In early 2009, about a week or so before I attended my first meeting as a newly appointed member of the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission; I met with Wayne Alberty, then Director of Land Development Services at INCOG to get my marching orders.
The planning commission and Wayne in particular were getting a lot of heat at that time because of the controversial and now infamous Sonoma Grande fiasco. The case is well documented so I’ll spare you the gory details. Here is the short version. A monolithic and elevated multi-family development was being built right up against an existing lower density single family residential community in south Tulsa.
At the time I was pretty sympathetic with Wayne and his staff. Based upon what I knew in the beginning I dismissed most of the neighborhood complaints as baseless whining which resulted from their own lack of due diligence. Like most others I assumed that the zoning for the apartments was already in place when many or most of the single family homeowners bought their homes.
If those homeowners didn’t bother to check neighboring zoning before they purchased their homes they did it at their own peril I reasoned. So during my meeting with Mr. Alberty, I was eager to offer my support and encouragement to him and his staff. I told him I was a team player and he could count on me to be respectful of staff’s training, experience and intellect.
I was feeling a lot of love in the room.
Well, as it turns out, the Sonoma Grande development exposure was a watershed moment for me. About a month after my first TMAPC meeting, Mayor Kathy Taylor appointed me to represent the planning commission on a newly formed Land Use Task Force whose mission included a review of the Sonoma Grande development process.
Over the next six months our Task Force analyzed the Sonoma Grande application and the PUD which had been approved years earlier along with a host of other land use and zoning issues. We heard from a lot of citizens who felt victimized by a process they did not understand or know how to navigate. Many people felt deceived.
Among other things, the task force exposed serious flaws in the notices that were given to residents before important public hearings affecting their property were scheduled.
We made a raft of recommendations providing for improved notices and better public education and communication of relevant land use decisions being considered. It was a proud moment for me as a volunteer to help improve a process that often resulted in misunderstanding and controversy.
Before this experience I seldom questioned any proposed new real estate developments. I thought of real estate developers as good businessmen who knew what they were doing. As naive as it seems to me now, I usually assumed any new real estate development was good development.
If it improved the value of the land and helped nearby property values that was proof-positive that it was good development. The involvement of bothersome neighbors in the zoning process was a foreign if not offensive idea to me in those days. I was so very wrong; and now I know it and I admit it.
In 2009 I celebrated 20 years in real estate, an industry built on the theory that a piece of land will pursue its highest and best use, whatever that means. Well, there certainly was a time when first land and then capital determined economic growth. Our post-industrial society of today sees highly qualified and creative people as the most crucial resource for future economic growth and development.
It was not until I realized the challenge a community faces when trying to attract and retain the much coveted creative class that I began to see the need for and benefits of truly inclusive urban planning. You could say I had an epiphany of sorts; Tulsa would have to change quickly or be left behind!
Prior to my appointment to the planning commission I knew a little bit about zoning but very little about true urban or community planning. That began to change as the PlaniTulsa process unfolded and planning commissioners were routinely updated by the consultant and city planning staff. It was the beginning of a personal journey of planning enlightenment.
As I began to study the issue it became clear; to attract and retain such talented young people, cities must offer a rich quality of life. That includes comfortable, fast and accessible public transportation; affordable housing options; wide tree-lined sidewalks; protected bicycle lanes; abundant parks, recreational facilities and libraries; and a vibrant cultural and night life scene.
I closely followed the PlaniTulsa initiative which utilized an exhaustive public engagement and planning process led by professionals who conducted workshops and public meetings over a period of months and years. The data which came from that process was then used to help formulate our Comprehensive Plan, adopted in July 2010.
I served on the TMAPC from 2009 until January of 2014. During that time I came to believe that every individual has the right to full and equal participation in decisions affecting the public realm and the built environment. Average citizens are perfectly capable of helping shape their own environment to meet their own needs.
Unfortunately, I discovered most people in cities, including Tulsa, are completely outside the planning process.
City leaders including elected officials and engaged members of local chambers of commerce routinely give weight only to economic deal makers and technical experts with little regard for input from a cross section of their own citizenry.
