City councilors Thursday expressed support for bringing outdoor retailer REI to town but had few kind words about how the deal unfolded.
Speaking to Clay Bird, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development, Councilor Anna America said, “It is your responsibility, when these things come up, to find a way to engage our community so that it doesn’t become everybody angry afterward. I think that can be done.”
The Tulsa Public Facilities Authority in August approved the sale of nearly nine acres of land on the southwest corner of 71st Street and Riverside Drive to UCR Development of Dallas for $1.465 million.
The agreement includes a requirement that the developer deliver a specific anchor tenant, which has since been confirmed as REI.
Recreational Equipment Inc. is a national retailer that sells sporting goods and outdoor merchandise. It has more than 300 stores across the United States but none in Oklahoma.
Nearly 70 Tulsans, including former Mayor Terry Young, sent a letter to councilors objecting to the deal. They argue in part that TPFA does not have legal right to sell the property. The City Council must be involved in the sale of park land and the sale process was far from transparent, the letter states.
The development site was once part of Helmerich Park.
Councilors used Thursday’s committee meeting to give the Mayor’s Office a chance to respond to those criticisms and others.
Councilor G.T. Bynum said he wanted to clarify what role the City Council has in such transactions.
The letter sent to councilors expressed an important issue — that citizens of Tulsa funded the purchase of the park, paid to maintain it for the last 25 years, and even paid to provide legal counsel for TPFA, yet had little say in whether the property should have been sold for commercial use, Bynum said.
“What should council’s role be?” Bynum said, adding that the question applies to all city properties.
Bird told councilors that he had asked the city’s Legal Department the same question and was told that City Council involvement was not required because TPFA is an independent trust.
City Manager Jim Twombly noted that the development project had been the subject of at least 20 public meetings over the last year at such places as the Park Board, TPFA and City Council.
Councilor Blake Ewing, a strong critic of the layout of the development, said he did not believe the Mayor’s Office intended to mislead the public but was simply following a process that was set in motion in 1991 when the city sold the land to TPFA.
“Some things are just random and messy,” Ewing said.
He also said he believes most of the opponents of the deal were using “principled” legal arguments to make their case against the project when in fact they simply do not want commercial development on city green space.
“Why not just say, ‘We think this development sucks,’ ” Ewing said.
Councilor Phil Lakin said councilors, including himself, shoulder some of the blame for how the transaction unfolded. Had the council acted earlier to put development guidelines in place along the river sooner, perhaps the controversy over the project could have been avoided.
Lakin also praised the developer for doing all that he could to address landscaping and other design problems he raised about the proposal. It is also important that councilors understand the property in question is zoned to allow commercial developments like the one that is proposed, Lakin said.
“I’m just trying to say to those who believe it’s a park, you know, study the zoning underlying it, and study the uses that have been allowed on that property before declaring that this has been a park and always will be a park and everything else,” Lakin said.
“Because I can see it a totally different way based upon the set of facts that has been delivered to me by the Indian Nations Council of Governments and the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission.”
REI issued a statement last week stating that it would not build in Tulsa until the city can resolve its differences regarding the project.
Bird told councilors he’s concerned the city could become known as an unwelcoming place for developers.
“They can probably go to Jenks,” Bird said of the REI store.
Bird told councilors that ultimately the courts will determine whether the authority had the right to sell the land.
TPFA has filed a petition in Tulsa County District Court seeking a declaratory judgment stating that the authority has the right to sell the property and did not need City Council approval. No court date has been set.
Later in the day, councilors met with City Attorney David O’Meilia in executive session to discuss the project but took no action.