In the not-to-distant past, the announcement of a new parking garage downtown would pass with little notoriety. Even now, on the apparent eve of construction of the mammoth 519-space structure in the heart of the central business district, media attention had been scarce until just recently.
This project is different. The site on the southeast corner of Fourth and Main streets, now home to a largely ignored and under-utilized plaza, is hallowed ground to many who grew up in Tulsa during the 40s and 50s. Historic photos of the era are on display in the lobby of a nearby Tulsa Parking Authority garage mentioned later in this piece. It’s a great trip down memory lane for the nostalgic minded the next time you are in the area.
Re-imagining downtown’s glory days
The commercial area at Fourth and Main streets was once home to an array of mixed use businesses, from extravagant movie theaters to fine dining and upscale shopping establishments in the once thriving and vibrant urban core of the city.
Now, after decades of decline brought on in part by the exodus of retailers to the suburbs and oil and gas companies to Houston, new life and new energy is emerging.
For those keen on planning and managing this growth in a responsible and sustainable manner, an opportunity exists to re-create the vibrancy that once made Tulsa the 19th most densely populated city in the United States.
Success will almost certainly require the adoption and implementation of some modest design guidelines to ensure the outcomes envisioned in earlier planning efforts are achieved; to improve the walkability and quality of life for all in downtown Tulsa.
The much cussed and discussed parking facility, the subject of planning and debate for years, has not been without controversy. While the need for more structured parking in the area has been well-documented, the original monolithic garage design proposal was dominated by blank-walls and lacked first floor retail; falling short of the place-making strategies the city has recently embraced.
Even so, the garage being developed by First Place LLC led by Stuart Price, was issued a building permit last year because no regulatory prohibitions existed then or now to deny what most new-urbanists consider as non-conforming or inappropriate developments.
Things might have been different had the previous administration supported the inclusion of an “overlay” zoning tool for downtown as provided for in other parts of the city during the recent zoning code update. That debate is ongoing.
Form and Function – structured parking can excel at both
Design differences cause a rift
The most recent controversy centers around the First Place LLC application for a six-year ad valorem tax abatement, estimated at $940,000 to help finance the 168,000 square feet five-story facility with two basement levels and a cost estimated at $12.8 million.
Despite an implied ultimatum from the developer, the committee that evaluates tax-abatement projects refused to agree to, or even vote on the abatement at a meeting several months ago, based upon the absence of any specifics as to what the structure would look like. Representatives of the developer hastily exited the room after the meeting, having called for an up or down vote and giving the impression the deal was dead without an abatement approval. Shortly thereafter the application for abatement was withdrawn by the applicant.
In a refreshing twist, Mayor Bynum apparently interceded at that point, working with the parties behind-the-scenes to craft a solution. Weeks later the abatement committee reconvened and gave the green-light for the nearly $1 million in public incentives for the project, stipulating that approval was conditioned upon the ground floor having mostly glass-storefront, commercial space with ample pedestrian access and no parking on that level.
The committees’ approval and terms were then conveyed to the developer, helping to re-open dialogue between the parties.
Negotiations ultimately lead to a compromise
First Place LLC responded by agreeing to some but not all the committees’ stipulations, and offering a revised rendering reflecting an approximate 3,000-sf commercial restaurant space on the corner of the building, leaving the door open for more blank walls and some ground-level parking.
The abatement committee then scheduled another meeting for August 28th to review the applicant’s response and act on it. Nodding to the Mayor and seemingly convinced the compromise was better-than-nothing, the committee then voted to move to the next step; offering the proposal for consideration and final determination by the various tax entities with interest in the property: Tulsa Public Schools, Tulsa County, the City of Tulsa, Tulsa Community College, Tulsa Technology Center, the Tulsa Heath Department and the Tulsa City-County Library system.
Final approval by the committee and ultimately by the City Council seems not much more than a formality at this point. Fences are up, demolition has begun, and construction appears eminent.
At nearly the same time, Mayor Bynum, exercising his discretionary powers has recommended the Tulsa Development Authority extend the length of a no-interest Downtown Development and Redevelopment Fund for 1.67 million for the First Place LLC project from 6 to 12 years, as an additional incentive. They (the TDA) voted unanimously on September 7th, to negotiate the agreement with the developer, affirming the mayor’s work toward a resolution.
While the lack of commitment to full first-floor retail activation in the new garage is disappointing, District 4 City Councilor, Blake Ewing seems undeterred. Responding to claims by the applicant that they are challenged to attract high-end retail because of the condition of a nearby garage and its ground-level storefronts, Ewing sprang into action.
The Tulsa Parking Authority owns a major downtown parking garage directly west and across Main Street from of the proposed new parking structure. The decades old facility is in obvious need of a facelift, and Councilor Ewing approached the parking authority with the idea of making improvements to the facility to help enhance the prospects for attracting desirable retail to the area, which would thereby improve TPA revenues.
It seems his efforts were favorably received and various options are now being reviewed for potential new investments in the structure and surrounding publicly owned space.
Time and again, at that August 28th meeting and since then in private conversations, Ewing has predicted that the market for prime retail space will be strong enough to convince the First Place LLC principals that income from leasing space for businesses with cash registers would far exceed what can be earned from parking spaces.
Sensible design guidelines are desperately needed downtown
In the long term, it’s clear Tulsa would benefit by adopting best-practice regulatory design guidelines to ensure the built-environment, both public and private, delivers on the goals of previous planning efforts. Those ambitions imagine a strong sense of place, attracting and retaining talent and encouraging tourism while simultaneously providing dividends for public health, transportation, livability and quality of life.
While some property owners predictably resist what they consider to be cumbersome and sometimes expensive regulations, they are arguably the ones who have the most to gain by them. It is a mistake by those who dismiss design standards as nothing more than unnecessary aesthetics serving as barriers to doing business.
Smart design is a precondition for successful density. Mindful of the cliche “not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted,” a growing collection of data suggests that smart design creates real economic value, and saves money for both the public and private sectors. In other words, the positive outcomes of design standards can be measured both quantitatively and qualitatively.
Smart urban design might also help reduce demand for downtown’s over-built surface parking lots and encourage development of what now appear as missing teeth in our urban smile. Wouldn’t that be nice.