"CALL YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD COUNCIL REPRESENTATIVE AND TELL THEM YOU ARE AGAINST MIDTOWN TULSA."
So wrote Realtor Martha Thomas Cobb in a mass e-mail protesting the idea of neighborhood conservation districts (NCDs), a zoning idea currently under discussion for Tulsa.
To read Ms. Cobb's upper-case-laden e-mail, you'd think that the Communists had infiltrated City Hall:
"Please beware of what is going on with the small minority of disgruntled citizens who want to police midtown by writing an ordinance to tell you what to do with your property.
"IT IS DESIGNED TO TAKE AWAY OUR PROPERTY RIGHTS. BEWARE....
"PRESERVE MIDTOWN WANTS TO PUT AN ORDINANCE IN PLACE POLICING EVERYONES RIGHT TO DO WHAT THEY WANT TO. BAD IDEA."
I've heard the phrase, "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law," but I didn't realize it was in the City of Tulsa zoning code.
But Ms. Cobb isn't the only fear-monger out there. Back on Feb. 15, the daily paper used this misleading headline over a story about NCDs: "City officials join to fight infill building."
(Infill refers to new construction in an already developed area. And NCDs, as we've noted in this space several times, customize land use regulations for a particular neighborhood, with the intent of allowing new development in an established neighborhood while preserving the essential character of the neighborhood.)
The officials involved, City Councilor Maria Barnes, whose photo appeared above the headline, and Planning Commissioner Michelle Cantrell, aren't trying to fight infill at all. They're trying to come up with a way to accommodate infill while mitigating its impact on the very characteristics that make a neighborhood attractive to new development.
That's not anti-growth or anti-infill. That's anti-killing the goose that laid the golden egg.
Until recently, it was easy for NCD opponents to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Now, however, there's a draft NCD ordinance, presented during the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission's (TMAPC) Feb. 27 work session. The four-page document, weighing in at just under a thousand words, is quick to read and apprehend. Here are some of the key features:
An NCD overlay could only be used in areas zoned single-family residential (RS). It could not be applied to any other kind of development or to areas already under a Historic Preservation (HP) overlay.
Seventy-five percent of the existing houses within the proposed NCD must have been built prior to July 1, 1970.
The proposal for an NCD can be initiated by the TMAPC, the City's Planning Department, the City Council, or a petition signed by 50 percent of the property owners in the proposed NCD.
An NCD must be contiguous, containing at least 30 single-family dwellings, with distinctive or unifying features. (Neighborhoods on the National Register of Historic Places would automatically satisfy the definition.) Examples of distinctive features include scale, size, type of construction, setbacks, and street layout.
NCD guidelines could address four categories of criteria: "density and/or intensity of land use...; area and bulk restrictions...; accessory structures and yard utilization regulations...; exterior building wall materials."
Specific NCD guidelines could include placement, size, and orientation of garages, roof pitch, setbacks, floor area, lot size, number of stories, and height.
NCD guidelines must be consistent with the predominant features of the district.
This is a very modest proposal, limited in scope. What it doesn't do is as important as what it does do.
An NCD can't regulate paint color, window style, or any interior modification. It treats houses like roofed boxes, and it's all about how big those boxes are and where they sit on the lot. Building wall material -- e.g. brick or wood siding -- is the only criterion that deals with appearance.
The proposed NCD ordinance doesn't modify the process of getting a building permit, a variance or special exception, or a zoning change. It doesn't have a group of neighbors applying subjective judgment over every new home design.
An NCD would simply have special rules customized for that district. No additional red tape would be added to the development process.
To put the current proposal into perspective, let's compare it to an earlier attempt at establishing a protective zoning overlay.
Accompanying the draft in the TMAPC's backup material was a 17-page memo by City Council policy administrator Jack Blair, written Nov. 20, 2007. Blair did his usual thorough job, comparing ordinances establishing NCDs (or similar districts with different names) in Albuquerque, Austin, Dallas, Oklahoma City, Omaha, and Wichita with an ordinance that had been proposed for Tulsa in 1995.
Blair's memo reveals that the NCD concept has been kicked around Tulsa since 1992, when TMAPC staff began researching the issue. Staff put a recommended ordinance before the TMAPC in 1995, but no action was taken on it. From Blair's description, the current proposal appears to be similar in scope to the 1995 draft.
A few years later, a more ambitious proposal gained brief attention.
In 1998, the Infill Task Force was convened by Mayor Susan Savage and TMAPC chairman Gary Boyle. Scott Swearingen, then president of Renaissance Neighborhood Association and founding father of the Midtown Coalition of Neighborhood Associations, was a mayoral appointee to the task force. He designated me as his alternate, and I participated along with him on the zoning subcommittee, a group that included zoning code author and attorney Charles Norman.
At that time, teardowns -- the practice of scraping the lot in an older neighborhood to build a new and often much larger home -- were not yet prevalent in Tulsa. The greater concern was inappropriate redevelopment of pedestrian-friendly commercial areas bordering residential areas. The core issue was the same, however -- preserving the character of a neighborhood.
INCOG staffers presented the subcommittee with a draft enabling ordinance for something they called "Renaissance Neighborhoods" (RN). RNs could include not only single-family residential, as the current NCD proposal does, but also multi-family and non-residential uses.
In that regard, RN zoning would have respected the interrelatedness of midtown residential areas and the traditional neighborhood commercial districts that adjoin them -- for example, the commercial and residential sections of Brookside, or Swan Lake neighborhood and Cherry Street.
The proposed RN ordinance never saw the light of day, beyond our subcommittee's discussions. The final report from the task force, issued in May 1999, did recommend the adoption of design guidelines in areas where "higher intensity nonresidential uses are located near residential uses" and "in the older pedestrian-oriented commercial areas."
As a first step, the report suggested a "test case" neighborhood plan, "prepared with broad-based citizen participation, including both residential and nonresidential interests."
The test case idea evolved into $50,000 in initial funding for three pilot infill studies in the Brady Arts District, the 6th Street corridor (now known as the Pearl District), and in Brookside. For each study, a task force was convened involving a variety of neighborhood stakeholders and facilitated by city Urban Development staffers. Work was completed on the Brady and Brookside infill plans in 2002; the Pearl District effort wrapped up in 2005.
These infill plans have been incorporated by the TMAPC and the City Council into the Comprehensive Plan, and the design guidelines have been consulted in evaluating variances, special exceptions, and zoning changes.
But a decade after the Infill Task Force was convened, the goal of these pilot programs -- incorporating neighborhood-specific design guidelines into the zoning code -- has not yet been achieved. And only a handful of neighborhoods have developed infill guidelines.
Blair's report notes: "A conservation district overlay would be intended to address the 'one-size-fits-all' nature of our current approach to land use regulation. Our current zoning code does not distinguish, for example, between an RS-3 zoning district at 26th & Yale and an RS-3 district at 86th & Sheridan." A three-car-garage "snout house" would fit in perfectly in the latter subdivision, but would be completely inappropriate in the former neighborhood.
Blair continues: "The unique aggregation of small mid-'50s-modern homes in Lortondale enhances the property values of each individual home. In other words, the sum is greater than its parts. The coherence of the neighborhood is, in itself, of value."
The NCD proposal now under discussion is a very modest step toward protecting that kind of coherence while also protecting property rights and opportunities for new development. While the details may need fine-tuning, the concept deserves widespread support from homeowners and developers alike. The TMAPC should act promptly and forward a draft ordinance to the Council as soon as possible.
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