POSTED ON JUNE 8, 2011:
Poised or Palsied?
Some third-party perspective on Tulsa's planning path
If Tulsa's shiny, new comprehensive plan was fully executed you might think you were in the wrong place. You'd see a much denser, more transit centered kinetic space with lots of alternative housing, a more lively street life, lots of "intelligent," even canny streets, buildings and way pointers, and a profoundly richer economic outlook.
We have a first rate road map, but our new planning machine needs a gifted driver, a detailed rulebook, some jumpstart projects and some walking around money.
We also need some hyper driven determination.
Gauging the reality of Tulsa's embrace of emerging planning concepts is a little like watching Akira Kurosawa's epic film Rashomon. The film depicts a brutal assault on a husband and wife via a kaleidoscopic and wildly different set of eyewitness accounts of the tragic event, including a view from the vantage of the perpetrator, one from the wife, another from the dead husband, and the perspective of a sort of "above it all" narrator -- an outlook that seems the most evenhanded. The collective perspectives are mutually contradictory.
My talks with agency leaders, key stakeholders and some folks at City Hall reminds me of Kurosawa's powerful visual poem.
According to some, we are off to see the wizard having adopted a surprising visionary, imaginative comprehensive plan. This contingent of folks also says that a new zoning code -- to add some regulatory and legal teeth into the new plan -- is at hand as well.
Dwain E. Midget, who is Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr.'s czar for neighborhoods and some allied matters, is a firm advocate of the progress vantage. He says that Tulsa has a new and powerful toolkit for crafting a vibrant, fully competitive and fairer city, and that we only get one chance per generation at launching a project of this scale. Midget says we have to take the time to get it right.
Countering such claims is a growing cadre of critics who say the pace of the Mayor's efforts to date are simply too slow.
PLANiTULSA citizens advisory committee and Transportation Advisory Board member Jamie Jamieson and Bill Leighty, chairman of the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission and a member of the city's Transportation Advisory Board are in the doubt club -- and both are highly committed veterans of the PLANiTULSA process.
Jamieson and Leighty are also fevered advocates for some of the most far-reaching and imaginative elements of Tulsa's new plan. They say, rightly, that PLANiTULSA was a broad scope participation process, garnered intense interest from a panoramic bevy of Tulsans and, apart from basic service provision, should be totally central to what the Mayor and Council focus on for months and months to come.
Like Midget, both Jamieson and Leighty see the new planning machinery as vehicle, provided that big private investments and sizable public bucks are available, for sparking a re-animated, more prosperous community.
What few are saying openly is that the ongoing Mayor/Council war has done damage to Tulsa's new planning effort by draining it of crucial political, psychological and actual energy. If you're fighting a war -- and that's only a slightly hyperbolic description of the nearly two-year struggle between Bartlett and the Tulsa City Council -- you can't be at the top of your game on other fronts.
Back to the Future
Tulsa has an intense, schizoid fixation with city planning and futures work. We privilege the cowboy impulse, free markets and gonzo capitalism, but place great value on an ordered town, grand civic and cultural assets and a road system that works well.
Effective planning is more than maps, concepts and creating conditions for quality physical spaces and projects.
Excitingly, crucial elites and powerful folks in our business community are finally coming to grips with the continuing impacts of the Race Riot of 1921 on racial atmospherics and a still hugely dysfunctional growth dynamic that makes North Tulsa and parts of West Tulsa devoid of retail and commercial vitality. Julius Pegues and the folks at the new John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Center are a big part of why this essential change, one needed for transformational planning in Tulsa, is underway.
This and other efforts to get beyond our "Oil Capital of the World" identity are real economic and psychological tasks.
The PLANiTULSA project is ambitious and multifaceted and includes an ensemble of physical, transportation and economic development futures for Tulsa.
The plan was synthesized from a huge array of meetings, sample surveys, mobile workshops and lots of consulting and public staff work. The project would have died absent huge political investment from former Mayor Kathy Taylor, support from key members of the Tulsa Planning Commission and good support from the Tulsa City Council.
•A new zoning code: There is a vastly different model for zoning called form-based zoning, which focuses more on the scope, scale and neighborhood "fit" of a proposed/redeveloped project than on its "use" -- a prime target of conventional zoning. The idea is straightforward: mix things up and return big patches of Tulsa, over time, to kinetic mixed use spaces. Once the city selects a helper firm to assist in the new zoning code, it may take 18 months for a finished product -- one that will surely feature some facets of the form-based notion.
Planners and engineers have reconceived street corridors a that define the day-to-day life of a city. Imagine our streets in Tulsa having widely differing features -- some having lots of bike lane space, others featuring semi-dedicated lanes for rapid speed buses, others having narrower spans to accommodate pedestrian pathways. Obviously we have, in small measure, instances of all this stuff in Tulsa. Context-specific solutions for roads and other fixtures, however, would allow for a sort of radical customization of our built world to match varied requirements.
In the next issue, I'll explore more of the core ideas at play in Tulsa's new plan.
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