POSTED ON OCTOBER 13, 2010:
Respecting the River
New developments along the Arkansas: It's the place you wanna be . . .
Construction of low-water dams on the Arkansas River near Sand Springs and Jenks that were provided for in the 2003 Vision 2025 county-wide sales tax increase might still be years away, but development along the river in the Tulsa area continues to move forward.
Tulsa County commissioners were joined by representatives of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other local elected officials on Oct. 6 at the County Administration Building to announce the signing of a cost-sharing agreement solidifying the federal government's role in the Arkansas River Corridor Master Plan that was completed in late 2005. Under the terms of the agreement, the county and corps will split the cost of a planned feasibility study of the master plan.
"I would say it was pretty significant," Tulsa County Commissioner Karen Keith said of the signing of the agreement. "It's the next step forward."
The cost of the feasibility study, which Keith said would begin immediately, is estimated at $4.5 million -- some fraction of the $100 million cost of the project. Approximately $85.6 million in funding has been identified so far, she said.
Officials have said the permitting and funding process for construction of the dams, as well as planned improvements to the existing Zink Dam, will make them among the last of the Vision 2025 projects to be completed in approximately a decade.
Keith estimated completion of the study could take as long as four years. Researchers will be examining the potential impact of the dams on the flood plain, riparian areas and the spawning habits of the fish that populate the river, among other areas, she said.
The recent re-concern about the Great Lakes comes to mind at this point, as Rust Belt cities deal with the previous centuries' robber barons' rush to move merchandise up and down that fresh water "seaway". Various pollutants from the previous century, as well as the totally unintended consequences of "invasive species" of aquatic critters from around the world on the hulls of ocean-going freighters have taken over our very own North American natural resources and give pause to anyone or any entity thinking they know what do to with a "fresh" waterway.
So the construction site below the Zink Dam, where the sand has been washed away and the river is down to bedrock in many places, may be problematic.
But not that any pre-historic water monsters may pop up.
"We don't want it to silt up immediately," she said of the areas above the new dams. "The technology is there so the sands are allowed to flow through."
Many of the changes envisioned for the section of the Arkansas through the Tulsa area will actually benefit the river, Keith said.
The importance of the study means it can't be rushed, she said, though she is hopeful it can be done in less than four years.
"Eternal optimist that I am, I'm hoping it gets done in three years," she said. "Basically, as soon as that's finished, we've greased the skids, and everything else can move forward at a much faster rate."
Even with the study just beginning, commercial projects on both sides of the river -- which an increasing number of local officials have come to view in recent years as a missed development territory -- continue to move through the planning and creation stages. Among the newest is an attempt by Tulsa City Councilors Rick Westcott and G.T. Bynum to encourage mixed-use development on the west side of the river near the city maintenance facility at 23rd Street and Jackson Avenue, while the other is near a concrete plant just south of the River West Festival Park.
"We've been meeting with developers interested in doing some mixed-use residential construction on the west bank," Westcott said last week, adding that he and Bynum also continue to meet with other city officials on the possible creation of some tax increment finance districts that would benefit development at those locations.
"What Councilor Westcott and I have tried to do is create a tax increment finance district on the west bank of the Arkansas River that will make it appealing to developers once the capital markets loosen up and the economy rebounds so that we're ready to go instead of playing catch-up when all that happens," Bynum said in an interview last summer on his efforts to promote river development. "Beyond that, it is about the public infrastructure, which largely will be coming from the federal government. That's something I've worked on from a business standpoint, my personal business being federal government relations. I've tried to help secure funding in that regard."
Westcott said he was not at liberty to discuss the specifics of the projects the developers have in mind, but he said they would most likely be two- or three-story buildings with retail on the first floor and loft apartments or condominiums on the upper floors. He said he also hoped to see some amenities done in conjunction with the Tulsa River Parks Authority.
One thing he doesn't want to see on the west bank, he said, is any kind of strip mall.
"I think we need mixed-use development so it draws different for the area," he said, adding that a proposed commuter rail system linking west bank development to downtown also is important. "A mixed-use development would be successful as a stand-alone project by itself. But if you have a quick, economical way to get from this to the entertainment centers downtown, it would add to that success."
Westcott said he was confident those talks with developers would bear fruit, though nothing is certain at this point.
"Anytime you're dealing with the public sector and the private sector, along with the vagaries of the economy, it's tough to predict," he said of an anticipated start date. "But I am optimistic we could see something begin within the next year or so."
