Helmerich Park is an approximately 70-acre piece of land at 71st Street South and Riverside Parkway in the City of Tulsa. Since 1991, it has been a part of the linear park system along the banks of the Arkansas River through Tulsa. Its location is immediately across the river from Tulsa’s acclaimed Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness Park. It offers a perfect view of Turkey Mountain, is the site of annual bald eagle watches and other bird and water fowl viewing, and is a location slated for the establishment and restoration of wetlands.
Helmerich Park is operated and maintained by the City of Tulsa Department of Parks and Recreation and is listed with all other Tulsa Parks on City park maps and on its web site. Helmerich Park’s bicycle and pedestrian trail is also shown as a part of the official Tulsa City/County River Parks Authority trail system.
Original development plans date to the early 70s
According to the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission (TMAPC), in 1972 the 71st and Riverside property was given certain land use classifications, including a Planned Unit Development allowing for a mix of commercial, office and apartment uses. A development group known as the Riverside Company held title to the land in the 1980’s, but by 1990 it had deeded the land back to its lender – First National Bank – in lieu of foreclosure.
The history associated with this land becoming a park dates back to about mid-year 1990. In the summer and fall of that year, the Tulsa Mayor and City Council began formulating the list of projects to be put before voters for funding through a capital improvements sales tax.
Park planning first began in 1990
Newspaper articles in those weeks and months described the planning effort. According to those reports, funding for parks and recreation projects were to be a part of the overall tax package.
Input on potential projects was solicited from the public, as well as City of Tulsa departments and agencies. The River Parks Authority (RPA) was among them. In September 1990, Jack Zink and Chester Cadieux, Chairman and Vice Chairman of RPA respectively, asked for a special meeting with then Mayor Rodger Randle to discuss the acquisition of the land on Riverside Drive between 71st Street and Joe Creek” in the upcoming sales tax vote.
Early park funding proposals failed to materialize
When the final list of projects to be submitted to voters in December 1990 was announced, however, acquisition of the 71st and Riverside tract was not included. The sales tax capital improvements package was approved by Tulsa voters on December 4, 1990, including $19 million for other important park projects.
Also in 1990, John Moody, a prominent local attorney who generally represented developers on zoning matters, also became personally interested in acquiring the 71st and Riverside tract. On behalf of a California developer with whom he partnered, Moody offered First National Bank $5,186,000 for the property for development of a $25 million commercial retail, entertainment, health club, and restaurant complex .
Walter H. Helmerich, III, who was serving as a member of the Board Directors of First National Bank, learned of the plan being advanced by Moody and the California developer. Reacting swiftly, he approached Mayor Randle in an effort to save the land from commercial development and inquired about the city’s interests in obtaining the land for park purposes as RPA had suggested less than six months earlier.
New development plans surface but quickly disappear
Moody learned of Helmerich’s interest in trying to secure the land for park purposes by virtue of newspaper accounts of the discussions between Helmerich and Mayor Randle. Moody asked for an opportunity to present his commercial development concept to Helmerich to discuss and illustrate how it would be beneficial to Tulsa.
On the day Moody was to meet with Helmerich – in fact, as he arrived at Helmerich’s office, Moody received a call from an aide to Mayor Randle. Mayor Randle’s representative told Moody that there was no need to meet with Walt Helmerich that day because – paraphrasing – there would be no commercial development on the to-be-park land as long as Mr. Helmerich lived. At that point, Moody’s and his development partner’s efforts ended. A newspaper article that appeared in the Tulsa World on May 15, 1991, chronicles the end of the pursuit of commercial development on the land.
Walter H. Helmerich, III offers a plan to save the land for park use
The discussions between Helmerich and Mayor Randle led to the creation of a joint public/private effort to buy the land from First National Bank. A purchase price of $4.5 million was set. Helmerich offered and agreed to underwrite half of the purchase price – $2.25 million – if the City of Tulsa would match that amount. According to accounts from that time, the Helmerich Foundation ultimately provided $1 million and other private donors contributed $1.5 million all of which was received by the City of Tulsa Park Acquisition Fund. The City Council then passed an ordinance allocating $2.25 million in collections from the 1985 third penny sales tax to its Park Facilities Improvements account.
