Downtown Dustup: Why City Councilor Blake Ewing has some property owners really, really mad

"City officials have tried to sell this as a small-scale, 'opt-in-only' form of zoning. That is disingenuous at best and not what Special Overlays are for," said developer Chris Bumgarner

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City Councilor Blake Ewing has said he will ask his fellow councilors to go against the Planning Commission's recommendation and allow property owners within the Central Business District the option of creating Special Area Overlays in the  district. The overlays are used to establish development guidelines within the district. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier
City Councilor Blake Ewing has said he will ask his fellow councilors to go against the Planning Commission’s recommendation and allow property owners within the Central Business District the option of creating Special Area Overlays in the district. The overlays are used to establish development guidelines within the district. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

The last hotly debated issue to come out of the proposed zoning code update is whether Special Area Overlay Districts should be allowed in the Central Business District.

The proposed zoning code update would allow property owners, the Planning Commission or the City Council to initiate a request for a Special Area Overlay. All requests would have to be approved by the City Council.

If a neighborhood or commercial area wants to retain a certain look, for example, it might seek to require a certain design element — say a specific building material, roof pitch or even reduced setbacks — be maintained in future development projects.

The Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission has recommended that Special Area Overlays not be allowed in the CBD.

The Downtown Coordinating Council is also opposed to using them within the CBD.

As currently proposed, the Central Business District would be the only area of the city in which the Special Area Overlays would not be an option for property owners.

But City Councilor Blake Ewing, whose district includes the Central Business District, said last week that he will propose that the City Council – which must approve the updated zoning code – allow the Special Area Overlays in the CBD. The vote could come as early as Thursday.

Ewing argues in part that those opposed to the overlays in the CBD are painting an unrealistic, worse-case scenario of what effect the overlays would have on downtown property owners.

The Central Business District within the Inner Dispersal Loop./Map provided
The Central Business District within the Inner Dispersal Loop./Map provided

To provide the public with a better understanding of the issue, The Frontier asked several people with different opinions of the overlays to explain why they came to oppose or support their use in the Central Business District.

First, here is the fact sheet Planning Commission staff provided to city councilors regarding the Special Area Overlays .

  • The draft zoning code introduces an overlay OPTION for property owners.  It does not impose overlays on any particular part of the city.
  • Special Area Overlays can only be initiated by all of the affected property owners within a defined area or by Planning Commission or City Council.
  • Special Area Overlays can be used to relax or eliminate requirements or to impose requirements.
  • Special Area Overlays cannot impose subjective design requirements or guidelines that require discretionary review and approval.
  • The current version of the draft zoning code specifically excludes CBD from any future consideration of an overlay.
  • Staff recommended that overlays be added as an option for CBD property owners since the Comprehensive Plan and the Downtown Master Plan contain several policies that encourage design guidelines in downtown.
  • The overlay chapter outlines a process framework for FUTURE overlays, ensuring that:
  • They are processed in the same manner as other zoning text and map amendments
  • Either a preceding plan or an inclusive and transparent public process takes place and allows affected property owners and residents to work together in the formulation of the regulations.

Chris Bumgarner, developer and Tulsa Downtown Coordinating Council member

Bumgarner provided five reasons why he opposes the overlays downtown:

1. Unnecessary — Overlays will not increase property value or solve any problem that exists in the CBD; like homelessness, panhandling, perceived lack of security or a perennially broken parking meter system. Those are the kind of things the city should focus on downtown and get right before they try their hand at development.

2. Red Tape — Unwise to try and legislate aesthetics particularly when the legislation is sure to increase cost, red tape, delays and political infighting. Besides, since when is government-mandated conformity the aesthetic ideal?

3. Over reach — Downtown property owners are already the only group in the city paying $100 million over 30 years to support a ballpark that the entire community enjoys. Now the City Council will be asked to consider adopting a zoning tool that the councilor who purportedly represents downtown property owners has said will be used to limit their property rights. Enough.

