Last week, we took a first look at the proposal to raise the county sales tax by $277 million to pay for modifications to the Arkansas River in hopes of attracting riverfront mixed-use development. I suggested a couple of alternatives that would take Tulsa to the desired outcome by a more direct route.
This week, I want to look at a couple of the specific elements of the proposal which differ from the master plan that was formally adopted by city and county officials.
But first, a word to those readers who were bothered by the harsh, snide tone of the headline, sub-head, and lead-in to the pull-quote that accompanied my column last week: They bothered me, too, and they don't reflect my sentiments. I didn't write them.
It surprises many people to learn that the headline and the other adornments on an article are written by an editor, not by the reporter or columnist. While I sometimes suggest a headline, I don't know what will appear over my column until you do--when the new edition hits the streets on Wednesday morning. Most weeks I'm pleasantly surprised. Last week the surprise wasn't so pleasant.
I am grateful for the willingness of George Kaiser and other Tulsa philanthropists to contribute to the well-being of this city, and my suggestion--that direct investment in riverfront development may be the best way to make the river the kind of place Tulsans want to enjoy -- was a suggestion made sincerely, not sarcastically.
You may also have been perplexed by the pomposity and pugnacity of the lead paragraph of my reply to J. S. Maloy, which also appeared in last week's issue. I was perplexed, too. I didn't write that either.
The reply I wrote began by thanking Maloy for his interest in Greenwood's history and empathizing with his disappointment that so little of the district remains. I didn't call my own column "scholarly," and I didn't call his letter "poorly researched and flawed." (The remainder of the letter, with one minor and unexceptionable addition later in the piece, was as I wrote it.)
While I don't always live up to my own ideals, I try to apply the counsel the Apostle Paul gave to his protégé Timothy -- "with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition." (II Timothy 2:26) If my ideas are offensive, so be it, but I'm not going to insult someone just because he disagrees with me.
I prefer to save the invective and outrage for someone has earned it through bad intentions, and I don't believe that bad intentions are true of either the Kaiser proposal for the river or Maloy's critique of my Greenwood column.
But back to the river tax proposal: We're still waiting for official, complete, online details of what would be paid for by the $277 million in tax dollars, but word is that it would include low-water dams at Sand Springs and Jenks, improvements to the Zink Lake dam, pedestrian bridges at 41st and 61st Streets, and modifications to the river channel between 71st and the Zink Lake dam to insure that there is always water in that part of the river.
The George Kaiser Family Foundation has committed to "match" taxpayer dollars by raising an additional $100 million in private donations to pay for improvements to the trail system, playgrounds, gathering places, and gardens.
We're being told that the proposal implements part of the officially adopted Arkansas River Corridor Master Plan, but there seem to be some significant discrepancies.
Just the Facts
For one thing, the master plan describes the Sand Springs dam as a means to provide recreational opportunities and water in the river along that city's waterfront. It would be located just downstream of the State Highway 97 bridge.
But the talk in the news has depicted this dam as having a more utilitarian purpose in solving the "water in the river" problem along the length of river in Tulsa County. Fulfilling this function may not be compatible with maintaining a water level at Sand Springs that is attractive for riverfront development and sufficient for recreation.
Although there is a significant amount of water in the Arkansas on a daily basis, it comes through at a time when few people are around to notice. Typically, during the late afternoon/early evening peak power demand period, water is released through Keystone Dam for power generation. The water doesn't begin rising on Tulsa's stretch of the river until late evening. This scenario has led to a number of river rescues--people venture out on the sand bars in the afternoon when the river is low, then get stuck as the sun goes down and the river begins to rise.
Keystone's gates are shut the rest of the time, presumably to store water for the next generation period and to support recreational purposes on Lake Keystone. The water level below the dam drops, and we see the mostly dry river bed during daylight hours.
(2007 has been atypical, with precipitation six inches ahead of normal for the first half of the year--10 inches ahead of 2006. Right now, Keystone's gates are always open, and the river at Tulsa is a half-mile wide torrent.)
In the tax proposal under discussion, the Sand Springs dam would be used to capture and store water when it's being released from Keystone Dam, and then released at the appropriate times to maintain attractive water levels further down the river. To use the technical term, it would be a reregulation dam.
The Corps of Engineers built the same kind of dam upstream of the Highway 97 bridge in 1968, but to serve a different purpose. With the completion of Keystone Dam, the river flow was no longer consistently strong enough to dilute and transport the sewage and industrial waste that had always been dumped into the river.
The Sand Springs reregulation dam was removed in 1986. It was no longer needed for pollution control, and it had become a hazard -- 22 people lost their lives in its undertow.
Even with a well-designed reregulation dam, the amount of water in the river will still be at the mercy of Mother Nature, the Corps of Engineers, and the Southwest Power Administration.
Before we pay for a new dam, perhaps we should first follow a suggestion made by Steve Smith, who for many years operated an airboat on the Arkansas (see the September 21-17, 2006, column): Talk to the Corps about reorienting their management of Keystone Dam to accommodate a more constant downstream flow. Smith told me that the Corps has made similar accommodations elsewhere.
The nature of a 41st Street bridge is another significant discrepancy between the Arkansas River Master Plan and the $277 million tax proposal. The master plan calls for a bridge to carry cars and pedestrians; the tax proposal only mentions a pedestrian bridge.
A vehicular 41st Street bridge is something Westsiders have long wanted, a way to connect their neighborhoods more directly to the rest of the city. A bridge would give Red Fork residents easier access to Brookside and the 41st & Yale shopping area, and it would make Webster High School a more accessible location for a magnet program serving the entire Tulsa school district.
There's a good urban design reason to prefer a vehicular bridge to a pedestrian bridge. While a pedestrian-only bridge sounds pedestrian-friendly, pedestrians don't want to be too far away from passing traffic and potential assistance if, God forbid, something bad happens. It's why people tend to stick to the edges of large parks and to avoid pedestrian-only enclaves like our old Main Mall or the Civic Center Plaza.
The tax proposal is also said to include a 61st Street pedestrian bridge, which isn't in the master plan at all. A bridge at 61st would dead-end on the west side at a railroad track and the base of a 200-foot-high bluff.
No master plan is flawless. Back in the late '50s, Tulsa adopted a number of plans that embodied fashionable urban design concepts of the time. Decades passed before we got around to implementing these plans, and in the meantime other American cities discovered that the concepts didn't work.
Tulsa stubbornly implemented the plans anyway, doing irreparable harm to Tulsa's urban core through projects like the Inner Dispersal Loop, the Civic Center, the Williams Center, the Main Mall, and urban renewal. Only the Riverside Expressway proposal was given the second look it deserved, thanks to public pressure from Betsy Horowitz and her fellow "naysayers".
But the Arkansas River Corridor Master Plan is less than two years old. Its development was marked by extensive public participation, and any significant changes in it should involve public scrutiny and comment as well.
By all means, let's re-examine the master plan and fix any flaws we find, but let's not pretend that the current tax increase proposal lines up with it.
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