Between June 2 and June 5, 1991, Park Friends, Inc. (the non-profit organization supporting Tulsa parks), the River Parks Authority, the City of Tulsa, the Tulsa Public Facilities Authority (TPFA) and First National Bank engaged in a series of rapidly completed transactions that resulted in the public acquisition of ± 70 acres of land stretching south from the southwest corner of 71st Street and Riverside Parkway as detailed in these documents.
Helmerich Park officially recognized
On June 28, 1991, the Tulsa Parks and Recreation Board, on the motion of Mayor Randle, officially named this newly acquired park land Helmerich Park.
The City Park Department, with Helmerich now a Park Board member, immediately assumed responsibility for Helmerich Park. Its planning section completed the initial park layout. Helmerich hired a consultant to design a playground. He hired contractors to build both the playground and sand volleyball courts. Personnel from the Park Department assisted in the construction of the splash pad. The Tulsa Park Department has maintained all features of the park since June 1991 and has paid all associated costs through its annual budget with appropriations from the City’s general fund.
In 1999, an exciting concept for the growth of Helmerich Park was developed for the Park Department. Funding limitations – due in part to the failure of tax measures in 1997 and 2000 – prevented the plan from being implemented.
Arkansas River Corridor Master Plan takes shape
Beginning in 2004, completed in 2009, a comprehensive set of plans for the Arkansas River corridor was developed and adopted. The resulting Arkansas River Corridor Master Plan, a three phase, $1.5 million, 2,100- page plan, includes special treatment of Helmerich Park.
The recommended development concept includes establishment and restoration of wetlands on this specific 70-acre tract. There is also the notion of a modest, aesthetically pleasing and compatible recreation-oriented retail and restaurant facility that would be nestled into the mid-section of the park. This concept even envisions a large lake that would be stocked for fishing and of sufficient size to accommodate paddle-boating and kayak practice.
The Arkansas River Corridor Master Plan was adopted by the Tulsa City Council and was later incorporated, without amendment, into the City’s new comprehensive plan in 2010.
City of Tulsa quietly solicits development proposals in 2013
In July 2013, the City’s Office of Planning and Economic Development informed the Tulsa Public Facilities Authority, which has held title to the park land, despite having no involvement with it, that the City wanted to pursue commercial development in Helmerich Park. Describing the tract only as “land owned by TPFA at 71st and Riverside,” and not by its official name, the City drafted TPFA to join it in issuing a request for proposals for development of the tract “with emphasis on retail/recreation venues” (Attachment 15). On its face, “retail/recreation” development – which would be by a ground-lease agreement – appeared to be in line with the treatment of the park as presented in the adopted Arkansas River Corridor Master Plan.
According to a verbal report to TPFA in November 2013, no responsive proposal had been received. Other than a promised explanation of “how the requests were solicited” there was no public indication of any further pursuit of retail development in the park.
Lack of interest prompts City to change course
In July 2014, there began a series of monthly meetings of TPFA Trustees in private “executive session.” The only information made available to the public about these non-public sessions was in posted meeting agendas describing discussion of a “development proposal” for “land at 71st and Riverside.” There later appeared on certain TPFA agendas a vague reference to a “letter of intent,” but there was no indication as to what was the development “intent.” It was also not clear who – the City, the TPFA, a private company – was making the so-called proposal.
Contemporaneously, and completely unknown to the public, there was an attempt to attract the national headquarters of USA BMX, which had made it known it wanted to relocate. This effort advanced to the conceptual stage with formal drawings and a visual presentation. The layout of the facility, according to the drawings, would have consumed more than half of the 70-acre Helmerich Park tract. This idea was apparently withdrawn in the Spring of 2015.
Then, on June 25, 2015, with just 25 hours’ notice to the public, TPFA added to a previously set and posted regular meeting agenda a possible revision or extension to the abstruse letter of intent apparently associated with the undisclosed development proposal. Also, and quite surprisingly, there was an added agenda item regarding a “Purchase and Sale Contract” for land owned by TPFA generally described as located at 71st and Riverside.
