POSTED ON JULY 8, 2009:
Pearl of a Project
A much-needed flood control plan can help redevelop and revive a near downtown neighborhood. So what is the city waiting for?
Fill Me In. Development in the Pearl District--an area bound by Interstate 244 on the north, Utica Avenue on the east, 11th Street on the south and U.S. 75 on the west--largely has been at a standstill since 1984 because much of the district lies in a floodplain.
Supporters of a plan to build two new storm-water detention ponds and a canal in the Pearl District are targeting the presentation of their conceptual design report to the city for the end of the year, a move that could signal the start of serious fund-raising efforts for the project.
At a community meeting held June 30 at the Centennial Park community center, local residents were given an update on the status of the plan, called the Elm Creek/6th Street Drainage, Detention and Conveyance Project. Enthusiasm ran high as those involved with the creation of the plan indicated it will be finalized by December if not sooner.
But that excitement was tempered by concerns of Pearl District Association leaders that the city has not signed on as a sponsor of the project. Supporters of the plan say that hampers their ability to line up funding.
"The only thing we're waiting for is the city to sponsor us," PDA president Dave Strader told the crowd of several dozen people gathered at the meeting.
The $61.5 million plan, which is divided into three areas, is designed first and foremost as a flood-control project. Development in the Pearl District--an area bound by Interstate 244 on the north, Utica Avenue on the east, 11th Street on the south and U.S. 75 on the west--largely has been at a standstill since 1984 because much of the district lies in a floodplain.
The Elm Creek/6th Street plan seeks to remedy that situation while at the same time creating a series of aesthetically pleasing storm water detention projects designed to spur sustainable development in a pedestrian-friendly environment. In the words of the PDA leaders, they hope to "reinvent the art of city life in Tulsa" through a project that would dramatically alter the appearance and workings of the district, making it perhaps the most unique neighborhood in the city.
The two ponds included in the project would resemble the pond constructed at Centennial Park in 2006, which was the first step in eliminating the district's chronic flooding problems. Both would be larger than the Centennial Park pond and would feature a good deal of surrounding green space. One would be located north of Centennial Park between 4th Street and 5th Place, and Owasso Avenue and Madison Avenue. The second pond would be built east of Centennial Park between Rockford and Trenton avenues, and 7th and 8th streets.
A canal built down the middle of 6th Street would link the projects and help conduct storm water out of the district. The canal would have 12-foot roadways on either side that would remain open to vehicular traffic while at the same time inviting pedestrians and bicyclists.
Supporters of the plan believe the projects, which would be attractively landscaped and include a number of features designed to encourage public gatherings, would be a magnet for retail and residential development.
The project already has been in the works for several years, and the creative team working on it includes not just the PDA and city of Tulsa but such firms as Guy Engineering Services, Swift Water Resources Engineering, Alaback Design Associates and R.D. Flanagan & Associates. More than $400,000 has been spent on the project to date.
After the meeting, Strader elaborated on his assertion that the project could be stalled by a lack of action by the city. Without the city's official endorsement, funding for the project--which would come largely from a variety of federal agencies--would be all but impossible to obtain, he said.
"They've been reluctant to commit to the entire plan," he said. "It's divided into phases, and we'd like to see things done in our lifetime. The city tends to be conservative about these things. We'd like to see them be not so conservative. We're interested in building sustainable neighborhoods, and we're trying to get the city to buy into that."
The problem, as Strader explained it, is that the city has not yet signed a document signifying its full commitment to the plan. In legal terms, Strader said, that means becoming a sponsor of the plan, while the PDA views it as more of a partnership.
"To gain these kinds of funding opportunities, the city has to become a willing partner," he said. "Once it becomes a willing partner, it will lead to its success."
Neither Susan Neal, Mayor Kathy Taylor's director of community development and education initiatives, or Charles Hardt, the city's public works director, returned phone calls from UTW.
PDA officials already have targeted and approached a number of federal agencies they believe could serve as funding sources for the plan, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Strader said the project has $5.8 million on hand currently that it can use to leverage other funding.
"There's a very friendly federal atmosphere right now," PDA board member Jamie Jameson said, characterizing the feedback the association has gotten from those contacts.
Strader went even further.
"We think we may have as much as half this project funded if we had the city's commitment for the entire project," he said. "I guarantee you the city will never get a better deal than it will in today's dollars."
Association officials also maintain city officials have asked them to demonstrate the project--particularly the 6th Street canal--would attract developers. Strader was particularly unhappy about that condition.
"I regard that as an obstacle that no neighborhood association should be required to produce," he said. "But we're not only going to produce it, we're going to give them more than what they asked for."
Organizers of the plan have conducted studies that reveal the project would generate 1,900 new housing units and 84,000 square feet of retail development. Theron Warlick of the city's Planning Department said the sales tax and property tax revenue streams from those kinds of numbers would compare very favorably to new construction elsewhere for two reasons--because the density of development would be much higher and because the development would take advantage of existing infrastructure.
Jameson claims there is no need to have a major developer committed to the canal project because PDA officials are pursuing the adoption of a form-based code plan for the area, as opposed to traditional zoning. According to the PDA Web site, form-based codes regulate the placement of buildings in relation to their environment, whereas zoning concentrates on separating the uses to which buildings are put. The practical aspect of that change, according to Jameson, is that form-based codes will allow for the development of the canal project by smaller, locally owned entities--people who are invested in the neighborhood both financially and otherwise, and are committed to making it a success.
"We don't need some champion developer to come in from out of town and throw his weight around," he said.
Ron Flanagan--principal planner with R.D. Flanagan & Associates, which specializes in urban flood plain and storm water management--advised neighborhood leaders to take a longer-term view of the situation.
"It's not fair to say the city isn't buying into it," he said of the plan. "It's not happening as fast as the Pearl District people would like. They're impatient, and to them it looks like a pretty slow pace."
Flanagan acknowledged the plan may not have the full attention of city officials, perhaps because of its grassroots nature.
"It's not a high priority with the city right now, as opposed to other areas that have heavyweights behind it," he said.
But neighborhood leaders seem unwilling to let the issue slide, expressing their dissatisfaction with the city's perceived eagerness to take on projects that benefit parts of Tulsa outside its core and contribute to sprawl.
"It seems to me, as an observer, that the city is much more interested in widening streets that make suburban living easier," PDA board member Christine Booth said. "The vision has not taken root like it should."
Booth and Strader maintain the Elm Creek/6th Street project makes sense not just from public safety and aesthetic standpoints but also from a financial one. Strader pointed out that the project's $60 million price tag is comparable to the cost of widening three miles of road.
"When we see how much (money) is used to widen an intersection at 41st and Yale, it's astounding," Booth said, arguing that such projects offer little to no return on invested capital, while the Elm Creek/6th Street project likely would bring about a substantial return on the public investment.
The 6th Street canal is the lynchpin of the plan, neighborhood leaders believe. The plans that have been developed for the project show a bustling, colorful and inviting streetscape lined with sidewalk cafes, coffee houses and boutiques. Motorists share the road with pedestrians, while a shallow, largely ornamental canal runs atop a larger storm water conveyance structure.
Those drawings don't guarantee the plan's success, of course, but Strader and Booth believe it would be a mistake to tackle the flood plain issue as cheaply as possible with some utilitarian project that does little to nothing to change the look of the area.
"That does not provide the economic development aspect that 6th Street needs," Strader said.
"What is community development about a hole in the ground?" Booth asked rhetorically. "It does nothing to foster community or economic vitality."
Jameson points out that nearly three-quarters of the cost of the entire plan, $44 million, is tied up just in the public safety aspect of it, which is needed to solve the area's flooding problem. The remainder of the cost--in the neighborhood of $17 million--would address all the streetscaping, landscaping and "living streets" concepts that will invite investment and residents, he said.
As Mike Peters of Alaback Design put it during his public presentation at the June 30 meeting, "These should be amenities and not just flood control."
Strader said Mayor Kathy Taylor has asked neighborhood leaders to work with the city's Public Works Department to resolve any issues separating the two parties. He said the neighborhood largely had been stonewalled in its attempts to meet with Public Works officials, although a city official indicated last week he would seek to arrange such a meeting as soon as possible.
Despite their concerns, neighborhood leaders remain optimistic about the future of the plan. They regard the Elm Creek/6th Street project as good not just for their neighborhood, but for Tulsa as a whole.
"This is a good place to start pioneering some of the things that need to happen in this city," Jameson said.
Count Flanagan among the believers. He said he's considering moving his firm's offices into the area to take advantage of what it may soon have to offer.
"This is the future of the city of Tulsa," he said. "A walkable, sustainable community is the wave of the future. And this is the area where that is going to take place."
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