There was a whole world within walking distance.
When 14-year-old Paul Aurandt stepped out of his front door on Fifth Place, a left turn and a five-block walk would take him to Miss Ronan's speech class at Central High School, on the edge of Tulsa's bustling downtown. Two blocks farther and he was at his job in the Philtower, cleaning up, and sometimes announcing, in the studios of radio station KVOO. Just four more blocks to the north was the new Union Depot, the gateway to the wider world.
A right turn from his front door and a three-block walk would take Paul to Peoria Ave., past his old grammar school, Longfellow, and the Coca-Cola Bottling Plant. There was the pie bakery, Hanna's lumber yard and the Full Gospel Tabernacle. Over there was the house where Mr. Koberling, the architect, had his studio, next door to the Barnsdall Oil filling station at the corner of Sixth Street, across the street from the Colonial grocery store.
A stroll down Sixth Street in 1933 would take young Paul past three laundries, a drug store, six grocery stores, eight restaurants (including the Eatmor Café), three barbers, two shoemakers, a cabinet maker, an electrical shop, a mattress factory -- all in the space of four blocks.
You and I think of a neighborhood as a collection of houses, one family to each home. The neighborhood where Paul grew up was more than that. There were houses, of course, but some of those houses were businesses, too. Mr. Wright had a little grocery attached to his house at 5th and Norfolk. Mrs. Newmaker a few doors west was a dressmaker. Mrs. Wooley had a beauty parlor on Fifth Street. A big park beckoned on the other side of Sixth Street.
Warehouses and workshops were mixed right in with the homes. Closer to the Katy railroad tracks there were factories, mills and oil terminals.
Jobs, shopping, worship, entertainment, education, recreation -- a whole world within walking distance.
About six years later, young Paul would leave the old neighborhood behind to seek fame and fortune. He'd find them both behind a Chicago microphone.
Paul would come back now and then to visit his mom. Once in a while he'd share a fond remembrance of his old neighborhood with his listeners.
The neighborhood changed. The little grocery stores closed down as new supermarkets opened. Now you needed a car to buy your daily bread.
The planners decided that neighborhoods like Paul's were messy and mixed up -- obsolete. In the tidy new world of city planning, there was a place for everything and everything in its place: Jobs over here, shopping over there, and everything well away from where people lived.
In the late '60s an expressway sliced off the western edge of the neighborhood and cut it off from downtown. In 1980, the planners decided that henceforth most of Paul's old neighborhood should be exclusively industrial.
One by one, little frame houses and brick apartments came down, and corrugated metal warehouses went up. The neighborhood, as a neighborhood, was a lost cause, decided the planners.
The neighbors disagreed. They pushed the city for a plan to make the neighborhood better.
In 1994, Paul made his last visit to his hometown, to speak at a fundraising banquet. That same year the City of Tulsa put part of his old neighborhood in a tax increment finance (TIF) district to "capture" the extra tax money the new Home Depot would bring.
The city used some of the money to buy a few dozen houses, many neglected, wedged in between the expressway, the park and the cemetery. Then, in 1999, the city asked for proposals to redevelop the area. Amidst proposals for high-rise apartment towers and gated communities, one concept stood out.
A strategic-minded Englishman named Jamie Jamieson had the idea that his development of neo-Georgian brick rowhouses could do more than fill nine acres in isolation. It could connect with and spark the revival of the entire 6th Street corridor as the kind of urban neighborhood he knew from his years in Europe.
It helped that the neighborhood, newly dubbed the Pearl District after the original name of Peoria Ave., had already been that kind of neighborhood. With the help and guidance of the city planning department, the residents, business owners, and property owners set out a vision of the neighborhood becoming the lively mix of homes, jobs, and shopping it once had been.
In 2006, the plan was formally adopted by the City Council and incorporated into the City's Comprehensive Plan, replacing the simplistic 1980 plan that had doomed much of the area to an exclusively industrial future.
(The Pearl District plan is a model for thoughtful neighborhood planning, filled with solid research and strategic thinking. You can find it on the tulsapearl.org Web site -- it's worth your time and attention.)
