POSTED ON DECEMBER 5, 2012:
The Skinny Option
Public to be presented dramatically slimmed Pearl District zoning proposal
Whether Option A or Option B, the Tulsa Metro Planning Commission had already lost Dave Strader.
"Either option is unacceptable to us. We don't agree with anything they're doing," said Strader, president of the Pearl District Association.
He spoke a couple of days after a Nov. 28 commission work session, where two maps of the Pearl District neighborhood just east of downtown showed just where controversial zoning changes might be enforced.
Ultimately, the map favored by commissioners included South Peoria Avenue (between East 11th Street and I-244) and East 6th Street (between South Peoria Avenue and South Utica Avenue) -- and only a very few other street frontages. No vote was taken, with the next step a public meeting to present the newest version of the proposal.
The new map contrasts sharply from a proposal in April, when commissioners considered changing zoning for the entire neighborhood, roughly 70 blocks, to embrace what's known as a form-based code.
A form-based code emphasizes the form of buildings to promote pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods and encourage what's known as mixed-use development. For example, the code allows for an apartment building to have a restaurant or other business on the ground floor. The current zoning in place elsewhere in Tulsa keeps some areas commercial and others strictly residential.
The city council adopted the form-based code in 2011, but it has not been applied to any specific neighborhood except for a small pilot area near Centennial Park.
But even though a zoning change would not affect existing structures -- only new construction and remodeling projects -- fierce opposition came from many businesses, large and small. In favor of the zoning change has been the Pearl District Association, a group of neighborhood business and property owners, which worked with city planners and staff from the Indian Nations Council of Governments (INCOG) to develop the proposal.
"As a volunteer body guided by INCOG and the city of Tulsa, we completed this exercise in good faith under the impression that the work we did would be acceptable and contiguous with city policy, and apparently policy's being set by one attorney rather that the city of Tulsa, who has no idea of the work we've done, or care," Strader said.
Strader clarified that he was referring to Lou Reynolds, an attorney who has vocally represented Hillcrest Medical Center at various hearings in opposition to the plan. While Reynolds has no doubt been a force in opposing the plan, several other businesses -- including restaurant El Rancho Grande, oilfield supply company Skinner Brothers and Indian Health Care, among others -- have also stated that they do not want the zoning for their property. Most businesses in opposition have said they don't want even hypothetical expansion plans to be affected by the form-based code, citing, for example, restrictions on the location of parking lots.
Reynolds now represents the Pearl District Business and Property Owners Association, a group formed about two months ago in opposition to earlier proposals. The group has also requested changes to the 6th Street Infill Plan, which has often been cited by planning staff in making adjustments to the zoning plan. At the Nov. 28 meeting, Reynolds said he expected the group to turn in more detail about modifications they're seeking within a couple of weeks.
At the meeting, Planning Commissioner Bill Leighty once again advocated for a much larger area to be covered by the form-based code. Out of all commission members, he has been the most vocal backer of the new zoning for the Pearl District, calling for a vote in September when planning staff recommended approval of new regulating plan for a roughly 40-block chunk of the Pearl District.
Of course, commissioners rejected that alternate plan in a 6-3 vote. A legal opinion related to the need to apply zoning in a one-step rather than as a two-step process -- as had been recommended by planning staff -- led the commission to take up the issue again, but Leighty at the most recent work session reminded the group of the earlier proposal.
"We had a staff recommendation supported by the city of Tulsa Planning and Economic Development Department and our own staff to approve a larger plan than what we have here," Leighty said. "I don't understand the angst and the wringing of hands over this and the fear. It just doesn't make any sense to me. Cities around the country are adopting form-based codes as a development practice going forward."
He went on to describe the new, whittled down proposals under consideration as "miniscule." The option receiving the most support at the meeting includes only six blocks not fronting either South Peoria Avenue or East 6th Street.
Another option would have included about 17 such blocks. While some commissioners said they supported this option, they also said they would support the smaller option as a compromise.
Heath Sharp/File Photo
Dawn Warrick, the city's director of planning and economic development, told the commissioners that she and planning staff still thought it was appropriate to expand the form-based code throughout the large area described in the 6th Street Infill Plan.
"But it's very important that we don't try to bite off more than we can chew, that we figure out the right methodology for implementing the form-based code," Warrick said. "And so this is a bit of an experiment, so that we are engaging in the right way, that we're having the right conversations at the right time, and bringing back to you something that is manageable and may just be that first step into establishing an expanded form-based code."
The map receiving support will be expanded slightly to include the south side of East 5th Court, then presented in a public meeting before coming up for a vote by the planning commission, also known as the TMAPC.
Still, the commission will only make a recommendation. The City Council can accept it or perhaps amend the plan -- something Strader called "good news."
"I feel like the City Council should have had a greater input in this discussion," Strader said, adding that he hoped "we can get more done through the city council than the TMAPC."
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