POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 19, 2012:
Let's Polish the Pearl
Despite the vote, form-based code still needed in the Pearl District
PlaniTulsa's Vision Document describes the kinds of places, economy, housing, parks, open spaces and transportation choices that the city's policies should be designed to create.
It was a product of unprecedented public engagement, developed with the guidance of one of America's most prestigious planning consultants who led thousands of Tulsans, various stakeholders, city staff, and a volunteer citizens' team.
If any doubt remained as to Mayor Dewey Bartlett's lack of enthusiasm for the implementation of Tulsa's new comprehensive plan, it was pretty much laid to rest by a vote of the mayor's designee on the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission (TMAPC) to deny an expanded regulating plan for the Pearl District's Form Based Code on September 5th. A vote, by the way, that was contrary to and in direct opposition to recommendations in favor of the plan by both the city of Tulsa Planning Department and the INCOG staff.
It was the first real test of the planning commission's willingness to make difficult decisions when facing vocal resistance to changes in the zoning code that would effectively implement our new plan. And the mayor's proxy was the leader of the pack, relentlessly proposing yet another continuance and delay before finally seconding a motion to bring the matter to a vote, then voting against it.
The fact is, the conventional, suburban-style zoning code that exists in the Pearl District today is a mismatch. It does not prescribe by right the desired outcomes of the comprehensive plan.
In most cases, the existing zoning code supports a development standard that is not easily achieved using the present building blocks (streets, blocks, lots, and form) of the neighborhood; the high parking requirements, setbacks and other rules designed to limit density and use are much better suited for suburban environments where land is plentiful.
In a sense, the planning commission was not being asked if they wanted to modify the existing code, but how they would make modifications to reflect the new comprehensive plan's goals, by continuing on a case by case basis with a tired and outdated zoning code, or through a fundamentally new approach tailored for a specific neighborhood.
The TMAPC vote culminated a very thorough and orderly process that had been ongoing for nearly 10 years. Many citizens participated in developing a small area plan for their neighborhood which became known as the 6th Street Infill Plan, which envisioned a form-based code to help revitalize the neighborhood.
By creating and adopting small area plans, and following them with appropriate zoning, neighborhoods and communities realize the vision and the promise of their hopes for revitalization. In this case, the plan evolved through a decade of integrated policies and strategies dedicated to the difficult task of restoring the Pearl District to a position of strength and vitality within our community.
It was a critical vote because the city has invested millions of dollars in the Pearl District according to these plans, and these plans will continue to guide future policy decisions, capital improvements and city operations. That is why land use and zoning is an integral part of these plans and why approval was and is considered to be so crucial.
Approval of the expanded regulating plan would have expanded the range of possible building types, enabling us to meet the city's economic development and housing goals as defined in the vision of our comprehensive plan. Using the existing Pearl District neighborhood as a starting point, a "form based" approach, based upon sound urban design, would allow for increased development density, walkable neighborhoods and a successful mass transit system.
Walkable districts represent the basic building block for any city that aspires to be more sustainable -- socially, environmentally and economically. Walkable districts mix complementary uses, maintain reasonable walking distances, and bring building entrances and facades to the street.
A true form-based code is not just about zoning. Just as important are the regulations over public property, like streets, corridors, intersections, greens and plazas. The entire goal of a form-based code is to create a high value public realm. That is impossible to do without extending the code to cover the public property portion of any regulating plan and extending to both sides of the street, which has been a sticking point for some of the loudest opponents.
If approved, the expanded Pearl District regulating plan for the form-based code will add value by providing integrated place-making development tools and strategies and by removing uncertainty from the development process. In fact, the already adopted form-based code offers an enormous variety of very tangible benefits, but they can only fully be realized if we leave the fear of the unknown behind and truly take a risk on something bold and new.
The Mayor's Planning Commission designee appears much more interested in appeasing the interests of a handful of outspoken and profit-driven business interests than helping realize the dream of dozens of volunteers who worked tirelessly for nearly a decade to craft a balanced development plan. Most of the planning commissioners who voted against the plan have maintained that they just needed to allow a little more time to tweak the plan so it would be more acceptable to everyone.
The fact is, however, that the expanded regulating plan that was voted on had already undergone an enormous number of changes -- including a substantial reduction in size -- since it was originally brought before the planning commission last April in an effort to placate its critics. It is highly unlikely that any further delays would uncover previously undiscovered problems that had not already been addressed or dealt with. Any further concessions will only serve to water down the plan to the point that it will not have a realistic chance to be successful -- which the critics would love.
Let's not forget that the proposed new regulations will not mandate change of existing structures, but will govern only new construction projects and extensive remodels. It does not say to any business that it has to change the design or use of its current building. It simply requires that major new developments be guided by building standards that foster higher densities in mixed-use neighborhoods designed for cyclists and pedestrians as well as for automobiles.
Businesses and homeowners can and do successfully coexist and work together in literally hundreds of communities where form-based codes have already been adopted. It is sad and very telling that the mayor's designee on the planning commission apparently fails to see the benefits that so many others have embraced. However, the fact that he voted against the recommendation of the same planning staff that he directly oversees truly defies the imagination.
I suspect we have not heard the last of an expanded regulating plan for the Pearl District. Let's just hope the next time it rolls around that the mayor's representative on the planning commission can find the necessary wherewithal to support it while it still resembles the form-based code.
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