More than 50 years ago, the Chamber of Commerce posted signs around town to designate a route they called the "Tulsa Tour". The winding path took visiting motorists through the tidy, tree-lined neighborhoods that gave Tulsa the confidence to call itself "America's Most Beautiful City."
Today, those same neighborhoods are at risk of losing the character that made them worth bragging about. People with more money than good taste are buying classic homes in Midtown neighborhoods, tearing them down, clearing the lots of trees, and building suburban McMansions on the empty lots.
You see, they like the idea of looking out their windows at Craftsman bungalows from the 1910s, Tudor Revival cottages from the 1920s, or ranch-style homes from the 1950s, all shaded by mature trees. They just don't want to live in a house like that. And they don't seem to give a rip about how their new, monstrous, out-of-place house will affect the view from the neighbors' windows.
They love the neighborhood, but their new home is helping to destroy the very characteristics that made the neighborhood attractive to them in the first place.
They want to live in a tony zip code like 74114 or 74105, but they don't want to live in the homes that have been in those zip codes for decades. And rather than expanding an existing home with a harmonious addition, they'd rather tear it down and start from scratch.
Without regard to the size or setback of neighboring homes, a McMansion takes up as much of the lot and go as far up as is legally permitted, blocking sunlight to neighboring homes and leaving little room for large trees to grow.
The removal of trees and grass and the decrease in open space can cause stormwater runoff and soil erosion problems for neighbors.
Although most houses in Midtown have front windows that face the street, some sort of porch, and the garage behind the house, a new McMansion will often follow the suburban pattern of turning its back to the street, with a large garage in front as the house's most prominent feature. The term for this is "snout house."
Just today I saw what may be Tulsa's most extreme example of this kind of house. It's under construction on 25th Street, between Lewis and Birmingham Aves. The neighborhood has a mature tree canopy, but there are no trees on this lot.
The building dwarfs its neighbors and seems to use the full 35' maximum height. It crowds the lot lines on each side. Instead of putting the garage behind the house to match the neighborhood, this new building has a pair of large two-car garages facing each other across the front of the house.
It's no surprise that the next door neighbors have a PreserveMidtown.com sign in their yard.
Preserve Midtown is a group of homeowners mobilized to fight the teardown trend. While teardowns are a national phenomenon, and nothing new to Tulsa, the trend is accelerating locally.
Preserve Midtown isn't out to stop all new construction in established neighborhoods. Instead, their slogan is, "Build Homes That Fit the Neighborhood."
The group is circulating a petition calling for a temporary hold on residential lot splits and teardowns in Midtown's council districts (4 and 9) until a neighborhood stabilization plan or neighborhood conservation district (NCD) ordinance is in place.
Neighborhood conservation districts are common in cities our size around the country. You can find them in nearby cities like Dallas, Wichita, and Little Rock. Oklahoma City has had conservation districts for more than a quarter-century. Tulsa is unusual for not having such a provision in our zoning code.
The aim of an NCD is to allow for new development in an established area--known as "infill development"--but to require it to be compatible with the existing character of the neighborhood.
Under a variety of names, the concept can be applied to strictly residential areas, commercial corridors, or mixed use. Oklahoma City uses special districts to require compatible infill in Bricktown and Stockyards City, in older neighborhoods, and along pedestrian-friendly commercial corridors like 23rd Street and Classen Blvd.
A well-designed neighborhood conservation district (NCD) ordinance expresses the characteristics that define a neighborhood in concrete terms that can easily be understood by property owners and developers. A typical NCD ordinance might address setbacks, lot coverage, height, façade, bulk, and exterior materials.
Traditional neighborhood commercial areas can be affected by teardowns too, and NCDs can be used to maintain the delicate balance required when small-scale, traditional neighborhood commercial abuts a residential area.
NCDs shouldn't be confused with historic preservation districts. While both share the goal of preserving the character of a neighborhood, an NCD doesn't address the use of historically appropriate materials and features, but focuses instead on building form.