Focus shifts from a proposed lease to an outright sale of land
Prior to this June 25th, 2015 meeting there appears to have been no public discussion – no indication or notice of any sort – related to any interest, plan, or intent to sell portions of Helmerich Park. According to the minutes of that meeting, following a private executive session, a 60-day extension of the letter of intent was granted, instead of the 30 days indicated on the agenda. Further, a non-public session was held apparently to discuss the new item regarding the sale of Helmerich Park land. After the private session, no information was made available about the location or scope of any sale and “the members decided to take no further action.”
On July 23, 2015, representatives of an unnamed person or entity – described as “Lawyer for Lessee” – filed with the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission (TMAPC) an application for approval of a detailed site plan for a commercial shopping center in Helmerich Park. The Tulsa Public Facilities Authority was listed in the application as the owner of this land, but there was no public record of what land may have been under lease, nor who was the “Lessee.” The matter was set for consideration by the TMAPC board at a meeting to be held two weeks later.
On the same day, July 23, TPFA held a regularly scheduled meeting. The agenda again contained an item for the possible revision or extension of the still-secret, development-related letter of intent, however, that item was pulled from the agenda during the meeting. The matter of the Purchase and Sale Contract for Helmerich Park land was taken up in still another private executive session which resulted in approval of continued sale contract negotiations.
A special TPFA meeting was set for July 29, which was held and at which the Purchase and Sale Contract was again discussed in non-public session. Action on it at that meeting was tabled. Six days later, on August 11, at still another specially-called meeting of TPFA, an out-of-state developer was formally introduced to the public.
Sale approved / Lawsuit filed
The development company revealed a nearly 50,000 square foot commercial retail development on acreage in Helmerich Park that it was asking to buy and TPFA was offering to sell – not lease. Following the visual presentation and after allowing public comment on the proposed development, TPFA approved selling over almost nine (9) acres of the park. According to documents made available to the public following that meeting, the closing of the sale is contingent upon the developer obtaining commitments from certain retail tenants.
On August 11, 2015, the day the park land was sold by TPFA, a lawsuit seeking to prevent the sale of the Helmerich Park land was filed in Tulsa County District Court. Hearings on the matter are anticipated sometime in 2016. In January 2016, a group of concerned citizens formed the non-profit Helmerich Park Defense Alliance in of the pending lawsuit and for long-terefforts to save and protect Helmerich Park. It is clear the sale of Helmerich Park land will not move forward, if at all, until the lawsuit is resolved.
The tandem efforts by the City of Tulsa and TPFA beginning in mid-2014 – both the proposed 40-acre USA BMX headquarters and the 35-acre high intensity commercial shopping center – would have swallowed one of the largest parks in Tulsa. With only token public discussion a City-operated park that had been funded by private interests and Tulsa taxpayers and continuously in use by the public for a quarter of a century was being sold off – and not even to the highest bidder.
Future of Helmerich Park now in the hands of District Court
The USA BMX facility is now proposed to be located at the old Driller Stadium in Expo Square. The original 35-acres promoted for commercial retail development has been reduced to either 12.3 acres or 8.8 acres, depending upon the source, but as an on-line advertisement illustrates, plans for a shopping center there are still quite alive.
Helmerich Park holds an important place in Tulsa’s river corridor park system. As the growth of our linear river park continues, there are real possibilities for Helmerich Park, just as we now see for the Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness Park and The Gathering Place for Tulsa.
Since all of this information has come to light, strong public support to save the land for park use has been continuous and overwhelming. In the court of public opinion there is little question that Tulsans want to see Helmerich Park preserved for future generations. With that said, it is also clear that they also strongly support an REI Store in Tulsa, at another location, and there are many to choose from that would work for all parties.
Keeping attention on the matter before the court will demonstrate how important this issue is to our community. You can make a difference in the outcome by continuing the conversation with our elected officials, and also in the mainstream media and social media. Every Tulsan has a stake in the outcome of this classic struggle and your help is desperately needed.
Without it, the park – and Walt Helmerich’s dream – may be forever lost.