I've attended, watched, listened to, and participated in many debates and candidate forums over the years. Last week's Tulsa City Council District 4 candidate forum was one of the best I've ever seen.
The hour-long event, sponsored by the Pearl District Association, featured written questions submitted by an audience obviously well informed on zoning, land use, and other issues affecting Tulsa's Midtown neighborhoods.
(You can listen to audio of the entire forum at BatesLine.com.)
The questions were ably organized and presented by Jamie Jamieson, developer of the Village at Central Park (west of Peoria on 8th Street) and a relentless booster for the revival of the 6th Street corridor between downtown and the University of Tulsa.
Jamieson used his intimate knowledge of the issues to clarify the questions in a way that led to more informative answers.
For their part, the candidates--first-term Councilor Maria Barnes and challenger Eric Gomez--gave direct and thoughtful answers to most of the questions. The debate allowed both to display their strengths, but it also revealed the policy differences between the two, particularly on the issue of Neighborhood Conservation Districts (NCDs).
Barnes, a Democrat, and Gomez, a Republican, meet in the general election April 1.
Asked to describe the most useful skills she brings to the Council, Barnes cited the relationships she has developed over more than a decade as a leader in the Kendall-Whittier Neighborhood Association. In that capacity, she worked with other neighborhood associations, developers, and staff in nearly every city department.
Responding to the same question, Gomez emphasized his real estate and development background. He grew up in the custom homes business and is now both a real estate agent and a contractor, with his own construction business restoring and remodeling Midtown homes. (In his concluding remarks, he mentioned his many years as a leader in the Renaissance Neighborhood Association.)
Barnes's goals for her second term are to bring several efforts in progress to completion: The form-based codes pilot project for the Pearl District, addressing concerns about infill development, and seeing a new comprehensive plan--the first one for Tulsa in over 30 years--come to fruition.
Gomez said the single biggest issue in District 4 is streets. Selling real estate takes him all over Tulsa, and he's convinced that District 4 has the city's worst streets. Improving the streets, he said, is crucial to economic development and redevelopment.
Gomez later made the point that widening roads to accommodate growth in south Tulsa had left less money to maintain streets in Midtown. He suggested that it was a mistake for Tulsa, in an effort to be "developer-friendly," to drop the idea of impact fees--requiring the developer to share in the cost of public infrastructure to support a new private development.
The two candidates were in sync on a number of issues. Both support the Pearl District Association's request to be a pilot project for form-based codes--an alternative to zoning that is more interested in compatibility of a building's exterior with its surroundings than in what goes on inside the building. (Barnes said she is working with INCOG to address problems with funding for the pilot project.)
Both also expressed support for the neighborhood's drive to get out of the floodplain by getting the city to fully fund the Elm Creek stormwater management plan. And both favor the incorporation of more grassroots-driven neighborhood plans into the city's comprehensive plan.
Both would love to see the Drillers play in downtown--Gomez said it could be a catalyst for high-density mixed-use development; Barnes called it an important piece of the downtown revitalization puzzle.
But neither wants to see the taxpayers foot the bill for a new ballpark. Gomez said that in light of the enormous $1.6 billion need to fund street improvements, "it's hard for me to justify more public dollars" for a ballpark.
Barnes was open to putting public funding before the voters: "I don't want to see us raise taxes to pay for it, and we are looking at other ways to try to fund this, but if it does come to a tax then the people will vote on it. They'll decide what they want to do."
The two split on the question of whether the city should fund the expansion of 101st and Memorial to meet the demands of the developers of a Super Target slated for the northeast corner of that intersection. The developers are threatening to locate just across the city limits in Bixby if they don't get their way.
Barnes says the city has to stop caving in to such demands, and the developers should pay for the widening if they want it. Gomez considers the intersection work a strategic investment to keep those sales tax dollars in Tulsa.
And It Gets Better
The highlight of the forum was a series of questions about a contentious current land use issue: Neighborhood Conservation Districts. Barnes has championed this idea, which involves customized zoning rules for older residential areas. An NCD would allow for new development in an older neighborhood while preserving the attributes that make the neighborhood appealing.