Bynum, who has made riverfront development one of his top items on his political agenda, said he and Westcott are in agreement that the role of the city is not to acquire land on the banks of the Arkansas and subsidize development.
"The goal of the city should be to make it as appealing as possible for private development to come in and not be dictating what kind of development goes in," he said. "Let the market decide that. And that's why we like the tax increment finance project, and we continue to work on that. The stumbling block we've run into, you just don't run into tax increment finance projects that are open ended like that, that aren't associated with a specific developer saying, 'I want to do this, this, this and this.' Usually, you do have that. But in our case, we want to say, 'We want it in place so it attracts developers.' "
Westcott said he has little doubt such development will succeed.
"Absolutely," he said. "People who live in southwest Tulsa have been waiting for the start of development on the west bank for 50 years. They're very supportive of it. Now, I don't want to imply they would accept anything. But at this point, I don't believe there's any opposition at all."
Bynum said he thinks it's remarkable the riverfront throughout the area hasn't already been developed, citing a study indicating that people are more attracted to moving to places that are visually stimulating.
"Now, that's not a shocking revelation, but that natural visual stimulation is more important to a majority of people than tax rates, the kinds of things that we usually argue about," he said. "Now, I don't think that means we ought to jack up our tax rates and develop the Arkansas River, but I do think that points to the fact we have a huge undeveloped natural asset sitting right there that we haven't taken advantage of."
Westcott, whose District 2 includes territory on both sides of the Arkansas, said it's tough to say why it's taken so long for development to come to the west bank.
"I think all of the pieces haven't fallen together at the right time before," he said. "For a long time, that was a waste disposal area for the refineries and other manufacturing areas. It was not seen as an area anyone wanted to develop or live in."
An increased emphasis on environmentalism and the rebirth of downtown should do much to change those notions, he said.
"Everything has come together," he said. "Now is the right time."
Westcott said the projects he and Bynum are working on have nothing to do with the Vision 2025 projects. The construction of Zink Dam several years ago already has made the two sites they have in mind attractive to developers, he said, meaning activity should be occurring now, not years from now.
"If we wait five years, we've missed the opportunity," he said.
So South, Young Person?
Other projects along the waterfront are in the planning or construction stages or already have opened their doors in recent years.
To the south, the Kings Landing development offers a mix of retail outlets and restaurants on the east bank, while the Village on Main -- a planned 800,000-square-foot mixed-use development (see "One Stop Living Shop" on Page 14) -- is expected to begin opening its first units in less than a year in Jenks on the west bank adjacent to the Oklahoma Aquarium. Just to the north of that, the RiverWalk Crossing features a mix of restaurants, retail and office space, a movie theater and an amphitheater. To the north, on the west bank's Riverside Parkway near 83rd Street, lies the Creek Nation's newly completed River Spirit Casino.
In an effort to leverage all that development, the Jenks Chamber of Commerce recently launched a website (riverfrontsouth.com) that promotes many of those attractions on a cooperative basis. Bob Eggleston, one of the partners in the Village on Main, said his group has been in discussions with representatives of those other attractions about offering a water taxi service that would ferry patrons back and forth, allowing them to park their car at one location and still access the other destinations.
But the planned Blue Rose Café -- a restaurant that will sit on piers above the river -- is now under construction at 19th and Riverside and is Tulsa's only contribution to recent river development. And at the old 11th Street bridge and Riverside, the Cyrus Avery Memorial Plaza -- another V2025-funded project -- commemorates the bridge's status as an important link in historic Route 66, but nobody knows about it.
Hopefully, in future years, the plaza will serve as home for the planned Route 66 Experience, an interpretative center and archives facility that will present visitors with a state-of-the-art, hands-on virtual trip down the Mother Road.
All that activity places riverfront development at a much more advanced state than it was as recently as 10 years ago. But Bynum believes the city still has to take an active role in making sure that momentum continues.
"The city is going to have to continually do things to encourage river development over there," he said. "We're just trying to find the most cost-effective approach. I am not a fan of what we usually do in this city, which is to hold on to land and then negotiate with developers and tell them what they're going to do. The city shouldn't be in the real estate development business. We should let the private sector do it. Unfortunately, it's so ingrained in the culture of the bureaucracy at City Hall -- we want to control, control, control -- that it's difficult sometimes to get around that."
If not, Jenks and Bixby are ready.
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