POSTED ON JANUARY 19, 2011:
City Requests Federal Waiver to Redevelop 100 Acres Near Arkansas River
Residents of southwest Tulsa who have waited years for the city to encourage commercial development in their part of the city may finally have something to look forward to.
Terry Simonson, Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr.'s chief of staff, said the city hopes to issue a request for proposals in February for the development of a 100-acre site on the west bank of the Arkansas River. The site is a patchwork of properties controlled by the city, private individuals and the Tulsa River Parks Authority.
"We decided it was time to move forward and start getting input from qualified developers about what they would do with the 100 acres near Festival Park," Simonson said.
The River Parks Authority controls the River West Festival Park, which comprises part of the 100-acre site, while a privately owned concrete plant south of the park and a city-owned maintenance yard at 23RD Street and Jackson Avenue make up most of the rest.
Simonson said the city and the River Parks Authority are working together on getting the site developed, adding that city officials met with a representative of the concrete plant's ownership before Christmas.
"They indicated they were very willing to work with us, although, of course, we would have to find a place for their plant to go," Simonson said.
City Councilor Rick Westcott, whose District 2 includes the site, said he doesn't anticipate a problem packaging the properties together.
"The elephant in the room is the concrete plant," he said. "That's obviously the best piece of property over there. The city can't enter into any agreement to sell that property, but we've been in talks with the management chain at the plant, and they've indicated they're willing to sell. They believe the property should be developed, and they're willing to cooperate."
But there is another potential problem with any deal that might emerge, Simonson acknowledged. While city officials were preparing the RFP, their research revealed part of the land was purchased with federal funds, and one of the conditions of that purchase was that the land could not be used for a commercial purpose without the approval of the federal Economic Development Administration, he said.
"It was a 30-year prohibition, and we're now in something like year 25 or 27," Simonson said. "We thought, since we're so close to the conclusion of that, we'll ask the EDA for a waiver of that prohibition."
In December, he said, city officials sent a letter to the EDA office in Austin, Texas, requesting a waiver for the property so that it might be developed commercially.
"We are expecting to hear from them before the end of January," Simonson said. "If the waiver is granted, the RFP will go out."
Westcott hopes the city's request is granted, but he doesn't believe it's a certainty it will be.
"That's entirely up to the federal government," he said. "If the administration can convince the federal government to waive those regulations, that's fine, but if we can't, we can't. Those regulations were put in place for a specific reason, and that's entirely out of our hands."
But Westcott said, according to the conversations he's had with a developer interested in the site, the parcel of land that is in question is not considered a crucial element of the 100 acres.
"So it would not be fatal to efforts to develop the west bank of the river" if the waiver isn't granted, he said.
Westcott has been working with District 9 Councilor G.T. Bynum for the past few years to promote riverfront development and he welcomes the possible issuing of the request for proposals for the site on the west bank.
"It's been a long time in coming, and I'm glad to see it," he said. "People in Southwest Tulsa had been waiting and waiting for riverfront development since at least the mid 1960s. That was one of the things that was part of my original platform for the City Council. I've been working on it for a long time, trying to move people forward."
Westcott recalled that almost two years ago the council passed a resolution asking then-Mayor Kathy Taylor to direct her staff to draft a measure that would create a tax increment finance district on the west bank of the river to fund infrastructure improvements. Westcott and Bynum have continued to work on the creation of the TIF district since that point.
"The point is, there's been a lot of work go into this, and I'm glad to see things going forward," he said.
Even so, Westcott said he doesn't understand why the creation of the TIF district isn't part of the city's plan for helping secure development of the site now.
"I don't know why the administration isn't pushing forward on that because in all my conversations with developers over the last five years, they've told me the TIF district is very important to the development effort," he said. "I'm not implying there's anything fishy about this, I just don't know what the administration's thinking is at all."
Simonson said it's simply a matter of waiting until the time is right.
"They have talked about that, and a TIF has a place there, but we think a TIF is just part of a bigger and better way to fund river improvements," he said.
"The TIF is premature, but there will certainly be a place for consideration of a TIF. We believe a TIF would be part and parcel of a riverfront development authority along the river."
Simonson said the administration hopes to initiate conversations soon with the other Tulsa County municipalities that front the Arkansas River about creating such an authority to help promote development. He said legislation that would allow for the creation of such an entity already has been prefiled at the Legislature.
"We think that would be a huge financial tool for development," he said. "This is a rather new concept in addition to TIFs. The creation of a TIF within an authority is win-win."
Westcott hopes the development of the 100-acre site isn't held up by those talks concerning the creation of that new authority.
"We don't need it, not for this purpose," he said, adding that involving any other municipalities in the development of the site on the west bank would be a huge mistake. "We don't need anyone interfering or telling us what to do with this piece of property."
Westcott has long envisioned a mixed-use development at the site and continues to push for a blend of retail, office, residential and entertainment uses. Ultimately, that development will become very important to the quality of life for Tulsans who live in that area, he said, adding that he would be opposed to any project that consisted of a strip mall or linear shopping center.
"I think anything that is solely dedicated to one use would not be a good idea," he said. "We need a multi-use project that would attract a lot of Tulsans at different times of the day."
Westcott said he also believes it would be important that designs for the new development incorporate as much of an intact River West Festival Park as possible.
If an RFP for the site is issued in February, Simonson said, he hopes the city would begin to hear from potential developers by early or mid spring. He said this is the first time since 2007 that the city has moved forward on the idea of riverfront development. Simonson said it's likely the RFP would allow for development in phases.
"We're real serious about getting a development plan so we can start serious conversations with a developer or maybe more than one developer," he said.
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