PLANiTULSA, the City of Tulsa's first comprehensive planning effort since the 1970s, kicked off with a party last month, but the work began in earnest a week ago Monday, as the Fregonese Associates planning team met with a group of about 100 community "partners" to summarize their initial findings and to find out whether they're on the right track.
As Brian Ervin noted in the June 12-18, 2008, issue of UTW ("A Revised Plan for Tulsa"), I was appointed by Mayor Kathy Taylor as one of 66 PLANiTULSA Partners. June 16 was the first gathering of the Partners; the group will meet with planning consultants at least five more times--about once a quarter--over the course of the next year and a half.
The meeting also included the PLANiTULSA Advisers, an inner circle of 35, which will convene monthly to oversee the work of the consultants and act as an executive committee for the broader group.
I came away from the meeting impressed by the insights already gleaned by the Fregonese team, but no less concerned about the influence Taylor and mayoral aide Susan Neal will wield over the planning process and its outcome.
Team leader John Fregonese called the Partners the planners' eyes and ears. Part of our job is to let the planning team know if they're overlooking a group or issue or factor in their analysis and outreach.
Fregonese presented an overview of the process and the Partners' involvement in it and an initial look at demographics and INCOG's current growth projections. Two other members of the consulting team, Robin Rather of Collective Strength and John Roberts of TIP Strategies, made brief presentations covering public opinion research and economic development respectively.
(A fourth presentation on transportation by Andrew Howard of Kimley-Horne and Associates was deferred to the next meeting; we simply ran out of time. You can see the slideshows presented by Fregonese and Roberts on the planitulsa.org website.)
The Partners and Advisers arrangement has been used by Fregonese for planning efforts in other cities. Partners will be asked to review the planners' work and advise the planners at each major step along the way.
In July, the results of the community values survey being conducted by Collective Strength will be released. Another Partners and Advisers meeting will be held at the Greenwood Cultural Center on July 14 at 6pm.
City-wide planning workshops will be held on September 22 and 23, with hopes of drawing thousands of participants. The Partners will meet in October or November to review the input received at those workshops.
Nine sub-area community workshops, likely to be organized by City Council district, will occur in January 2009. The planners will develop 10 to 15 future growth scenarios--Partners will meet to recommend which should be put out for public input in early spring 2009.
The schedule projects a draft vision ready by June 2009, with a draft implementation plan ready in September 2009. That'll come right in the midst of campaign season for the next city election in November 2009.
Taylor, with Neal's guidance and with no input from the City Council, selected the Advisers and Partners. A look around the room last Monday revealed that Neal had drawn disproportionately from the social service sector and the development lobby.
A hint that the Partners' makeup is politically inconsistent with Tulsa as a whole came when John Roberts's statement that HB 1804 was a "disaster" was greeted with overwhelming applause. The bill passed by wide bipartisan margins and continues to poll well with the general public, but it is very unpopular with developers and social service agencies.
I'm still in the process of analyzing the full list of names published on the planitulsa.org website, but what I've seen so far confirms the impression that this is a lopsided group. Of the 35 Advisers--the inner circle--20 are registered Democrats and 10 are Republicans. Recall that Republicans hold two-thirds of the seats on the City Council and a slight majority of voter registrations.
Of those ten Republicans, six are involved in some way in real estate and development, two are in academia, and two are leaders in TYPROS, the Tulsa Metro Chamber's young professionals organization.
Although this is a comprehensive plan for the city, not the metro area, two of the 35 Advisers don't even live in Tulsa. A third of the group live in Council District 9, which Neal represented for four years.
Well over half of the Advisers live in the "Money Belt," the strip of wealthy neighborhoods stretching from Maple Ridge to Utica Square to Southern Hills and the gated communities of south Tulsa, a narrow band which has always enjoyed disproportionate representation on city boards.
It appears that none of the Advisers lives west of the Arkansas River. (Katy Davis, head of the Red Fork Main Street organization, lives in Brookside, according to the May issue of Tulsa People, but I'm told she had plans to move to the west side at some point.)
No one from Council District 3 is an Adviser. From all of east Tulsa--Districts 5 and 6--the only two Advisers are the president of TYPROS and a former member of Mayor Taylor's staff.
I don't believe that Neal and Taylor set out to disenfranchise those areas. But they chose people they knew from their social circles. Had they allowed current and former councilors to make appointments, we would have a more diverse and representative group of Partners and Advisers.
The Right Idea
Thankfully, the Fregonese team isn't entirely dependent on the Partners and Advisers for their understanding of the city and the vision of its citizens. Collective Strength, headed by Robin Rather, is in the process of conducting dozens of in-depth interviews and lengthy phone surveys of a thousand Tulsans chosen at random.
Rather said that she had been in our place when Fregonese came to Austin to work on that city's plan, a community activist skeptical of what an outside planner could offer. What won her over and what sets Fregonese apart from other planners is "his determination and insistence on real community engagement."
Rather described her role as taking the city's EKG--finding out what was on the city's heart and developing a "values framework" for the planning process: identifying Tulsans' perceptions, priorities, needs, hopes, and fears for their city. The results of the survey will provide metrics for holding the plan accountable, not only as the plan is written, but as it's implemented over the years. Her job is to make sure that Tulsans feel that their voices have been heard.
Rather ran through the findings so far, but because the survey work is ongoing, I won't give you the preliminary numbers here. When the survey is complete in July, the full data will be released, including crosstabs.
I will tell you about several recurring themes that Rather highlighted and which give me a sense that her survey work is on the right track:
Many respondents spoke of a group of wealthy philanthropists and their associates--some respondents used the word "oligarchy"--which is well-intentioned but out of touch with the day-to-day reality of average Tulsans.
She sees that as a significant problem, connected with a fragmentation of the city along racial, geographic, economic, and cultural lines. This fragmentation is an obstacle to the development of a shared vision for the city's future.
Polling has uncovered a "fair amount of fatalism about zoning and code enforcement" and "concern about economic stagnation and loss of economic identity."
Rather also tapped into skepticism grounded in the experience of previous planning processes: "I got my hopes up and my expectations up, but something happened on the way to implementation."
In his earlier presentation, Fregonese spoke of the DEAD planning process--an elite group decides, then educates the public, announces the plan and defends it. Tulsa usually adds a veneer of public input. People from the Money Belt make the real decisions, then they try to persuade the rest of the city to go along with vast amounts of advertising.
Fregonese compared the team's initial analysis to a visit to the dentist. Rather is tapping Tulsa's teeth, and her probing has hit several sore spots.
The distrust of city leadership and planning processes came out strongly in the Q&A period following the talks. In particular, several African-Americans among the Partners mentioned the need to rebuild trust in the North Community.
To extend Fregonese's dentist analogy, Tulsa is like someone who hasn't been to the dentist in 30 years, and we're finding that there's a great deal more work to be done than we expected. The scheduled delivery date for the plan may have to move further out.
Tulsa's community infrastructure--the network of formal and informal institutions that mediate between city government and individual citizens, providing a mechanism for two-way communication and consensus building--is almost non-existent, and it needs to be rebuilt so that this planning process and the ongoing work of planning can reflect every sector of the community.
I left Monday's meeting very hopeful and encouraged by the approach taken by Fregonese and his team. They seem genuinely committed to finding out what Tulsans want for our city's future.
I'm discouraged because it appears that Mayor Kathy Taylor and Susan Neal are perpetuating one of the negative decision-making patterns that Tulsans have identified. By trying to keep control of the process for their political allies, they may produce yet another plan that fails to reflect the consensus wishes of the citizens of Tulsa.
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