Well, thank goodness that’s over. We’re done with Visions for a while.
Now it’s time for implementation.
The April 5 passage of Tulsa’s latest ‘Vision Tulsa’ package means $127 millions of public funds is to be spent on two low-water dams and related infrastructure in the Arkansas River, under the heading of economic development.
What does that mean? It’s a slippery term.
Ideally it should take the form of a boost in Tulsa’s tourism revenues, a smattering of new businesses drawn by the infusion of cash and public optimism, some new jobs, higher sales tax receipts, raised property tax revenues; and new shops, homes and services in areas close to the river. The incremental revenues to the public purse should be measurably improved.
Most areas of economic activity are undergoing paradigm-shifts: the heady days of predictable, exponential growth of big box stores and leap-frogging, low-density sub-divisions are over. More traditional, more livable and fiscally responsible approaches are replacing them, nationwide.
So to be successful, improvements in Riverparks and surrounding areas – public and private – must be nothing short of world-class. Tulsa is competing for business with cities far and wide. Great cities have great parks. A Gathering Place for Tulsa is creating such a standard. The City must seize the opportunity to match it in the quality of its connected developments.
A modest and important first step to make that more likely is underway.
A special zoning overlay that will steer development will be discussed at public meetings on April 18 and 19. Rigorously applied, a River Design Overlay Draft – April 6th 2016 (RDO) must protect Tulsans’ investment by ensuring the best possible design solutions.
The RDO, coordinated by INCOG (the region’s planning organization), is diligent and well-crafted, if somewhat unambitious. It requires developers to locate and orientate buildings appropriately, to embellish exteriors to dignify the public realm from which the developer also benefits, to hold signage to certain dimensions, provide adequate landscaping and so on.
The requirements go some way to discouraging the risk of ‘big box’ buildings in what should be prime parkland. Whether they are sufficient to achieve the ‘purpose and intent’ set for the overlay is doubtful. At its core the overlay has many elements of a ‘form’-based code – concentrating on the interface between the public and private realm instead of fixating on the use to which a building is put. The design overlay also sharply reduces the amount of parking. This is good: apart from the further waste of valuable urban land and the flood risks arising from additional, impermeable surfaces, it acknowledges the paradigm shift away from auto-ownership among millennials and towards far more cost-efficient modes of transportation.
At a strategic level the RDO seeks to match the vision and aspirations of the city’s Comprehensive Plan, in its efforts to facilitate an attractive and walkable public realm. It helps to reinforce a number of the improvements in the underlying and recently updated Zoning Code too.
There are a couple of glitches…
Flood plain management is one of them. Back in 2005 the Arkansas Corridor Master Plan (Phase II) recommended steps to avoid damaging floods. It recommends that “When construction or other action is proposed within the river corridor and within the boundaries of the 500-year floodplain, an evaluation of the hazards should be required by the governing jurisdiction.”
The River Design Overlay does not take account of this. Perhaps a design overlay zoning code is not the place to do so; yet the City must surely preclude development that would potentially put people in harm’s way and damage the city’s infrastructure.
On the same theme the Master Plan makes no mention of climate change (taboo in 2005: surely not so in 2016?) and the risk of more extreme weather events. Ms Ann Patton, former Tulsan, long-time head of Tulsa’s Project Impact, consultant to FEMA post-Katrina (and a member of Smart Growth Tulsa’s Advisory Board), citing a Stormwater Drainage and Hazard Mitigation Advisory Board Report by a technical group of same, chaired by Charles L. Hardt makes no secret of her skepticism about construction-related development in the river – and along its banks. Some hydrologists are reported to fear 500-year floodplains may become the new 100-year floodplain in some locations. Common sense says we should be very cautious indeed as we move forward.
A second glitch arises from an out-of-State retail chain’s plan to locate a sprawl-style retail outlet at the south-west corner of Riverside and 71st. The land was designated as public parkland many years ago. Mayor Bartlett endorsed park use at the time as a City Councilor. The City’s right to sell the land is currently at the center of a legal dispute.
How is the land affected by the RDO?
The current proposal is to designate the site as ‘RDO-2’ – which covers privately-owned land adjacent to the river. However title for the site rests with an arm of city government, the Tulsa Public Facilities Authority. “RDO-2 regulations help to ensure safe, attractive and activated pedestrian areas by requiring that new development is oriented to the river and abutting streets. The regulations also promote integration with the River Parks trail system and avoidance of adverse environmental impacts.”
The idea of big box stores close to the core of cities is contrary to both leading-edge retail trends and best practices in urban design. It is even more questionable within an area designated as parkland. And what message does it send to Tulsans – who have just voted to fund beautification of the river?
The kind of development proposed for the site is car-centric. Indeed any solely commercial development, with the inevitable requirement for lots of off-street parking, conflicts with the Overlay’s intent. One can sense an understandable desperation in City Hall to generate a few extra sales tax dollars – but at what cost?
RDO-1 meanwhile avoids saying whether it applies to public or private ownership, but seems to imply the former:“RDO-1 regulations help promote development that is compatible with public parks and green space and that complements park uses.” It also leaves un-spoken how much construction development might be introduced to it. Whilst public parks are compatible with pretty much anything, it is difficult to see how a big box approach and attendant, off-street parking is compatible with public parks. What is certain is that any building placed next to public park and open space gains value from that juxtaposition.
So, is a big box approach the highest and best use of this site, given the goals of the RDO? The answer is self-evidently No.
Given the site’s public ownership and the intent of those who dedicated the land to the City, it seems to us that it, along with the rest of Helmerich Park, belongs in the RDO-1 category.
SGT exists to advocate smart public policy. So here’s what we urge city leaders to do:
- Take a very careful look at the wisdom of developing anything other than permeable parkland alongside the entire length of the Arkansas River as it flows through Tulsa, in the context of climatic shifts and extreme weather patterns. Appoint dispassionate, professional hydrologists to conduct this evaluation. Consider in particular the resilience of the flood plain considering climate changes, the levees and keystone dam, interactions with tributary streams, and the inherent danger of catastrophic river flooding.
- Classify the entire 71st./Riverside site as RDO-1.
- Tighten up the design requirements of RDO-2 so as to ensure only the highest quality development genuinely compatible with riverside parkland and creation of a distinctive sense of place.
- Integrate a new ‘complete streets’ project into a design review of the entire length of Riverside Drive down to and including Helmerich Park; thereby positioning Riverside Drive as a peaceful, urban boulevard – designed for pedestrians, cyclists and public transit at least as much as cars.
If the City sets its standards high and acts with imagination, coherence and purpose, this part of Tulsa has potential as a beacon of the city’s determination to become a resilient, healthy and prosperous community, adapted to the realities of the times we live in. We have a long way to go.