A big controversy is afoot: Centered in Pearl District, an older, polyglot residential, commercial and light manufacturing space near downtown Tulsa, the tumult threatens to upend years of intense engagement by thousands of Tulsans in the new physical/development plan for T-Town. A city council vote a couple of weeks ago to give QuikTrip a "pass" to not employ key design elements featured in our still-emerging new city plan, and a sadly negative Tulsa Planning Commission "study session" (See UTW's Jaime Adame's great reportage on this meeting in this issue) last week are roiling evidence that problems are ahead for planning exponents in Green Country.
What we have is a combination of fear of change, the consequences of our still present great recession and the social, economic and political conservatism that is so much an integral part of Tulsa's political and business climate. Key query: How can Tulsans communicate great support, even affection, for flagship T-Town enterprises like QuikTrip while at the same time insisting that they be active, creative partners -- hell, real leaders -- in a new planning regimen that's sure to eventually provide benefits for them and of greater importance for the rest of the community and all Tulsans?
Art Deco Heritage & Design
Tulsa is known for its distinctive architectural and design signature. The Art Deco motif -- a big part of our downtown, is not only iconic -- it came as a consequence of a great deal of intentionality, an obsession on design and building arts quality on the part of Tulsa's early founding folks and other forces in the community. So a special irony is in play here: some are arguing that a focus on insinuating great design, pedestrian oriented connectivity, manageable scale, an imaginative re-think of street ways, re-animating transit in Tulsa and sustainable development is unimportant or even anti-business
The Plan, the plan
Tulsa has a new city comprehensive plan. While it is still being fully developed, with a new zoning code and other pieces still in the works, the keystone elements have been set. These elements are imaginative, aggressively incorporating many of the best contemporary notions about urban development and city design. And they have been shaped by thousands of Tulsans.
If managed in an enlightened way, the Plan shields neighborhoods from auto-centric projects with toxic traffic, hotdog footprints, single-use monotony and predictable facades.
Design and Tulsa's Future -- Look at BOKA
Architectural, industrial, product and fashion centric design are a huge and increasing hefty part of America's economic and job futures and central to great cities. The BOK Arena, a fabulous, very successful development asset for Tulsa, was designed to suggest a teepee, a tornado or a gust of Oklahoma's storied winds says Project Team Manager/Senior architect Steve Alter.
As UTW readers may know, BOKA has been consistently rated as one of the most imaginative, most productive spaces of its kind and is often mentioned in the same breath as Madison Square Garden and the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Breaking the Pearl -- A Roll Back from PlaniTulsa?
What, really, is the connection between bank-lending and the future of industrial and commercial properties in a neighborhood like Pearl that may undergo planned change?
Should large franchise/regional operations -- agile firms like Sonic & QuikTrip that have rich design/architectural resources at their disposal -- be exempt from design/development guidelines that less-able folks will have to conform to if key elements of Tulsa's new plan are adapted?
Morphing the Pearl -- A Zelig Fund
Could an "opt-in" development effort -- something talked about at the recent Tulsa Planning Commission working session as a "substitute" for a full implementation of form based zoning -- a kernel piece of the new city plan concept -- really work? Can an effective district plan be crafted if some homeowners, some commercial/industrial owners, etc. are simply not a party to the new "world"? Would this "sub"-produce anything other than a feckless, half-assed effort?
Woody Allen did a film in '83 called Zelig. In the movie, his protagonist has the capacity to emulate the character and even the physical attributes of the people whom he finds himself surrounded by: For example, during an encounter with a black jazz trio, he becomes briefly a man of color with improv skills. Advocates for the Pearl District effort, which is a model of sorts for the whole of the PlaniTulsa project, could work with our banking community to put together a soft fund to facilitate growth and expansion of the industrial/commercial sector in the district while honoring the spirit of PlaniTulsa.
Encouraging superior building and expansion practices/design, stapled with some stout support from Tulsa's emerging manufacturing tech community (e.g., OSU's Advanced Material Center & the FabLab) could be a truly imaginative, maybe singularly effective economic development spark .
Visualize the New Pearl
Chief Tulsa city planner Dawn Warwick has suggested putting together a temporary visualization team composed of designers and artists who could give Pearl District commercial, manufacturing and retail stakeholders something tangible --drawings, small-scale physical/digital models or simple renderings of what their properties would look like with the new guidelines. As it happens, many of the existing commercial, warehouse and some of the industrial structures in the district are already reasonably consistent with the zero lot line, "upfront," pedestrian oriented, neo-traditional site signatures that are at the core of the new plan: many of the stakeholders and their properties are not going to have to consider wholesale changes.
Another facet of PlaniTulsa, and one not exclusive to the Pearl District, is a provision for crafting public/private demonstration projects: working prototypes of buildings, plants, retail stores and street segments -- actual sites that would model for the development community, architects, builders, property owners etc. what functioning sites/structures fully consistent with the new guidelines would actually look like and how that would work on the ground.
One thing is clear: A drip-by-drip effort to hollow out the PlaniTulsa effort -- to jettison the engagement of thousands of Tulsans, and to toss away the intellectual and imaginative work of some of the best design/planning and development minds in America would be a travesty -- one that thoughtful and future- oriented Tulsans should stoutly resist.
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