POSTED ON JUNE 13, 2012:
Other cities may offer a model for Pearl District property code compromise
It took about 25 minutes on June 6 for local planning authorities to merely follow a staff recommendation and postpone discussion until a later meeting.
Such is the routine when the topic involves the ambitious proposal to revamp rules for property development in the Pearl District.
No vote will happen until at least Aug. 1, with two community outreach meetings and a work session scheduled in the meantime to perhaps help resolve what has become a divisive issue.
Like many recent meetings, the June 6 meeting of the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission included comment from a business-owner expressing skepticism about the idea.
From afar, experts in the type of urban plan known as a form-based code express little surprise that the measure has met with some resistance.
"You know, change is hard," said Mary Madden, a principal with Ferrell Madden, the firm that helped draft an early version of Tulsa's code. "Most people are willing to just stick with a system or process that they know and they're familiar with, rather than go to a new system, unless there are clear benefits."
The idea is to create a neighborhood bustling with sidewalk traffic and what's known as mixed-use development. Residential buildings might be next door to -- or directly above -- retail shops and eateries, while parking lots would largely be banished to the rear of buildings.
Backers emphasize that this would not require existing property owners to change their existing buildings, and say that, in some ways, allowing for mixed-use gives greater flexibility to developers. Renovations of existing buildings would be allowed -- up to a point -- before the code requirements kick in.
But with vocal skeptics opposed to change, planning commissioners have asked to see revisions of the code to be studied as a possible compromise.
The current angst relates to implementing the code throughout the approximately 70-block Pearl District. Bounded to the north and south by East 1st and East 11th streets, the area is between a combination of streets, including South Madison Avenue, to the west, and South Utica Avenue to the east.
It's on South Utica Avenue where Herbert Finnell owns a car wash.
"There are just car businesses up and down that street," Finnell told planning commissioners at the June 6 meeting. The stretch of the street that might be affected by the form-based code includes a Sonic restaurant and two other restaurants with drive-through windows, including McDonald's, which has voiced firm opposition to the plan.
The code in its current form still has a vocal backer in Bill Leighty, a real estate professional and a member of the planning commission since 2009.
"Form-based codes, they offer a variety of real tangible benefits, but, quite frankly, they can only really be realized if we can get past the fear of the unknown and really be bold," Leighty said in an interview.
In recent public meetings, his fellow planning commissioners have been asked about perhaps reducing the size of the area where the code might apply, or even making it so that property owners could decide if they want to "opt-in" and develop their property under the form-based code.
Madden said other cities have made the code optional, but sometimes with little result.
"In my experience, there are only a handful of places that have adopted optional codes that have seen significant development under the optional code," Madden said.
One community with a form-based code has had an opt-in model from the start. In Virginia, an area known as the Columbia Pike corridor has nevertheless had developers of nine residential projects all choose the form-based code, said Inta Malis, a planning commissioner for the area.
"We did not have to argue about whether a property owner wanted a form-based code. We just made it so financially attractive that no one has built using" another option, said Malis.
For that community, the big carrot was allowing developers to build taller buildings if they followed the form-based code. Of course, that area has extensive public transportation and a much denser population, noted Mark White, a planner and attorney with Kansas City-based White and Smith, which unsuccessfully bid for work related to Tulsa codes.
An option to build skyward may not have the same appeal to developers in Tulsa, White said.
Still, cities have a range of incentives to offer if they choose not to make a form-based code mandatory, he said.
"If you're going to make this optional, you've got to give the commercial developers a really good reason to use this optional code -- which means streamlined procedures," White said, explaining that providing an express lane for form-based code followers to get project approvals can be a "very powerful" incentive.
White said he's not always an advocate for mandating change. He noted development in Kansas City took time to take shape, citing the city's roughly 15-block Country Club Plaza.
"Design-wise and functionally, it's a truly mixed-use area. It wasn't that way when it was first built. It took decades for it to evolve into what it is today," White said.
He said he didn't know exactly how many cities have an optional form-based code, but that many variations have been adopted.
"It's all over the place, what cities do with this issue," White said.
Leighty asked rhetorically if Tulsa wants to follow "a long-range, progressive goal" of being a community "that provides choices." The discussion of the form-based code is "a very important thing" for Tulsa, he said.
"That's why I think everyone is willing to try to take the time to make it right. The tweaks that are being suggested, if that's what has to be done in order to get this thing approved, I guess I'm supportive of it," Leighty said. Yet, in the next breath he added, "the idea of opting in or opting out will never work."
Even if approved by planning authorities, implementing the plan for the entire Pearl District would still require approval by city councilors.
"In most places, there's always some pushback," Madden said. "In some places, it's minor. In some places, it's significant enough that a code simply doesn't get adopted."
What makes the difference between adoption and defeat?
"Sometimes, the difference between those two comes back to what the leadership does," Madden said. "Sort of how strongly they're advocating for the new form-based code, or if they're sort of observing. I think that can make a big difference in changing a system, changing a process."
White said that Tulsa can benefit from the discussion, no matter the outcome.
"At a minimum, it would be a good thing if the city learned from the process, what works with businesses and developers and homeowners and others, and what kinds of things are acceptable to people in the community, what things aren't," White said. "Whether the community adopts this ... or not, they've certainly had a very valuable learning experience."
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