4. Lack of trust — City officials have tried to sell this as a small-scale, “opt-in-only” form of zoning. That is disingenuous at best and not what Special Overlays are for. For the most part, they are used by communities to protect sensitive areas like water sheds or historic neighborhoods. Big picture kind of stuff. Not one acre at a time, user-driven “options”. Overlays downtown will not come from property owners, but rather from a small group of city planners and politicians that have no skin in the game and are more than happy to use other people’s property and capital to create their subjective “vision”.

5. Bad policy — Downtown property owners are not asking for this. In fact, they overwhelmingly object to it. Updating the zoning code has been a lengthy process with ample opportunities for citizen involvement. The Citizen’s Advisory Taskforce recommended leaving downtown alone. The City of Tulsa Planning Department excluded overlays inside the CBD from its final draft of the updated zoning code. The Downtown Coordinating Council voted 11-1 to not include Special Overlays within the CBD and the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission voted unanimously to recommend adoption of the updated zoning code with no overlays for downtown.

ewing mug
Blake Ewing

Blake Ewing, downtown business owner and city councilor
I’ll start by stating that in addition to being an elected representative of an area than includes Downtown, I’m also a property and business owner in downtown.

Prior to joining the City Council, I worked on behalf of the Blue Dome District to expand the city’s sign code to allow for the rooftop neon signs we see there now. The allowance is specific to the nine blocks that are the Blue Dome District. Rooftop signs are still prohibited in the rest of the city.

Going through that tedious process, I learned that the city has no protocol for allowing property owners to pursue unique design standards for different areas of the city. There was no comprehensive public engagement process; we simply went to City Hall, met with councilors and Planning Commission members and worked through a process to change the actual text of the city’s zoning code.

While we accomplished the desired outcome, it was by no means the best way to achieve it. What I know now is that most cities have an overlay tool, much like the one in question in Tulsa today. Had we had that tool available at the time, The Blue Dome District could have adopted an overlay, detailing the design guidelines for the district; in this case, a relaxing of the existing zoning to allow for larger signs placed above the peak of the building. There would be no new red tape, no roadblock to development, just a neighborhood deciding to define a unique personality for itself.

If the zoning code is adopted without downtown’s inclusion, the City Council can still pursue design guidelines for an area of downtown, just without the transparent, comprehensive, and simply defined process that the overlay tool calls for. Simply, if for no other reason, this tool should be welcomed downtown because it defines a process of public engagement for any proposed design guidelines within a given area.

That fact is clearly lost on the opponents of this land use tool who have been crossing their arms and stomping their feet so loudly, they’ve not been able to hear the facts. No matter how many times it’s explained, they continue to claim that an overlay will make it more difficult to develop downtown, as if ease of development should trump quality or intentionality of development. But that’s an argument for another day.

As this tool is almost universally employed in cities across the U.S. and supported by professional planning staff everywhere, it really should be on the opponents to articulate verifiable intellectual, reasonable objections. To date, they have not given any, other than to just keep repeating that standards impede development, a notion that is easily disproven by simply providing a list of cities that has them and then detailing the development that has occurred in those cities.

We don’t have to look much past our neighbors down the turnpike to find a bustling major metro with downtown design standards. Oklahoma City has successfully implemented overlay districts, governing both residential and commercial areas, including areas in Bricktown and downtown.

Downtown Overlay Districts are nearly universal. It is much more difficult to find cities without such districts than to find cities with them. Zoning overlays are, in fact, most common in and near downtown areas, as that is where you typically find the oldest areas of a city, with the most unique development characteristics worthy of protecting or encouraging through consistent, and in some cases more lenient, standards.

Our council staff researched the issue extensively and could not find an example of a city that allows overlay districts throughout the city except in the downtown area.

Also, Albuquerque, Austin, Dallas, Denver, Fort Worth, Kansas City, Little Rock, San Antonio, St. Louis, Wichita – nearly all major cities in our region – provide for overlay zoning with provisions for new development that are customized to be compatible with prevailing or desired standards.

