Now that Tulsans have approved funding to build low-water dams in the Arkansas River, get ready for another long, potentially contentious battle over what should be built along its banks, and who gets to decide.
Everyone has heard about the southwest corner of 71st Street and Riverside Drive, where the city has contracted with a Dallas-based company to develop approximately nine acres of what for years has been known as Helmerich Park.
That deal is in limbo as the Tulsa Public Facilities Authority tries to fend off a lawsuit from a group of Tulsans who claim the authority has no right to use park land for commercial development — even if that development includes a highly respected business like Recreational Equipment, Inc.
As it turns out, that squabble over river development could end up being small potatoes compared to the big-picture questions city officials are about to tackle.
The first comes Wednesday, when the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission begins public hearings on a proposed River Design Overlay.
The document would regulate what types of development can be built along the river, how new structures should be oriented in relation to the river, and, in limited instances, what construction materials can be used.
The RDO has been a long time coming. The Arkansas River Corridor Master Plan, approved more than a decade ago, called for the creation of such regulations. But it wasn’t until last year that it became a priority, when city councilors and the mayor placed it on their list of shared goals.
Now, just days before the TMAPC meeting, Mayor Dewey Bartlett says he’s concerned about the proposed RDO as it is currently composed. The steering committee that came up with the proposed regulations was led by Bartlett’s appointee to the board, Robert Gardner.
“I hate to get into these kinds of overlays because they can be extremely restrictive and are normally reflective of a relatively small number of people,” Bartlett said.
Overlays can also become “extremely difficult to change, to alter, or to amend,” Bartlett said.
He pointed to “historical overlays” as an example of bodies that can sometimes — and he emphasized sometimes — become very autocratic and difficult to deal with.
“It can take away a lot of private ownership rights and responsibilities,” Bartlett said.
The mayor said he is not advocating for no regulations.
“But I am saying you can go to the extreme and make it so restrictive that you dictate color, size, windows,” Bartlett said. “How much of one’s taste do you want to dictate?”
The mayor said he wants to be sure the development community is onboard with the proposed overlay.
“They are the ones who invest the money, risk the money,” he said. “I want to make sure that there is a representative group that has the ability to take a look at it.
“If they feel comfortable with it, good. If not, than I think we need to revisit it.”
City Councilor Anna America, meanwhile, said Friday that she would like the City Council to hold town hall meetings to receive input from Tulsans about how they would like to see the river corridor developed.
America said the Trinity River Vision Authority’s presentation to city councilors in Fort Worth last week drove home the importance of public engagement in the creation of development guidelines and plans. The TRVA oversees the development of 88 miles of land along the banks of the Trinity River and its tributaries within Fort Worth.
“I think we need a little broader community input,” America said. “What is it you really want the river to look like 10 years or 20 years down the road?”
America said her desire to have public meetings on the issue should not be interpreted as criticism of the work done by the River Design Overlay steering committee, which she praised. She said she would confer with the councilors who sit on the steering committee to determine when and how those town hall meetings might proceed.
“You could let TMAPC work through the process and take that document out, or you could do it at the same time. Whatever they think would be more productive,” America said.
Last but not least comes Councilor Phil Lakin, who walked away from the TRVA’s presentation committed to an idea he believes would help advance river development.
Lakin said Friday that he intends to revisit the idea of creating a public authority or similar body dedicated to development along the river. He first bought into the idea a few years ago in Pittsburgh, Pa., where city councilors and the Tulsa Regional Chamber learned how an authority played an instrumental role in developing the banks of the rivers there.
Lakin said the city must examine the issue to determine what responsibilities and powers are appropriate — and legal — for the authority to possess, but that he strongly believes such a body is needed.
“I am totally in favor of a vision authority,” Lakin said. “… We have got to have a development authority or some group that comes in every single day and focuses their efforts and their work on developing certain parts of the Arkansas River.
“I’m talking about the people who have the set of skills that can inspire and create and envision those kinds of things we saw in Fort Worth. I don’t have the ability to do it, and we can have these one-off conversations about it, and then we’ll forget, and then we’ll come back to the table a year later and go, ‘Oh, yeah. We did talk about that.’
“I would rather just put an authority together, put some kind of body together, that really does thoughtfully think through these things on a daily basis.”
Bartlett said he’s not keen on the idea of an authority, except perhaps as a mechanism for facilitating the financing of development projects.
“We have a Planning Commission and they have staff. We have a lot of experienced people in our Planning Department, people involved in zoning and different things,” Bartlett said. “What concerns me about having another entity and giving them a tremendous responsibility is, I don’t see a need for it yet.”
The visit to the Trinity River Vision Authority was one of nearly 10 stops city councilors and Tulsa Regional Chamber officials made in Dallas and Fort Worth on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The trip was arranged by Lakin to give councilors an idea of how Dallas and Fort Worth are handling commercial development along popular trails and waterways.
City councilors seemed genuinely impressed with the outdoor restaurants they visited, including the Katy Trail Ice House, The Rustic and the Woodshed. But the REI store in South Lake elicited less enthusiasm.
Councilors — on their last stop of the trip — peppered an REI official and the developer of the 71st Street and Riverside Drive project with questions about the design of the proposed Tulsa store, the design of the entire 71st and Riverside development, and whether REI would cut into the sales of other Tulsa sporting goods stores.
Lakin — to no one’s surprise, perhaps — was not among the councilors underwhelmed by the REI store.
He said Friday that he hopes that when councilors envision the store at the Riverside Drive site, they also envision the other businesses that could potentially be its neighbors. Among them, councilors learned while in Dallas, could be a restaurant owned by the same people who are behind The Rustic.
So Lakin, for one, is not giving up on developing the southwest corner of 71st Street and Riverside Drive.
“I don’t know why we don’t continue to look at that for exactly what it was designed for – development,” Lakin said. “Its highest and best use in many respects is really smart, good development.”
He added: “The vast majority of Tulsans will never go to that site because there is absolutely nothing to do, and I want to change that.”