Some zoning and planning odds and ends:
Thursday night the City Council approved a change to city ordinances to allow digital billboards, which were previously not legal in Tulsa.
Last October, the City Council passed a six-month moratorium on digital displays to allow time for the City's Sign Advisory Board (SAB) and the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission (TMAPC) to approve standards and restrictions that would prevent such signs from becoming a dangerous distraction to drivers or an annoyance to nearby residents.
The rules would cover brightness, particularly at night, how frequently a digital sign's message can change, and how close a digital sign can be to residential areas or to other digital signs.
Following a lead from Councilors Eric Gomez and Dennis Troyer, the Council tossed out the compromise hammered out by the SAB and TMAPC in favor of more permissive standards favored by the outdoor sign industry, although language in the ordinance gives the Council the opportunity to revisit and adjust those numbers after we have some experience with the new standards.
I was disappointed that the Council also voted down a provision that would have required digital billboards to display public safety information such as "Amber alerts" and storm warnings. Councilor Rick Westcott argued that this would constitute a "taking" under the 5th Amendment.
Councilor John Eagleton countered that this requirement wasn't a taking because it didn't infringe on an existing property right and that commandeering a private sign board during an emergency was a reasonable exercise of the police powers entrusted to city government.
You can't count on radio alone to notify motorists of impending danger. Talking on cell phones or listening to satellite radio stations and MP3 players, many drivers aren't tuned to a local station and won't hear that tornado warning.
The biggest disappointment is that instead of the result emerging from a give-and-take between the sign industry and the public interest, the Council majority was all give. The sign companies got everything they wanted and conceded nothing.
That's not an encouraging precedent for future zoning and planning issues. While the Council needs to respect the needs of an industry with a concentrated and special interest in legislation, the Council must also represent the broad public interest. Special interests will be seeking their own short-term profits; the Council must be the voice for the City's long-term best interests.
A Problem and An Opportunity
While all the controversy over infill has dealt with residential teardowns and McMansions, an old-style zoning battle, involving commercial encroachment into a residential area, is underway at the edge of the Florence Park neighborhood. The showdown will take place before the TMAPC on May 21st.
Beloved corporate citizen QuikTrip wants to expand its store at 21st and Harvard. The existing store is one of the few in the chain that hasn't been expanded, the gas pumps are almost always full, there's little room to maneuver in the parking lot, and the traffic flow into and out of the lot interferes with the busy intersection.
The new, bigger store will back up to Gary Pl., replacing two duplexes, a single family home, and the Lassiter & Shoemaker Photography building. A wall and trees behind the store will attempt to screen the view of the homeowners on the west side of Gary Pl.
To expand in this way, QT must get the area rezoned. The existing QT and the L&S building are zoned CS (the least intense commercial zone), the duplexes are OL (light-intensity office), and the rest is zoned single-family residential (RS-3).
QT is seeking a planned-unit development (PUD) overlay, which, in theory, keeps the same overall intensities of use in place, just rearranged within the boundaries of the PUD.
In practice, however, a PUD effectively replaces the existing zoning with whatever the developer wants. The new, larger QT represents a more intense commercial environment than currently exists at that location.
In asking for a zoning change, QT is asking for the rules to be changed, the rules that were in place when the neighbors bought their homes.
Right now, commercial development on the block north of 21st, between Gary Pl. and Harvard Ave., is limited to the east half of the block, plus a lot deep right at the 21st Street frontage. The rest is residential, and every home on the west side of the street faces a home on the other side.
Florence Park neighbors fear that the QT will set a precedent, and that before long all the homes on the west side of Gary Pl. will look across to blank screening walls, as other commercial developments fill the block all the way to 15th Street.
At the moment, the duplexes provide a buffer between the QT and the rest of the neighborhood. Those two rental properties are the only ones that have to deal with being right next to a 24-hour convenience store. But the expanded store would be right across from or next to three times as many homes, most of them owner-occupied -- for now.
There are other concerns. The existing store already complicates a busy intersection; an expanded store could draw three times as many cars, darting in and out as other traffic tries to negotiate turn lanes and through lanes.
The store is at a local low point in an area where the water table is said to be near the surface, which could create problems for excavating and replacing the fuel tanks. And in that part of town there's always the potential of complications related to abandoned coal mines.
Because of the encroachment on the residential area and the additional burden on the already overtaxed 21st & Harvard intersection, I hope the TMAPC turns this down.
Whatever the planning commission decides, the zoning change will almost certainly come before the City Council which seems likely, given recent personnel changes, to approve it. So is there a way to mitigate its encroachment on the neighborhood?
If I were living there, I think I'd be more bothered by the blank wall than having the store right across the street. I'd have all the annoyances of a neighboring 24-hour operation without any of the convenience.
Instead of a blank wall, why not provide a pedestrian-friendly storefront on Gary Pl.? Many QTs have dual entrances. QT is also legendary for its crime-prevention procedures. An active store entrance would be less attractive to troublemakers than a blank wall behind the windowless back of the building.
With carefully directed lighting and more subdued signage than on the Harvard side of the building, a Gary Pl. entrance could make QT a true "corner store" for the neighborhood, allowing neighbors of all ages to walk over for a half-gallon of milk, a case of pop, or candy bar without dodging the cars zipping on and off from 21st St. & Harvard.
As gasoline becomes more expensive, there will be a greater need to have basic grocery items available within walking distance of homes. Existing auto-oriented store designs would be too disruptive for most neighborhoods.
In other, more urbanized parts of the country, convenience store chains have adapted to fit into pedestrian-friendly environments. This 21st & Harvard store could be a hybrid, adapted to serve walkers from the neighborhood and setting a pattern for future pedestrian-only stores, while still serving the needs of passing motorists.
QuikTrip is renowned for its innovations in customer service, products, and work environment. A neighborhood-friendly store at 21st & Harvard would be an innovative way to kick off its second half-century.
Light Rail Update
The "What about Rail?" summit is now online. INCOG has posted on its website videos of the three main presentations from Cal Marsella, General Manager of Denver RTD, Sonya Lopez, Senior Planner with the City of Austin, Tulsa's Jack Crowley, special adviser to Mayor Kathy Taylor.
The webpage (http://www.incog.org/transportation/whataboutrail.htm) also has the slide presentations from each of the panelists, a compilation of comment cards collected from the audience, and a map showing where audience members came from.
It's not surprising that midtown zip codes (between the river, I-244, and I-44) had the strongest turnout. The largest suburbs were represented, too.
Far south, far east, and southeast Tulsa were almost entirely unrepresented. What accounts for the lack of interest? These areas were developed during the dominance of auto-centric planning, they don't have (with one exception) any existing railroads, and they aren't close in enough to make light rail a realistic possibility. In short, these sections of Tulsa are car-bound for the foreseeable future, and they know it.
The one exception to the lack of rail in south and east Tulsa: The Union Pacific (old MK&T) track connecting downtown and Broken Arrow, long considered a prime route for commuter rail. Perhaps because the track runs mainly through industrial parks between Sheridan and 129th East Ave., residents in 74145 and 74146 don't think of it as connected to their lives or see it as a realistic transportation alternative.
Watch the "What about Rail" blog at whataboutrail.blogspot.com for more information to be posted from the summit.
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