All we are talking about in Tulsa right now is creating a broad regulatory framework that would allow such districts to be implemented in the future, through another round of transparent public engagement, Planning Commission review, and council action.

It should also be noted that downtown overlay districts exist in cities like Broken Arrow, Des Moines, Jacksonville, Jenks, Lawton, Omaha, Owasso, and Waco, not to mention actual peer cities, such as Minneapolis, Nashville, and Raleigh, as well as sprawling “property rights” cities like Anchorage, Atlanta, and Salt Lake City.

This isn’t, of course, a comprehensive list. It’s just scratching the surface.

I’m beginning to resent the characterization that due to my advocacy for this tool’s inclusion in our zoning code update (also the recommendation of professional planning staff) I’m some sort of rogue, power hungry city councilor who wants to tell everyone else what they can and can’t do with their private property. Do all of those other cities also have a rogue, power hungry councilor who ramrodded overlays and design standards into their zoning codes, or is it just a near universally accepted best practice in modern day land use policy?

So I guess we should talk about the notion that creating a downtown overlay will remove the primary reason for developing there and will create obstacles to development. Let that sink in. There are actually downtown property owners who believe that the current lack of standards is the primary draw to develop in downtown Tulsa. Our own mayor subscribes to this philosophy, not just in downtown but across the city. We shouldn’t “get in the way of development,” he says.

I know, it’s embarrassing. It’s embarrassing because that statement from our city’s elected mayor shows absolutely no self-worth for Tulsa. It suggests that we’re so undesirable that the only way we can get people to develop here is to let them do whatever the hell they want, that we’re not attractive enough to get to require developers to bring their “A game” or to be respectful of their surroundings. It says we’ll just take what we can get, even if it sucks.

Ask yourself what type of developer is attracted to areas where there are no design standards? Conversely, we should also ask what type of developer is attracted to areas because of the standards? Just as people with high personal standards attract and are attracted to other people with high standards, developers with high standards are attracted to areas that also have them.

Those who espouse this notion that overlays downtown will take away its development draw are discrediting the years of work that’s been done downtown to cultivate the destination that it is today.

If our lack of regulations are our primary development incentive, then why have we spent hundreds of millions of dollars building the infrastructure and attractions downtown, almost entirely with the justification that downtown is the dynamic center of commerce, business, and tourism for our region and that building those things will attract new development?

We should be supporting those investments with tools to ensure the continued growth of downtown occurs in accordance with our city’s comprehensive plan. That requires some level of prescription.

Our downtown is special. It’s the area of our city that’s home to major public, philanthropic, corporate and grass roots investment. The major highways in our part of the state all converge in downtown. It’s the largest concentration of daytime workers. It’s home to one of the fastest growing residential neighborhoods in the city. It’s home to the densest concentration of entertainment and nightlife, hotels and convention space. It’s everything we expect a downtown to be. It’s coming back to life after a long hibernation, and it will be counted on for generations to come to be the engine of our sales tax, property tax, and hotel/motel tax revenue.

With that in mind, we should all be fine with “getting in the way” of development that doesn’t contribute to the best potential of downtown. This doesn’t mean stringent regulations, as the opponents of downtown overlays like to suggest. Most of these things can be achieved with simple prescriptions for things like setback and signage. Even the slightest standards help to foster the types of places we already love in Tulsa, places like Brookside and Cherry Street. Where we’ve already got great things happening because of the existing building stock, shouldn’t we be able to say, “we want more of this”?

The Brady and Blue Dome districts have come to life, primarily because we had existing decades old building stock there, lending themselves to the type of dense, urban, walkable neighborhoods people are craving. We didn’t need standards in place for that wave because the buildings already existed in a configuration that was conducive to the type of development Tulas needed. We have areas of downtown that many consider to be primed for the next wave of development, but those areas are full of empty surface parking lots, meaning the development will be more new infill construction than adaptive reuse. It makes more sense than ever to have the tool in place as we enter the next wave of downtown development.

