Once upon a time there was a man who had been left a sizeable inheritance by his grandfather. This man dreamed of building a "poetic interpretation of a new kind" of walkable community, a place where you could leave your car parked and get to shopping and recreation on foot.
He hired a renowned architectural firm to turn his dream into a reality and watched as 80 acres of raw waterfront land was slowly transformed into a "thriving, pulsating, dynamic neighborhood."
The new community was so beautiful and so successful that it inspired others to try to build the same kind of place elsewhere. Some shared the dream and wanted to create more examples of this new kind of community. Others weren't interested in dreams and theories, but they could see that people would pay a premium to live in a place like this. And so the idea spread, and the dreamer and the people who lived in the community he created and the people who lived in communities inspired by his all lived happily ever after . . .
In a minute... you're going to read... the rest of the story. But first, let's talk about your weight problem. (There's a connection; I promise. Be patient.)
At the public hearing about The Channels project on October 3, a slim, blonde woman named Tamara Daniel spoke in support of the $788 million plan. She said moved here 16 years ago from San Francisco. Her first impression of Tulsa was formed when her housemate took her by the mall on the way home from the airport.
"I distinctly remember thinking, 'Oh my goodness, there are so many overweight people in this mall.' And I seriously was thinking there must be a Weight Watchers convention or something going on.
"I love Tulsa, but Tulsa is an overweight community, and it's because of our lifestyle." Ms. Daniel believes that The Channels will help us change our sedentary lifestyle by providing a place where everyone can come to engage in outdoor activities.
Compared to San Francisco, Tulsa must have looked to Ms. Daniel like the Land of the Sumo Wrestlers. San Francisco, like a handful of American cities (but like most European cities and towns), is a place where you can live quite comfortably without a car. Residents of these cities get plenty of exercise in the course of going about everyday business, and it shows.
As a college student in the Boston area, I'd walk more than four miles in a typical day, seven if I had a class at Harvard. I never had to count carbs in those days.
Here in Tulsa, most of us can't get through the day without spending hours in our cars, thanks to the pattern of development created by our zoning laws and subdivision regulations, which for two generations have segregated where we live from where we shop from where we work.
Even where sidewalks exist, they don't connect our homes with places we need to go or want to go.
Exercise is just one more activity to fit into the schedule, one more place we have to drive to.
Will three islands in the river fix this problem? Will overweight folks in Collinsville and Glenpool spend 30 minutes driving to The Channels and 30 minutes driving home, just to take a 30-minute brisk walk?
If people are going to be enticed into moving their feet, there need to be interesting places to walk close to home. Walkable neighborhoods would need to be restored or created in every part of Tulsa.
And that's a bold vision that Tulsa's philanthropists could help advance without tapping into tax dollars. In fact, they could do more to advance that vision if they use only private dollars.
That brings me back to our opening story. The wealthy grandfather was J. S. Smolian, a Birmingham department store owner who purchased 80 acres on the Gulf of Mexico in Florida's panhandle in the 1940s. In the late '70s, his grandson, a Miami developer named Robert Davis, inherited the land. Davis remembered summer nights sleeping on the big breezy porch of his grandfather's beach house, and he had the idea of creating a beach community that connected people to the seaside and each other in a way that beachfront condo towers fail to do.
Davis hired architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk (www.dpz.com), who developed a simple town plan, urban code, and architectural code, designed to create a community where everything you'd need or want--the post office, the beach, shops and restaurants, the school, tennis courts--is within a few minutes walk from home.
Seaside (www.seasidefl.com) is an early example of traditional neighborhood development making using the principles of the New Urbanism. (See www.cnu.org for more info.)
Scoffers said they'd never be able to sell lots away from the beach for the prices that a beachfront condo could command. In 1983, the average home price was around $65,000.
On a recent visit, the cheapest listing in Seaside's local paper was $775,000 for a one-bedroom townhouse with a bath and a half. $2.5 million was a more typical price for a three- or four-bedroom home.
The success of Seaside has inspired the development of many other new walkable communities all over the country and around the world. Some, like Seaside, are intended to be resorts, but most aim to be places for practical everyday living.
Like Seaside, most of these places have been built on private land without a single penny of taxpayer money, and because they have succeeded without public subsidies, developers with no particular interest in the theory of urban design, but with an interest in making lots of money, are following in the footsteps of New Urbanists like Duany and Plater-Zyberk.
Tulsa Stakeholders, Inc., (TSI), the group led by John-Kelly Warren of the Warren Foundation which is proposing The Channels development, has a commendable desire to create a thriving, pedestrian-friendly urban place in Tulsa. So instead of asking the taxpayers to spend $600 million to build three tiny islands on which a walkable community can be built, why doesn't TSI create or restore a walkable community on land that already exists, and thus encourage the creation of this kind of neighborhood all over Tulsa?
(It may be cheeky for me to tell TSI what to do with their money, but since they're telling us taxpayers what we should do with ours, turnabout is fair play.)
TSI could demonstrate that traditional neighborhood development will succeed, even in car-bound Tulsa. They could use their deep pockets and risk tolerance to blaze a trail for more risk-averse conventional developers.
Building a traditional mixed-use neighborhood on taxpayer-subsidized islands would send the message that such developments are too fragile to survive in the free market.
Building or restoring the same kind of neighborhood with private money on private land would set an example that other developers could follow with confidence.
There are many opportunities for TSI to do pioneering work in this area. They could build a New Urbanist community on undeveloped land somewhere in the metro area. They could incorporate walkability and mixed use into the Warren Foundation's own developments (e.g. the Montereau retirement community).
TSI could do some of the exciting infill development recommended by the East Tulsa Community Plan (http://www.cityoftulsa.org/Community/Revitalization/EastTulsa.asp), helping to knit together a lively international district and creating a walkable center for a vast swath of car-bound suburbia.
Perhaps the most strategic investment TSI could make would be in the Pearl District (aka the 6th Street Corridor); on the charitable side, its assistance could fund implementation of the stormwater project for the three-square-mile Elm Creek basin.
This would take land out of the floodplain, making restoration and infill practical. Full public funding for the plan--about $35 million to create stormwater detention ponds and to link one of them to Centennial Park by a canal--is at least a decade away.
Fixing Elm Creek not only helps 6th Street, but it would improve drainage in the Gunboat Park and 18th and Boston areas. (Elm Creek flows underground through both neighborhoods, emptying into the Arkansas River at 21st Street.)
On the private side, it could set an example for other developers by doing some quality infill development and restoration in accordance with the Pearl District Infill Plan (http://www.cityoftulsa.org/Community/Revitalization/6thStreet.asp). No need to use condemnation to assemble vast tracts of land--restore some existing buildings to their former glory, or build new brownstones on already vacant lots.
TSI's leadership would make it safe, maybe even fashionable, for other investors to get involved in the district and to create walkable places in other parts of the metro area.
The revival of the Pearl District would strategically patch a hole in Tulsa's original urban fabric, reconnecting centers of activity--downtown, Cherry Street, Kendall-Whittier, TU, and the Utica medical corridor--which are quite close to each other but which now seem miles apart. And it would make it possible for more Tulsans to make walking a part of daily life, not a specially scheduled activity.
Through private action to create or restore a walkable neighborhood, TSI would send the message, "Come on in, the water's fine," to Tulsa's developers. It might not be as splashy as islands in the river, but such a project would create ripples that would spread far beyond the riverbank, making all parts of our metro area healthier, livelier, and more attractive as a place to live, work, and play.
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