The 300 employees would stream in and out of the six-story structure, their cars adding to traffic woes on W. 81st Street South and S. Union Avenue.
No one tried to hide this or even minimize it. Not the company representative for Unit Corp., the oil and gas company looking to build on what's now a grassy 30 acres, nor the architects who presented a rendering of the modern-looking structure ready to go up between S. Union Avenue and U.S. 75.
About 15 residents of the neighborhood ignored the cookies and bottled water brought for their benefit. At a June 5 presentation of the project, they asked tough questions: How many parking spaces would there be? (500, because that's what the city requires.)Could a pond described as a landscape feature be used by children to fish? (No.) Would there be a cafeteria, or would workers stream in and out at lunchtime, potentially clogging two-lane roadways three times during the day? (No cafeteria, but employees will have a break room.)
But Mark Schell, a senior vice president at Unit Corp., had a few simple words that served as a sort of immunity card against any contentious questions and comments: "I'd rather have this than a lot of apartments," he told them.
And no one spoke in disagreement.
Then and Now
On a sunny fall day, Councilor Jeannie Cue described the charms of driving into southwest Tulsa. "From being in the city and going right across the river and on a farm," remarked Cue.
To the west of the Arkansas River, it's not uncommon for residential plots to house horses as well as people. According to the draft of what's become a much reviled planning document unveiled by the city, the area became a part of Tulsa in the 1960s. Much of it is actually zoned for agriculture. Southwest Tulsa is also home to Turkey Mountain, the "urban wilderness area," as described by RiverParks.
It's a pastoral backdrop for a fierce fight over future development, with most residents here united in opposition to new apartments especially. Dozens have united to oppose one planned apartment project, forcing at least its delay. In a series of loud and boisterous meetings, residents and city planners have thus far failed to see eye to eye in developing what's known as a small-area plan for the West Highlands/Tulsa Hills neighborhoods.
The conflict might be viewed as a test of the city's overarching comprehensive plan, with residents seeking their desires to take precedence over citywide goals.
In the small-area plan, the neighborhood's northern and southern boundaries are West 61st Street and West 91st Street, respectively. To the west, South 33rd West Avenue forms the boundary, with a jagged boundary to the east that includes Elwood Avenue.
"The city wants us to change our identity and look like the Pearl District," Kaye Price, one especially vocal southwest Tulsa resident, said in an interview, referring to the area just east of downtown seen by many as ideal for mixed-use, dense, multi-story development. The West Highlands/Tulsa Hills neighborhood's population is about half as dense as the city as a whole, according to city data.
"I knew their intent, the city of Tulsa's intent, was to put high-density mixed use, probably apartments, down that entire corridor. I knew that was their agenda," Price said. She added: "They are setting us up to be worse than 61st and Peoria," referring to the section of the city with several apartment complexes that's become known for gun violence.
That's not to say this section of southwest Tulsa hasn't already changed a great deal. One of many longtime residents talked about the 71st Street bridge across the Arkansas River, built in 1984, as a harbinger for inevitable change.
More recently, the advent of the Tulsa Hills shopping area, completed only about five years ago, brought about a sea of pavement, a kingdom of big-box stores and chain restaurants. By all accounts it's proven to be a draw not only for Tulsans but shoppers scattered much further away.
While the development changed the character of a large swath of land, residents still talk frequently about preserving the ethos of a less-urban environment.
In the city's draft of planning guidelines for the areas known as West Highlands/Tulsa Hills, one page included a word cloud. The image visually represented how often residents used words to describe their vision for the neighborhood.
One word stood larger than all the rest: Rural.
The neighborhood might be described in another way, by looking at its residents. City planners have noted the demographics don't match the city as a whole.
"Compared to rest of the City of Tulsa, West Highlands/Tulsa Hills is less racially diverse, wealthier, and better educated," the city's draft planning report for the neighborhood states.
At public meetings, it's clear that the issue isn't only about how residents see themselves, but how they view others. At times, far-from-kind words have been used to describe their view of who might encroach on their neighborhood should more apartments be built, especially near the few existing apartment complexes in the area.
"We're taking and putting another apartment complex into the rotten apple barrel and waiting for it to become a conduit to carrying the rot from up north along Union on both sides down into the West Highlands subdivision, down into everything else," one man said at a June planning meeting. "It will destroy the entire neighborhood."
Others have not used such harsh language, but their general animosity at the idea of apartments certainly differs from the way PlaniTulsa, the city's comprehensive plan, describes the different housing options the city should offer.
"Generally, 45 percent of Tulsans live in rental housing," city planner Stephen Sherman reminded residents in one January planning meeting.
At a Nov. 7 planning commission meeting, the proposed apartment project that has so riled residents sailed through with a unanimous vote of approval.
