As a well-known face at City Hall, which he visits several times a month to advocate for the various causes he supports, local neighborhood activist and developer Jamie Jamieson has come to know virtually every inch of the trip from his home in the Village at Central Park, just east of downtown, to One Technology Center, which houses city government.
Jamieson -- a leader of the Pearl District Association and vice chairman of the city's Transportation Advisory Board -- is one of those few Tulsans who would rather cover that distance on foot than drive it. Perhaps that's because the walk gives him time to rehearse what he's going to say to the city officials he believes aren't moving quickly enough to make Tulsa more of a sustainable, densely populated and vibrant community that appeals to the younger generation.
Then again, maybe he just likes to walk.
But Jamieson makes no bones about the fact that the trip, once he leaves the Pearl District and crosses under Interstate 75 into downtown, is less than enjoyable. Speeding traffic, steaming asphalt, weedy parking lots and crumbling buildings mark much of that distance, rendering it an ordeal instead of something to be enjoyed. In fact, Jamieson goes so far as to describe the experience as "barbaric" for anyone who cares to listen -- and even many of those who don't.
Jamieson has made it his mission -- well, one of his missions, anyway -- to change that situation. He and his associates at the Pearl District Association are trying to convert their neighborhood into the most pedestrian friendly in all of Tulsa, a place where residents can easily and comfortably stroll not just through the appealing, leafy confines of Centennial Park, but to a local coffee house, boutique, sidewalk café or bar without being wilted by a relentless August sun or mashed by the impatient driver of an SUV hurtling down the street at 40 mph.
He's convinced that younger Tulsans, in ever growing numbers, share that vision. When he talks about how development in the city should proceed, Jamieson said all indications are that many Tulsans in their twenties and thirties are rejecting the suburban, commuter, car-centric lifestyle of their parents and embracing the idea of taking up residence in neighborhood where everything they need is close by and driving is an afterthought.
"They're not motivated by expressways," Jamieson said of those Generation X and Y types. "They're motivated by funky urban neighborhoods. They'd much rather be sitting in a coffee bar working on their MacBooks and talking with friends than sitting in traffic."
But, for now, that lifestyle remains only a dream throughout much of the city. While Tulsa perhaps is no worse than many of its regional peers in regard to its walkability, it also is no better, and that leaves a lot of room for improvement.
"We certainly can do better," said city planner Theron Warlick, one of the primary figures in the city's recent comprehensive plan update, which focuses on the kind of dense development that promotes walkability. "PLANiTULSA can certainly demonstrate that."
There are signs the tide is shifting. In addition to the changes called for in the comprehensive plan update, as well as the efforts of the leaders of individual neighborhoods and a few trailblazing developers, city officials are putting the finishing touches on a self-evaluation of the city's compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, a report that examines Tulsa's sidewalk inventory, what kind of shape it's in and where improvements are needed. A preliminary version of that audit was presented to the Transportation Advisory Board on March 3, and Brent Stout, the project manager with the city's Public Works Department, says the final version is due to go before the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission next month for consideration and then to the City Council. If approved, the audit will be absorbed into the comprehensive plan update and become official city policy.
The audit takes into account not just how many sidewalks Tulsa has and where they're located, but whether they include intersection ramps, if they're in a state of disrepair and whether they are burdened by such obstacles as utility poles. Eventually, the report -- which can be accessed at accessibletulsa.com -- will be used by city officials to make decisions about where and how resources should be devoted in the future to improve accessibility.
Christine Booth, a member of the Pearl District Association and the Alliance for an Accessible City -- a grassroots advocacy group for safe, accessible and attractive sidewalks -- believes improving that pedestrian access in Tulsa is the answer to many of the issues facing the city.
Progress in the Pearl. The Pearl District Association has been pushing for the construction of a canal
down the middle of East 6th Street as part of a plan to eliminate fl ooding and to serve as the centerpiece
of a bustling, more walkable business district.
"Walkability has a wide reach," she said. "It affects health, it affects urban air quality and it affects community building. As people become more and more spread out and disappear into their cars and garages, there's no method of community building.
