By CHARLES CANTRELL
LAST HILL? The recently built Tulsa Hills shopping area may be the last major “Big Box” facility in the Tulsa city limits. Thousands of trees were removed for the facility at West 71st Street and Highway 75.
DANIEL C. CAMERON for GTR Newspapers
Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two part series looking into the past, present and future land use development and growth dynamics of Greater Tulsa.
In the summer of 1948, this writer’s family made their annual two block trek south on Gary Avenue past Florence Park, across a two lane 21st Street into a vacant lot full of Johnson grass, sand burrs and other neighbors to set off Fourth of July fireworks. We did this to comply with a city ordinance prohibiting the lighting of fireworks within the city limits. Looking back it is still hard to believe we were living at the edge of town. My how times have changed.
Long time Tulsans have countless stories about how a part of Tulsa’s early landscape that once hosted a run down farmhouse, a horse stable, a field where rabbits were hunted or just another empty lot was purchased by an interested developer and turned into a commercial or residential project resulting in prosperity for all. The landowner, the community at large, the city tax revenue coffers, public education funding and the developer all gained under this scenario. Wealth and the city grew together.
The city grew to the south like a prairie fire blown by a wind that knew only one direction. A self-filling prophesy of development set in and became not just conventional wisdom, but growth orthodoxy, go south young man, go south. The city’s vast suburbs were born as a leap frog contest of strip malls, large shopping malls, residential subdivisions, public schools, office building and commercial structures began a relentless march south gobbling up all that placid rural real estate and turning it into thriving urban bustle. City government’s role in providing infrastructure support like streets, waterlines and sewage enhanced the growth. The movement to the south put even more pressure on the city government to keep up. Federally financed expressways were constructed to bring suburban commuters into town and back out to the suburbs.
During the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, Tulsa persisted in pursuing its own version of the national migration to the suburbs. It bulged south with a middle age spread. The car was king. Gas was cheap. Tulsa’s per capita car ratio was said to be second only to Los Angeles. It was a magical, wonderful time for everyone especially land use developers. But alas, everyone knows that kind of wonderfulness is not sustainable. The reason is simple and obvious, the once seemingly endless inventory of vacant lots and farmland was vanishing and as it always goes, nobody’s figured out a way to make more land.
In the 1980s, finding new real estate to annex to absorb growth began to hit walls as satellite communities lay claim to the remaining land encircling Tulsa’s city limits. The city became boxed in, and as a result things began to change when it came to commercial and real estate development. The City of Tulsa and the surrounding communities comprising Greater Tulsa such as Jenks, Broken Arrow, Owasso, Bixby, Skiatook and other communities were compelled by circumstances they had in part created to embark on different developmental and land usage paths.
It meant developers had to change the way they went about converting land into profit generating urban developments in the inner city and the suburbs.
The Tulsa Hills development project southwest of the city is a good example of how large development projects on the outer skirts of the city happen in this era. The availability of a 146-acre parcel of undeveloped land strategically positioned along Highway 75 provided Charlotte, N.C.-based Collett & Associates and Oklahoma City-based Sooner Investment with an old school, regional “big box” shopping mall development opportunity. And build it they did complete with 1.5 million square feet of retail space and the customary ample adjacent parking. It was one of the few remaining big land use development opportunities left within the city limits of Tulsa and the largest development of this type since Woodland Hills opened in the 1970s.
A major impediment to large-scale development in that particular parcel of land was the lack of city water lines. This was overcome with the help of $16.5 million provided through a tax increment district, or , financing plan from the City of Tulsa. Bringing city water to the area will also facilitate continued residential development that will in turn have a positive impact on retail sales in the shopping center. Thus a new commercial hub has been created through a public and private collaboration in the same way other such projects have been created over the years. But the opportunity for these types of projects and their resulting tax revenues are decreasing every year. Incidentally, the new tax revenue generated will be divided between City of Tulsa receiving the sales tax and Jenks School district benefiting from the property tax.
Grandiose projects like Tulsa Hills will probably continue in the surrounding communities of Greater Tulsa where large tracks of undeveloped land are still available, but it is not likely to happen again in the southern part of Tulsa’s city limits. And the times are even changing for some of the communities that box in Tulsa, as they are themselves becoming boxed in. The time appears to be ending when the definition of growth in Greater Tulsa is defined solely in terms of geographical expansion out to sprawling suburbs. As opportunities for this type of growth diminish, both the public and private sectors are forced to rethink development. Or to put it another way, when a community becomes boxed in, it begins to think outside the box in order to grow.
Part two of the series in the next issue of Newspapers will look at how maturing communities in Greater Tulsa are finding new ways to develop land, recycle property and grow vertically rather than horizontally.