POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 12, 2012:
Blow to proposed Pearl District zoning plan, but idea may be revived
In the heart of the Brookside neighborhood along South Peoria Avenue, pedestrians stroll by packed restaurant patios and window shop from boutique storefront displays.
Then the neighborhood changes abruptly, at least for City Councilor Blake Ewing, "when you get to what used to be the Blockbuster video and is now the Bank of the West parking lot, or when you get to QuikTrip," he said.
His point is that walking by an open parking lot or a gas station just isn't as friendly to pedestrians.
This is how Ewing explains the importance of a zoning proposal to encourage pedestrian-friendly building designs in the Pearl District neighborhood.
Despite a 6-3 vote against the plan at a Sept. 5 meeting of the Tulsa Metro Area Planning Commission, "I don't believe it's dead," said Ewing, whose district includes the Pearl District, a roughly 70-block area just east of downtown and south of I-244.
The alternative, Ewing said, courts the likelihood of development with open parking lots and buildings set far away from the street -- the type of construction that might disrupt a "dense flow of urban-oriented buildings" before it begins, said Ewing, a developer himself who is converting an older building at South Peoria Avenue and East 6th Street into a café.
"Suburban-style development is what our code demands. It doesn't give an option, so if you want to go build something new in the Pearl District, you have to build it according to the current code," Ewing said. The proposed new regulations would not mandate change to existing structures but govern new construction projects and extensive remodels.
CITY COUNCILOR BLAKE EWING
City leaders blessed the idea in April of last year, approving the rules known as a form-based code. But the city didn't apply the rules to a specific neighborhood, leaving the next steps to the planning commission, a mostly volunteer group with members appointed by the city and Tulsa County (the city and county each also currently have a staff member on the commission).
Ewing spoke just a couple of days after a tension-filled commission meeting that included conflict not only between those for and against the plan, but also between the recommendations of planning staff and the opinion of the commission's legal counsel.
Ironically, it may have been one of the plan's most vocal supporters who helped defeat the proposal.
During months of public meetings, no one on the commission championed the code more than Bill Leighty, a longtime Tulsa real estate professional who has served for three years on the board.
Yet at the commission meeting, Leighty made a motion that directly led to the vote on adopting the code as a regulating plan for a large portion of the Pearl District.
He did so to the chagrin of at least one fellow commissioner.
Brandon Perkins, the group's first vice chair, called Leighty's motion "hasty" because "it's tied our hands."
"I would have supported postponement," Perkins said just prior to the vote, though he -- along with Ryon Stirling, the group's second vice chair -- joined Leighty in voting for the plan's approval.
Before making the motion, Leighty said the matter should be forwarded to the Tulsa City Council. But he was told after making the motion that procedure would only allow referral to the council if the commission approved the regulating plan.
At one point, Leighty tried to withdraw the motion, but only after Dwain Midget, the Mayor's designee to the board, had seconded his motion -- and Midget said he refused to withdraw his second to the motion.
Midget joined Michael Covey, Jr., John Dix, John Shivel and Joshua Walker in voting against the proposal.
After the vote, Leighty made a motion to refer the matter to the Tulsa City Council. But it had zero support.
"By voting to send it to city council, that's the same as reconsidering the vote that we just made," said Mark Liotta, the county's designee to the commission. No one seconded Leighty's motion.
In an interview a day later, Leighty admitted that his call for a vote didn't work out as he had hoped.
"Quite honestly, I did not realize at that meeting in time that it would likely, it might not go to the city council. So, in a sense, I guess you could say things backfired on me a little bit," Leighty said.
Yet other commissioners seem to expect to hear the issue again. Just prior to the vote, Commissioner John Dix -- perhaps the most vocal critic of applying the code throughout the neighborhood -- said, "This plan, I have a real problem with."
But he added: "And the only way I think we're going to get the city planning staff to do what our desires are and give us something we can support is if we deny this plan today. It is not going back to square one, it is going to the table and revising this plan and bringing it back forward in a form that we can support."
The plan has undergone much change since first brought to commissioners in April. On Sept. 5, planners again recommended a greatly reduced area to actually apply the form-based code, roughly 40 blocks, leaving out almost the entire area north of railroad tracks that cut across the neighborhood.
The Pearl District's boundaries include East 11th Street to the south and South Utica Avenue to the east. Planning staff from the city and the Indian Nations Council of Governments recommended applying the new regulating plan only to the west side of South Utica Avenue and the north side of East 11th Street, citing the wording of the 6th Street Infill Plan. Planners have cited this plan when adjusting the proposal.
Planners recommended a two-step process that would allow zoning to possibly be phased in, with separate approvals for the regulating plan and the actual zoning. But this idea met with disapproval from the commission's legal counsel, who recommended applying both at the same time.
Leighty's motion for a vote might have died, but Midget -- who earlier spoke in favor of working more with plan opponents -- seconded the motion. In an interview, Midget said there was enough sentiment for a vote, and when asked if he thought the planning commission would hear the issue again, said "absolutely, and in the short-term."
Ewing wrote a lengthy post shortly after the vote to the TulsaNow online community forum.
"Our undertrained Planning Commission was ill-equipped to respond and appeared overwhelmed by the process," Ewing wrote, calling for "land use training" for the group and also city councilors.
In an interview, Ewing said he wants to make sure the vote was proper.
"I don't know they knew exactly what they were voting on," said Ewing, who attended the Sept. 5 meeting but did not speak.
Ewing said the council may be able to vote on the issue and send it back to the planning commission for reconsideration.
He reiterated a complaint from proposal backers that "fear mongering has taken place."
However, a diverse range of businesses and entities large and small have stated they would like to be excluded from the plan, including several with a long-term neighborhood presence like El Rancho Grande restaurant, oilfield supply company Skinner Brothers and Indian Health Care and Hillcrest Medical Center.
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