"There are so many benefits to having a walkable neighborhood, it's hard to even count them all. And as we promote walkability in Tulsa, we'll discover even more benefits."
A good starting place
The whole of the walkability issue can't be reduced to the presence or lack of sidewalks, but it's a good place to begin. Without sidewalks, walkability is virtually non-existent, though their presence is only one element in what makes a community truly walkable.
Others factors in that experience include the state of those sidewalks, their proximity to the street, the presence or lack of trees and buildings, and how close they are to such amenities as dining, shopping and entertainment establishments or parks. It can be those secondary elements, many people say, that can mean the difference in getting Tulsans out from behind the wheel of their car and on their feet.
"If you're going to improve walkability, you can't just look at sidewalk design," Warlick said. "You have to put more stuff closer to where people live."
And, despite the name, it's not strictly about walking, either. James Wagner, the senior transportation planner for the Indian Nations Council of Governments, points out that mobility and accessibility -- the ability to get from one place to another without benefit of a personal vehicle -- are what the discussion is really about. No reasonable person expects or wants to be able to walk from their home in south Tulsa to an appointment in a downtown office building or an event at the BOK Center. But if that individual can walk a quarter-mile or half-mile on a broad, well-maintained sidewalk through his or her subdivision to a bus stop and catch a ride to his or her destination, the accessibility and mobility criteria are met -- and walkability is established.
Too often, Wagner said, local residents without benefit of personal transportation have a high level of accessibility but little mobility, or vice versa. The mobility issue is one that Wagner is deeply involved in through his work at INCOG, which is in the midst of compiling a regional transit plan that focuses on all modes of transportation, including light rail.
But Wagner has a good deal of personal experience with the accessibility part of the equation, as well.
"I think as a transit planner, you have to be reminded that every trip begins and ends as a pedestrian," Wagner said, explaining that even before someone gets on a bus, he or she had to walk to the bus stop -- and will walk again when they get off the bus.
That can be the most challenging part of the trip, he said, noting his own experience as a commuter who rides the bus to work each day. When he gets off the bus in the evening, Wagner said, there is no intersection nearby, so he has to race across a four-lane arterial street brimming with rush-hour traffic to reach his subdivision.
"There's no divider, no traffic lights," he said, likening the experience to playing the video game Frogger.
Too many of the city's bus stops, he said, are islands that feature no sidewalks at all, just a grass berm. And even in instances where there is a sidewalk, he said, it often is built right next to a heavily traveled roadway with no trees or any other buffer designed to give the pedestrian a sense of separation from automobiles.
"When you're standing there and cars are whizzing by at 50 mph, it can be pretty daunting," Wagner said. "As a transit planner, I realize it's not just about building things that move, it's about getting people to where they want to go."
Many of South Tulsa's arterial streets, he said, were built as rural roads and later were widened when development came their way after World War II. The construction of accompanying sidewalks was not part of the plan, he said, and the city has been struggling ever since to catch up.
"We're having to come back and solve some pretty significant issues," he said.
Traversing the "goat trails"
Then again, the issue isn't restricted to the relatively newly developed parts of town. The former plight of clients of the Center for Individuals with Physical Challenges at 815 S. Utica Ave. is what prompted Booth to take such a keen interest in the issue several years ago.
From her desk at Hawley Design Furnishings, 702 S. Utica, Booth watched day after day as the center's clients -- many of them residents of the surrounding blue collar neighborhood -- struggled to make their way in wheelchairs to the building just down the block. There was no sidewalk on the right of way in front of Booth's business, and those clients had worn ruts in the grass during their comings and goings -- "goat trails," as Booth and others took to calling them.
"It was sort of heartbreaking, really, watching people in a wheelchair or scooter trying to make their way down the street," she said.
Lori Long, executive director at the center, said some of her clients who lived as close as six blocks away were entirely dependent on arranging rides with friends or family members because the lack of a sidewalk precluded them from taking the bus. A handful of her more courageous clients even resorted to traveling in the street, though that was clearly a dangerous alternative, she said.
