Published March 27, 2016 by Michael Bates (Batesline)
Vision Tulsa Vote Yes ads claim (dishonestly) that approval of the Vision Tulsa Dam Tax hike on April 5, 2016, will prevent future strip malls from being built along the river. In fact, nothing in the Vision Tulsa propositions address development standards. Moreover,
the City Council has the power right now to prevent inappropriate development, both through the zoning ordinance and through placing conditions on the sale or lease of city-owned land. Far from helping protect the river corridor, voter approval of the proposed Vision Tulsa Dam Tax would instead surrender the only financial leverage Tulsans have to push for common-sense rules to ensure appropriate future development along the Arkansas River.
The City Council has had the power all along to amend the zoning ordinance to require appropriate and compatible development along the river. The City Council could create a new zoning district along the river and specify design guidelines for any new construction within the district. If the design guidelines are sufficiently objective, they could be enforced directly through the permitting process. If the design guidelines involve a degree of subjective judgment, the ordinance could require that applications for construction be approved by a design review board before a building permit is issued. While this cannot be done overnight — the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission would have to review such an ordinance and make a recommendation before the City Council could act — it can be done. We have an example just down the turnpike.
Oklahoma City has numerous design-focused zoning overlay districts; many of them have been in place for over 30 years. Some are intended to preserve the walkable, urban characteristics of historic commercial districts like 23rd Street and Classen Blvd. Some are aimed at ensuring that new development is compatible with existing development in a neighborhood. Two districts, established in 2007, specifically deal with the banks of the North Canadian River (aka “Oklahoma River”): The Scenic River Overlay District and the Scenic River Overlay Design District.
It’s not as though the need for design guidelines along Tulsa’s riverfront has suddenly arisen. Starting around ten years ago, chain restaurants, a shopping center, and a convenience store were built on the west side of Riverside between 96th Street and 101st Street. All of these buildings turn their backs to the river, and most are typical cookie-cutter, chain-store architecture, a huge waste of the unique opportunity presented by the river (sandbars or no sandbars). That nothing has been done to date leads me to believe that nothing would be done once the Council has secured the dam tax increase.
(MORE: In an August 2006 column, I explained why design guidelines were appropriate for unique places like riverfronts and the gateways to our city. In February 2007, then-Mayor Kathy Taylor called for a study of special zoning for the river corridor, but as far as I can tell, the effort never went beyond the discussion phase.)
City leaders have even more control over riverfront development when the project requires the use of publicly-owned land. And yet our current mayor and council seem determined to discard that leverage.Follow @FortySixNews