We sat around tables in the basement of First Evangelical Lutheran Church, chattering excitedly as we played with markers, scissors, construction paper and glue sticks.
We weren't there to make collages or paper dolls. We were 99 Tulsans -- the largest turnout so far for a PLANiTULSA small-area workshop. We were there to develop a plan, gluing buildings of various types onto enormous maps that covered more than a square mile between 6th and 15th Streets, Peoria and Lewis Avenues.
The workshop, held on Feb. 18, took its name from Forest Orchard, the neighborhood between 11th Street, the Broken Arrow Expressway, Peoria, and Utica. It's an area that has yet to see the sort of revival that has happened on the south side of the B.A. The expressway, the Hillcrest medical complex, and the proximity to downtown and Cherry Street present both challenges and opportunities.
The broader square-mile map area has been sliced and diced by expressways, with I-244 and the Broken Arrow Expressway dividing neighborhoods and cutting residential areas off from the commercial districts that once served them. The Inner Dispersal Loop isolates the area from downtown.
In addition to Forest Orchard, the map covered Tracy Park and Terrace Drive neighborhoods, the Hillcrest medical complex, Cherry Street, and parts of North Maple Ridge, Swan Lake, Yorktown, Gillette, Kendall-Whittier and the Pearl District.
The Union Pacific Railroad cuts diagonally from the southeast, where it leaves the median of the B.A., to northwest, where it crosses the IDL into downtown. Industrial facilities and warehouses line the track, which once belonged to the Missouri Kansas and Texas (MK&T, or Katy) Railroad.
Sixth, 11th, 13th and 15th Streets and Peoria, Utica, and Lewis Avenues are the main through streets. Along those streets, particularly where they intersect, you're likely to find some traditional neighborhood commercial buildings that have been rehabbed and reused on Cherry Street.
The area began to develop in the first decade of the 20th century, and by 1910 it was connected to downtown by two streetcar lines -- Tulsa Street Railway along Quincy to 15th St. and the Oklahoma Union Traction Railway along 11th and St. Louis to Orcutt Park (now Swan Lake Park).
The map area lost about half of its population between 1960 and 2000. The core of the area -- Census Tract 34, the half-square mile between Peoria and Lewis, 11th and 15th -- dropped in population from 4,496 in 1960 to 2,413 in 2000.
According to the opening presentation, the map area has about 13,000 people in about 6,200 households. Two-thirds of the households are in rental housing -- citywide that's only true of 45 percent of households.
Fruits of the Earth
At the workshop, I shared a table with residents of Tracy Park and the Pearl District, a couple who own a business near 12th and Peoria, a real estate agent from Maple Ridge Riverside, and former City Councilor Maria Barnes, who lives in Terrace Drive and is a long-time leader in the Kendall-Whittier neighborhood.
After about 90 minutes of cutting and pasting chips (representing different types of development) onto the map, each table presented its map to the rest of the workshop. Although each table worked independently, the maps were remarkably consistent. Themes like walkability, connectivity, preservation and mixed-use development recurred again and again.
Fregonese Associates, the lead consultants for the PLANiTULSA process, will digitize the information on the maps and analyze the frequency with which a given chip was placed on the maps. That analysis will take some time, but I can tell you about the concepts that guided the way our table placed buildings on the map.
Implement the Pearl District plan. Citizens and planners have developed some exciting concepts for regenerating the neighborhood just east of downtown as a walkable, urban district with a mixture of homes, retail and workplaces. The Pearl District plan includes an innovative approach to stormwater management, which we discussed in last week's column (see "Buried Treasure" online at urbantulsa.com). The plan was just adopted a few years ago, so we didn't feel the need to re-plan it.
Prefer restoration to replacement. This area was built in a dense, mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly way. We can recreate that by restoring existing buildings and filling in the gaps. We don't need or want wholesale demolition and new construction.
Protect stable single-family neighborhoods and historic districts from encroachment. There are four neighborhoods with historic preservation zoning along southern edge of the map -- North Maple Ridge, Swan Lake, Yorktown and Gillette. Tracy Park is on the National Register of Historic Places, although it isn't protected by HP zoning. The Terrace Drive neighborhood, between Utica and Lewis on either side of the B.A., has suffered some erosion as the 11th and Utica medical corridor expanded, but it is still largely intact. Stability is important to the continued health of these neighborhoods.
Protect classic brick apartment buildings. These two- and three-story apartment buildings constructed before World War II should be preserved and renovated, rather than knocked down and replaced. The style mixes well with single-family homes and provides affordable housing near jobs and transportation. This kind of building increases density without overwhelming the neighborhood with traffic and parking problems the way high-rise housing would.
Protect classic commercial buildings. There are still plenty of solid early 20th Century retail buildings that come right up to the sidewalks along the arterial streets. They should be restored to serve as models for infill retail development.
Add small-scale, mixed-use buildings along Peoria, Utica, 11th and 6th. Fill in the gaps along these arteries with two- to four-story buildings that have retail on the ground floor, with apartments and offices above. Ground level retail will provide a continuous street wall, while apartments on the upper floors will help repopulate the area.
Put mid-rise mixed-use development where the railroad crosses 11th and Lewis. This could be a prime location for future transit-oriented development.
Build retail and improve the pedestrian experience around Murdock Villa and the Hillcrest corridor. Murdock Villa, owned by the Tulsa Housing Authority, is a multistory building that serves people with physical disabilities. Residents have limited nearby options for shopping and eating out. I'm told that it's not unusual to see someone going down the street in a scooter or power wheelchair, heading to the nearest supermarket a mile away.
Replacing defunct car dealerships and vacant lots with stores and restaurants would serve Murdock Villa residents as well as Hillcrest employees, patients and visitors. Traffic calming measures, better lighting and better sidewalks and ramps would make it safer and easier to get between homes, medical buildings, and retail.
Build a police substation to serve the area. 11th Street divides the area between the Gilcrease (North) and Riverside (Southwest) divisions of the Tulsa Police Department. A visible and unified police presence near 11th and Utica would help both the perception and reality of crime in the area.
Emphasize St. Louis Ave. as a pedestrian link. When they built the B.A., they provided for an overpass at St. Louis Ave., making it the only residential street that isn't cut off by the expressway. St. Louis links the Pearl District, the Hillcrest complex, Forest Orchard, and Cherry Street. We felt that something should be done to make the connection easier to find for pedestrians, cyclists, and local auto traffic. One idea was anchor the north end of the connection, replacing surface parking on the east side of St. Louis between 11th and 12th with mid-rise, mixed-use development.
Another table proposed several more places where pedestrians could safely cross the B.A. One group suggested removing the east leg of the IDL (Inner Disperal Loop), replacing it with a parkway, thus reconnecting the target area with downtown.
Such a radical change may never happen, but it reflects an important reality: A healthy downtown can't happen without healthy neighborhoods around it.
In its heyday, downtown served the retail needs of nearly 200,000 people within a five-mile radius. The expressway system, designed by the planners of the 1950s in hopes of saving downtown, made it easier for people to live in the suburbs and work downtown. The offices stayed downtown but retail followed residents to the edge of town.
Healthy, thriving near-downtown neighborhoods, offering a variety of living options over a wide range of prices, are essential to recreating central Tulsa as a vital, interconnected, walkable and livable urban place.
The citizen planners in the First Lutheran Church basement have set their bold visions for making that happen.
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