POSTED ON JUNE 22, 2011:
A Sea Change
The components of Tulsa's new comprehensive plan
Tulsa has a new comprehensive city plan, which is imaginative and brashly incorporates many of the best contemporary notions about urban development and city design. The plan has also been shaped by thousands of Tulsans via the hyper-inclusive PLANiTULSA citizen participation process.
Let's demand that it gets fully launched and make sure that it secures the unequivocal political support it deserves -- And let's hope it survives the fever swamp at City Hall.
A savvy city master plan is not a regulatory cage. In fact, if it is tightly organized around the features at the core of Tulsa's new plan, it can be an agility engine. Our city's new plan is a soft machine for sparking walkability, higher densities, neighborhood "connectivity" and environmental sustainability. But it is also -- and this will surprise many Tulsans -- a platform for liberating developers and builders.
The plan does so by reducing uncertainty, pointless public sector micromanaging and cookie cutter designs without -- and this is critically important -- sacrificing safety or condoning poor design or dangerous building practices. If it's managed in an enlightened, rigorous way, the comprehensive plan shields neighborhoods from auto-centric projects with toxic traffic, hotdog footprints, single use monotony and predictable building facades.
Tulsa's new Plan is light years beyond a set of idealized color drawings gathering dust at City Hall, especially since the plan and associated zoning/subdivision, transportation and housing thrusts are tightly aligned with heavy public support, lots of political capital and (probable) private investments. Down the road, there are real prospects for crucial public funding for key pieces of the new plan: two of Tulsa's public funding sources (the third penny capital sales tax and the special Vision 2025 sales tax) expire in 2014 and 2016 respectively. These "renew" dates are big opportunities.
Funds from either of these streams could fuel new style street corridors, added routes and breakout vehicles for bus transit, even elements of novel neighborhood redevelopment efforts -- all these notions highlight strong neighborhood connectivity, mixed retail/commercial/residential and ensemble projects that embrace these exciting features?? -- all, by and large, absent in Tulsa today.
Here are key elements of the new plan?? -- a simplified sketch of crucial parts that might change Tulsa in countless ways.
Form Based Zoning and Mixed Use Projects
At the moment, our planning and zoning process is driven by "use designations." Essentially, there's a master map that grants one the right to build low-density, conventional housing in this space and medical facilities here, but not there, and industrial facilities there, but not over here.
There is little mixing of these land uses short of incurring extra costs or employment of a special project development process. The consequence: design monotony, suboptimal land use and unnecessary daily travel for most Tulsans.
A new zoning meme called "form based zoning" changes the focus from "use" to an agile review of how a new developments fits the scale, look and feel and character of the surrounding structures or neighborhoods.
This framework allows owners and occupants, within reasonable limits, to determine how buildings will be used. And while it will usefully forbid putting slaughterhouses next to neighborhoods, form based zoning allows for a decidedly more vibrant, choreographed built environment.
The concept is a grand bargain and a great simplification: in exchange for lots of flexibility project developers agree to a set of enhancements such as more green/open space/sidewalks and quality on the design front. Imagine light manufacturing facilities in the midst of a retail or commercial center or hybrid spaces -- hospital workers living on a residential compound on a medical campus.
Prototypes and Demonstration Projects
Tulsa's new plan designers have wonderfully included the notion of "on the ground" prototyping in the plan. Desiners have fashioned an array of concept building drawings and computer models that illuminate the new planning and zoning codes and how they would work on the ground.
The renderings and a "toolkit" of financial models showcase how new housing, retail and employment structure types -- currently not found in Tulsa today -- might look, feel and pay off. This is a superb way of accelerating plan adoption and actively engaging the project planning, design and development community. The plan calls for actually building a small set of demonstration buildings via a bevy of public/private joint ventures. And while the plan doesn't call for them explicitly, other things including the ingenious street customization schemes, next generation capital projects including "smart streets," self-diagnosing bridges and roads and novel adds to Tulsa's minimal bus system??? could also be "seeded" via imaginative collaborations with hungry tech firms, inventive design and architectural teams or adventurous construction companies.
Real Redevelopment: Small Area Plans
The new plan calls for actively engaging residents and stakeholders in disciplined efforts to turn neighborhoods around -- and to use something other than episodic federal dollar infusions to do so.
A small area plan, a key PLANiTULSA document says is: "a collaboration with area stakeholders to make specific recommendations for land-use, zoning, transportation and other public investments ..."
The City is already jumpstarting this plan feature in midtown and, notably in the Northland subdivision, where the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa's inventive design studio, lead by Shawn Schaefer, and ably championed by City Community Development chief Dwain Midget, is spearheading a fascinating effort to re-animate a long dormant neighborhood.
These two notions, like others in the new plan, come from the New Urbanism -- a design, planning and development movement exemplified well by Jamie Jamison's The Village at Central Park project in Tulsa's Pearl District.
Essentially, the street connectivity idea is a thoughtful way of making neighborhoods and -- retail and commercial places that serve close-in neighborhoods -- vastly more accessible via walking, biking and agile bus linkages.
Stout connectivity quashes the number of dead-ending neighborhood streets and cul-de-sacs that are too much of Tulsa's physical scene. Shared parking districts are a related notion: currently, the "rules" require that people doing new projects or reworking existing buildings provide dedicated parking. This is a hardship for owners and often compromises good design. The new plan embraces more flexible arrangements: shared parking would allow for more optimal use of existing parking, reduce construction outlays and improve density.
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