"I've been here for three months and what have I done so far?" said downtown development specialist Dr. Jack Crowley last week, anticipating this reporter's opening question.
Crowley is currently on loan through the University of Oklahoma's Tulsa campus as a special advisor to the Mayor on urban planning and development.
Since coming to Tulsa in January as a visiting professor in OU-Tulsa's College of Architecture, Crowley has also been working with the Mayor's Office to sketch a comprehensive plan for downtown redevelopment, which he hopes to complete before returning to the University of Georgia in August.
He is not drawing a city salary.
"The charge the Mayor's given me is 'downtown revitalization,' and it would be arrogant of me to think I could do all that by myself, obviously," he told UTW as he began to answer his own question.
The bulk of Crowley's efforts so far have been on two major emphases: exploring development of major connections between downtown and the Arkansas River, and making a case for the creation of a light rail system through downtown.
Representatives of the Mayor's Office arranged the meeting with UTW as an answer to the issues raised in an article entitled "Sweeping Under the Rug?" in last week's paper.
The piece was a follow-up to "Who Runs Downtown?" from our July 26-August 1 issue (this issue can still be read at www.urbantulsa.com), which told of downtown business owner Kent Morlan and others' discontent with Downtown Tulsa Unlimited, the private, non-profit group with which the city contracts for the area's upkeep and management.
The company was and is, at least according to Morlan and a handful of others, lax in its duties to keep downtown's streets and sidewalks clean, among other complaints, such as DTU's perceived unresponsiveness to complaints or requests for service from downtown business operators.
In answer to Morlan's repeated requests for his company, Beacon 400 LLC, to be able to bid for the contract, representatives from Mayor Kathy Taylor's office told him in July that a task force would soon be created to examine the very issues he'd raised in his critiques of DTU, with a report and recommendations to be completed by the beginning of 2008.
As reported in last week's issue, that report was never created, as the task force's work was cut short early in the process with the expected arrival of Crowley.
As explained by representatives of the Mayor, and then by Crowley himself, he had requested that the task force be put on the proverbial back burner until he completes his work of developing a plan for downtown revitalization.
Crowley didn't come on board until January and the task force was supposed to have been appointed in August and finished with its report by January 1, but representatives of the Mayor's office said conversations with Crowley had begun earlier, through the course of which he asked the Mayor to delay the committee.
While the meeting with Crowley was an answer from the Mayor's Office to questions about DTU and the fate of that committee report, his remarks during the interview had more to do with the larger issue of downtown development than with the role DTU or a competitor would play in the future.
Views of An Impartial Observer
He explained that the focus of his efforts is on "how to revitalize downtown, not on how to manage it" once that revitalization is accomplished.
But, he said, "If I were the Mayor, I'd have a difficult time writing an RFP (request for proposals)" for other interested parties, such as Morlan, to bid for the contract currently held by DTU.
"We don't know what downtown will look like when the smoke clears, and I wouldn't recommend changing horses mid-stream," he added.
Crowley served on DTU's board of directors for about seven years during the late 1980s/early 1990s, he said.
His plans for downtown Tulsa's rebirth are focused on the aforementioned two main efforts.
Development of the connections between downtown and the river, and the development of a light rail system for downtown "are the real obvious things that slam you in the head when you get here," said Crowley.
"If you really want to make downtown work, it will have to be reliant on the success of its surroundings. If you want people to live downtown, you'll want to grow it in from the outside," he elaborated.
The way to do that, he said, is to "get downtown better connected to the river."
"The river is one of the city's greatest assets, so why not connect to a great asset?"
"If you want to have entertainment downtown, if you want to have nightlife downtown, you've really got to hook the people recreating along the river, the people who like to live along the river, to make downtown their playground," he continued.
Expansion of the downtown and near-river residential bases, as well as making major river/downtown connections, like Boulder Ave., easier to move along by all modes of transportation--mass transit, car, bicycle or pedestrian--are key to the vitality of downtown, said the urban planning guru.
"The next step is to get people to start living downtown," he said, which he believes could be driven by the improved access between the central business district and the river.
Concerning his ideas for light rail, Crowley disputed UTW columnist Michael Bates' argument that it "would be a colossal waste of money" (see "Should Tulsa Take the Trolley?" in the January 10-16 issue at www.urbantulsa.com.)
(Crowley likely didn't read Bates' "New Ideas for Old Buildings in the April 3-9 issue, though, or he probably would have disputed those comments as well, as our esteemed columnist pointed to Tulsans' development envy of downtown Austin, Texas, for which the proximity of the Colorado River was, in Bates' view, irrelevant to the teeming commercial activity of the area.)
Rather, he said, the system would pay for itself, especially in contrast to the current transportation scheme, which he called a "formula for bankruptcy."
Crowley, who was the director of the Oklahoma Department of Transportation from 1993 to '96, explained that state roads are funded by an 18-cent tax on every gallon of gasoline, regardless of the price of that gas.
With gas prices and road material costs increasing, as well as the fuel efficiency of the cars driving on those roads, road funding isn't keeping up with use, hence the state and city's crumbling infrastructure.
Crowley said light rail would be a cheaper alternative to the increasingly expensive automotive transportation infrastructure.
"This is nothing that has been approved by anybody," he qualified about his light rail proposal.
"This is just an idea that I'm setting out to prove, and I recall Bates' argument about it being a waste of money," Crowley added.
He explained that the city owns about 50 acres at 23rd St. and Jackson Ave., which is south of downtown, and about 22 acres just north of downtown, at the Evans-Fintube site just north of Archer St. between Highway 75 and OSU-Tulsa.
