical mass of councilors who believe that city government should serve all Tulsans, not just a favored few, and it is shaking up the cozy worldview of the old elite. The forces behind at-large council seats used their years in power to lead Tulsa to its current state of declining population, rising crime, and an economy still dangerously dependent on a few key industries.
The Cockroach Caucus has run this town for years, but it is out of ideas, out of energy, and very nearly out of power. The "Tulsans for Better Government" is the elite's final desperate attempt to keep city government in their grasp.
I feel certain that the people of Tulsa will tell them, "No thanks, the city belongs to all of us now, and we intend to keep it that way."
* NOTE: I've only counted elections where a Whirled endorsee faced a reformist opponent. The Democrat primary in District 3 and Republican primaries in District 7 and 8 decided the winners of those seats. Jack Henderson won a contested Democrat primary in District 1 and handily defeated token opposition in the general election. Districts 2, 4, 5, and 6 had seriously contested general elections. I've left out District 9 entirely - the general election pitted incumbent Republican Susan Neal against incarcerated Independent Paul Tay.
An edited version of this piece was published in the October 19, 2005, issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The archived version is no longer online.
How Good An Ol' Boy Are You?
Tulsa County's aversion to competitive bidding might very well be shortchanging taxpayers
by Michael Bates
Smokey Robinson's mama told him, "You better shop around," and that's good advice, especially when a big commitment is involved. Tulsa County's Commissioners seem to avoid shopping around as much as possible, and their reluctance to put contracts up for competitive bid is one of the central issues in the controversy over the proposed toll bridge in south Tulsa County.
Tulsa County's long-range street and highway master plan shows a bridge crossing the Arkansas River from 121st and Yale in Tulsa south to the undeveloped western fringes of Bixby. Transportation planners say the bridge won't be needed for another 10 years, but a private company, Infrastructure Ventures, Inc. (IVI), has made a deal with Tulsa County to build it as a toll bridge now and give it to Tulsa County.
In return, IVI would receive 100% of tolls for the first 10 years and 85% for the next 65 years. IVI would operate and maintain the bridge, but Tulsa County would handle law enforcement, ice removal, and traffic signals. Although it's been described as a private toll bridge, IVI needs Tulsa County to use its power of eminent domain to acquire the land, and the bridge will be owned by Tulsa County.
That may sound like a good deal, but the Tulsa City Council passed a resolution expressing their opposition, and more than 5,000 citizens--including Mayor Bill LaFortune and every councilor except Tom Baker and Susan Neal--have signed a petition against the bridge deal. Last Thursday, the executive committee of the Tulsa County Republican Party took the unusual step of passing a resolution opposing the bridge deal.
Over the years, far south Tulsa voters have provided a reliable base of support for tax renewals and bond issues, but there are rumblings that they'll oppose the County's attempt to renew its '4 to Fix the County' sales tax in December because of the County/IVI bridge deal. Concern about the traffic impact of the bridge on two-lane Yale Ave. initially mobilized opposition among south Tulsa residents, who proposed realigning the bridge to connect to Riverside Drive--thus the name of the opposition website, movethatbridge.com.
What ought to concern all Tulsa County taxpayers is that the IVI bridge deal is the latest in a long series of high-dollar county contracts that were negotiated with a sole source, rather than put out for competitive bid. Here are just a few examples:
In 1997, the Tulsa County Public Facilities Authority (TCPFA) made a deal allowing Ralph W. Jones to build a hotel on the Tulsa County Fairgrounds, and giving him exclusive rights there for 25 years. The TCPFA board is made up of the three County Commissioners plus two appointees, Jim Orbison and Bob Parmele. Jones had been campaign manager and a major contributor for County Commissioner Bob Dick's 1994 campaign for Mayor of Tulsa. The opportunity was not put out for competitive bids, and no other proposals were considered.
In August 2000, the TCPFA entered into a three-year, $540,000 contract with Public Affairs Group LLC to lobby for state funding for the Fairgrounds. Public Affairs Group LLC was a partnership between Claudia Tarrington, Bill LaFortune, and John Nicks. The opportunity was not put out for competitive bids, and no other proposals were considered.
From 2002 through 2005, Cinnabar Service Co. was the sole source for appraisals and other services for the County's expansion of O'Brien Park. Cinnabar's owners are Bob Parmele and Bill Bacon, who, along with builder Howard Kelsey, are also the principals in IVI.
In October 2003, following the passage of Vision 2025, the Tulsa County Industrial Authority (TCIA) took steps to borrow money against future Vision 2025 sales tax revenues so that projects could be built faster than a pay-as-you-go approach would allow.
The TCIA, whose board consists of the three County Commissioners, voted to enter into negotiations with Leo Oppenheim and Co. and Wells Nelson and Associates to handle bond underwriting for the half-billion in revenue bonds that would be issued, and with the law firm of Hilborne and Weidman to serve as bond counsel and with Riggs, Abney, Neal, Turpen, Orbison, and Lewis to serve as special contracts counsel. Fees for the entire investment team on the initial bond issue of around $250 million were estimated to be between $687,500 and $3.4 million.
Leo Oppenheim and Co. was affiliated with Bank of Oklahoma, and their lead bond advisor was John Piercey, who has been the sole source on many county bond issues over the last 20 years. County Commissioner Dick described Piercey to the Tulsa World as a "dear friend."
Orbison is Jim Orbison, mentioned above as a member of the TCPFA. Wells Nelson and Associates is affiliated with F & M Bank and Trust Co. Although school districts and local governments routinely use competitive bidding for bond underwriting contracts, advertising opportunities nationwide via publications like The Bond Buyer, Tulsa County and its related authorities rarely put bond services up for competitive bids.
The TCPFA is currently in the process of negotiating a five-year extension of their contract with Murphy Brothers for the Tulsa State Fair midway. Murphy Brothers has had the contract since 1971; it has never been competitively bid.
The proposed IVI bridge is the latest example of Tulsa County's aversion to competitive bidding. After 2 1/2 years of private discussions between individual County Commissioners and IVI principals, the Commission discussed the bridge deal for the first time at a public meeting in February 2005. On June 14, the Commission unanimously approved the contract. Two of the commissioners, Randi Miller and Wilbert Collins, have testified that they reviewed no documents other than the executed agreement prior to voting to approve the contract.
Effectively the deal provides that IVI will receive $658 million, according to an independent financial analysis, as compensation for building and operating a publicly-owned bridge over the life of the contract. The same financial analysis, conducted by George K. Baum and Co., shows that the County or the City could build the bridge itself, financing the bridge with revenue bonds. Under that scenario, the toll could be lifted after 30 years or the excess revenue could be used to fund other public infrastructure.
To cite this list of sole-source contracts is not to say that any laws were broken (although that has been alleged in the South Tulsa Citizens Coalition lawsuit against the County Commissioners), or that the people who were awarded the contracts were incapable of doing the work. But sole-source contracts rarely serve the best interests of the public. Competitive bidding opens opportunities up to all businesses, not just to those with political connections. Competitive bidding means the public gets better services, better rates, or a better return on their investment in public facilities.
Take the midway, for example. The Tulsa State Fair attracts nearly a million people each year, and there are dozens of companies in the outdoor amusements business who would be interested in reaching that market. Competitive bidding could mean more rides, a better variety of rides, better reliability, and a lower price per ride, all of which would serve the fair-going public. It could also mean a better share of the revenues for the TCPFA, money that could be used instead of sales tax funds to pay for Expo Square improvements, and that would serve every Tulsa County taxpayer.
In the past, Commissioner Bob Dick has defended sole-source contracts on two grounds. Regarding the Vision 2025 bonds, Dick told the Tulsa World that there was a "great deal of value with having a team that understands the government they are serving." On the exclusive deal for the fairgrounds motel, Dick said that because a businessman came to them with the idea, it would have been unfair to solicit bids from other businesses, "to use entrepreneurs' ideas against them." The same rationale has been used for not soliciting other proposals for a south Tulsa bridge.
If a contractor approached me with a proposal to add a room to my home, would I have a moral obligation to use that contractor? Of course not. Any reasonable person would see if there were other contractors who could provide better value. Even if Commissioner Dick feels obliged to the company who came forward with the idea, he and his fellow commissioners should feel a greater obligation to the taxpayers who elected them, who have entrusted to them hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenues and public assets.
The County Commissioners are asking the voters to renew the "4 to Fix the County" sales tax in December to generate $62 million. Why should we, when the County Commissioners have blithely left 10 times that much money on the table in this controversial toll bridge deal?
An edited version of this piece was published in the September 14, 2005, issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The archived version is no longer online. Posted on the web April 3, 2012.