"We need density," Dwain Midget, Mayor Dewey Bartlett's representative to the commission, said at that meeting, adding, "that's the only way our city is going to grow." Others on the commission -- assured by representatives from the developer, Arkansas-based Lindsey Management, that the apartments would be solidly built with lots of green landscaping -- found no flaws with the project, proposed to be sandwiched between South Union Avenue and U.S. 75, just a bit north of W. 71st Street.
Hours later, the Zarrow library was the site of a crowded assembly called for by Cue.
Here, the unanimity surged in strong opposition to the project, as about 40-some residents urged Cue to help them block the development.
Swift Criticism, Long Simmering
For now, they've succeeded. The project, named the Greens at Page Belcher, because of its proximity to the golf course of the same name, was officially tabled by a 6-3 council vote in December. Some councilors voiced a wish to wait on completion of the small-area plan for the West Highlands/Tulsa Hills neighborhood.
Their patience will be tested.
Not every resident is opposed to apartments, but many are, and, in interviews, they point to the area near E. 61st Street and S. Peoria Ave. -- well-known as the site of gun violence after the shooting deaths of four women earlier this year at the Fairmont Terrace apartment complex -- as a model they're trying not to replicate.
"I've been in Tulsa since '69 and I've seen 61st and Riverside which was real nice apartments back when they were put in as a nice place to live," one man told city planners at a January meeting. "And now they're a war zone. It seems like the apartment developers build apartments, they keep them up for a while, then they cost too much to maintain so they sell them to somebody. And they turn into Section 8 and they get guaranteed income. And that's our real concern, my real concern."
Developers with Lindsey have taken pains to stress that they will not have Section 8, or government-assisted, housing with their proposed project.
Even setting aside crime concerns, residents point to the narrow, two-lane roads that weren't built to accommodate heavy traffic.
"We've already seen a huge increase in traffic on Union from the two apartment complexes south of 71st Street, and I just do not feel that these roads can handle any more people or any more traffic," said Margaret Hitchcock, a neighborhood resident, in an interview. "It's a county road."
Residents have heard planners tell them that the small-area plan is meant to address their concerns.
"There is the existing 2010 Comp plan map, and then the map that I am proposing," Sherman told residents at a January meeting. "A large part of the small-area plan process, the reason why we're here, and why we've been here, is to basically find out if we got this map right. And if we got it wrong, what it should be."
But Hitchcock expressed dissatisfaction with the process so far.
"It seems that no matter how much we protest apartments being built, they're going to be built, whether we want them or not at this point," Hitchcock said.
She was at the June 3 evening meeting called by city planners who presented a draft of the small-area plan document to residents -- or at least tried to. The reviews came early, and they were not good.
Residents spoke out, complaining about having their comments and recommendations ignored during a process that has included more than a half-dozen public meetings and stretched over about a year.
Sherman emphasized to the group that the final plan existed only in draft form, with time still for input from the group gathered that evening. Most were in no mood to hear him talk about how their comments would be used.
"We've already made a lot of comments in the plan that's floating around, and you have yet to address those comments," said Arthur Richey, president of the Angel Wing Homeowners Association. He described how the plan outlined certain scenarios for development. "You put a shopping center and apartments at 61st and Union. We've already said we don't want those."
Richey and Price then asked for a show of hands from the approximately 25 residents at the meeting if they approved of the draft document. Only two hands were raised. The meeting was not 15 minutes old, yet, for practical purposes, it may have already been over.
The U.S. Census Bureau tallies data on how people live. Among all occupied housing units, about 45 percent are rentals -- though this statistic from the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey also includes rental houses.
Rising rents were a story in 2012 across the Tulsa market. A 2012 year-end report by CB Richard Ellis of Oklahoma described apartment rents and occupancies that "have now equaled or surpassed their most recent highs in Tulsa from 2008."
The report noted the increases despite growth in construction of single-family housing.
"But even with an improving single family housing market, it looks as though other market fundamentals such as job growth and less new apartment supply will take up the slack and continue to propel Tulsa's multifamily market forward throughout 2013," the report stated.
Those numbers have meaning for more than just renters. Keri Cooper, executive director of the Tulsa Apartment Association, said "those things do signal there is a need for more apartments."
As far as southwest Tulsa, "in that part of town, there's not very many apartments," Cooper said.
Residents would disagree, but city planners came up with the numbers: 11.8 percent of all housing is apartments, far lower than the 32.5 percent found citywide.
In the Tulsa Hills/West Highlands area, two large apartment complexes, each having over 300 units, seem to loom large in the minds of residents, though city planners have noted that the area has no Section 8, or government-assisted, apartments. However, residents point to a public complex slightly north of the plan's boundaries that, according to the city, has 225 units.
Cooper spoke about how some stereotypes are off when it comes to people renting apartments.
"It's renting by choice. It's not out of necessity," Cooper said. Younger people want to stay mobile for their careers, while older people seek to downsize their lives and don't want the hassle of upkeep with a house, Cooper said.