"Those of us on two feet could have made it down those goat trails, but if you're in a wheelchair or a walker, that's just not possible for you," Long said.
After considerable pestering from Booth that began in 2007, city officials completed a sidewalk on the west side of the street last year from 6th Street to 11th Street, and the problem largely has been alleviated, though those clients still must cross Utica Avenue to reach the center on the east side of the street, Long said.
"It's made a tremendous difference, even though the sidewalk is just on one side," she said. "It's not perfect, but having partial access is better than no access. It's important to give our clients more access to such vital services."
Booth pointed out that the sidewalk benefits everyone in the neighborhood, not just those who use wheelchairs, scooters or walkers.
"This neighborhood has a lot of pedestrians, actually," she said. "It's a poorer neighborhood. So you see something you don't see very often (in other parts of the city) -- entire families walking. They might not go out for a stroll after dinner, but you'll see whole families out walking and carrying on a vital part of their daily activities."
Booth said she found herself working late one recent evening and glanced out the front window of her shop to see that point illustrated very well -- a neighborhood family of five headed down Utica on the new sidewalk. Two children skipped ahead, laughing and playing, while their parents pushed a toddler in a stroller. A year ago, she said, that trip would have been much more challenging, if not impossible.
It is stories like that that give Booth and Long faith that their city is waking up to the fact that walkability is an issue it can no longer afford to ignore.
"I really think there are some good efforts going on in the community," said Long, who was part of the steering committee for the ADA compliance study. "Between the ADA plan and PLANiTULSA, obviously, it kind off all goes hand in hand."
Booth noted it took her a while to get the city's attention when she began lobbying for the sidewalk along Utica Avenue. But once she did, she said, she was pleased with the response of city officials.
"I think it's a new day," she said. "There's been a real change, maybe not in outward action, but in the mindset of the city. There's been a tremendous amount of eye-opening progress in the last three years."
Michael Smith, the city's ADA compliance officer, moved to Tulsa more than two decades ago to work on rehabilitation issues. In that time, he said, Tulsa has made tremendous strides in improving accessibility -- and will continue to do so as the ADA compliance plan is adopted.
"Yeah, you can find areas that aren't accessible and need to be," he said. "But I can tell you it's on the map, and it will be prioritized. I'm excited to see the glass as half full instead of half empty."
Now nearing retirement age, Smith said the importance of good sidewalks and sidewalk ramps is something he has developed a personal appreciation for in recent years. Other Tulsans will follow suit, he said, particularly all those Baby Boomers.
"When I get off a curb, my knees are a little bit more tender than they used to be," he said. "Having a ramp make it easier when you're talking about access. We're talking about access for everyone, and that's the way it should be."
Tulsa officials acknowledged that part of their greater focus on increased accessibility has been the efforts of the U.S. Department of Justice to enforce the provisions of the ADA act, which was passed in 1990. The city of Enid, Okla., recently drew a substantial fine for its failure to comply with the act, an action that likely drew the attention of city officials around the country.
"I think it was a motivating factor, but not the deciding factor," Stout said. "It's the right thing to do. We need to find out what our problems are, and we need to be addressing those."
Smith is confident that is happening.
"The Department of Justice knows the city of Tulsa is making a committed effort to doing what's right," Smith said. "But, yeah, I think there's some sense of urgency to get the evaluation plan done and get the transit plan through. We're going to get some closure on this."
What's your score?
Some areas of Tulsa are clearly more walkable than others. If you're wondering how your neighborhood stacks up, Warlick suggests getting online and visiting walkscore.com, a website that rates locations on the ease with which residents can live a "car lite" lifestyle. Simply type in your address, and you'll receive a score of 0 to 100.
A score of 90 to 100 is considered a walker's paradise, where the completion of daily errands does not require a car. A score of 70 to 89 is considered very walkable, while a score of 50 to 69 is considered somewhat walkable. A score of 25 to 49 is described as somewhat car dependent, while a score of 0 to 24 is considered car dependent, with almost all errands requiring a car.