In answer to the basic question--do you support NCDs?--Barnes gave a one-word answer: "Yes."
Gomez's response: "Neighborhood conservation districts are a tough issue, and I'll tell you why: Because, in my opinion, I will not support anything that infringes on private property rights and is negative to property values, and that is all I'll say about that."
But the audience wanted Gomez to say more, and further questions aimed at getting down to the philosophical underpinnings of his views on zoning and land use regulation. How would he balance private property rights against the reality that what I do with my property affects the value and enjoyment my neighbors can realize from their properties?
So here came the next question: "Many District 4 residents are concerned about inappropriate infill development, particularly homes that are out of scale with existing development. Is it appropriate for government to regulate this in any way, or should it be left entirely to the free market?"
Barnes replied first: "I think it should be left up to the neighborhoods, to the areas that are being affected by this kind of development. You decide what you want."
Gomez acknowledged that government is already involved in regulating new construction:
"Well, the question about whether it's appropriate for government to regulate it, that's already the case, we already regulate what can be built. Although it may not be what everyone would like to be built, we already regulate through our current zoning ordinances and land use policies."
He went on to raise a concern about "functional obsolescence" where "the cost to renovate far outweighs the value of the property." But nothing in the proposed NCD ordinance would prohibit demolition or require renovation of an existing building.
The obvious follow-up question came toward the end of the forum:
"Doesn't all zoning infringe on property rights, and if so, why is the idea of conservation district different from that? Why is it a further infringement on property rights that are already infringed by zoning?"
Gomez's verbatim reply: "We already regulate land use. We already regulate what you can and cannot do with your property. When people buy a property, they look at what the policies are, they understand what the zoning is, and if that should change, there has to be a--it's a fine line, I believe, between private property rights and zoning, and absent of covenants that are not easily enforceable, when you buy a property in an older neighborhood--I live in an older neighborhood--you do understand that these things may happen and it, um..." As his voice trailed off to a mumble, he sat down.
Gomez fielded another uncomfortable question a few minutes later, when he was asked why he failed to respond to questionnaires from TulsaNow.org, PreserveMidtown.com, and the League of Women Voters (tulsa.lwvok.org). Gomez said simply that he dropped the ball on the LWV questionnaire, and in the case of Preserve Midtown, he didn't have all the questions answered by the deadline, so he didn't submit a response.
Toward the end of the forum, Barnes defended NCDs by bringing along a handout containing "mythbusters"--responses to a number of frequently-heard misconceptions about the concept. She emphasized that the idea is still in the discussion stage. "People need to take a breath, slow down," she said.
Tend the Sheep
Any new idea needs someone to shepherd it through the legislative process, someone to raise the issue, persist through initial opposition and skepticism, argue in its favor during debate, rally public support, bring it back after a defeat, craft compromises to build majority support, and stick with it until the idea becomes law.
That shepherd has to be someone with a seat at the table. An idea might have broad public support, but only a member of the City Council has the access to the legislative process needed to bring the idea to fruition.
Barnes is committed to the neighborhood conservation concept. She has spent a considerable amount of political capital on NCDs, taking the risk that powerful opponents of NCDs--the development lobby, the daily paper--will become her political adversaries.
Gomez doesn't rule out supporting a neighborhood conservation ordinance. His concerns for protecting private property rights and his worry that overregulation will stifle new development are appropriate. But his ambivalence about the NCD concept makes it unlikely that he would actively push for it.
If Gomez wins, he might vote for a carefully crafted NCD enabling ordinance. But if Barnes loses, there likely won't be any NCD ordinance to vote for.
In his opening and closing remarks, Gomez spoke of his desire to see Tulsa once again as America's Most Beautiful City. That's a sound goal.
I hope that he, and others skeptical of NCDs, will realize that the first step toward that goal is one that our rival cities in the region have already taken: determined legislative action to conserve Tulsa's most beautiful neighborhoods.
Share this article: