POSTED ON FEBRUARY 11, 2009:
The Tipping Point
The PLANiTULSA process gets more encouraging as it nears completion. The hope is that citizen input is taken seriously and creates a more balanced, inclusive development plan for Tulsa
Is PLANiTULSA, Tulsa's first comprehensive planning effort in a generation, nothing more than a preschool game of pretend?
Dan Keating participated in one of the PLANiTULSA workshops last fall. Writing in the Tulsa Beacon, he summarized his experience: "After we had drawn a beautiful Tulsa with our colored markers, I felt like we could all either take a nap or have cookies and milk."
Boxes and bookshelves are filled with pretty pictures of planning scenarios that never come to fruition, so it's easy to understand Keating's skepticism.
I have a tendency toward skepticism myself - perhaps you've noticed? -- but I recently got a glimpse of the technology being used for PLANiTULSA by the City of Tulsa's Planning Department and Fregonese Associates, the lead consultants for this project. The evident practicality of their methods gives me hope that the resulting plan will shape Tulsa's future.
While Tulsans are shaping the big picture at citywide and small-area workshops, the PLANiTULSA team is looking at the lot-by-lot economics of different types of buildings and types of developments.
The Fregonese team uses computer software to analyze the economic impact of a given land-use scenario. Scott Fregonese, the company's VP and son of the company's president John Fregonese, said this is something that sets the company apart from other planning firms.
Software models, programmed with data about existing land uses and land values, can show the impact of new development on population, property values, and infrastructure demand. The models are customized to reflect the social, economic and legal realities of the place being studied.
Fregonese's software is called "Envision Tomorrow," and the company Web site describes it as "a scenario building and evaluation application that was developed to facilitate the creation of explicit future growth scenarios. [The tool] allows planners to 'paint' the landscape with different development types and then, using a series of benchmarks or indicators, measure the impacts and benefits from different land use and transportation patterns."
The software can be used to study scenarios for neighborhoods, districts, cities, or entire regions. When the PLANiTULSA process is done, Tulsa's planning department will retain the right to use the software for future planning.
Part of Envision Tomorrow is something called a "tipping point analysis." Given existing land values and a set of potential building types for new development, the software can identify parcels that are feasible for redevelopment, based on the local economy, local values and land use regulations.
It's possible to tweak the program's inputs to show the impact of tweaking the zoning code. For example, building types that currently aren't feasible might be if parking requirements and setbacks were reduced or allowable building heights were increased.
I can already hear the alarm bells ringing for my friends involved in neighborhood and homeowners associations, who are rightly concerned about teardowns, non-residential encroachment into residential areas, and the biggest threat of all, the possibility that some planner will decide their neighborhood would generate more tax revenue if it were wiped off the map by eminent domain and replaced with something else.
It's possible to program the software to reflect our desire to protect certain types of places from redevelopment. At the recent meeting of the PLANiTULSA Citizens' Committee -- a single group that replaced the original two-tiered structure of "Advisers" and "Partners" -- we were shown a map of Tulsa color-coded by land values per square foot.
Areas where change is unlikely or undesirable were masked out, shown in gray: e.g., single-family residential areas, flood plains, park land, airports and historic preservation districts.
What's striking is that, even with all that land protected in this computer model, the map is marbled throughout with land valued at or below $5 per square foot. Significant clusters exist along rail lines, suggestive of transit-oriented development.
Color Our World
In analyzing future scenarios, the PLANiTULSA team is examining a "5 percent solution" -- by redeveloping old commercial and industrial sites along with, possibly, a few new satellite centers in undeveloped parts of north and east Tulsa, the city can accommodate the kind of population and job growth we need while leaving 95 percent of the land area untouched.
Contrary to what we've been told by self-styled "pro-growth" folks, we can have growth without damaging neighborhoods or paving over the entire countryside.
Another exciting aspect of tipping point analysis is the potential to demonstrate the economic feasibility of types of buildings and developments that are new to Tulsa.
The Fregonese team likens this to trading in our box of eight crayons for a box of 64. It means that our city would be able to offer a much broader range of choices to residents and business owners.
For the last half-century or so, development in Tulsa has stuck to a small number of basic types -- apartment complexes, single-family homes, business parks, malls and strip shopping centers and industrial parks. Developers and their lenders know how to calculate return on investment (ROI) for these kinds of developments.
The PLANiTULSA team is currently developing a set of new building prototypes, for which they'll determine ROI. The list isn't final yet, but possibilities include townhouses, live/work arrangements, single-story neighborhood retail, and two- to four-story mixed-use buildings with retail on the first floor and office or residential above.
Many of these "new" building types aren't really new to Tulsa. They were often used prior to World War II, back when Tulsa was one of the 20 most densely populated cities in the nation.
You might assume that market forces alone put these building types out of business. But under our post-war zoning code, which strictly segregates residential from commercial from office uses, these building types became illegal or, at the very least, were rendered infeasible by zoning and building requirements that limit the amount of productive space on a given piece of land.
As part of the tipping point analysis, Fregonese will work up estimated costs and values for the various building types, both under the existing rules and with the rules adjusted. At some point in the future, the rule-makers -- the City Council -- will have to decide whether to modify the rules to make these new development types feasible.
What I appreciate about Fregonese's approach is that they aren't just starting with the big picture maps we made at the workshops and hoping that they'll work out into something practical. They're looking at the small picture, too, practical matters of land acquisition costs, construction costs, and market values. They've given us room to dream, but they're also keeping us grounded in the realities of realty.
You'll be hearing more about these computer models in months to come. In the meantime, there's still big picture work to be done by you and me.
The three small-area workshops that were frozen out at the end of January have been rescheduled for the week after Valentine's Day:
Tues., Feb. 17, Southwest Tulsa, Webster High School, 1919 W. 40th St.
Tues., Feb. 17, Northland, Hawthorne Elementary, 1105 E. 33rd St. N.
Wed., Feb. 18, Forest Orchard/Hillcrest, (includes parts of Cherry Street, Swan Lake, the Pearl District, Tracy Park, Yorktown, Gillette, and Terrace Drive neighborhoods), First Evangelical Lutheran Church, 1244 S. Utica.
Two more workshops and a citywide transport workshop will happen the following week:
Mon., Feb. 23., University of Tulsa area (Lewis to Louisville, from I-244 to 15th St.), Kendall-Whittier Elementary, 2601 E. 5th Pl.
Mon., Feb. 23, Southcrest area (76th to 91st St., and from west of Mingo Road to Garnett Road), Union Public Schools Education Service Center, 8506 E. 61st St.
Tues., Feb. 24, citywide transport workshop, Centennial Center at Central Park (aka the Boathouse), 1028 E. 6th St.
All workshops run from 6pm to 9pm. Registration opens at 5:30. You're encouraged to register online at planitulsa.org or by calling the PLANiTULSA office at 576-5674.
Toward a more inclusive Tulsa
However good the PLANiTULSA process is, land-use planning alone won't cure what ails our city. Something has to be done to create a workable "civic infrastructure," an ongoing way to ensure that citizens have a say in our city's governance. The Collective Strength survey of a thousand Tulsans, part of the initial phase of PLANiTULSA, identified a strong cynicism about the way land-use decisions are made and enforced.
A group of community leaders from every City Council district, including leaders from Preserve Midtown and Who Owns Tulsa?, is trying to build a network of neighborhood associations and community groups to advocate for four guiding principles in the development process: "transparency, accountability, consistency and inclusion."
The absence of these qualities in our zoning process accounts for much of the friction over controversial developments.
As we noted above, there is plenty of room to accommodate new growth in Tulsa without destroying the unique qualities of Tulsa's neighborhoods or driving all development out to the suburbs. Perhaps PLANiTULSA research will help to wipe out the misconception that strong neighborhood organizations are an obstacle to healthy growth.
To the contrary, these neighborhood leaders note that thriving cities have strong citizen participation in land-use decisions, producing quality growth that enhances the city for the long-run.
While we put together a great plan, let's put together a transparent, accountable, consistent and inclusive process to carry it out.
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