City Councilor Anna America speaks during Wednesday night’s special meeting of the City Council. America cast the deciding vote to vacate 8.8 acres of Helmerich Park so the property can be used for a commercial development. KEVIN CANFIELD/The Frontier

Tulsa’s long public debate over a proposed commercial development to be built on park land along the Arkansas River may have ended Wednesday night. Or maybe not.

Tulsa city councilors voted 5-4 at a special meeting to vacate 8.8 acres of Helmerich Park — a move city officials believe will help clear the way for construction of a commercial development on the property.

The resolution declaring the property no longer needed for public purposes also includes an endorsement of the sale of the property by the Tulsa Public Facilities Authority and a commitment to dedicate all $1.465 million in proceeds from the sale to improve the remaining 60 acres of the park.

The proposed project, which is expected to be anchored by an REI store, has been in limbo since TPFA sold the property in August 2015 to UCR Development of Dallas.

But Mayor G.T. Bynun said after the council meeting that passage of the resolution puts the city in a better position to prevail in a lawsuit filed by five Tulsans trying to stop the project.

“Our legal team here believes that pretty much most of the major issues that were raised in the lawsuit were dealt with by the resolution that was approved by the council tonight,” Bynum said.

One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, former Mayor Terry Young, doesn’t see it that way and said the legal challenge will continue.

“Nothing much that was done by this action affects any of the elements of our lawsuit,” Young said after the meeting. “We’re suing on the grounds that it’s not legal to sell park land to begin with.”

But the council vote is a victory for the city’s new mayor. Bynum, who opposed the project when he was a city councilor, has thrown his support behind it after working with the developer to address his concerns about the project as well as the plaintiffs’ concerns.

A second resolution passed by the council Wednesday night obligates the city to spend $570,000 in economic development funds for infrastructure improvements.

Both resolutions passed 5-4. Councilors voting in favor of the resolutions were Phil Lakin, Ben Kimbro, Anna America, David Patrick and Karen Gilbert. Opposing the resolutions were Councilors Connie Dotson, Jeannie Cue, Vanessa Hall-Harper and Blake Ewing.

America cast the deciding vote, saying that for her the issue came down to economic development and the damage that rejecting the project would do to the city’s reputation as a good place to do business.

When a developer signs an agreement, “and then we say, ‘Too bad, we think we can get a better deal, we’re going to break our word,’ I think that it makes it awful hard to get other people here,” she said.

The issue now goes back to TPFA, which is expected to consider an amended agreement with the developer Friday morning. That agreement would incorporate the actions embodied in the resolutions as well as the mayor’s proposed changes to the contract and his proposed changes to the development’s design.

Those changes include requiring that any future changes to the proposed development site be subject to a public hearing and a vote of the City Council, and requiring that the developer reimburse the city for infrastructure improvements should he fail to meet the requirements of his contract.

“If they (TPFA) do not incorporate into the contract all of the protections the City Council included in the resolution, the vacating (of the land) would be void and would not go through,” Bynum said.

This graphic created by UCR Development shows the relationship between the proposed development at the southwest corner of 71st Street and Riverside Drive and the remainder of Helmerich Park.

Don Bouvier, president of UCR Development, said the project will take one or two years to complete and could begin late this year, assuming the lawsuit is resolved.

“Mayor Bynum worked his butt off and so did his staff,” Bouvier said. “I think he sees an opportunity to do something really good for Tulsa.”

Young described the evening as a victory for all Tulsans, even those who oppose the development.

“We saw mayoral leadership that we haven’t seen in a number of years. We saw a strong City Council willing to listen to hours of public comments, give deep consideration and make reasoned conclusions,” Young said. “That’s what we need. That’s good news.”

Mayor G.T. Bynum speaks to reporters at City Council chambers Wednesday night after the council voted to vacate 8.8 acres of Helmerich Park to make room for a commercial development. KEVIN CANFIELD/The Frontier

Recreational Equipment Inc., is a nationwide sporting goods and outdoor merchandise company with more than 140 stores but none in Oklahoma.

The other structures included in the original 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 7,000-square-foot restaurant and retail space at the north end of the property.

The proposed 8.8-acre development site is on the southwest corner of Riverside Drive and 71st Street. The land is part of an approximately 70-acre tract known as Helmerich Park.

Helmerich Park was established in 1991 after the city and private donors each paid $2.25 million to purchase the property. The city funds and private donations were transferred to TPFA, which purchased the land and is the title holder.

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