Comprehensive Planning Important to Region
By CHARLES CANTRELL
FROM OWASSO TO TULSA: Regional Planning is a key to the area’s future.
KELSY LORIN TAYLOR for GTR Newspapers
One of the greatest barriers to urban development is uncertainty. The uncertainty of the cyclical nature of a local economy is both a given and pretty much unavoidable. But uncertainty regarding a community’s use of available land is often an even more formidable obstacle to development. But it is also something that can be addressed to the benefit of everyone by visionary planning.
A city without a comprehensive plan addressing how to best grow and develop is subject to the resulting chaos of factional disputes among homeowners, city officials, residential and commercial developers. Battles over land use rage on at zoning hearings and in courtrooms. Costly attorney fees are incurred by all. Often the struggles play out in political campaigns for local elected office. Without a master plan guiding a community’s growth and development, it’s everyone for themselves, and may the best attorney and/or politician win. Victories often come at the expense of the common good.
For decades Tulsa County and the City of Tulsa had it pretty good because land was plentiful. Tulsa’s sprawling growth came through creating suburbs and it was relatively simple. Fallow farmland and empty acreages were abundant. It was a matter of closing the deal on a parcel of land big enough to plat into a residential development, a shopping center or a business complex that would yield a nice profit. Necessary infrastructure like water, sewage and streets was almost always in place because the city was willing, able and ready to invest tax revenue into stimulating continued growth and development.
According to John Fregonese, president of Fregonese Associates, the urban planning firm heading up the updating of the city’s comprehensive plan, the last few decades of America’s urban growth has centered around a car culture sustained by available, affordable land, cheap fuel and a cultural mindset bent on living on the outskirts of the city-any city. Tulsa was no different, but times are changing.
Tulsa has begun to exhaust its once abundant supply of land available for development under the old school approach. The city is boxed in by the surrounding communities of Jenks, Broken Arrow, Owasso, Bixby, Sand Springs and others. Even communities like Jenks have become boxed in. And those Tulsa suburban communities that aren’t eventually will be. The results are that developers are increasingly looking inward and upward for new opportunities. In other words vertical, infill development and population density is becoming the wave of the future in urban development and it is creating new types of challenges.
Rising fuel prices, environmental concerns and time lost in commuter traffic are having an effect in the marketplace of urban living. There are many signs a new lifestyle is emerging driven primarily by a generation of young professionals seeking a different approach to urban life. Research sited in books like Richard Florida’s “Rise of the Creative Class” indicate big changes are afoot regarding how young people want to live, work and play. They prefer a lifestyle less dependent on cars and long commutes. They want optional modes of transportation including mass transit. The connectivity of ever emerging technology offers a new kind of freedom. Young professionals feel they can live and work just about anywhere there is access to the Internet and many are interested in living close to their work. Research sited by Fragonese indicates there will be a labor shortage of young professionals in the near future. In order to attracted new industries cities like Tulsa will need to compete for this shrinking body of workers. A city void of amenities attracting young, educated workers will not fare well in the coming competition. Without a qualified workforce on hand economic development will be even more uncertain.
And so we’re back to that old bugaboo, uncertainty. With all the social trend and economic variables sited here swirling about, it is hard to see what the future holds when it comes to land use in the Greater Tulsa area. But one thing is fairly certain. Future economic development will go hand in hand with how the city addresses land use issues and urban development. A city without a plan is given over to the whims of fate.
Certainly Planned Urban Developments (s) are one approach to urban land use. Black’s Law Dictionary defines s as, “A land area zoned for a single-community subdivision with flexible restrictions on residential, commercial, and public use.” The New York City Real Estate Glossary definition is, “A project or subdivision that includes common property that is owned and maintained by a homeowners’ association for the benefit and use of the individual unit owners.” Many other definitions can be found and here in lies the problem.
A by most definition turns out to be a development plan and a regulatory process rolled into one. It is an approach used by developers to limit some of the risk and uncertainty in a project by giving potential buyers and investors the perimeters and vision of the project. But it is not a vehicle promoting urban development continuity. It does very little toward minimizing concerns as to how the development will be seen by all or how it fits into the larger context of a region’s growth. Each has a life and mind of its own. Each has its own, self-imposed zoning ordinance derived at solely within the context of the project without consideration of the community at large.
Now that the City of Tulsa is in the last stages of updating its comprehensive plan, many of the uncertainties that continue to creep into land use and development due to changing urban dynamics are being addressed. With a comprehensive plan in place, infill developments can be evaluated not only on their own merits but also on how these projects fit into the overall vision of the Greater Tulsa area. This will go a long way toward eliminating much of the guesswork and speculation from the prospective of developers, homeowners, business and commercial tenants. By designating areas for certain types of development, the free-for-all nature of land use is diminished.
Over the last 60 years, land use and urban development for Tulsa has evolved and will continue to evolve as circumstances in the economy and society continue to change. Tulsa’s current (1975) plan, and the subsequent zoning ordinance, was designed to facilitate the type of large-acre suburban development on open land that we have seen in the past. It was intended to separate residential from commercial, and, in many ways, to discourage density. Zoning compliance has become so riddled with exception over the years it is anybody’s guess as to what qualifies and what doesn’t. Hence costly zoning battles continue. The question is whether we as a community will decide to get out ahead of the changes with a well thought out comprehensive plan to guide us into the future; or will we let the winds of uncertainty blow us where they will.
Editor’s Note: This is part two of a two part series looking into the past, present and future land use development and growth dynamics of Greater Tulsa.