More than 1,300 Tulsans have participated in PLANiTULSA workshops in recent months to plan the future of the city's built environment. And the consensus shows neighborhoods should take on a walkable, village-type feel. Achieving that vision, however, is not so easy under the city's current regulations.
Many cities nationwide have begun moving toward New Urbanist development -- a type of design that encourages pedestrian traffic, in part, by narrowing streets; creating neighborhood centers with shops close to the street and close to each other; constructing a variety of housing types within walking distance of shops, schools and parks; and establishing buildings with both residential and commercial components. In short, New Urbanism relies on infill and is the opposite of suburban sprawl.
John Fregonese, president of Portland-based consultant Fregonese Associates, which runs the PLANiTULSA effort, shies away from the New Urbanism label because he said that movement has been associated with a certain type of architecture. Instead, Tulsa's unique architectural history should be reflected in its future developments, he said. Fregonese, therefore, refers to the desires expressed through PLANiTULSA as "just plain old 'urbanism.'"
"The New Urbanist group tends to have a traditional design mimicking older main streets and traditional commercial centers, as opposed to a real city being able to do infill and healthy development without following a particular architectural style," he said. "Basically what people in Tulsa seem to want is infill which encourages growth in places that are already developed but partially abandoned or somewhat obsolete."
He said there are many areas within two to five miles of downtown that could be redeveloped with a more urban feel, and then that trend could spread over time to some of the older neighborhoods throughout the city to create a livelier, interesting environment along commercial corridors.
But There's a Problem
Tulsa's zoning code, however, was written more than 30 years ago, before the start of the New Urbanist movement, and focuses more on the ease of transportation by car than by walking or bicycling. For instance, buildings that have businesses on the ground floor and residences upstairs are not permitted under the zoning code, aside from some very limited business types. And in most parts of the city, commercial developers are required to provide large amounts of parking and set their buildings back from the street, which leads to parking lots being placed in front of shops and other businesses.
"[The requirements] lead to larger box and strip-center developments where you have to drive and park, whereas I've been to areas where parking is not in front of businesses, and you can walk past several businesses [on the way to your destination]," said Shelby Navarro, principal of One Architecture. "I live in Cherry Street, and I walk to dinner and coffee at least once a day. There is some streetfront dining and other great things that bring people out and make them want to be outside."
Wayne Alberty, manager of land development services for the Indian Nations Council of Governments, or INCOG, said development of an area like Cherry Street would not be allowed under the city's current zoning code unless property owners sought special exceptions from parking requirements that were implemented in 1984. He said parking requirements is one of the most common reasons developers seek special exceptions from the zoning code.
A business may gain exemption from the parking requirement by applying to the City of Tulsa Board of Adjustment. That process, however, could take up to two months and cost several hundred dollars, and the request for a variance could then be denied. For those reasons, many developers simply abandon their projects without applying to the Board of Adjustment, Navarro said.
Most Tulsa neighborhoods also are characterized by wide streets intended to enable better traffic flow. But those streets prevent people from easily crossing the road to access businesses or other neighborhood amenities.
"It's really tough if you wanted to cross the street on foot in some areas," Navarro said. "I would wish them luck."
He stressed that wide streets and so-called "big-box" developments like Wal-Mart or Home Depot are not always bad things and should not be eliminated from Tulsa altogether. But creating "little pockets" of walkable developments in Tulsa would encourage people to get out in their neighborhoods, patronize their local businesses and create a more vibrant atmosphere.
Having It Both Ways
Some developers in Tulsa have attempted to create such pockets within Tulsa, with varying degrees of success. The Village at Central Park has been touted as the city's greatest New Urbanist success story. A 50-brownstone development on nine acres overlooking Centennial Park (which was known as Central Park until it was renamed in 1997), the Village at Central Park features a lake, waterfalls and community center, and is within walking distance of restaurants, shops and entertainment venues.
Establishing that development required a planned unit development (PUD) that created new zoning for the site. Jamie Jamieson, one of the developers of the Village at Central Park, said the PUD process was "misery."
"It was a painfully long, expensive and nerve-racking process, and it should have been totally unnecessary," he said. "The city zoning regulations actively foster suburban sprawl and are antithetical to compact, mixed-use, child-friendly, walkable city neighborhoods."
Jamieson is also involved in an effort to revitalize the Pearl District, where the neighborhood association has been working to become the first area of Tulsa to be governed by a "form-based code" instead of a traditional zoning code.
"The present zoning code is based on function, so if you have a furniture store, you will be prescribed how many parking places you're required to have [for a furniture store] and what the setbacks are, etc.," said Christine Booth, a member of the Pearl District Association board. "With a form-based code, it's neighborhood-specific, what the setbacks, housing and stores look like."
The Pearl District Association drew up a plan for its neighborhood that was added to the city's comprehensive plan in 2005 and calls for walkable streets with buildings that have many windows and are set against the sidewalk. Businesses would share parking lots set behind buildings, or municipal lots would serve consumers.
"Young people are wanting continuous walkable environments with block after block of interesting things you can do on foot or bicycle," Booth said. "It gives a cohesive fabric to neighborhoods."
She pointed out that building shops and residential buildings up to the sidewalk can also make an area safer because there are "eyes on the street." Environments that encourage people to walk can also help them stay healthier, Booth said, and creating compact mixed-use neighborhoods can minimize the costs associated with municipal infrastructure.
"Urban sprawl is very costly to maintain because you have to build new streets and infrastructure as the city sprawls, rather than contain the city and go for a much denser environment," she said. "It's a better way of going about planning a city."
Jamieson added that concerns about climate change and the depletion of fossil fuels should spur cities to create environments that encourage people to walk, bicycle and use public transportation.
Fregonese's firm is working on a full-scale transportation plan for Tulsa that will include bus and rail systems. Tulsa, however, is not ready for a rail system, he said, in part because of the inadequate bus system.
"You can't get to rail, which is like the main artery, until you have a better capillary system, which is the bus system," he said. "Typically in cities the size of Tulsa that have good transit, you're getting 10 times the number of riders that Tulsa does."
Tulsa has enough density to support a good bus system, and its residents seem to want to use mass transit, Fregonese said. But buses don't run frequently enough to make it convenient for riders, and many homes are not close enough to bus lines to make public transit convenient.
Improving transit would require investment in bus lines as well as investment in housing developments along bus lines, Fregonese said. He added that the resulting increase in ridership would help spur developer investment downtown and in other urbanist pockets as it became easier to access those walkable neighborhoods without a car.
Attracting developer interest to create those walkable neighborhoods, though, will require changes to the zoning code.
"If you want a fairly aggressive infill program, you need to make it more routine, where the rules are written down and [infill] can typically be done," Fregonese said. "The uncertainty [of seeking a PUD or a variance] does deter development and it makes investing that much more tricky, especially if you're one of the first people doing a mixed-use building [for example]."
Alberty said INCOG expected there would be a need to revise the zoning code after the PLANiTULSA exercises were completed and a new comprehensive plan approved. Revising the code will require input from the city's Planning Commission and approval from the City Council, but Alberty said it needn't be an arduous process.
"It has always been anticipated that, at a minimum, there would be zoning code changes to implement the policies of new plan," he said. "I doubt very seriously if [we'll need a new code]. From all the discussions we've had with the Fregonese team, they're looking at keeping the existing framework of the existing zoning code and making some amendments and adjustments."
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