POSTED ON MARCH 6, 2013:
New parking lot regulations in the works
The downtown names may still have meaning to longtime Tulsans.
The Tulsa Auto Hotel, the Fields Downs Randolph warehouse, the Skelly building and the Downtowner Motel.
But these structures no longer exist, having been torn down within the last 10 years along with "a handful of smaller buildings that aren't as noticeable," said Amanda DeCort, a city preservation planner.
Certainly, it's a far cry from DeCort's description of earlier decades. When it comes to razed downtown structures, "we tore most of them down in the '70s, some in the '80s," she said.
Parking lots now are squarely in the bulls-eye of proposed regulatory reforms DeCort said are part of an effort to build on recent redevelopment efforts downtown.
"Surface parking lots don't contribute to the tax base and to the well-being of the whole city to the degree that a fully utilized, occupied building does," DeCort said. "We're starting to see a lot more redevelopment of our older buildings downtown. These are all things that we want to keep moving forward."
She added: "We're never going to get where we want to go with lots of parking lots and nothing to walk to."
So far, opposition to the idea has been muted. In June, when the council approved a temporary moratorium on new surface parking lots downtown, only one speaker, downtown property owner Kent Morlan, addressed the council.
"Many of the buildings down here were built in 1920s and, absent major renovations, they become functionally, physically and economically depreciated," Morlan told the council.
Morlan cited the imposition of ballpark assessment fees as a reason for properties being razed.
Such fees were put in place by the city to help fund construction of ONEOK Field downtown, and Morlan took the city to court in an unsuccessful lawsuit against the way the city imposed the fees.
"When the city imposes assessments or does other things to them, then the highest and best use of these properties becomes parking lots," Morlan told the council.
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The city's current proposal would require anyone seeking to convert a lot into a parking lot downtown to go through the city's special exception process. In Tulsa, the Board of Adjustment, a five-person board of appointees, reviews special exception requests.
Under this proposal, "you need to be able to prove that you need this surface lot and that it's not going to be a detriment to the surrounding area," DeCort said. "It makes the surface lot the exception, instead of the rule."
The proposal currently awaits a recommendation from the Tulsa Metro Area Planning Commission. It would then need to be approved by the Tulsa City Council.
DeCort said the proposal is an attempt to find a more permanent resolution to the temporary moratorium on parking lots downtown, which was enthusiastically supported by Councilor Blake Ewing, who represents downtown. Mayor Dewey Bartlett signed off on the moratorium.
It was set to expire in January. Dawn Warrick, the city's director of planning and economic development, told planning commissioners at a Feb. 20 work session that the council voted to temporarily extend the moratorium for 90 days.
The new proposal "is not banning surface parking lots," DeCort emphasized. "What this is is an attempt to make our policies and regulations match up with our comprehensive plan and have there be a little more vetting to the process for creation of new surface parking," DeCort said. "We want to encourage structured parking as much as possible."
Asked if other cities have taken similar measures, DeCort cited Albuquerque, N.M. as an example of a city with a stricter policy.
She noted that Tulsa regulations already state downtown businesses are not required to have parking.
"Albuquerque went so far as to say not only is it not required, we are not allowing anymore surface parking," DeCort said.
Planning commissioners at the Feb. 20 meeting said they would like more information about parking needs.
"We're being asked to jump in an ocean, but don't know how deep it is," said Planning Commissioner John Dix.
However, it's unclear if the expiring moratorium will allow for such a detailed review.
Warrick told commissioners that the city has $2.7 million in funding for downtown parking, but didn't mention a 2012 proposal championed by Mayor Dewey Bartlett to use 2006 bond money devoted to downtown parking in support of a parking structure associated with the OKPOP museum.
"There are studies that are ongoing right now that the parking authority is sponsoring for the Brady area and the East Village area to understand existing needs and projected future needs for structured parking," Warrick said.
In an attempt to get public feedback, the city posted two photos representing downtown in the past and a more current snapshot, with visitors to the FeedbackTulsa.org website overwhelmingly favoring the more crowded look of the past.
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DeCort said the city about three years ago identified more than 120 downtown properties eligible to apply for tax credits that help fund renovations of historic structures.
Such credits can essentially reimburse developers around 20 percent of rehabilitation costs, DeCort said.
"That's a huge incentive, because rehabilitating old buildings can cost more than building a new building," DeCort said.
Asked about feedback from property owners about the parking lot proposal, she said she spoke with a representative from "probably the largest, one of the largest property owners" downtown. "He didn't have any concern with it," DeCort said, declining to answer if she was referring to Kanbar Properties.
Kanbar, or KPM as it's now known, did not respond to questions about the proposal. It claims on its website to hold over 30 percent of downtown Tulsa in its portfolio.
Still, some downtown buildings have become eyesores -- or worse. In December, a man fell to his death after sneaking into the long-vacant Abundant Life Building, 1720 S. Boulder Ave.
In other cases, demolition has paved the way for at least potential renewal. After destruction of the Fields Downs Randolph structure, a deal was worked out in 2011 to donate the site near E. 7th Street and S. Kenosha Avenue to the All Souls Unitarian Church. The church has announced plans to raise money to build a new facility on the site.
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