Scores can vary widely across a given city, and Tulsa is no exception. An address right off the bustling and compact Brookside district, for instance, yields a score of 72 -- very walkable, while an address on the east side off Garnett Road rates only a 51 -- somewhat walkable. Meanwhile, an address in impoverished southwest Tulsa, almost completely lacking in retail development, rates only a 25 -- one point above the lowest classification.
The problem, Warlick noted, is that walkscore.com doesn't take into account such factors as the existence of sidewalks or how attractive the walk is -- simply the distance from the starting point to the closest amenities. And Warlick knows the aesthetics of the experience cannot be overstated.
Walkability has been talked about in the past in Tulsa, he said. But with PLANiTULSA, the concept has been institutionalized, and at some point in the coming years, residents will begin to see that.
Walk About. The Brookside neighborhood rates very high in walkability, a 72, according
to walkscore.com, while an address on the east side of Garnett Road scores only a 51.
Meanwhile, an address in impoverished Southwest Tulsa, almost completely lacking in
retail development, rates only a 25 – one point above the site’s lowest classification.
"We're talking about creating entirely walkable distances," he said. "Everyone has to have pleasant places to walk."
Tory Lightfoot, a Tulsa native and doctoral student in geography at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, is approaching the issue from a somewhat different perspective. She was curious about whether there is any evidence to support the notion that midtown Tulsa residents are willing to pay more for housing in a walkable neighborhood, so she is doing her dissertation on that subject.
Lightfoot has compiled reams of data and is now analyzing it in search of an answer. She drove every street in her study area, noting the existence or lack of sidewalks, whether they exist on both sides of the street or just one, and their proximity to such amenities as parks, trails, bike paths, retail establishments, restaurants and grocery stores.
She has combined all that information using a geographic information system and created a surface that reveals the walkability of different parts of Tulsa. As she completes her study this spring, Lightfoot said, she'll compare the higher-scoring areas to their home sale values for 22,000 parcels and try to determine if any correlation exists.
"I grew up in Brookside, so that's probably why I have an interest in this," said Lightfoot, who is scheduled to make a preliminary presentation of her findings on April 13 at the Association of American Geographers annual convention in Seattle. "I remember my neighborhood when new grew up, and we walked to the store. It's hard to do that when you live in the suburbs. I like to walk myself. And I'm interested in places that are walkable."
Midtown Tulsa is generally considered to be perhaps the more walkable parts of the city, but Lightfoot said she was surprised to see a large spot in the middle of her survey area -- a district bounded by 21st and 51st streets, and Lewis and Harvard Avenues -- that rated poorly.
"That is home to some very nice, desirable neighborhoods, but based on the criteria I used, they were not technically walkable," she said. "These were very large lots, but they had windy streets and were not pedestrian friendly."
That's not to say she didn't see a lot of walkers on those streets, she noted.
"These were people walking for leisure or exercise only," she said. "I was interested in more utilitarian-type walking."
Lightfoot said she expects to finish her project in May.
"What I want to find is that there's some demand for this in Tulsa, but that may not be the case," she said. "I'm not convinced that's the case. I would like to have some research to suggest our neighborhoods should be more walkable."
The new main streets
Among the most exciting changes included in the city's new comprehensive plan are provisions to encourage the creation of new "main streets" -- areas outside downtown that look and feel like a central business district, with lively, landscaped sidewalks and bustling storefront operations.
"And the most fundamental element of a main street is walkability," Warlick said. "People will choose to walk distances between attractions if there's something interesting to look at."
There's also a strong case to be made for the argument that walkability increases the atmosphere for economic development, he said.
Bob Eggleston certainly believes that. A developer who is responsible for two large multi-use projects that are currently in the works -- the $80 million One Place development downtown just east of the BOK Center and the 800,000-square-foot Village on Main in Jenks on the west bank of the Arkansas River -- Eggleston believes walkability makes great business sense.
