The Tulsa Development Authority owns approximately 275 parcels of land scattered throughout the city, some of which it has held since the 1960s. That's too many, and too long, in the estimation of the agency's new executive director, O.C. Walker II.
"We're not into land banking, we're into development," he said. "And the more properties that we have, that's less development that's occurring within the city of Tulsa. So, in essence, our biggest goal, or one of our biggest missions, is to deplete our present inventory."
That goal, Walker acknowledges, would mark a departure from the direction the TDA has moved in over the past several years, when that inventory of properties grew.
"It's been increasing, but now we're wanting to decrease, kind of skinny down, so to speak, and get back into the core mission of TDA," he said. "And the primary focus is to focus on low- or moderate-income families and find ways to make the community more desirable and a better place to live."
But the list of changes at the TDA doesn't end there for Walker, a 10-year veteran of city planning--eight years with the city of Tulsa and another two with Broken Arrow. He hopes to do no less than change the image of the authority, a task he acknowledges won't be easy to accomplish because of several recent controversies.
The authority's board came under fire in February for its decision to award a $4 million interest-free loan to the American Residential Group for a downtown lofts project without a competitive bid process. The same group had received a previous loan from the TDA for another residential project.
Two city councilors, District 8's Bill Christiansen and District 2's Rick Westcott, have been critical of the TDA's decision to hire a Chicago real estate firm in 2007 for $330,000 to serve as the exclusive marketing agent for several parcels of TDA-owned or --controlled land downtown. Those marketing efforts by Jones Lang LaSalle have yielded few tangible results. The firm's contract expires in December.
In August 2008, a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development audit revealed the TDA had inappropriately spent $1.5 million in Community Development Block Grant funds for city employees' salaries.
And that same month, the TDA was sued by a pair of developers who alleged the agency breached a contract by failing to negotiate exclusively with them for the right to development property in the Greenwood district that the TDA owned. The property in question is located in close proximity to the new downtown ballpark, ONEOK Field.
Walker acknowledged he has inherited a situation in which many members of the community have developed an unfavorable image of TDA.
"It's hard," he said. "It's challenging to step into any situation like that. My predecessors made decisions that I'm expected to act favorably on for the citizens of Tulsa. Again, we're in the process of trying to change that image, provide solid leadership, provide a clear direction of the way we want to go now. I say all that to say the way we've done business in the past may be modified from this point on."
Walker has some clear ideas of how to make that happen.
"Since my tenure here, we've started to implement specific policies and procedures to basically facilitate clear, crisp, clean, concise communication," he said. "A lot of times, that's the problem in any organization, whether it's TDA, the city of Tulsa or the Dallas Cowboys football team. Communication is so key, and a lot of times I think things happen with a lack of communication."
Walker said he's done quite a bit of fence mending since his hiring in June, reaching out to various community groups to demonstrate that change in philosophy.
"Our image is our primary goal," he said. "We're here, and we want to help. We don't want to deter development, we want to facilitate development in any way we can. Tulsa is our home, too. We want the best for this city. But yet we want Tulsa to be all it can be."
Trimming that inventory of properties remains high on his agenda, and the authority could have two opportunities to do just that over the next couple of months. Sometime this fall, the TDA board is expected to act on a proposal from the Tulsa-based University Development Group to build a multi-use facility at the corner of E. 3rd Street and Frankfort Avenue in the East Village. The proposed Frankfort Lofts project would include street-level retail and office space, while the second and third floors would consist of loft apartments. A parking garage would be located underneath the structure.
And at its Oct. 13 meeting, the board will act on a request by local advertising executive David Downing, one of the founders of the Oklahoma School for the Visual and Performing Arts, to have the TDA donate a plot of land at the south end of the Evans Fintube site near the Oklahoma State University-Tulsa campus. Downing hopes to locate the school at the site and recently had an appraisal of the land done as part of that process.
Walker couldn't address the specifics of Downing's request, but he indicated it appeared to be the kind of project that the authority would view favorably.
"Oh, absolutely," he said. "Something that's good for the community, a school like that is good for the entire state."
Despite the fact the TDA seems to draw the most attention for the properties it owns or controls downtown, Walker said the balance of its properties is located in north Tulsa, where he grew up. Walker, a 1993 McLain graduate, describes the differences in the dispensation of properties from those areas as two different animals.
"Downtown is more geared toward the bigger picture of Tulsa," he said. "North Tulsa has more immediate needs or urgent needs."
Walker said the TDA not only plans to be more active in its efforts to market its properties, it also plans to seek creative solutions to turning some of them over.
He said the organization is working with an organization seeking to put in a mixed-use development for senior citizens. The group already has purchased property with CDBG funds, but he said the agency is exploring the idea of simply donating the property instead.
"So it's not all about sales," he said. "We could step in and not only do the gap financing, we can do some land donation, as well as the ultimate goal of selling property. So there's more than one way to deplete out present inventory."
Walker said the TDA's willingness to donate property depends on what the property would be used for, as well as its market value.
"We just don't want people coming in off the street wanting property donated all the time, but if it's for a good cause, a good use, and we deem it appropriate and it meets all our criteria and guidelines, and if the funding source allows us to donate the property, (it's possible)," he said.
What's In It for Citizens
Walker noted the TDA also offers two programs that are designed to help individual home owners beautify their property and deal with unexpected utility problems. The home loan program provides home owners with a chance to make their existing residences more aesthetically pleasing and more structurally sound, while the energy loan program offers funding for such programs as sewer line rehabilitation or damage caused by storms.
Anyone interested in taking advantage of the programs, which is based on a home owner's income, can apply online. If an applicant is approved, a contractor is chosen from an approved list and hired, with the TDA cutting a check to cover the cost upon completion.
Walker said the TDA is hoping to encourage increased use of both programs.
But that renewed focus on other areas doesn't mean the TDA won't continue to acquire property from time to time. For instance, Walker said the TDA has entered into an agreement to purchase a dilapidated, abandoned apartment complex in the Kendall-Whittier neighborhood that has become the source of much of the neighborhood's crime.
"We found a way to purchase the property and demolish that structure," he said.
He also said Theron Warlick from the city's Planning Department will be making a presentation at the TDA's Oct. 13 board meeting about a $61.5 million proposal to transform the E. 6th Street corridor between Peoria and Utica into a canal and two small storm water detention lakes. Walker said his agency might be called upon to help with any relocation efforts that might be necessary as a result of the so-called Elm Creek/6th Street Drainage, Detention and Conveyance Project.
Walker also hopes to have the TDA enter into more collaborative projects with various private, city and federal entities in the years to come, particularly on proposals that are designed to help low- to moderate-income areas.
"We want to eliminate less-desirable elements within our city limits," he said.
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