Mayors and city councils have a tendency to shy away from what should be done in order to appease powerful stakeholders and speculative real estate developers. Real estate development is risky. Progressives and activists should caution against minimizing or trivializing the important role builders and developers play.
With that said, if we aim to be an inclusive city that honors and finds a place for people of all income levels, our elected officials must be cognizant of their responsibility to govern for the common good and not be intimidated by powerful profit driven special interests.
Tulsa should focus on inclusive planning and design based on solid
pecuniary, social, environmental and culturally sensitive policies that allow everyone to improve economically. Our goals should include a broad and inclusive policy framework to help guide our urban planning and decision making processes.
We need land use, zoning and public policy decisions that create economic development opportunities for everyone so they can participate fully in the economy and have access to a variety of quality jobs.
We should pursue zoning codes and incentives that foster safe, healthy neighborhoods with a range of housing types and price levels to accommodate diverse socio-economic background and lifestyle choices.
We must commit to provide full access to quality education choices for all of our residents, with shared use between schools, parks and community facilities. Despite some progress, people of color, and those with low incomes or disadvantaged in some other way continue to live in the areas with poorly performing schools, food deserts, healthcare options and the worst pollution and traffic. Their parks, schools, hospitals and other community facilities do not compare favorably with those in more prosperous parts of the city.
Many of our resident’s needs cannot be fully addressed through physical design standards of the built environment. A more inclusive approach should zero in on developing projects that go beyond bricks and mortar and provide the best of what Tulsa has to offer its citizens. Small area plans are ideally suited to address a neighborhood’s holistic needs.
While fair housing and educational opportunities are crucial to an inclusive city, the lack of mobility options presents the greatest divide between the rich and poor. The disparity between the car-owning middle and upper classes and the transit dependent low income majorities is complex and often goes unacknowledged, at least by the privileged.
The fact is, affluent citizens do not typically partake of many government services like public education, health and transportation; so they frequently fail to recognize the connection between helping those who do rely on those services and how that translates into improving their own lives.
Many of us have insulated ourselves in our cars and our homes, moving silently from one destination to another, from office to mall and supermarket to country club without giving much thought or caring about how others manage to get around.
This auto-centric culture has produced infrastructure building and maintenance needs that are simply not sustainable.
Precious resources that could have gone to schools, housing, parks and social services are instead poured into streets and roads that serve only half of our population. In Tulsa, street maintenance is the main competitor for funds that otherwise could be invested in improving the quality of life for all Tulsans and helping to solve the needs of the poor.
To this point we have not yet mentioned climate change, peak oil and the mounting environmental dangers we all face. Food and fuel are becoming significantly more expensive.
So, the planners and the public are challenged to be ecologically sensitive, to focus on models of true sustainability, and to collaborate with local residents on all fronts including food self-sufficiency, energy conservation, improved drainage systems, and adequate transportation systems.
As a chain is only as strong as its weakest link; we must connect our low income residents with jobs, schools, recreational opportunities and other urban benefits. Public transportation should be considered no less important a priority than police and fire protection.
In the opinion of this writer, if Tulsa is to compete and prosper in the 21st Century we must get started immediately planning and building a reliable multimodal and interconnected public transit system. It should provide seamless spaces that are friendly and inclusive of everyone including those with disabilities, children, seniors, parents and tourists.
So, Bill, you ask, what is the good news? Here it is… the concepts of environmentalism; economic development and social welfare are not mutually exclusive.
The same public policies that help reduce the negative effects on the natural environment can also be used to improve social equity and quality of life overall.
The key is establishing a community will and mindset and formulating a vision for the future. We have already done that. The remaining obstacles for us are more political than economic or technical. If people do not demand accountability and change from their elected officials, it will not be forthcoming. If we do not reverse course quickly I fear Tulsa will become a footnote in history as one of the most promising but under-performing cities of our time, doomed to complete mediocrity.
Cities have the best chance to grow and prosper when they are secure, when they are beautiful, when they are inclusive and when they are stimulating places to live.
We can learn from older cities and from our own mistakes. We should begin by being more mindful and more respectful of the human dignity needs of the most vulnerable among us. PlaniTulsa and Smart Growth Strategies will help us get us there!