I’m certain that we’ll all find what many other cities have found, that standards for design in important areas leads to a development pattern far preferable to the type of developments that are first and foremost attracted to lack of regulations. The timing was right for our zoning code update. Tulsa’s best days are ahead of us, but to achieve that potential, it was time to modernize our land use policy. Let’s not hold ourselves back by failing to value ourselves as the wonderful community we know Tulsa to be. Let’s proudly demand the best as we build for the future.

William Franklin mug 2015-10-28 at 3.44.52 PM
William Franklin.

William Franklin, owner of DECOPOLIS Studios, president and founder of Tulsa Art Deco Museum and Downtown Coordinating Council member.

The Downtown Overlay would, in a nutshell, allow property owners to put zoning on their own property. There are limitations to what they can do, and there is quite a process they must adhere to in order to get an overlay onto their own property, including notifying other property owners, even those who will not be in the overlay. Also, any new overlay must conform to the Downtown Master Plan, which includes transit corridors.

Note, the new Downtown Overlay “potential” allows a property owner to voluntarily put it on their own property. An individual or group of property owners cannot make someone else have the zoning on their property if they do not want it.

Again, and “added regulations” or rules under the proposed Downtown Overlay potential would be voluntary. So apparently that would mean someone would do it because they see a benefit to doing so. Also, this could better allow for larger chunks of property, via one large property owner, or a group of small ones, to coordinate their efforts to better create one of those Classic Main Street corridors for example.

Perhaps they all gather together and say, “Let’s not allow large blank walls on this street and also make sure that buildings are up to the sidewalks to help encourage thriving pedestrian friendly corridors for all our street level businesses.”

Some people argue that everything is fine downtown. Yes, perhaps that’s true now, but we can look and see examples in other cities that were once at a similar stage of downtown development 15 or more years ago, but are now are facing problems like not having concentrated strips of healthy retail.

Right now we are thrilled to see just about anything happening downtown, but once this early, easy stage is done and things fill in, well, we are leaving things, like having lively pedestrian corridors, up to chance. We have a Downtown Master Plan that, for instance, says we want to have transit some day and some transit corridors.

In order for those corridors to thrive and for transit to work, there needs to be a concentration of shops, retail, etc. along the transit corridor. Having a willy nilly approach to development is not a way to fulfill a plan. Why have the Downtown Master Plan if developers can simply ignore it? Why did we even bother?

Some say let the free market decide. This sounds great! I am all for it actually. If we get rid of the auto-centric, suburban zoning in the rest of the city, I personally would be perfectly fine with having the current minimal zoning downtown. Let’s get rid of minimum parking requirements citywide, for instance. It’s good enough for downtown, why not everywhere else as well?

Oh, wait. What’s that I hear? People actually wanting zoning now? What? You want the government putting on that regulation and telling you what to do with your property? You don’t want people parking their cars on the street in your neighborhood? I wouldn’t mind it personally. I have lived in cities before. It comes with the territory.

Before I ever even heard about the Downtown Overlay potential, I had fought against minimum parking requirements. I gave the example above of how it hurt our plans for putting in a business on 11th Street. What I find perplexing is that many of the same voices that are “for more freedom” and less zoning downtown are also for zoning like minimum parking requirements elsewhere in the city?

You don’t want to get rid of minimum parking requirement zoning in your area because people parking on your street will bring down your property values? Well I would like some zoning that says I don’t want large blank walls on my street because it will hurt property values and my shop.

The overlay will be allowed outside of downtown as a means of helping “Small Area Plans” happen according to their worked out plans. But downtown and its areas or districts will not be afforded this tool?

It doesn’t sound then like being against the overlay is a matter of moral principal in this “Free Market/More Freedom” instance. Instead, it sounds an awful lot like “I want what I want and will use whatever excuse I can come up with in each situation to get it.”