Historic preservation districts are less vulnerable to teardowns because any new construction must meet the district's guidelines. But of the 13 Tulsa neighborhoods on the National Register of Historic Places only four and part of a fifth are protected by an HP district.
Many other Midtown neighborhoods have historic character but have yet to be formally recognized, places like Florence Park, Lortondale, Terwilliger Heights, and Brookside. These areas could also benefit from an NCD ordinance.
So could downtown. Here the purpose would not only be to preserve whatever historic character has survived urban renewal and parking lot blight, but also to require that new development restore downtown's urban fabric.
The recently scuttled proposal for a Wal-Mart in east downtown underscores the urgency of enacting enforceable design guidelines for downtown. Wal-Mart proposed slapping some masonry on the blank walls of a 150,000 sq. ft. Supercenter and calling it "urban".
Blessing in Disguise
Site plans for the proposal showed a massive suburban surface parking lot in front of the store. No provision was made for pedestrians to walk safely to the store from the nearby Pearl District or from the downtown. The apartments and retail outparcels slated for the area from 4th to 5th, Elgin to Greenwood, were more urban--built to the lot lines, structured parking behind the buildings.
Still, the plans called for yet another downtown street closing--Frankfort between 4th and 5th.
At the very least, downtown ought to be subject to David Sucher's Three Rules for generating urban places: Build to the sidewalk, make the building front permeable, put any off-street parking behind the building.
That's not much to ask in exchange for hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars spent on downtown. Just because some national big shot thinks they'd like to plunk one of their big boxes downtown shouldn't mean the mayor, Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Tulsa Unlimited and the local daily get all giddy about things and forget the context of our urban core.
The idea of NCDs has been kicked around Tulsa for more than nine years, but they haven't gone past the concept phase.
In 1998, Mayor Susan Savage and Gary Boyle, chairman of the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission (TMAPC) convened an Infill Task Force to examine the problems that were arising as developers' attentions were beginning to turn back toward the inner city.
Although a proposed neighborhood conservation district ordinance was drafted, the final report (issued in 1999 and available at the TMAPC website) was watered down at the insistence of Savage, calling only for a study of infill development for a neighborhood.
This led to infill studies for Brady Village, Brookside, and the 6th and Peoria area (now called the Pearl District). While these studies included recommended design guidelines similar to those found in NCD ordinances, no method of enforcing those guidelines has been instituted. The guidelines only work to the extent that the Board of Adjustment, the TMAPC, and the City Council use them to guide their zoning decisions.
Going beyond NCDs, Pearl District residents are seeking to become a pilot area for form-based codes. While NCDs do address form, NCDs don't change the long-standing practice of segregating residential from retail from office uses. Form-based codes allow a variety of uses as long as the requirements for building form are met.
(I should mention that the Pearl District is not an area where teardowns are an issue.)
Preserve Midtown's proposed temporary hold on teardowns may seem draconian, but with no action on NCDs after eight years, it's clear that something has to be done to move the issue forward. As it stands, the people with the money and time to lobby the City Council--the developers--are content with the status quo.
If the Council were to approve a temporary hold on teardowns, it would change the status quo and give developers an incentive to push the TMAPC and the city to move with speed and deliberation toward enacting an NCD ordinance.
It's natural for neighborhoods to evolve over time. The cozy commercial district that we call Cherry Street was almost entirely residential in the 1930s. Over the next decade or two, houses that faced side streets were replaced with commercial buildings that took advantage of frontage on what had become U. S. Highway 64.
But modern development and lending practices have enabled far more radical and rapid change. An NCD would help a neighborhood evolve in a more stable and gradual fashion, protecting the investments of its property owners by reducing uncertainty.
While newer subdivisions have restrictive covenants that assure neighborhood compatibility, many older neighborhoods never had covenants or else they've long since lapsed. NCDs can serve a similar purpose.
Our Midtown neighborhoods are among Tulsa's most attractive assets. It's not anti-growth to try to find a way to protect them. It's just anti-killing the goose that laid the golden egg.
For more on teardowns and how to deal with them, visit the National Trust for Historic Preservation website at http://www.nationaltrust.org/teardowns.
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