All indications are that the city will announce soon that REI is coming to town. But if that happens, don’t be surprised if the sporting goods giant arrives with a bad taste in its mouth.
City councilors Thursday night voted down a resolution that would have effectively endorsed a zoning change the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission previously adopted to clear the way for the store and other businesses to be built on the southwest corner of 71st Street and Riverside Drive.
After further discussion, councilors agreed to reconsider the resolution in two weeks.
The council has no authority to stop the project, but, intended or not, its vote could leave Dallas-based developer UCR Development and anchor tenant REI wondering whether Tulsa wants them.
Since I began writing about Recreational Equipment Inc. months ago, I haven’t found one person who has a bad word to say about the sportings goods giant.
Thursday night was no different. Councilors never even mentioned the store by name. What seemed to bother them about the development was not the store itself but the lack of public input into what will be built on the 12.3 acres of public property and the fact that the Mayor’s Office and the Tulsa Public Facilities Authority have not shared any details of the negotiations with them.
“My problem is with the city of Tulsa not allowing the taxpayers and the City Council to know how much they’re even selling the property for…,” said Councilor Jeannie Cue said. “None of this was discussed with the City Council. We did not know about it before they brought it to us at the last minute.”
Cue, who represents the district in which the development would be built, has said previously that she’s heard from constituents who are concerned that the city is developing a prime piece of real estate along the river without a development plan for the river corridor or public input.
Some of her constituents are not thrilled about the potential traffic implications of the project or the fact that the volleyball courts on the property would have to be relocated to accommodate the development, Cue said.
“It doesn’t give our community a say,” she said earlier this week. “Right now, it’s in (Economic Development Director) Clay Bird’s hands and the mayor’s hands.”
She’s right. The property is owned by the Tulsa Public Facilities Authority, not the city itself, so the council plays no role in reviewing or commenting on plans for the site. And since the zoning changes required to construct the development are considered minor, they only go to the Planning Commission for approval.
Thursday’s council vote was a rare public airing of frustrations that have until now been simmering just below the surface.
Councilor Blake Ewing, who voted in favor of the resolution, has said previously that he’s not keen about the layout of the development.
Ewing described the development as a “typical suburban” layout that has no place along the river corridor.
“I don’t like the design – some of it is the orientation of the building,” Ewing said earlier this week. “To me, it looks a lot like a giant parking lot with a big box (store) in the middle of it.”
As currently proposed, the the side of the store would face west toward the River Parks trail. A buffer of green space and trees would separate the building from the trails.
The other structures included in the development plans are a 12,000-square-foot retail/restaurant space; a restaurant with a 6,000-square-foot patio facing the river; and a 6,250-square-foot restaurant and retail space at the north end of of the property.
In the future, Ewing said, he’d like to see city councilors informed when the city issues a request for proposal for property like the lot on 71st Street and Riverside Drive.
Cue has gone a step further. Last week, she asked Planning Commission staff to draw up an application to rezone the TCPA property next to the proposed REI site so that future development on that property would require council approval.
All of this is occurring as the Arkansas River Infrastructure Task Force moves ahead with plans to propose the construction of as many as four low-water dams in the river. Part of that process includes the creation of a steering committee to come up with development guidelines for new construction along river corridor within the city limits.
The proposed guidelines are expected to address such issues as landscaping, parking, building orientation, uses and connections.
Cue, for one, would have preferred to see the guidelines in place and public input considered before the development got this far down the road.
“We’re rushing out doing things out there that maybe do not fit the design” guidelines, she said earlier this week.
The City’s Side
Bird sees things differently from his perspective at the Mayor’s Office.
It doesn’t make sense to negotiate contracts in public because “you’d never get anything done,” he said Thursday morning.
He also challenged the assertion that the public had no say in how the land was developed, noting that residents who objected to the project could have made their opinions known at the Planning Commission meeting.
“So anyone could show up for that and express their objections on it,” Bird said.
During a council committee meeting last week, and again Thursday, Bird argued that the request for proposals the city issues for the development of public property are available to the public. The city issued an RFP for the property but received no proposals, Bird said.
The city continued to market the property and eventually began talks with UCR Development.
The RFP sought a commercial development that would provide sales tax revenue for the city while fitting in with the natural setting of the river corridor, Bird said, and the proposed project does just that.
“They have tried to incorporate the trails and the river into the development.”
Bird said he’d like to see development guidelines along river but that the city can’t hold up negotiations on this project waiting for them to be put in place.
“If we wait, we miss out on an opportunity for what I think is a quality development,” he said.
City Council Chairman Phil Lakin spoke out in favor of the project Thursday night, saying the developer has worked hard to incorporate the project into the river setting.
“I think it’s the first retail establishment along our river banks that interacts with the trail system at all,” he said.
The development includes walkways that provide direct access to the trails, buffering between the building and the trail as well as a birm along Riverside Drive to limit motorists’ views of the parking lot, Lakin has said.
He and Bird are both committed to finding a new location for the volleyball courts that would be equal or better than the existing courts. One possible new home for the volleyball courts could be Johnson Park, Bird has said previously.
Speaking before Thursday’s vote on the resolution, Lakin said that the 71st Street and Riverside Drive development would look different if the city had development guidelines in place for the property.
“But the fact is that no previous City Council or mayor has ever worked on design guidelines, and this council is,” he said. “Timing is not perfect here, but it is great we have an opportunity to bring a retailer like this to Tulsa.”