Walkability and Disability
by Michael D. Bates
Urban design can be a dry topic, and the details of urban design - scale, setbacks, screening - can make your eyes glaze over, but it's all about the shape of our city and how it shapes our everyday lives.
A few weeks ago, my wife spotted a man making his way down our street, sweeping a white cane in front of him. Like most Tulsa neighborhoods built since the 1920s, when the automobile came into common use, our mid-'50s neighborhood doesn't have sidewalks, so this gentleman was in the street itself, close to the curb.
This blind gentleman told my wife that he was out "having a look" (his words) around the neighborhood where he grew up. He was happy to learn from her that our neighborhood would once again have a supermarket. He had heard that his neighborhood supermarket was closing. In the future, going to the store would mean walking an extra mile and a half - entirely without sidewalks - and making his way across one of the city's busiest intersections.
Urban planners talk about the importance of "walkable" neighborhoods, with homes, shops, and workplaces in close proximity. Walkability is more than sidewalks; the sidewalks have to lead somewhere useful.
Tulsa doesn't have many walkable neighborhoods, and the few that exist were built mainly in the 1910s and 1920s, before most people had their own cars and before Tulsa adopted a zoning code designed to strictly segregate homes from shops and offices from factories. Many walkable neighborhoods were destroyed by urban renewal or dismembered by freeway construction, and our biggest and oldest walkable neighborhood - downtown - has been reduced to little more than a suburban office park.
For tens of thousands of our fellow Tulsans, walkability isn't about rows of trendy cafes and quirky consignment shops, or about sidewalks to nowhere; it's about independence. For them, driving simply isn't an option. I'm not talking just about those who can't afford to operate a car.
There are those who are physically unable to drive. Many senior citizens, troubled by glare at night or uncertain of their reflexes, prefer to drive only during daylight or not at all. Teenagers are old enough to get around on their own, but either can't drive yet or shouldn't. For those who can't drive, urban design makes the difference between freedom and frustrating dependence.
Danny, a friend from church, has cerebral palsy and suffers from seizures. He can't drive, and he can only walk short distances with a cane, but he can get around with his electric scooter. Unfortunately, he lives on South Lewis, and he's been pulled over by the police more than once trying to go to the supermarket on his scooter. There aren't any sidewalks, and the only way to get to the store is on the street. Using Tulsa Transit's LIFT paratransit service requires booking a day in advance, waiting outside up to an hour for a ride, and leaving early enough to pick up and drop off other passengers on the way to his destination. LIFT isn't available on Sundays. If the next errand isn't reachable from the first by foot or scooter, it means another bus ride and another long wait. Because of the shape of our city, Danny doesn't have the freedom to go where he wants to go when he wants to go, and it makes Tulsa a frustrating place to live.
Compare Danny's situation to that of Nick, whom I met earlier this year at a pub trivia night in
New York City. Nick, a walking encyclopedia of pop music who led our team to victory, is blind, but that doesn't seem to limit his ability to get where he wants to go. Nick arrived at the pub on his own and left on his own, aided only by his cane. Was it the shape of New York City that made his independence possible? He told me that the grid of streets and avenues made most of Manhattan easy to navigate; public transit covers most of the city and runs frequently and all night; you can get a cab just about anywhere, anytime; wide sidewalks make it safer to get from the public transit stop to his destination; and there are usually people on the street to give directions and warn of hazards. Notice that last point: Because getting around on foot is convenient for people who could be driving, the streets are that much safer for someone for whom driving is not an option.
Notice, too, that more frequent and longer-running public transit service isn't a solution by itself. It still has to be safe and convenient to get from the transit stop to the store or the doctor's office by foot. In Tulsa, after you get off the bus, you still have to dodge cars and endure the weather on your quarter-mile trek across the parking lot to the store's entrance.
Most of Tulsa is designed for the private automobile, but there ought to be at least a part of our city where those who can't drive, those who'd rather not drive, and those who'd like to get by with just one car can still lead an independent existence. At least one section of our city ought to be truly urban.
Making that happen involves urban design. It means rethinking the way we build neighborhoods, thinking beyond the isolated building or subdivision, and thinking about how the parts come together to create the whole. It involves elected officials, the planning commission, property owners, developers, and neighborhood leaders. It means dealing with scale, setback, density, and a good mixture of uses. It requires learning from other cities, and applying those lessons to the details of Tulsa's land use regulations.
Some of that urban design work is already underway, and in the weeks to come we'll look at how good urban design can make Tulsa a more livable city.