Also, there's already a railroad track connecting the two sites, which runs through downtown, past the new BOK Arena.
There is currently a best-use study underway for the two sites, among other city-owned plots, but Crowley supposes that three or four-story walk-up apartments would be a wise use of the sites if the city invests in a light rail system along the existing tracks.
"If you had a train station there where you could walk out of wherever you live and get on the train and go to work in the morning, or go to the OSU campus to study, how much value could you get there at that site?" Crowley asked rhetorically.
Having a permanent public transportation route would also attract retail and restaurant developers wanting to capitalize on the availability of potential customers at the rail system's various stops.
If the city leased those two plots of land on each end of the tracks to developers, it could soon make back the $50-70 million he estimates it would cost to build the rail system, and passengers wouldn't need to pay a fare.
Crowley acknowledged an argument Bates made in his piece--that there isn't currently enough population density in downtown and the surrounding areas to justify a light rail system. However, he said, the light rail system would easily attract that density after a lag time of about five or six years after it's built.
He said there is typically a 10-15 year lag time for big cities after they adopt a transit-oriented design.
Crowley said Portland, Ore., Austin, Texas and numerous other big cities have successfully adopted similar transit systems, and "A city Tulsa's size that doesn't have a light rail in 15 years is going to be behind the competition."
"But then, in 15 years, people won't be able to find me to tell me I was wrong--I'll be back in Atlanta," he joked.
If the initial downtown light rail system is successful, Crowley foresees similar transit lines connecting downtown to the airport, to Utica Square and other high-activity spots in Tulsa.
While most of Crowley's attention has been devoted to taking up the two causes of light rail through downtown and improving access between downtown and the river, he's also been meeting with downtown property owners and stakeholders about their own ideas for downtown.
"I've talked to eight zillion people," he said.
Long Time, No See
Among that eight zillion was Kent Morlan, with whom Crowley had met only minutes before his interview with UTW.
"Mr. Morlan raises many good points," he said.
Along with his contention that the contract enjoyed by DTU should be up for competitive bidding, Morlan also told UTW, and Crowley, that downtown's three biggest priorities should be parking, converting the numerous one-way streets to two-way streets so downtown is more navigable, and dealing with the droves of homeless people downtown, whom Morlan acknowledges aren't dangerous, but create the perception among potential developers that downtown is impoverished and crime-ridden.
Compared to the zillions of other people with whom Crowley has spoken, he said Morlan is "right out there in the center edge" in his particular concerns for downtown.
"I get everything from 'make the streets smoother' to 'make them two-way,' and those are valid points," the development guru said.
"Most of what I hear is 'streets, streets, streets!,' but most of them agree that, in three or four months, that'll be something they'll forget about," Crowley said, anticipating an end by that time to the seemingly interminable street repairs and disrepair that characterize downtown.
Crowley said he agrees with Morlan that the streets should be two-way.
Also, he said, "Parking is a huge issue to everybody downtown."
"If you're going to have more residential downtown, you'd better have a parking opportunity that's connected, somehow, to the residential," Crowley said.
Regarding existing parking garages, he said, "The Parking Authority has to kind of morph its existing policy to recognize residential as a legitimate public user of garages, and they're doing that."
For new parking facilities, Crowley recommends tax increment financing so developers can underwrite the costs of building stacked parking garages.
Morlan told UTW that his palaver with Crowley "went Ok."
"He told me he thinks the one-way streets aren't a good deal, but he was less agreeable that we need to get rid of the parking meters," he said.
Morlan said Crowley didn't tell him anything to resolve his contentions about DTU, though.
"He said the Mayor couldn't figure out how to put it up for competitive bidding," he recounted, adding that, "If they don't put it up for competitive bidding this year, I'll be cranky. I'm not giving them a pass on this."
Morlan, who is an attorney, said he's prepared to sue the city if DTU's contract is renewed again without the city allowing him to bid for it.
But Jim Norton, DTU's executive director (not to be confused with car dealer of the same name), said the city attorney issued an opinion last year that, because the contract is of the sole-source variety, it's not required by law to be competitively bid.
Crowley said such an arrangement is not unique to Tulsa, though.
"Every city has a quasi-public company providing those services," he said, noting that such "quasi-public" entities are typically members of the International Downtown Association (formerly known as the "International Downtown Executives Association"), as is DTU, and have the same kind of sole-source contracts with their city governments that DTU has each year.
Norton, who became DTU's director in 1989, said the company has been in business since 1958, providing its promotional and maintenance services to members, and then contracted with the city in 1978 when the city ordinance passed to create the Downtown Tulsa Improvement District.
"The improvement district was created in the early '80s to help pay the costs of maintaining Main Mall," said Kim MacLeod, spokesperson for the Mayor.
"The mall, of course, has subsequently been removed, but we still contract with them to provide services such as street and sidewalk sweeping," she added.
Susan Neal, the Mayor's director of community development and education, told UTW that Taylor is considering the possibility of letting others bid for the contract, or part of the contract, after the current planning process is concluded.
"I think the Mayor has already made clear her willingness to reevaluate that," said Neal.
She said it would be "jumping the gun" for Morlan to sue for the contract, though, since the Mayor won't know what services will be needed until a larger plan is hammered out.
"We still continue to communicate with Kent. He has good ideas and everybody has a right to be heard," Neal said, adding, "I think the Mayor, DTU and Kent Morlan are all on the same page; they just don't agree on the timing."
Share this article: