Greater Tulsa Reporter
EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR: Bill Leighty, founder and executive director of Smart Growth Tulsa, stands with downtown Tulsa in the background. Smart Growth Tulsa recently gained nonprofit status and launched a fundraising drive on March 15. The funding would allow the organization to grow its advocacy efforts.
EMILY RAMSEY for GTR Newspapers
Advocating for greater citizen engagement and for issues that keep Tulsa on pace with the national trend of vibrant urban cores, Smart Growth Tulsa continues to make itself heard since forming in spring 2014.
Smart Growth Tulsa recently gained nonprofit status with the goal of securing community funding in order to expand its efforts.
Tulsa native Bill Leighty founded Smart Growth Tulsa after becoming concerned about the city’s slow implementation of its comprehensive plan, PlaniTulsa, that was adopted in 2010.
“I tried to bring together a coalition of people and organizations, including ones who have knowledge of urban planning,” says Leighty. “I felt there were voices in our community who were more progressive.”
During the planning process for PlaniTulsa, more than 1,500 Tulsans participated in 11 community workshops during 2008 and 2009 that focused on what issues the city of Tulsa would address in the next 20-30 years and the subsequent solutions.
These issues included the location of residential and business developments, transportation investments, the protection of the environment and open spaces, and expansion of civic offerings such as education and healthcare.
According to PlaniTulsa, those who participated in the workshops painted a future of the city as one with more vibrant streets and corridors, a lively mix of housing, retail, jobs and parks, and a strengthened downtown.
“Tulsans overwhelmingly chose the most progressive option for the city’s future: to improve public transportation, walkable neighborhoods, and discourage urban sprawl,” Leighty says.
Leighty’s background includes 25 years in real estate, five years on the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission, and more than three years on Tulsa’s Transportation Advisory Board and Tulsa’s Land Use Task Force.
Part of the implementation that has taken place since the adoption of PlaniTulsa has been a revision of the city’s zoning code from single-use zoning to multi-use.
Smart Growth Tulsa has taken steps to encourage implementation of the plan’s other elements in a number of ways.
Perhaps most well known is one of the organization’s first issues, in late 2014: the sidewalk along Riverside Drive that will enter from the north into A Gathering Place for Tulsa.
After opposition from local neighbors, then-Mayor Dewey Bartlett elected to eliminate the north-end sidewalk.
Smart Growth Tulsa led the charge, however, to reinstitute the sidewalk, “instead of creating an unsafe situation with no sidewalk,” says Leighty.
City Councilor Blake Ewing, whose district encompasses that area, held two Town Hall meetings that filled beyond capacity.
“That was the beginning of us (Smart Growth Tulsa) having an influence,” Leighty says.
Since then, the group has taken on a number of issues, including request for dedicated funding for mass transit in Vision Tulsa (a first in Tulsa’s history), which led to $47 million being set aside to fund the Bus Rapid Transit line that will run along Peoria Avenue and 11th Street and $10 million to go toward creation of a facility that will serve as a hub for all modes of transportation, known as an intermodal passenger facility.
Additionally, the group advocated for the exclusion of the Arkansas River’s Sand Springs and Bixby dams in the Vision Tulsa package, asked that the city renegotiate leases on its city-owned properties, played a major role in advocating for a rail connection between Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and pioneered Oklahoma’s first-ever participatory budgeting process with its online “budget allocator,” which allowed people to choose their desired Vision projects online, thus providing insight into citizens’ priorities, Leighty says.
“One of the greatest desires from citizens was dedicated funding for parks and recreation; people want to fund our parks department,” he continues.
The budget allocator largely represents Smart Growth Tulsa’s ultimate intentions of “building a more participatory democracy to get more citizens involved.
“We want to use technology to collect data to help our city officials make decisions in line with citizen needs.”
The group’s next step is its fundraising drive “to see if the community is going to support a staff for Smart Growth,” he says.
Smart Growth Tulsa kicked off its fundraising drive on March 15, with a goal of $160,000 to fund one year.
“There are so many things that we still want to do. In order to grow, to be more effective, we need to move forward.”
If the nonprofit secures funding, that “moving forward” includes holding a series of town hall meetings focused on the Arkansas River and what kind of uses the community envisions for the river, advocating for the creation of a community garden at 61st Street and Peoria Avenue and for the non-commercialization of Helmerich Park, and launching the use of Bang the Table, an online engagement platform that offers greater opportunity for community feedback, Leighty says.
“We don’t need people in a back room making decisions that impact the entire community,” says Leighty. “We are an advocate for smart policies that would help the city.”