POSTED ON JULY 14, 2010:
After Big Bang, PLANiTULSA survives asteroid belt and comes together for Death Star vote
After all of the arguments, all the hoopla and all the warnings of dire consequences, the adoption of a comprehensive plan update for the city by the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission last week sure had an anti-climactic feel.
Having gone through 19 weeks of often-heated public hearings, debate and revisions, commissioners voted unanimously on July 6 to approve the new plan -- which was developed through the PLANiTULSA process throughout the past two years -- clearing the way for it to proceed to the City Council for final approval.
"I think it's a major achievement, although it was adopted with kind of a whimper," noted local developer Jamie Jamieson, an outspoken supporter of the plan.
According to city planner Theron Warlick, who has worked on the project from the beginning, the council has 45 days from the time the document is handed to the City Council clerk to act on it. The council can approve the document in whole or part, but it cannot edit it, he said.
The PLANiTULSA website (planitulsa.org) indicated the council could have received the plan as early as July 13; although Warlick wasn't sure late last week when the document would finally be presented to that body. He said that in order to give the council as much time as possible to consider the plan, it would not be turned over to councilors until they had been consulted about it.
"We don't want to hand it to them before they're ready," Warlick said. "We want to be as respectful as we can."
The snail's pace at which the new plan has made its way through the machinations of city government contributes to that air of caution on Warlick's part. Considering how long it took the document to earn the approval of the Planning Commission, officials are perhaps a little wary of the 45-day deadline it will be under for council action.
All the same, Warlick isn't anticipating any major problems.
"We've been talking to councilors, and it's hard to know how they'll react, but I think most of them are looking forward to hearing it," he said.
The 45 days should be enough time for the council to address whatever concerns it might have about the document, Warlick said, explaining that the council's inability to make changes to the plan will expedite the process.
"So it's a matter of getting through the document and highlighting problems, if there are any," he said. "It's not really a matter of them working with us to alter the language (as was the case with the Planning Commission)."
District 4 Councilor Maria Barnes, who has been deeply involved in the PLANiTULSA process since long before being elected to her post last fall, said she is eager to have the council get its crack at the document.
"I'm ready to move forward and get it done," she said. "I hope my fellow councilors have been paying attention (to the process). I don't believe anything has been horribly changed (since the original draft of the plan was completed), although we will probably need to make sure everyone is up to date."
Barnes said she was gratified to see the new plan is just one step short of final approval nearly two years after the first public meeting on the subject was held in September 2008.
"There were times when it felt like it got stalled and was not getting anywhere," she said, though she acknowledged she thought the Planning Commission's lengthy and open deliberations were a good thing. "I never thought it would take this long, but that's OK."
District 2 Councilor Rick Westcott said he believed there had been more public input in the PLANiTULSA process than in any other issue he remembered in Tulsa in 20 or 25 years.
"I think this issue has been thoroughly vetted; although, like anything of this magnitude, no group of citizens is going to be completely satisfied. I'm anxious to get it to the council."
Westcott noted that he had heard less from his constituents on the issue throughout the past few weeks as the plan awaited final approval from the Planning Commission, but he said it was his impression that a large number of District 2 residents on both sides of the river had participated in the planning process and were particularly vocal about their desires.
"But over the last few weeks, the e-mails and the calls died out," he said. "I took that to mean they were happy and had no major objections to raise."
He said his involvement in PLANiTULSA up to this point has been only in the role of an observer.
"Honestly, I tried not to directly participate," he said. "I really did not want to have the appearance of exerting any influence as a city councilor. I wanted it to be a representation of what the citizens wanted."
Westcott seems satisfied that the document he and his fellow councilors will consider meets that criteria. He doesn't seem apprehensive about the council's inability to edit the document.
"This has been discussed for two years," he said. "There's been ample public input. Absent any major disagreement or objection, I think it's probably a pretty good document and can stand as is."
Jamieson, who has parted company with many others in the development community over his wholehearted support of the plan, said he hopes to the see the council approve the document as quickly as possible.
"Personally, I think it's like a gift to the mayor, and all he has to do is implement it," Jamieson said. "This will enable Tulsa to compete."
Jamieson, a native of London, regards the PLANiTULSA document not only as a plan for the future but as a marketing tool for the entire community. He said he recently spoke to a businessman friend of his in London who had been following the progress of the plan and was very enthusiastic about it.
"He's interested in returning to Tulsa, and that was prompted entirely by what he read in PLANiaTULSA," Jamieson said.
He expects others to show a similar interest, perhaps ushering in a new era for his adopted hometown.
"This is going to attract thoughtful business people in cutting-edge industries," Jamieson said. "If these truly are Tulsa's ambitions, this is the kind of place where we can attract highly educated young people."
Own, Personal Solar System
Noting that approximately 6,000 people participated in the planning process, Jamieson believes Tulsa might be witnessing a profound change in the way it goes about charting its growth.
"That's a significant number of people," he said. "For so many people to get actively engaged in planning for their city, to me, represents a decisive shift toward the electorate being treated as grownups and being invited to set the future path for their city. This is the moment for Tulsa to grow up, and it couldn't come at a better time. We can be much more thoughtful in the way we invest our scarce tax money."
Just a few months ago, supporters of the plan feared that many of its key elements designed to protect older neighborhoods would be targeted for defeat by such entities as the development community, home builders and Tulsa Metro Chamber as it went before the TMAPC. That commission took more than four months to approve the document while it went through a number of well-attended public hearings. But ultimately, the amendments and clarifications that were made to the plan hardly qualified as a major restructuring.
"I think the Planning Commission did us a big, big favor by taking their time," said John Fregonese, president of Fregonese Associates, the Portland, Ore.-based firm that has guided the PLANiTULSA process thus far. "And they all clearly read it to the point they understood it in detail. They added a lot of additional clarifications and refinements, and they conducted a good, healthy discussion about the small area plans and areas of stability."
That experience was a demanding one for at least one planning commissioner.
"It was a rather exhausting time period," Commissioner Bill Leighty said. "Keeping up with the changes and the volume of information really stretched everybody."
Warlick noted that Leighty drew the difficult task of reviewing the entire 300-page PLANiTULSA document on behalf of the commission.
"He had to sit down and read the whole dictionary, whereas most people will only crack a section when they need it," he said. "But he did a great job. They had a lot of people coming at them at the last minute. They heard them and tried to deal with their concerns, and they did it pretty effectively."
Leighty said he was pleased to have served on the TMAPC as it worked on such an important document, noting that the chance to play such an integral role in the PLANiTULSA process was a big part of what drew him to the Planning Commission in the first place.
"When we finished that last public hearing, I walked out of that building feeling very proud of our commission," he said. "We had a balanced group. We didn't agree on everything, but there was a lot of solidarity there. I think we were painstakingly thorough, and we fully vetted this. This was as transparent as possible."
Leighty referred to the alarm some supporters of the plan expressed over their concerns that the home builders and chamber of commerce were trying to gut certain provisions of the document, but he believed those fears were unfounded.
"I don't know where that came from," he said, explaining that he wasn't aware of anyone on the Planning Commission being lobbied behind the scenes on behalf of those organizations.
"I think they jumped to conclusions a couple of times, though they may have had valid and justifiable concerns," he said of those on both sides of the issue. "Once this thing gets approved, I think we're going to look back and say, 'Why were we so stoked up over this thing?' "
Warlick said he and others in the city Planning Department have been keeping city councilors updated on the progress of the plan, and he believes they are as well prepared to receive it as they can be. Fregonese was scheduled to be in town earlier this week to meet with a council committee to brief its members on what to expect.
"That's really our last chance to get into a dialog with the council," he said.
Fregonese said the law obviously limits how much impact the council can have on the document at this point; although, he said its members have been involved in the process all along. He believes the council will embrace the document the way other segments of the community have.
"I think there's enough momentum that they'll do that, even with the fiscal problems the city is having," he said. "This plan is friendly to more kinds of development that will keep people in town, and I think they'll see that as a valuable instrument."
If the document is approved by the council in a timely fashion, Warlick said there are six strategies listed near the beginning of the plan that will be carried out. That list consists of revising the city's zoning and subdivision codes, conducting neighborhood and small area planning in targeted areas, creating a viable redevelopment strategy, initiating and completing several PLANiTULSA prototype buildings as demonstration projects, developing a new transportation strategy, and organizing planning and development functions for implementation.
Warlick acknowledged that the last strategy is likely to be the most controversial, since many observers already are taking it as an indictment of the Indian Nations Council of Governments, the confederation of local governments that oversees the TMAPC. INCOG periodically has been the target of criticism by some members of the City Council, but Warlick said that last strategy is not designed to fan those flames.
"It's not really something that's all about INCOG," he said. "It's about organizing the whole city around what's in PLANiTULSA. I don't care where a function is housed as long as the lines of communication are open and we can work together."
The provisions of PLANiTULSA will not enact themselves, Warlick said, adding that the mayor and council will decide how quickly they are carried out.
"Some are bigger-ticket items, but all of them are pretty achievable in the next five years if we begin to focus on this stuff," he said.
Among the most noticeable changes the new comprehensive plan is likely to bring about, Warlick said, are new types of housing, new locations for housing and new transit options.
"People here are kind of sick of going to other towns and seeing what they were doing," he said, explaining the pent-up desire for change many citizens exhibited during the planning process.
Fregonese echoed that assessment, pointing to Tulsa's stagnant population and the fact that much of its sales tax base has been lost to the suburbs.
"This should bring Tulsa up to parity," he said, adding that the city hasn't done a good job of competing against its suburbs by playing to the primary advantage that big cities inherently have against their bedroom communities -- uniqueness.
"It's time for Tulsa to take advantage of the things that attract people," he said.
Still, Warlick said it would be a mistake for Tulsans to expect too much change too soon.
"People thought we were going to be building a new transportation system tomorrow, but this thing clearly says to start small -- work on your buses, start work on your streetcars," he said. "It's good, honest advice, and we needed it."
That change will come eventually, Warlick said, adding that the next generation of Tulsans is likely to see a city that is different in many ways.
"In 20 years, this should be a city that is much more fiscally sustainable," he said. "That's great. It's just getting going on it. I think a lot of people in this city are ready and willing to start pulling together on this."
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