In November of 2015, after a rigorous and lengthy process, the Tulsa City Council formally adopted an updated zoning code which became effective in January of 2016. Through that process, we made a number of significant improvements to Tulsa’s outdated land use policies, which at the time were absent some valuable tools utilized by thriving cities. It was an important step for Tulsa and a notable end to the several year-long process that began with community-wide public forums, workshops and meetings.
I’m proud to have served as the City Council representative on the zoning code update team and I’m confident the work we did will prove vital to Tulsa’s future as it relates to how we use our land. Though there were some spirited debates between representatives of the development community and the few urbanists on the committee, for the most part, the professional planning staff and consultants were able to guide us through a difficult process to a successful outcome.
Making the case for minimum design standards
One of the areas of the new code for which I advocated most strongly, was for the city’s ability to utilize “overlays” in targeted areas. The tool allows certain modifications of the existing land-use standards to achieve defined outcomes that are consistent with the community’s vision and comprehensive plan.
Overlays have proven to be a valuable tool for both small and large cities nationwide who seek to enhance the built-environment, both in the public and private realms. These tools help achieve a sense of place by providing specific direction or development standards in areas of critical importance. They are implemented for both the protection and/or enhancement of the community’s quality of life.
Through the process, I was able to make the case to my colleagues on the City Council that the investment we were asking citizens to make in the Arkansas River Corridor through the Vision Tulsa process would be best protected with an overlay. There was quick acceptance of the notion and work began on the creation of the city’s first design guidelines, which we’ve since adopted for the river corridor.
The strong support from my fellow councilors for such guidelines along the river made what could have been a contentious item into an easy win for those of us advocating for the tools’ inclusion in the new code. Before the zoning code update even came to the council for a vote, we were already presumptively working on the river corridor design guidelines.
Resistance surfaced based on fear of the unknown
As the process advanced in putting the various elements of the new code together in a seamless document, a debate ensued as to whether or not downtown Tulsa should be exempted from having access to the overlay tool. To be clear, this wasn’t a debate about whether or not we should have an overlay downtown. The question was whether or not downtown would even have the ability to consider one.
It was determined that the Downtown Coordinating Council would vote on the matter and make a recommendation to either include or exclude the area inside the inner dispersal loop. The DCC is a group of stakeholders designed to represent the diversity of interests in downtown. It’s comprised of large property owners, small property owners, retail establishments, restaurants, hoteliers, the stadium trust, different districts, and young professionals.
The DCC recommended against downtown Tulsa having access to the same tool that was to become available everywhere else in city.
Essentially, the arguments against it centered on property rights issues, with owners not wanting the government to tell downtown developers what they could and couldn’t do with their property. The thought was that most folks could be trusted to do the right thing and they didn’t need or want any guidelines restricting them, especially if those guidelines could be at risk of even the slightest overreach.
I disputed those arguments both in the DCC and before the City Council, where the idea of a downtown overlay option was also rejected. The Councilors who voted to exclude downtown felt like the DCC was better qualified to make the determination, so they deferred to them.
My perception is that a small but animated group of downtown owners aggressively opposed the overlay concept by meeting with and calling their fellow DCC members, imploring them to vote against the overlay option. In the end, a serious amount of politicking appears to have negatively influenced both the DCC and City Council votes, but not without the dissemination of considerable doom and gloom nonsense that was either uninformed or dishonest.
Looking back, I handled it poorly
I assumed common sense would prevail over fear-mongering and I under-estimated the opposition, including Mayor Bartlett, who had previously shown little interest in downtown land-use matters during my time in office.
He (Bartlett) showed up at the only DCC meeting at which I’d ever seen him, to vote on the issue, then lobbied councilors to vote with him after that. Clearly, he was “convinced” by those against it that it wasn’t good for Tulsa.
I take responsibility for underestimating the opposition, and for not effectively countering it. By the time I put together my power-point presentation for the council meeting where I explained what it was and wasn’t, it was too late. The no votes had already been lined up.
That decision by the council led to the adoption of the zoning code with the overlay tool available everywhere except downtown, home of the most valuable land in the city. The exemption is unprecedented so far as I know. There are communities that have overlays only in their downtown’s, but I’m not aware of any major city that allows them everywhere except in their downtown.
Despite a world of experts declaring otherwise, and substantial evidence that overlays do not inhibit development or detract from architectural creativity, some observers failed to grasp the potential benefits of the tool. They chose instead to focus on what they perceived as “restrictions to their property rights.” To me, that thinking indicates a rather limited understanding of how overlays actually work.
For example, a few years ago, the council approved a more relaxed sign code in the nine blocks that make up the Blue Dome District. Previously, signs were not allowed to extend above the parapet of the roof.
It wasn’t called an overlay at the time, as the tool wasn’t available, so the change was made through a clumsy amendment to the existing sign ordinance. Regardless, in this case, a signage overlay to accomplish that outcome wouldn’t have been considered a restriction, but rather a relaxing of the existing code.
So what about the times when there are restrictions, you might ask? Opponents who suggest that restrictions impede new developments seem to imply that all new developments add value. I could dedicate a few paragraphs about why that’s obviously not the case, but I don’t feel it is necessary to do so.
Let’s be honest, we all live with property restrictions today
No matter where you live or work in the city, your property is zoned to permit certain uses and restrict others.
Those restrictions keep noisy or smelly industrial uses or high traffic commercial uses from disrupting residential neighborhoods, for example. They are in place because we’ve acknowledged as a community that what we do with our property has an impact on those around us.
Existing ordinances require owners to maintain their structures and mow their lawns because tall grass and unsecured property attract pests and adversely affect surrounding property values.
To maintain that one owner’s right to do what he pleases with his property is more important than how it impacts his neighbor’s property, violates a basic tenet of living in community with others. If how a property sounds or smells is acknowledged to have an impact, surely we can also acknowledge that how it looks or where the cars are parked does as well.
Overlays are NOT an unrestrained over-reach
They are a tool designed to protect the community from the potentially damaging consequences of inconsiderate and inappropriate real estate developments.
Recently, the same Downtown Coordinating Council that voted to oppose overlays, hired Jeff Speck to perform a walkability study in downtown Tulsa. It was a milestone day. Speck is a nationally regarded urban planner and walkability expert. The DCC tasked him with evaluating our downtown and then with recommending affordable measures we could implement to improve the downtown experience for everyone, especially pedestrians.
Early in the evaluation process, I informed Speck in a group meeting that some of the DCC members who hired him had voted against allowing an overlay to be considered for downtown. He quickly responded that we had it backwards. If any area of town needs an overlay, it’s downtown, he suggested.
I want to emphasize this point: the proponents of the downtown overlay that I know are not seeking to regulate taste. They support the overlay because poor design downtown can actually be more damaging than in other parts of city.
The greater the density and the higher the number of pedestrians, the more likely it is that a surface parking lot or a blank wall fronting a sidewalk will harm the pedestrian experience. Why is that important? When people feel comfortable walking, the area thrives culturally, economically, and experientially. The community-wide implications should not be underestimated.
Jeff Speck’s downtown overlay recommendations do not include limiting the types of available building styles, or prescribing exterior façade colors, or requiring specific architectural elements or building materials, and I’m not promoting such prescriptive measures either.
Please note that each of his recommendations follow a statement about impact of undesirable characteristics in the built-environment: surface parking lots kill vitality, dead walls create dead sidewalks, excessive curb cuts endanger pedestrians. We routinely zone property to protect the community from inappropriate uses. Why would we also not want to protect other property owners and the rest of the community from building practices that adversely affect the welcoming environment we are trying to create?
A single page of design guidelines could vastly improve the experience for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit users in downtown Tulsa with only minor sacrifices required of those in vehicles. The guidelines also provide a measure of protection to existing property owners that their investments will not victimized by poorly conceived developments that threaten nearby property values and hinder healthy urban lifestyles.
Developers in some communities praise overlays because of the predictability that design guidelines help create. Some however, remain skeptical, fearing that giving an inch now might open the door for someone down the line to over-regulate. I understand their concerns. That’s why the zoning code update also prescribes a comprehensive public process that involves stakeholder input before changes are made. Nobody wants a runaway train of regulation. That’s why there are numerous protections in place to prevent it.
The benefits of overlays are clear, having worked successfully in a number of cities. Experts in walkability, downtown revitalization, and place-making almost universally agree that design guidelines are a valuable tool that help any downtown achieve its potential.
Cities across the country have seen their downtowns flourish, not in spite of overlays, but because of them. Let’s not wait until it’s too late. How many more solid concrete walls or sidewalk-fronting surface lots do we have to endure in downtown before we realize that a one-page addition to the zoning code will ensure a vibrant and pedestrian friendly environment for generations to come?