Apartment communities can be quite diverse. But U.S. Census 2011 survey data (the most recent available) show stark differences in income between renters and non-renters when looking at Tulsa citywide. In owner-occupied housing, about 17 percent of households have an annual income less than $25,000. For rental property, about 48 percent earn less than $25,000 annually.
Planning the Future
Martha Schultz, with the city's planning department, in an interview emphasized the limits of a small-area plan when asked about misconceptions people may have with the city's effort.
"The basic thing, no matter what their particular beef is, the plan is a policy guide. It is not taking people's property rights," Schultz said.
Price, the vocal critic who is also a longtime neighborhood organizer, described in the June 3 meeting her concern about how the plan sends strong signals to developers.
She, like Richey, criticized mock-up drawings included in the draft plan that show new apartment and commercial development clustered together in an area she described as near an existing apartment complex.
If the plan is accepted as the community's ideals, "then every developer and the TMAPC will accept that as a viable possibility," Price said.
Richey, in a phone interview, said his work as an architect allows him to see things from the side of a commercial developer. But he spoke critically about the burden new apartments would have for the neighborhood.
"If you want to do this development, that's okay. It's allowed by law, and we're okay with it. We want you to provide the infrastructure that supports it." Or, he added, make the developer do so.
About opposition to apartments, Schultz in an interview said the plan can "present some ways in which those things can be developed -- like a certain layout, certain design considerations, have the higher story buildings closer to the highway and things of that nature."
She acknowledged that it's within the scope of the plan to "say the zoning may not be right, take a look at it," but she emphasized the importance of property rights. "If you don't own the property, whoever owns the property has some vested rights," she said.
For Price, the key is getting zoning changed to the west of U.S. 75 -- something that the plan can at least recommend, she's noted.
"Corridor zoning is one of the most intensive zoning regulations there is in our zoning codebook," Price said, describing the type of zoning in place for both the Lindsey Management apartment proposal and also the Unit Corp. planned development.
At the June 3 meeting, Dawn Warrick, the city's planning and economic development director -- the top official in the planning department -- eventually addressed the crowd.
First, she addressed the infrastructure concerns voiced by many in the room, and how such concerns might be included in the small-area plan.
"It's an absolutely appropriate recommendation to be included that any development that occurs within this neighborhood area demonstrate that it has the necessary capacity with regard to infrastructure, or that it will be installed as the project is built or in advance of the project," Warrick told the crowd.
But she also spoke about the neighborhood's diversity, and what the plan represents.
"It's not all rural ... We have to anticipate that if we want any development to occur in this part of the city, we want to direct it towards those areas where we think it's most important, or most appropriate," Warrick told the crowd. She added: "This plan gives us the opportunity to say, if and when this property develops, we need it to respond to our desires in the following ways."
As far as apartments specifically, Warrick spoke carefully to emphasize a point.
"We do not have the guidance through that policy document to provide exclusivity for certain parts of the city to not have the same types of residential offerings that other parts of the community are expected to have," Warrick said.
PROPOSED APARTMENT LOCATION
COURTESY OF TMAPC.ORG
She added: "We understand that you do not like multi-family apartment housing. We understand that. But what we are trying to do as best we can is balance that with the policy that's already been adopted by our city that established when we create neighborhoods, when we build onto neighborhoods or modify neighborhoods, that we are to provide for a mixture of housing types."
Towards the end of the meeting, one area resident, Chris Osse, spoke about what the neighborhood could do to truly reach its goals.
"What we need to focus on, okay, is keeping the people or the developments out that we don't want," Osse said at the meeting. "But additionally, we need to start focusing on how to bring the developers we want in."
A day after the criticism drowned out the final draft of the small-area plan, the city announced it had scuttled plans to make a scheduled June 5 presentation to members of the Tulsa Metro Area Planning Commission.
Cue, the city councilor, spoke in a phone interview two days after the contentious Monday meeting, which she also attended.
She stated the obvious, that the presentation was postponed because of the concerns of residents.
"We want this to be their plan," Cue said, with the goal for residents "to understand it" and for the plan to "be something they feel comfortable with."
In December, city councilors voting to table their review of the proposed apartment project had wanted to know how long it would take to complete the small-area plan.
Now, asked about a timeline for finishing the process, Cue spoke instead about the importance of working with residents.
"They've taken their time to come to meetings and ... voice their opinions with what they see. We want to listen to them. We want to give more time to look at the concerns that they have with the plan," Cue said.
Reached by phone in Arkansas, Kim Fugitt, a Lindsey staff architect who has in the past traveled to Tulsa to speak about the proposed apartment project, confirmed that Lindsey still has interest in building apartments.
Fugitt knew about the outcome of Monday's meeting. He said the company had a representative attend.
Asked about the decision to delay presenting the small-area plan to the planning commission, Fugitt said, "We're in support of staff on that." He added: "Obviously, they've still got some issues to consider and work through. The postponement doesn't bother us."
Share this article: