POSTED ON MAY 11, 2011:
Between Hospitals and History
The City Council suspends flexible zoning permits in historic neighborhoods, forcing two sides to discuss development
The Tulsa City Council's May 5 meeting was an excellent example of how people of different interests -- or sometimes even the same interests -- can come away from the same event with wildly different perceptions of what took place.
Headed into the meeting, District 4 Councilor Maria Barnes and former Tulsa Preservation Commission chairman Bob Sober were thought to be on the same page in regard to the issue at hand. Both strongly supported an amendment to the city's zoning code that would have eliminated the use of planned unit developments -- a flexible form of zoning that often provides for various forms of development within the same designated area -- as an exception to prohibitions against development in historic preservation districts. As it is currently written, the city's zoning code permits PUDs to be applied in historic neighborhoods, and that potentially allows for commercial enterprises to be introduced in those districts -- something that many historic preservation advocates and neighborhood residents fiercely oppose.
So do Barnes, who has positioned herself on the council as an outspoken neighborhood advocate, and Sober. Sober, in fact, felt so strongly about it, he spent the last several months championing the proposal to eliminate the PUD exception -- first before the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission and later the City Council.
But after the council voted 7-2 on May 5 to approve the zoning code amendment -- albeit with language that calls for the expiration of the change on Dec. 1 -- the two political allies couldn't have had a bigger difference of opinion about what had taken place.
Barnes was extremely disappointed.
"I think at some point, city officials have got to take a stand for historic neighborhoods," she said the day after the vote. "Last night, we didn't do that."
Sober was elated.
"I think the council took an enormous step last night," he said. "It wasn't just about halting the use of a PUD in a historic district. I would love to have had the prohibition for longer than six months, but it stops the process of further encroachment of PUDs in historic preservation districts until we've had the chance to discuss this."
District 9 Councilor G.T. Bynum, who engineered the introduction of the six-month expiration date for the zoning code amendment, believes the council's action will help defuse a potential battle between opposing sides in the debate's ground zero -- a stretch of Utica Avenue between 11th Street and 21st Street. That corridor is anchored at the ends by St. John and Hillcrest medical centers, while two of Tulsa's five historic preservation districts -- Swan Lake and Yorktown -- are located in between.
The interests of neighborhood residents in protecting their borders against commercial encroachment vs. the interests of the hospitals in regard to possible expansion created a conflict that came to a head as the zoning code amendment went before the council. In December, the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission had voted 6-3 against recommending to the council that the proposed change be approved.
But in the weeks leading up to the council's May 5, vote, Bynum began meeting with Sober and Richard Boone, president of the St. John Medical Center Foundation, and came away with a somewhat different perspective on the conflict.
"What occurred to me was that this was an issue of timing," he said. "The development community and St. John Hospital felt this was moving along too quickly, and Bob felt if we didn't move quickly, we would be allowing people to continue operating as if we didn't have a comprehensive plan that's been adopted that addresses these issues."
So Bynum suggested to Boone -- who did not return a call from Urban Tulsa Weekly seeking comment -- and Sober that the zoning change be adopted, but not permanently. That would give the two sides time to resolve their differences through the creation of a small area plan for the corridor, the mechanism provided for in the city's recent comprehensive plan update, he said.
"We took the urgency off the table by putting in this six-month moratorium," he said, adding that councilors expressed a willingness to extend the zoning change in December if a long-term solution hasn't been reached.
The council approved the change easily, with only Barnes and District 6 Councilor Jim Mautino voting against it. Barnes credited her council colleague for his vote afterward.
"As I told Jim Mautino, we may not agree on a lot of things, but he's a man of his word," she said. "He always said he'd be there for neighborhoods, and he was."
Barnes believes the other members of the council essentially voted to punt rather than make a difficult decision between two constituencies.
"I think that's a fair assessment," she said.
But Bynum said that characterization of the council's vote was way off base.
"It is not punting," he said. "It is buying time, is what it is."
Bynum said Barnes is looking at the issue as if the council has no plans to address the problem over the next six months.
"That's a really inaccurate way to look at it," he said.
Sober said he recognized how the conflict was shaping up and opted for a situation in which the two sides would be strongly motivated to find their own solution.
"What we don't want to happen is the developers and the homeowners fighting over these issues, talking to elected officials and saying, 'We can't fix things, so we want you to,'" he said. "That is not at all the kind of collaborative process PLANiTULSA describes."
Sober pointed out PLANiTULSA -- the product of a years-long, citywide effort -- was adopted 10 months ago, and yet none of the priorities identified in the plan, including the hiring of a planning director and the initiation of an update to the city's zoning code, have been put in place yet. He is deeply frustrated by that fact.
"There is no evidence to the public that anything has taken place," he said. "My question is, are we going to start doing these things or are we not going to do it? Is PLANiTULSA a pipe dream that in reality nobody is going to implement?
"The council got that and said, 'We're not going to allow any further destruction of historic districts through commercial encroachment, and if we need to extend it, we will.' "
Bynum said the key element in the agreement was the decision to seek a small area plan for the corridor. PLANiTULSA describes such plans as documents that address the issues of a portion of the city, covering as little as 10 acres or as many as thousands of acres. Only three such plans have been put together at this point -- for downtown, the Brady Arts District and the Pearl District -- and the city's relatively small Planning Department is not well equipped to complete one in the space of a few months.
The plans are the product of the residents who live in a given area, as well as the businesses that are located there, and reflect how those interests want to see development proceed over the next 30 years.
"This will give us the opportunity to initiate a small area plan and get everyone at the table," Bynum said. "I'll do everything I can to find the funding for the small area plan, and I'm confident we will."
Bynum said last week the council was due to take up the issue of the small area plan for the corridor at its May 10 meeting. The first step, he said, would be trying to establish a consensus in favor of getting a small area plan done, probably in the form of requesting that Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr. seek bids from private firms interested in putting the document together.
"We would want the mayor to have a part in this and a seat at the table," he said. "That would be a formal way of kickstarting the process. It's an important step to put councilors on the record for saying they support this."
If the administration honored a council request in favor of seeking bids, the council then could consider passing a budget amendment to cover the cost of one of those bids after they are received, Bynum said. He declined to estimate what a privately produced small area plan might cost, although Sober said he had heard of figures ranging from $50,000 to $150,000.
Bynum described himself as a big supporter of historic neighborhoods.
"But I'm also cognizant of the fact that we just passed a comprehensive plan that encourages greater density," he said. "If we limit the ability of one of the key hospitals in Midtown Tulsa to grow and provide health care to the people who live in the area, we're ignoring that. My main concern was not painting St. John into a corner."
Sober pointed out that with the adoption of PLANiTULSA, the city will be seeing considerably more infill in the years to come.
"And we don't have the foggiest idea how to go about it," he said. "It's enormously complex. If the city is going to stand up and be the referee for all that, we won't be doing anything else."
Sober said the most disappointing aspect of the PLANiTULSA approval process for him came over the last several months, when a conflict erupted over how much weight the small area plans would have on specific development decisions.
"Nobody wanted to take the time to understand the issues the other side had," he said. "If we're going to have a healthy community, we're going to have to care about each other and take the other guy's needs into consideration."
With the council's action on May 5, that's finally starting to happen, he believes.
"Our future's all about infill development," he said. "If we set a precedent that those decisions need to be made by a small area plan and people need to come to the table and find a solution -- and the city still resists the pressure to find a solution for them -- they will find a solution."
Any interested party who declines to work on a small area plan will do so at its own peril, Sober pointed out, forfeiting any right to complain about the product that results from the process. Essentially, the two sides will be forced to negotiate.
"We're looking for the active participation of the stakeholders in the small area plan," he said. "If one side says, 'We're not going to join this process,' maybe we let this amendment expire (in six months). If the other side won't participate, maybe we make it permanent."
Bynum said his experience in working on this issue has been a refreshing one.
"It was so nice to sit down at a table with these two parties," he said. "Bob Sober initiated the whole issue, and there was Richard Boone from St. John, who has legitimate concerns about his hospital's potential to grow if the original proposal had been adopted, and we came up with a compromise. We don't do that often enough in this city. It seems like the other side losing is as important as winning to some parties these days."
Barnes expressed doubts that a small area plan could be completed in six months and wondered if the mayor would take action on a council request to seek bids for the creation of a plan.
"We didn't accomplish much," she said of the council's vote. "I was disappointed. That was not what we intended to do. I think it's important to recognize historic neighborhoods. We've had too many houses torn down for parking lots."
Sober said he hopes Barnes eventually will be able to see the positives in what has taken place.
"We've ended one step, but we're beginning another," he said. "We've now got in place a system of resolution for these kinds of disputes instead of everybody going to the Planning Commission or the City Council and fueling the fire of conflict in our city."
He believes the council put itself in an excellent position to make sure a small area plan is going to be done and motivate all the stakeholders to participate.
"I'm really proud of what they did," he said. "This is an enormous step toward the implementation of PLANiTULSA.
"This is one of the most contentious areas in the city. If we can make a small area plan work here and get the parties to work together, we can make it work anywhere."
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