"Our whole philosophy, both downtown and in Jenks, is that instead of someone driving to a destination, parking and walking to a box store, people can literally live, work in play in the area," he said.
That concept isn't nearly as radical as most people think it is, he said, explaining that downtown Tulsa was built as a walkable neighborhood -- and remains one today. When people simply shuttle from their air-conditioned houses to their air-conditioned cars to their air-conditioned offices, he said, that doesn't create much opportunity for interacting with others -- or simply enjoying a nice spring day.
"There's nothing better for me on a Sunday afternoon than strolling through a town center with my son," he said. "But if I have to get in the car and drive one place to buy groceries, another place to buy socks and somewhere else to a Starbucks, that's not a very nice experience."
Eggleston says there are plenty of other Tulsans who feel the same way.
"In our downtown development, One Place, we've got so many signed letters of intent from people who want to live there, and we haven't even drawn up the floor plans yet," he said.
But that development is still years away from completion. Tulsans who are impatient to see what a walkable neighborhood looks like will get their chance April 15-16 when Street Cred, a community redevelopment group that is part of the Tulsa Young Professionals organization, presents its "Polishing the Pearl" event at East 6th Street and South Peoria Avenue.
The group will pull off a weekend makeover of the block of 6th Street between Peoria and Quincy, trying to visually articulate the potential of the area to become the next Cherry Street, Brookside or Blue Dome. A scale reproduction of a canal will be represented down the middle of the street, while 64 10- to 12-foot live oak trees will be brought in to line the canal. The event will feature street vendors, musicians and community organizations, and owners of some of the buildings on the block have agreed to turn over their storefronts to local merchants, who will be displaying their merchandise in "pop-up businesses." Thousands of twinkling lights will illuminate the street.
"The goal is to give the community a vision of what the Pearl could be," said Jonathan Bolzle, who dreamed up the project after learning of a similar effort by residents in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas.
The Pearl District Association has been pushing for the construction of a canal down the middle of 6th Street as part of a plan to eliminate flooding and to serve as the centerpiece of a bustling business district. "Polishing the Pearl" will be an effort to bring that dream to life, if only for two days.
The entire project is being approached as somewhat of a guerilla effort on a shoestring budget, though it's being conducted with the city's blessing and involvement, Bolzle said. Nine Typros work crews will perform the work, setting up the new streetscape and taking it down when the event is over.
Rachel Navarro, who owns two buildings on the block with her husband, said she was eager to take part in the event once she learned of it, viewing it as another step in the right direction for the neighborhood.
"In our day-to-day lives, we collaborate a lot with like-minded people, and we're friends with people who have these kinds of goals," she said. "We all have a common vision. It feels like it's gaining momentum, and we're seeing changes monthly."
Her husband Shelby, a Pearl District architect, said a walkable neighborhood is one that "feels like home," a place where people of the same mind have chosen to reside or do business.
"That fosters that pedestrian mindset," he said.
Bolzle hopes Tulsans will flock to "Polishing the Pearl," which takes place from 5pm-9pm on April 15 and 10am-3pm April 16. The overwhelming success of the event in Oak Cliff, which spurred considerable economic activity in its aftermath, gives Bolzle hope that better days are ahead for the 6th Street district.
"I'm not sure we can represent something more visionary than that," he said of the Oak Cliff makeover, "but it's absolutely important that people come see what that area can be."
Navarro noted that a street enhancement project planned for the intersection of East 6th Street and South Peoria Avenue is due to get underway soon, something that will only add to the area's attractiveness and improve its walkability. While others may look at the district now and see run-down buildings and crumbling streets, she sees a place that one day may serve as a link between downtown on the west and the University of Tulsa on the east -- a corridor of life and activity, crawling with pedestrians.
"Part of the reason we invested in the Pearl and part of the reason we're so personally invested in the Pearl is we really bought into the vision the neighborhood has for a walkable, urban neighborhood," she said. "We bought into that, and we want to foster that. That's the kind of neighborhood we want to live in, so if you can't find it, sometimes you have to build it yourself."
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