What will become of Arkansas River development?
Both incoming Tulsa County Commissioners are on record saying that they "very much doubt" that $600 million in tax funding for The Channels will ever be up for a vote. That's a majority of the body that would put a Channels tax on the ballot. (Former City Councilor Chris Medlock reported the commissioners-elects' comments on his blog at medblogged.blogspot.com.)
There are persistent rumors that studies of the proposal conducted by INCOG, the regional planning agency, will strongly recommend against proceeding, because of environmental, stormwater, and groundwater concerns.
It's reasonable to conclude that the heavily-promoted plan, which involves building three islands in the middle of the Arkansas River and inundating the west bank between 11th and 21st, is soon to sleep with the fishes.
The Tulsa Stakeholders nevertheless deserve thanks for re-starting the conversation about development along the river. Nothing quite focuses the debate like a concrete proposal. Some of the concepts and much of the research will undoubtedly work its way into other plans and possibilities.
The latest concept to surface would put a major mixed-use development on the west bank rather than in the middle of the river. Rick Huffman of HCW Development, developer of Branson Landing in Missouri has expressed interest in developing something similar here in Tulsa.
Branson Landing is a "lifestyle center" which opened in June along Lake Taneycomo, once a quiet waterfront just east of the Branson's historic commercial district. The development boasts 450,000 square feet of retail space, plus condos and a Hilton hotel.
(By comparison, Tulsa Promenade has 927,000 square feet of gross leasable area, and Woodland Hills Mall has 1.2 million square feet. Jenks' Riverwalk Crossing has 82,000 square feet; Phase 2 would add 160,000 square feet.)
In 2001, the city of Branson acquired a 700-foot-wide strip of land between the old Missouri Pacific tracks and the lake. The area had been home mainly to small tourist courts catering to fishermen, a couple of restaurants, a city park, and the public RV park. This area, coupled with the old downtown, stood in placid contrast to the glitz and the traffic nightmares along 76 Country Boulevard on the west side of US 65.
Branson's leaders wanted a mixed-use development that would appeal to a younger and more upscale demographic and something that would complement a planned convention center.
Branson Landing stretches out for about a half-mile along the waterfront, anchored at the north end by Belk Department Store and at the south end by Bass Pro Shops. Connecting the two is a pedestrian-only promenade with shops lining both sides. In the middle is an amphitheatre leading from the main promenade down to the lakefront where there is a spectacular water and fire display, designed by the same company that created the fountains at the Bellagio resort in Las Vegas.
(The "lake" is more of a river here, less than a 1/10th of a mile wide, hemmed in by a 120-foot-high bluff on the opposite shore.)
Land acquisition, infrastructure, site preparation (raising the site 17 feet above the lake level and building a seawall), and other public aspects of the development (like the water feature), were financed by borrowing money against anticipated revenues to be generated by a tax-increment finance (TIF) district. Any tax generated by the development over and above the amount generated by what was there before stayed in the TIF district to repay those bonds.
We visited Branson last month and took a stroll through Branson Landing on Thanksgiving evening. Although most of the shops were closed (not good for commerce, but nice for the employee--take your pick), there were still people out window-shopping, watching the fountains, and enjoying the mild weather.
The narrow street, hemmed in by buildings rising three or four stories on either side, has a European feel to it. The street is enhanced by a couple of slight bends, leading a pedestrian on to see what might be just around the next corner.
In addition to the main square and amphitheatre at the center, there are two smaller plazas halfway between the center and each end, connecting to parking and the lakefront. Structured and surface parking are tucked behind the inland row of shops.
It was odd, though, that here was this waterfront development, and yet the water was mostly hidden from view. Only seven retail spaces--all restaurants--face the lake. The boardwalk which runs alongside the lake mainly faces the backs of shops and a service road. While having shops facing each other across a narrow street is good urban form--pedestrians feel enclosed rather than exposed--I would hope that a riverfront retail development would have more frequent vistas to the water, at least one every hundred yards (the width of a downtown Tulsa block), and that there would be retail spaces on the waterfront.
I had a strong sense of déjà vu. In October, I came across the Destin Commons development in the Florida panhandle. Just like Branson Landing, it has a Belk at one end and a Bass Pro Shops at the other, a central plaza with a water feature, two smaller plazas, and a narrow, slightly bending street tying it all together.
Destin Commons is nowhere near the water, so in place of a fire and water display there's a 14-screen movie theater. It has 400,000 square feet of retail and 70,000 square feet of office space with plans to add increase retail space by a third, double the office space, and add a condo and hotel tower.
In a nice touch, you can actually drive down the narrow two lane street that runs through the center of Destin Commons. There are parallel parking spaces where you can plug a meter (proceeds to charity) for the privilege of parking right in front of the store, plus some spaces reserved for disabled customers.
I can't find any corporate links between the two, but Branson Landing was either inspired by Destin Commons (which opened 2? years earlier), or else both were patterned after a common model. It's strange that the presence of a lakefront didn't result in a more distinctly lake-oriented layout for Branson Landing.
Would something like Branson Landing fit on the west bank of the Arkansas? The likeliest site would combine the existing, festival park and the concrete plant to the south. That's an area nearly as long as the Branson development and about twice as wide. Perhaps the festival park could be reoriented to stretch out along the riverbank, with the retail development alongside and up the slope to the west.
Last Friday morning on 1170 KFAQ, Ron Howell, developer of CrossTimbers on the shores of Skiatook Lake and the local point of contact for HCW Development, said that the city needs to move quickly to acquire the site--Tulsa Stakeholders' options expire in March--and then put out a Request for Proposals (RFP) and invite HCW and other private developers to bid for the right to lease and develop the land.
In their proposals, developers would set out how much they would need in TIF-backed bonds to build the project. Since 2004, Oklahoma cities and counties have been able to borrow money against future TIF revenues with a vehicle known as a STAR bond.
Setting up a TIF is not a quick process, because it involves lining up the support of the governmental bodies that levy property taxes on the land--city, county, community college, health department, library system, vo-tech system, and school board. It took the better part of a year to gain approval for a TIF district to fund infrastructure for the new Tulsa Hills retail development at 71st Street and US 75.
Concerns about cannibalization of existing retail demand could be another obstacle in the path of a TIF district. Howell says a west bank center could co-exist with Utica Square but "cannot survive with a major retail downtown presence."
Meanwhile, County Commissioner Randi Miller wants to create a river development authority to oversee all 26 miles of the Arkansas in Tulsa County, an authority that would have final say even over projects that are entirely within one city's jurisdiction.
While cooperation with the county and other cities along the river is a good thing, the City of Tulsa needs to maintain control over its own riverfront.
Tulsa officials need to establish design guidelines for the riverfront to avoid squandering any more of our limited shoreline. They need to consider whether incentives for near-downtown river development will undermine the city's massive investment in downtown revitalization.
Whatever course is chosen, the process needs to be open and competitive with a great deal of public input at the front end.
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