Bill Leighty didn't hesitate when asked if a decision on Pearl District zoning means more to Tulsa than just how few blocks might be developed.
"It's a bellwether decision," said Leighty, a real estate professional and a member of the Tulsa Metro Area Planning Commission.
He spoke before the Aug. 1 meeting of the group, which took place after press time. On the agenda was a possible vote on applying what is known as a form-based code regulating plan to a large portion of the Pearl District, the neighborhood just east of downtown. To apply the regulating plan, a yes vote is also required by the Tulsa City Council.
"It's going to have a big affect going forward," Leighty said of the vote, calling it a "a test, in my view" of the city's broader urban planning and zoning work.
Leighty said he strongly backed the Pearl District plan, but it has taken a beating in recent public meetings from property and business owners voicing concerns about how new regulations might affect future plans for their property.
Backers have mostly stressed a big-picture point of view, tying the decision to the city's recent commitment to urban planning.
"As our city continues forward with our comprehensive plan and small area planning, formed [sic] based codes will be written and presented to you again and again. How you handle this code, matters greatly," wrote Dave Strader, president of the Pearl District Association, in a letter to planning commissioners dated July 9. The association helped design the code.
City leaders embraced the concept of form-based code by adopting a new municipal ordinance, Title 42-B, which defines a form-based code.
The code "regulates land development by setting controls on building form -- while employing flexible parameters relative to building use," the definition states. One purpose is "promotion of compact, mixed-use development at an urban density."
Generally speaking, the form-based code in Tulsa would seek to avoid parking lot moats around businesses in favor of pedestrian-friendly designs. An example of mixed-use development would be a store or shop on the ground floor of a building, with residential units above.
However, an April meeting was well-attended by code critics, including a representative of McDonald's who harshly criticized the plan.
Planning commissioners then asked for possible plan revisions, leading to a shrinking of the area where the form-based code might be applied.
The modified proposal carves away much of the northern section of the Pearl District, leaving it out of the plan. In this version of the plan, McDonald's and Sonic on South Utica Avenue -- as well as several industrial-type businesses -- are left off the regulating plan.
Planners told commissioners they recommended shrinking the area after a close review of another policy document, known as the 6th Street Infill Plan. Infill, defined by the plan as "new development in older, previously-developed neighborhoods," can be a key goal for cities focused on improving economically-slumping neighborhoods.
Still, however, many of the questions and comments at a well-attended July 24 neighborhood informational meeting reflected a stance against the code.
Predictably, some of the comments were focused on personal circumstances. One person at the meeting, for example, complained that he would have to sell his property for less if the form-based code was adopted.
Others took a big-picture view to criticize the code. One man stood up and said he represented the Indian Health Care Resource Center of Tulsa. Should the center expand, the center has the resources to build in compliance with the code.
"But we have a general concern for the entire neighborhood ... when people are developing on a small scale, that they won't be able to do that," he said.
Among the crowd of 80 were at least four planning commissioners, as well as Blake Ewing, city councilor for the district that includes the Pearl District.
"We have a chance to do something really special in this neighborhood," said Ewing, a business developer with plans to open a coffee shop at South Peoria Avenue and East 6th Street.
He spoke in favor of the code, describing how employees at his restaurants desire a more urban lifestyle. He told the crowd that type of environment is something "we don't offer well" as a city. The crowd had dwindled significantly by this point, however.
At the end of the meeting, it was unclear how many people walked away with some new knowledge. Dawn Warrick, the city's director of planning and economic development, at one point offered this bit of insight that might be most relevant no matter how the votes play out: "Zoning of any sort is an evolutionary process," Warrick said. "There's never a time that there's no ability to make a change."
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