It's not quite untouchable. But attempting to change Riverside Drive can be a road to nowhere.
Going back to the 1960s, big plans were developed for the stretch of road following the arc of the Arkansas River. In that era, the idea to essentially superimpose an expressway onto the area met with swift resistance from nearby residents who scuttled the concept.
But planners continued to fret about the city's relative lack of north-south roadways for commuters.
Almost 30 years later, then-City Councilor Dewey Bartlett successfully fought against a 1993 plan to widen the road from four lanes to six from E. 56th Street to E. 21st Street. The result, known informally as the "Bartlett Ordinance," requires funding for those 1993 plans to be put to voters in a separate proposition from any larger roadway improvements package.
Now, large areas alongside Riverside Drive will soon be changing. Plans seem on solid footing for hundreds of millions in new projects. While spaced far apart, a major new park near E. 31st Street and a new luxury hotel and casino near E. 81st Street would seem likely to boost roadway traffic counts.
So far, no one has publicly expressed a need for major changes to Riverside Drive or its southern extension, Riverside Parkway.
In midtown, the planned new park with other development east of Riverside Drive will be a $100-$150 million project and cover roughly 55 acres. But City Councilor Blake Ewing downplayed the need for street changes to accommodate what's known as A Gathering Place for Tulsa.
"There may be some minor changes to Riverside, but mostly, I don't anticipate that any changes to the roadway will be dramatic, but engineers can speak to this better than I," Ewing wrote in an email.
With ground yet to break on the park or other major projects, it's unclear just how much traffic and infrastructure is a concern for the city.
The lesson to speak cautiously about Riverside Drive seems to have been handed down to Jeff Stava, project manager for A Gathering Place for Tulsa, the project being funded by the George Kaiser Family Foundation.
"We certainly do not believe that the roadway needs to be widened. It does need to be made safer," Stava said.
The deep-pocketed foundation has already put its stamp on the Tulsa landscape with the Guthrie Green downtown and by funding about $12.4 million in improvements to the RiverParks paved trail system, which runs for long stretches along the west side of Riverside Drive.
With the new park, Stava said the group was asked about two months ago by the city to provide a list of ideas relating to area improvements.
He said the organization hopes to smooth what he described as dangerous curves and dips in Riverside Drive. And while he's clear about not seeking additional lanes, he described how wider lanes or a wider center median could boost safety.
Design rendering for portion of A Gathering Place for Tulsa
COURTESY OF GEORGE KAISER FONDATION
Barbro Cox has lived near Riverside Drive since 1980. She recalls being a part of the opposition to the 1990s widening proposal, when signs were printed up with the slogan, "Don't Go Wide with Riverside."
Cox said she's been to several meetings hosted by the Kaiser foundation about the new park project.
"I think they want to do something nice. I just don't know how it's going to impact us," Cox said.
Her wishes for Riverside Drive are simple. "I don't want it widened. I want it slower," Cox said, describing how when driving the 40 mph speed limit, others drive faster. "90 percent overtake you." She said she wants Tulsa drivers to use U.S. 75 when coming from the south.
Ewing wrote that the city's request for input from the Kaiser foundation came while other projects are under consideration, including plans to potentially add parking spaces near the northern tip of Riverside Drive not far from the Cyrus Avery Centennial Plaza near Southwest Boulevard.
"The Gathering Place elements were only being discussed because we presumed that there might be efficiencies with doing both of those construction pieces at the same time. As I understand, Public Works has Riverside Drive improvements scheduled already. We just want to make sure we're making best use of the taxpayer dollar," Ewing wrote in an email.
Near E. 71st Street, more development could take place. The city will soon seek proposals from private developers for land owned by the Tulsa Public Facilities Authority that currently houses some volleyball courts and a playground.
Roger Acebo, a real estate acquisitions administrator for the city, said the city expects proposals would retain the outdoor, recreational "feel" of the land, noting the possibility of relatively modest ideas, like a restaurant, for example. The land under discussion was purchased in a deal that led to the establishment of Helmerich Park, but the park would remain unchanged.
Acebo said the city isn't ruling out a larger development proposal, however, and said such development may require some adjustments to Riverside Parkway.
"Whatever someone would propose, depending on the density and use they are envisioning, may have to consider a deceleration lane coming into that land mass, if in fact it will require it as a part of their permitting process," Acebo said.
Farther south, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation earlier this year announced plans to build a new 22-story hotel and a Margaritaville casino and restaurant complex near E. 81st Street. The project will add to the existing RiverSpirit grounds and is on the west side of Riverside Parkway, a southern extension to Riverside Drive built less than 15 years ago.
Residents living near Riverside Drive have long been watchful of changes to the area.
"As a neighborhood association our concern regarding the development in our area is threefold: security, home values and community engagement," wrote Tim Johnston, president of the Riverside South Neighborhood Association.
The association's boundaries include Riverside Drive to the west and E. 56th Street to the north, while Johnson Park is the association's southern boundary.
Along with talk about private developers, an effort is ongoing to further develop Johnson Park into a community resource, especially for youth activities.
This type of community development would be welcomed by Johnston, he wrote.
"We were thrilled with the prospect of developing Johnson Park into a ... sports complex and anything, actually that gives the area's teenagers and young adults something constructive to do," Johnston wrote, noting that the park has mainly been used by the city as a dumping ground when necessary, such as after a major ice storm.
Johnston wrote that residents want more beautification of the area, adding that "planned tie ins to the existing river trails (in particular a bicycle/runner crossing at 56th), maintained berms, and sidewalk installations are more than welcome."
Going back to 1993, giving pedestrians and cyclists easier access to the west side of Riverside Drive has long been a goal. That plan included concept sketches showing several pedestrian underpasses, with people able to walk or bicycle beneath car traffic on Riverside Drive.
With the Gathering Place concept, the idea is to have two "land bridges" to help connect the new park site with RiverParks trails on the other side of Riverside Drive.
Stava noted that several public meetings have been held by the Kaiser foundation to put together its design for the new development.
In presenting ideas to the city about possible changes to the area, "a lot of the input that we gave the city was input that we received from the neighborhood," Stava said.
Riverside Drive and its southern section known as Riverside Parkway have grown lengthwise over the years. The road was extended from E. 61st Street to E. 81st Street in the 1980s. In the late 1990s, a two-phase project was completed to extend the roadway from E. 81st Street to E. 101st Street.
The last time major changes were proposed for the roadway near midtown was in the early 2000s.
The Tulsa Metro Area Planning Commission in 2001 voted 7-1 to repeal the "Bartlett ordinance." The meeting drew comments from Bartlett, according to the minutes.
"Mr. Bartlett stated that the purpose of the amendment was to require a citywide vote upon the financing of an action that could have a very positive or negative effect on Riverside Drive. He explained that if there had been a plan of action implemented without a citywide vote, he feels that the city would be doing the citizens a disservice," the minutes state.
The meeting drew 24 speakers who mostly came out in favor of the status quo and against any street widening.
Minutes from that meeting show that a staffer with the Indian Nations Council of Government reported that traffic counts did not top 35,000 vehicles per day north of I-44, lower than the projections that led to the 1993 plan.
A recent traffic count done mostly in 2012 put the number of vehicles at 26,500 on Riverside Drive noth of E. 31st Street, accourding to INCOG. The 1993 recommendations noted that the optimum capacity for Riverside Drive was 24,000 daily.
Despite the recommendation by the planning commission, the city council took no action to repeal the "Bartlett ordinance."
As Bartlett told the Tulsa World in 2000, "Riverside Drive has always been a real lightning rod for controversy when anyone tries to mess with it."
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