As Jamieson and his team proceeded with their Village at Central Park, they soon learned that the traditional, pedestrian-oriented development they hoped to build was practically illegal in Tulsa. A good deal of time and money and no small amount of stress went into seeking zoning changes and variances and special exceptions from the city's zoning laws.
Pedestrian-friendly urban development puts commercial buildings right up next to the sidewalk, puts the parking in back or along the street, requires fewer parking spaces because many customers will arrive on foot, and allows apartments and offices above stores and restaurants. Tulsa's zoning code makes pedestrian-friendly urban development very difficult to do.
In their plan, the Pearl District neighbors have asked the city to put the district under "form-based" land regulations in place of use-based zoning.
Back in the mid-'90s, neighbors sought downzoning to keep new apartments out of the residential part of the neighborhood. But during the development of the Pearl District plan, they came to realize that multifamily housing wasn't the problem; it was the misfit suburban apartment buildings that were being built.
They wanted new businesses, new shopping and dining options, too, but with "a certain amount of fear and dread that new investment will be the same modular, car-oriented, construction that is typical of suburban development in Tulsa and throughout the country."
Neighborhood leaders concluded that new commercial buildings and multifamily housing would be welcome additions as long the construction was high quality and the layout was pedestrian-friendly.
In pursuit of that aim, the Pearl District plan sets out specific design guidelines for commercial corridors, residential areas, and the public realm. The Pearl District Association wants to give those form-based guidelines the force of law, setting up the area as a special district in the zoning code. Oklahoma City has had districts with special rules for decades (think Bricktown)--not specifically with form-based development rules--but bureaucratic foot dragging at City Hall and INCOG has so far prevented their adoption here.
Although the Pearl District plan has yet to be incorporated in the zoning code; although its innovative stormwater management plan (covered in my column two weeks ago) hasn't been fully funded, the neighborhood has already seen a tremendous amount of reinvestment in the decade since the Village at Central Park was launched and the infill planning process began:
One, the Oklahoma chapter of the American Lung Association restored the old Fire Alarm Building, an Art Deco gem;
Two, an old apartment building on Peoria was restored and opened as The Savoy, a boutique hotel;
Three, Family and Children's Services built a new headquarters building in line with the Pearl District's design goals, a handsome three-story brick building fronting Peoria, with parking in back;
Four, Tulsa's Veterans of Foreign Wars Post blasted off its white paint to reveal the handsome red brick of the historic Sixth Street building, Tulsa's original National Guard armory.
The growing list of creative and artistic businesses that have found a home in the Pearl includes Hawley Design, Nightingale Theater, Garden Deva Sculpture, Matt Moffett's M2 Studio, the Pearl Gallery, and 3rd St. Clayworks.
Last year, BKL, Inc. rehabbed the TulOil warehouse on Sixth east of Trenton to be the new headquarters for the architectural and engineering firm. Just down the street, at Sixth and Utica, Charles Keithline is building a new pediatric dental office.
Having developed some savvy in working with the city, Pearl leaders are now working to get state government to support their plans. A key parcel in the neighborhood, once upon a time the Tulsa Boys Home, is now owned by the State Department of Human Services and used as the Laura Dester Shelter. The shelter is moving, and DHS has been authorized to sell the property.
Thanks to the initiative of Pearl District Association president Dave Strader, State Sen. Tom Adelson has introduced SB 337, which would require the disposition of the property to be consistent with the "Pearl District neighborhood revitalization plan and the Sixth Street Infill Plan."
The Pearl's progress has inspired residents of the Forest Orchard neighborhood just to the south to organize and adopt the Pearl's successful model of grassroots-driven planning.
Paul Harvey Aurandt -- you knew him as Paul Harvey -- passed away on Saturday. I like to think that Paul, from his new perch, will take a particular interest in the progress of his old stomping grounds. As neighbors work to restore the Pearl District as the lively neighborhood he knew in his youth, we'll all be looking forward to . . . the rest of the story.
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