POSTED ON OCTOBER 26, 2011:
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Swan Lake preserves a unique history
Two competing forces are waging a complex turf battle, a tug of war over Tulsa's future growth.
One side is pushing for more new development while the other is pulling for greater restraint in redevelopment. At the center of the turf wars are six small areas zoned as historic preservation districts.
These historic districts include five neighborhoods -- Swan Lake, Brady Heights, Gillette, North Maple Ridge and Yorktown -- plus the Council Oak Tree Site, and together only make up 1.5 percent of the land in Tulsa County.
However, their historic preservation zoning prevents inappropriate development from encroaching, and possibly eroding home prices.
On a recent sunny Tuesday afternoon, the heads of the Swan Lake Neighborhood Association happily accepted a new designation for their well-kept collective of historic homes.
Swan Lake -- a 1920s-era neighborhood where wide, cozy front porches overlook tidy yards, and million dollar homes sit close to shipshape duplexes -- was named one of 2011's 10 Great Neighborhoods by the American Planning Association (APA).
The award was part of the APA's Great Places in America program, which exemplifies exceptional character and highlights the role planners and planning play in creating communities of lasting value.
That lasting value is preserved through mindful resistance to mindless development.
Swan Lake is not a carefully conjured plan concocted by nostalgic developers; rather it's a well-preserved throwback to the way things used to be.
The APA singled out Swan Lake for its beauty and amenities, including shops, Cherry Street farmers' market, a playground and the Inn at Woodward Park, which is the only ECO Gold-certified bed and breakfast in Oklahoma.
Swan Lake is a poster child for PlaniTulsa's idyllic dream of mixed-used development in the heart of midtown. Except it wasn't planned that way.
"Swan Lake wasn't planned," resident and home owner Guy de Verges said. "This is what neighborhoods were like" a long time ago.
The city is "trying to return to this," he said, nodding toward the Swan Lake's iconic pond as afternoon sun dappled on the water.
De Verges lived in Brookside before moving to Swan Lake, and grew up in nearby Maple Ridge. He ditched Brookside because of the noise, heavy traffic and lack of retail variety.
"Now, my two little kids and I can ride our bikes without worrying about getting run over," de Verges said.
He also appreciates Swan Lake's diversity. "The poor and the rich and everyone live in harmony here," de Verges said.
APA Chief Executive Officer Paul Farmer said, "This idyllic neighborhood has remained true to its middle-class roots for more than 80 years."
Another resident, Walter Kopp, grew up in a Swan Lake home and returned to the area off and on over the past 40 years. In 1999, Kopp inherited his childhood home, and has lived there ever since.
Of the APA award, Kopp said, "I'm going to boast about it to my relatives who couldn't wait to get out of Tulsa."
As a child, Kopp's mother would give him $5 to take to Swan Lake's little corner store for groceries. "And I could barely carry all of the bags back home," he laughed.
Nowadays, Kopp is less likely to carry grocery bags, but still walks the sidewalks with his Dachshund, Pie.
No Ugly Duckling.
"The neighbors are as eclectic as the architecture," said John Ruffing, president of the Swan Lake Neighborhood Association. "Some of us live in the house we were literally born in. We have big houses, very small houses and lots of affordability between. We are protective of each other."
Swan Lake, originally a streetcar suburb, opened with fanfare in 1917. While many of the bungalows were affordable, wealthy Tulsans were attracted to homes circling the quaint pond.
The pond itself is a former spring-fed watering hole that attracts real swans and other waterfowl as well as birdwatchers. Swan Lake residents are raising funds to restore a 1920s stone fountain.
The swans -- found on plaques, planters and statuary -- first appeared in 1944 on the façade of architect Joseph Koberling's French Eclectic style stone house.
More than 70 percent of Swan Lake's 187 homes were built along tree-lined streets between 1920 and 1930. Middle class apartment buildings began appearing in 1918.
"What sets Tulsa apart from so many other communities are its beautiful, vibrant neighborhoods," said Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr. "Swan Lake has evolved over time from a streetcar suburb to a vibrant near-downtown urban neighborhood because of the pride, passion and civic engagement of its residents."
The Swan Lake Neighborhood Association was instrumental in having the area listed as a historic preservation (HP) district, and its members continue to keep commercial development along the perimeter and out of the neighborhood itself.
But that hasn't stopped some developers from infringing upon Swan Lake's borders through a planned unit development (called a PUD).
Engineer and blogger extraordinaire Michael Bates of Batesline cited an example of PUDs at work in Swan Lake: "The big vacant lot south of 14th St. between Troost and Utica Aves. Already, developers have eroded HP-zoned neighborhoods along Utica by razing protected homes for parking as part of PUDs for large office buildings."
So, how did developers accomplish this? It's a sneaky little loophole, which some city councilors are trying to close.
When a developer puts forward a small area plan, or PUD, the plan may include land with, for example, a mixture of residential, commercial and office zoning.
Put very simply, within the borders of the PUD, a developer can take these spaces and move the zoning around like pieces of a puzzle. The concern is that a developer could switch the zoning on HP residential-zoned homes to say, office space. In one fell swoop, some gorgeous historic homes could be bulldozed to make room for a new office building.
The City Council placed a moratorium on PUDs, but on Dec. 1 it will sunset.
District 9 City Councilor G.T. Bynum said he originally proposed the moratorium to give the two opposing forces a chance to regroup and "be protected from each other."
Bynum voted against continuing the moratorium so that other PUD projects around the city could move forward, he said.
"It would've been different if there wasn't a legislative process in place," Bynum said.
A few steps, including city council approval, are required before a developer is allowed to progress with a PUD.
For now, almost all of award-winning Swan Lake is intact. Its Prairie School, Beaux Arts, Georgian Colonial Revival and Monterrey/Spanish Eclectic homes nestle in the quiet shade of hundred-year-old trees.
The hope is that through HP zoning at the local level and the national register at the federal level will offer double-duty protection against invasive, non-conforming development.
The six areas that are zoned with a historic preservation overlay are also on the National Register of Historic Places.
These two distinctions are similar but different. The national register offers national recognition and some protection when federal dollars get involved, while the HP zoning provides limited protection locally.
"Historic neighborhoods seek out HP zoning to provide extra protection from alterations and unsympathetic new construction," according to the Tulsa Preservation Commission's website.
Some home buyers think buying a home in a historic neighborhood means a lot of extra work and regulations. But recently, changes at the Tulsa Preservation Commission have made the process of changing or altering a historic home easier.
While exterior renovations and some repairs must be reviewed by the commission before the work can proceed, these changes make this process easier on homeowners.
City of Tulsa Historic Preservation Planner Amanda DeCort said they've added an extra commission meeting per month, scheduled later in the day so that homeowners have more opportunities to show their renovation plans to the commission.
The commission has also reduced its board to just five people, and reduced the number of renovations that need a full board approval, DeCort said.
Tulsa's historic legacy is being preserved through neighborhoods like Swan Lake, along with other great T-Town neighborhoods that are also creatively and carefully conserving their pasts and their architecture, too. Check out Swan Lake's sister story this week on our city page, "Meet Modern Tulsa."
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