The Towerview Apartments. Plenty of ink, digital and newspaper, has been spent on that little tenement. Starting two summers ago when Tulsa World reporter Michael Overall did his bit of "investigative journalism" into substandard housing by living there for two weeks, we began wondering why. It continues to this day as the city takes steps to obtain the property through eminent domain. This unassuming building has been Tulsa's own media flashpoint, a poster child for all sides in the downtown struggle for culture and money.
The entire issue of this building has smelled fishy from start to finish. After the World did its story, it was a matter of weeks before inspectors had descended and demanded the corrections to the health code violations. And as nice as it is to see city officials acting quickly and the public interest, but why just there? Why not the other slums being maintained all throughout midtown, behind their cheerful brick facades and archaic names over the front door?
In-depth stories like the one that touched off this whole caboodle are interesting and enlightening, but it's often easy to pretend the problem is isolated to the exact locale of the story. You can put out one fire, but the blaze is still going on all around you.
So on October 4, 2004, the city demanded the owner of the building, Luay Aljamal, fix the violations or the property was condemned. He had two weeks. He either couldn't or wouldn't, and all the residents were out by October 19. Well, that sure achieved a lot, didn't it? A few dozen low income people are either heavily inconvenienced or just on the street, there's even less housing on the market in downtown, and we've got a crummy abandoned building to deal with. The power of the written word.
For a year or two it just kinda sat there. G.W. Schultz (former UTW staff writer) tried to start a busking career on the sidewalk outside of it. "Trendy condos" were discussed, as they always are. Windows boarded up, it sat like a Rip Van Winkle of downtown building trends, growing older, more run down, asleep and unwanted, surrounded by restored art deco office buildings, bustling government offices, in the shadow of our mighty arena.
Then along comes the spider of big development. The city has put out the call for hotels and other developers to fill in the space around the arena. Ya'll come! It is answered by a lone company, Heavenly Hospitality, and its demands are as silly as its plans are superfluous.
It wants our fairly new bus station moved, our trains silenced, and the destruction of not only the Towerview, but the building across the street, which houses Pomodori's Italian restaurant (among other things).
All to build a massive Shangri-la with 246 rooms and 72 condos that would fill more than a block. Well, apparently another hotel developer has jumped into the negotiations, and it's not too likely that Heavenly Hospitality (and what the hell kind of name is that anyway? Sounds like something out of Branson) will be able to have their way with our bus station. But everyone is still clamoring for the wrecking ball when it comes to The Towerview.
December 12 of this year, the Tulsa Development Authority cleared the way for the property to be acquired through that wolf in sheep's clothing, our old friend eminent domain.
Aljamal is swearing to fight it, and he's got a chance. But that's really not the point. I don't care about the Towerview for its own sake. After all this, it's not worth trying to save. If the building were almost anywhere else, you can bet it'd be filled with 20-something service industry workers paying $500 for a two bedroom, surrounded by bikes and beer cans every weekend. As it is though, yeah, sure, it's blight. The building itself is a lost cause. But the principles illustrated by this whole struggle are the opposing forces in the discussion about Tulsa's future.
In the World this Sunday, an opinion piece referred to the question of whether or not to acquire the Towerview as an "easy decision". "Clearing blighted areas for redevelopment is the purpose of urban renewal and clearly in the public interest," said the column. But what kind of redevelopment?
Sure, we all benefit from property taxes, but "redevelopment" comes with strings attached. Strings like the changing face of our downtown, from an area replete with history and character to a streamlined corporate playground. Strings like rising rents and gentrification. Strings like the mistrust of private property and business owners toward the city and their big business partners. Says the column, "The eminent domain system is replete with protections for property owners. Land is not 'taken,' as so many offhandedly claim, and the owner is compensated."
Yes, the owner is "compensated" and I'm not here to quibble about the value of the Towerview building and land. But it is naïve or just plain ignorant to look at the laws and see "protections" against the abuse of power, and to feel reassured.
You must look at the practice and execution of those laws in the past to discover whether or not those safeguards actually work. The eminent domain laws have been abused in the past. The Kendall Whittier neighborhood suffered from their abuse at the hands of the University of Tulsa. The land seized by eminent domain is meant to be dedicated to public use. A hotel and upscale retail is not public use, no matter how much property tax revenues they create.
Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we saddle ourselves with these huge hungry companies, sacrificing city resources and citizen's rights to their interests? This is not development, this is not urban renewal.
Here's where the two opposing forces come in. Thinking small and long term rather than big and immediate. Sure, we can attract big retailers and fancy residential, flood our little market with shiny new development. It'll look real great the day we open the doors of the BOK Center.
But what happens 20 years from now, when we look like every other city, and whatever trend these developers are following peters out, and they move on? If we pay attention to those of us that are already here, take the time to craft and support individual projects, we will build up something that will last, a city with pride and character that will be more stable, attractive and unique than any cookie cutter downtown.
Strange, we used to apply that term to the suburbs.
So whatever, the Towerview is history, that's cool. But pay attention to the signs, people. Don't imagine that this is just one little incident. This kind of M.O. has made a lot of people a lot of money in the past, and maybe next time it won't just be a run down, lonely old apartment building.
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