The Downtown Overlay potential is a minor thing, a tiny thing. Not even by the wildest stretch what other cities have to help them create great urban spaces. It can’t regulate subjective things like “Must be Italian or Art Deco” that is subjective. It must be simple and measurable like “Must have a door facing the street.” “Must be up to the sidewalk.”

I do not want to be in my shop 15- 20 years from now trying to answer the same frustrating questions I get now, week after week. “Where is everyone?” “Is there something going on?” “What’s wrong with your downtown? Where are all the people?” Then me trying to cover saying “Well, our downtown is getting better and on First Fridays over there…” Visitors give you this horrid look like “You have got to be kidding me.” This type of thing is not good for my business. It’s not good for attracting new businesses and jobs to our city.

Downtown is the front door to our city for many people and companies who visit here. It is the first real introduction to who we are and what we are about. We can’t just be a lame, smaller, slower growing version of Dallas. Having real urban spaces like in London or Paris. We had it once before the ocean of auto-centric zoning surrounded downtown, and we can do it again. Being able to offer something like that? Well, that could get us noticed. That could be what makes our city stand apart from the ordinary, stand proud and be more prosperous.

I love our city and want to see the best for it and for its people. I truly believe that allowing our downtown property owners the option of using the voluntary overlay tool would be helpful.

Jeff Scott mug 2015-10-28 at 3.46.09 PM
Jeff Scott.

Jeff Scott, Realtor and chairman of the Downtown Coordinating Council

As chairman of the Downtown Coordinating Council, I have a pretty good feel for the sentiments of the DCC; however, please do not interpret my comments as speaking on behalf of the DCC, as I’m sure my observation of the deliberations on this matter is not consistent with each of the members.

Nevertheless, the minutes of the June meeting will reflect that the DCC voted 11-1 to not have the zoning overlay imposed inside the the IDL, and when they are published, the minutes from last week’s special meeting on the same topic will reflect a vote of 10-6, once again opposed to the imposition of the zoning overlay inside the IDL.

Whether discussed at the DCC level or discussed with non-DCC downtown stakeholders, I believe there is a good bit of misinformation and misunderstanding about the intent and the effect of the proposed overlay. In the face of this uncertainty, it seems that the majority of the developers and owners who are active inside the IDL are satisfied with the status quo.

As has been explained to me by developers opposed to the proposal, the same limitations on a development are available now, through self-imposed development standards.

It has also been explained to me by those in favor of the zoning overlay, the overlay would make the process much more streamlined and less time consuming. It appears from the votes taken at the DCC, as well as the unanimous vote at the TMAPC opposing the overlay for downtown, the sentiment is, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. The incredible amount of development we have seen in our downtown since the commencement of the BOK arena, is apparent evidence that the development process in downtown is not “broken.”

As time goes by, there will be many opportunities to see how the overlay process works in other parts of Tulsa, and if the downtown development community finds the overlay process being an effective tool, and worth additional governmental input into the development process, there will be ample opportunity in the future to adopt the overlay inside the IDL. In the meantime, “don’t mess with success” seems to be the overwhelming opinion among downtown stakeholders.

Michael Willis 2015-10-28 at 3.48.31 PM
Michael Willis.

Michael Willis, Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission member

The Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission recommended the new zoning code without the provision for special overlays in downtown. I support the code as recommended by the TMAPC. Specifically, I do not want to see the code amended with downtown overlays because we have a very successful downtown now. The current Central Business District designation for downtown development means we have the most flexibility available in the code. There are very few limits to what can happen downtown, and I believe that creates a healthy situation. Downtown is in a high-growth mode with everything from major commercial to entertainment to small business and residential coming online constantly.

Adding special overlays initiated by small groups and possibly the City Council seems to undercut what is already happening. The TMAPC staff and commissioners received several letters and e-mails regarding this issue. An overwhelming majority of the developers, landowners and business owners were not in favor of adding overlays to downtown.

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