It's been a tough few weeks for the Pearl District Association and the neighborhood group's push for a new property code across an approximately 70-block area.
Dwain Midget put it bluntly at the end of a two-hour work session for the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission May 16: "If you want to bring it up the way it is today to the Commission ... Bring it up, so we could defeat it ... That's exactly what I believe will happen," said Midget, the mayor's designee to the 11-member group.
Harsh words, but said without hostility. Tulsa leaders have, after all, already blessed the main concept behind the association's plan for the neighborhood, new regulations based less on how a property is used and more on the look of buildings to passersby and residents. Planners in a few diverse cities around the country have embraced the concept to varying degrees, envisioning ideal city life as a densely populated neighborhood filled with bustling sidewalks rather than drive-up windows and parking lot moats.
Midget spoke knowing that no votes take place in a work session. With the next public hearing scheduled for June 6, Midget's message was directed mainly at his fellow commissioners, who have the authority to vote on the plan at a time of their choice. For a neighborhood as large and diverse as The Pearl, which sits between East 1st and East 11th streets, bounded on the west by South Madison Avenue and on the east by South Utica Avenue, recent events have made it clear that installing such a code throughout the area will be far from painless.
Earlier this month, city councilors narrowly approved in a 5-4 vote the expansion of a QuikTrip convenience store at East 11th Street and South Utica Avenue that will close a portion of East 10th Street, a defeat to those who wanted the Tulsa-based company to conform to a pedestrian-friendly design in The Pearl. Even if the planning commission adopts the plan for the entire district, it must also be approved by the city councilors.
The code wouldn't force property owners to change existing buildings, but other local businesses -- both large and small -- have expressed concerns about what new aesthetic requirements might mean for them if they wish to later expand their operations, for example.
Before the May 16 planning session, the planning commission released letters received both in support of the pedestrian-friendly plan and opposed to the change.
"It is our desire to live in or near a place that that [sic] is mixed use and walkable with easy access to transportation options ... For us an area does not have to have achieved the environment we want to live in, but it has to be headed in that direction so we can help create it," wrote Ben West, who identified himself and his wife as prospective home buyers.
In written comments, owners of Taco Mayo and El Rancho Grande restaurants each opposed the proposal known as a form-based code, or at least having the codes apply to them; so did the Church of Christ in the neighborhood.
"The code pushers say that existing structures will be grandfathered in, but what about rebuilding or remodeling?" wrote Warren Cox, who identified himself as a business owner.
In response, proponents of the code say some remodeling would be allowed for existing businesses up to a limit before the code kicks in; having such change capped has done little to appease property owners opposed to the idea, however.
Enter the concept of compromise, stated perhaps most radically by Wayne Alberty, a staffer with the Indian Nations Council of Governments who works with the commission.
He mentioned at the May 16 planning commission meeting that staff research found that some cities make form-based codes optional, noting that the commission might consider "implementing those areas that are ready to go, while the balance of the area would be on the owners' own initiative."
"When they have a project ready to go, they apply for the form-based code," said Alberty, explaining how it might work.
The day after the meeting, Dave Strader, president of The Pearl District Association, said he couldn't comment specifically about such an opt-in option for his neighborhood without studying the details.
As a concept, though, he called it "a very bad idea."
"The code works when an entire area is under the code. Then everything has a sense of place," Strader said. Overall, though, "compromise is still a possibility," he said.
Was the QuikTrip vote a bellwether for how the council views applying the plan to the entire neighborhood?
The Tulsa council endorsed the form-based code in April of last year, formally approving an ordinance and applying it to a small "pilot area" in The Pearl District.
Councilors who responded to questions from Urban Tulsa Weekly about their QuikTrip vote mostly discounted the idea of reading into that vote an indication of how the council might vote on applying a form-based code to the entire Pearl District.
Blake Ewing, city councilor for district four, which includes The Pearl District, supports the code. He said the QuikTrip vote came from a group not very familiar with the concept.
"I don't think that many on the Council have any idea what Form Based Codes are. I don't mean that as an insult," wrote Ewing in an email. Rather, the vote "indicated that several people on the current City Council don't understand planning or Small Area Plans, which opened the door to a situation in which they voted based on the reputation of the applicant, not on the intricacies and intent of the adopted policy."
Councilor Jeannie Cue voted for the expansion, telling Urban Tulsa Weekly she was influenced by greater access for customers with disabilities at the new store -- a point made in a letter to councilors from The Center for Individuals with Physical Challenges (a nonprofit receiving funding through the United Way but that has only received "very, very small" cash and in-kind donations from QuikTrip, said Lori Long, the center's executive director).
"Is this a bellwether, I don't think so, but only time will tell," Cue wrote in an email.
Councilor Thomas Mansur said the vote was "not really" an indicator of council thinking on applying the code to the Pearl District.
"As worthy as it is, the Pearl District Plan does not meet my criteria for a true Code but others may see it differently. If the Plan cannot withstand compromise of any sort it should be changed; if it is intended to be flexible then the Council would be the appropriate mechanism for effecting compromises," Mansur wrote in an email. He voted in favor of the expansion.
Councilor G. T. Bynum, who opposed the expansion, wrote in an email that "if you make it about the applicant, that is discriminatory."
He added: "The issue was -- and is -- about whether Tulsa is going to be strategic in its growth or not."
Councilor Phil Lakin wrote that while some may see the vote as killing other area plans, he disagrees that the vote harmed the city's comprehensive plan, PlaniTulsa, which calls for zoning and code updates.
"This was a unique situation, for sure. I don't think the outcome would have been the same had QT been coming into the area to build for the first time, or if it was building on 6th or 11th, right in the middle of the block," Lakin said, adding that if QuikTrip had been denied the expansion and left the site, it would have been worse for the neighborhood.
Strader with The Pearl District Association said the recent events haven't been entirely unexpected.
"I can't say that I'm any more or any less optimistic," Strader said. "Until the area has the knowledge about the code, the true knowledge about what the code is, I think we're fighting a fear campaign," he said.
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