POSTED ON AUGUST 28, 2013:
Not Necessarily a Short-Cut
North neighborhood development would help many
That was the Northwest Passage?
Well, it was a never-found, but feverishly imagined bi-coastal waterway that traversed the top of North America that hosts of explorers sought for over two centuries. These historic seekers obviously never found it.
Just now, in a fascinating, "world-beater" reversal, it looks as though the elusive Northwest Passage dream is morphing into a strange new reality: an epic, early, and unassailable artifact of global warming as northern arctic ice pack melts to create a freshwater, navigable corridor of just the kind that explorers of yore had sought for centuries.
In Tulsa, we have our own Northwest Passage, an undeveloped subdivision expanse in northwest Tulsa and part of the always-under-construction Gilcrease Expressway project corridor. And like the elusive Northwest Passage of many years ago, it is also a state of mind.
Readers may know the area in question features Tulsa still evolving, high prospect Botanic Garden, the reknowned Post Oak Lodge/Resort and conference facility, and Holmes Peak, which was the site of the quirky "The America" statue that was proposed but never funded. There are, by many accounts, a bevy of assets and a posse of strong folks who can lead in the area, but igniting north side development is super slow so far in the "Passage" and environs because it is hostage to preconceptions about the true economic, racial, and demographic character of the area, false notions about the prevalence of violence there, and a variety of other dysfunctional horse-hockey that is every bit as real as the ice packs, that until very recently, forestalled navigating across the top of the North American continent.
Veteran real estate developer, community activist, and north-side mobilizer Terry Mcgee told me that helping people find a way around their preconceptions and getting northsiders and folks from the south and elsewhere to work together in tangible ways to counter the special dynamics that hinder retail and commercial development in the "Passage" (and beyond) is the key to mounting a leapfrog project in the area.
It's hard to argue with Mr. McGee on this matter.
So what's it take -- apart from a big racial/social chill and some outsized hope -- to get a growth spike going in the Passage and in north Tulsa writ large?
Recently, the owners/developers of the Northwest Passage project asked the Tulsa Planning Commission to loosen some of the zoning constraints now in play in the area. This is important because this part of Tulsa and some adjacent spots in Osage County that are development-ready feature radiant vistas of the downtown and the surrounding area and have associated costs that are a fraction of what builders encounter in much of the rest of Tulsa. In some cases, these spaces are fully competitive -- price-wise -- with what's in the burbs like Sand Springs, Broken Arrow, and Owasso.
And while housing hasn't fully recovered from the recession, it looks like a real recovery has begun. It looks like this is especially true for us if the city's development services operations activity volume is any indication.
Recently, I talked to Brenda Barre, a friend and veteran Tulsa educator and longtime real estate practitioner about the Passage and its prospects. She said the project is essentially stalled because there's only a single developer for the entire site. This is a problem because it doesn't allow for the intense bargaining by potential homeowners and retail and commercial users. She said the wheeling and dealing that comes when there are multiple players is a critical part of healthy development across the city and is noticeably absent at the Passage.
She also told me that the folks responsible for the project have never understood the need to have a broad mix of properties. Barre specifically talked about the lack of affordable housing in the now-aging prospect she has seen. She went on to say that the Northwest Passage project and related initiatives in north Tulsa didn't have the kind of amenity and pricing flexibility associated with the competition -- rural and semi-rural development sites in places like Owasso that allow for extreme customization and make it possible to develop in ways forestalled in the Tulsa marketplace.
Another real estate pro reminded me that the Passage is spectacular from a visual and natural beauty standpoint, and the 500+ acres owned by the current developer crew have been slated for start for over a decade now with little movement until recently. The recent Planning Commission request approved last week pushes up zoning intensities. The fact that the Passage owners requested this change and that some small commercial development on either side of 11th Street has begun may signify rising interest from commercial and retail actors.
Maybe the road ahead for the Passage and cadre of experienced north side developers calls for a bit of city-enabled experimentation with radical modular housing construction or a foray into an ultra-simplified retail/construction regime.
Tulsa's citizen-based PlaniTulsa planning blueprint makes explicit provision for demonstrations, prototype buildings/development and other novel efforts. And while high land costs usually drive this kind of experimentation, it is the rationale, for example, for a recent and highly visible "micro" apartment competition crafted by Bloomberg in New York City earlier this year.
In fact, Bloomberg's attempt to get architects, builders and developers to rethink single-occupancy apartments and very tiny housing units could be a marker for the Passage (with builder participation, of course), a staging ground for a breakout, mixed-use project. This kind of "hopeful mutant" effort is usually tethered to midtown/downtown warrens where costs are high, but these are also spots where radical experimentation has sometimes been stymied by neighborhood and small-business resistance (think Tulsa's Pearl district).
Another key observation about the Passages comes from a second veteran real estate practitioner. Again offered to me on background, an audacious attempt to link some kind public schools presence to the site is needed -- an imaginative link to one or more of the school systems operating in the Osage area, via joint ventures or cooperative agreements with Tulsa Public Schools, a public charter school, or an inventive private operator. Part of the dynamic for the spot: a superior school presence might change the outlook among potential residents and spawn retail/commercial activity development on what is arguably one of the most beautiful, visually enchanting but commercially devoid sites in our entire area.
So we need to get past our own racial and stereotyping phantoms and foster some out-of-the-box efforts to get the Passage and other places in north Tulsa on the road to a much better standing.
And we should start soon.
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