AMANDA DECORT/EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, TULSA FOUNDATION FOR ARCHITECTURE
Q: Why should people care that the zoning code has changed?
A: If you care about how Tulsa looks and how it functions, and how it changes, then you should care about the zoning code update. (I’m looking at you, young professionals…) The zoning code is the legal document we use to make all of our land-use decisions. So, yes, it is crucial. Do most of us want to go back and relive the 1970s? I’d venture a guess that the answer is a resounding NO.
So, let’s not continue to build our city to 1970s specifications! The current zoning code was adopted in 1970. It has been amended over 100 times — and that alone tells us it’s time to hit the reset button. But the bottom line is that the old code still encourages the suburban development of the past. That means it is difficult to promote current best practices and emerging trends in development. This new zoning code has the potential to allow some new and different types of development.
Q: What do you believe is the most important proposed change made to the zoning code? Explain why the change is significant and its impact on the community.
A: Two changes are very positive. The first is the proposal for the addition of a Special Area Overlay (previously called a Neighborhood Character Overlay) that provides an opportunity for a group of property owners to create their own development standards for a defined area. In the past, the only options available to property owners were Historic Preservation zoning — which is a great program, but it’s not the right fit for many places — or a Planned Unit Development — which is not the right fit for a large area with multiple owners.
There’s a major problem with the Special Area Overlay, though — a proposal that every single property owner has to support the idea just to file an application. Speaking from experience, I can confidently say this makes the new tool unusable except in extremely small areas — and using it for extremely small areas makes it unwieldy for those who have to administer the code.
It’s impossible to get 100 percent property owner buy-in on anything — most of the time 100 percent response is unheard of. Is there a bank-owned property on your street? Most likely. Is one of the buildings in foreclosure or tied up in an estate? Forget about it. Do you have an absentee property owner in your district who refuses to bring his building up to the barest safety standards, much less engage in a public process? Good luck to you.
If you find yourself in this situation, and almost every district will, the way the overlay is currently worded means that the problem child can throw a wrench in the works just by ignoring the process. The majority should rule, plain and simple.
The second major improvement to the code is the addition of mixed-use zoning designations, which will provide new development opportunities and offer reduced parking requirements. Many of our older commercial districts and corridors with historic buildings could benefit from this change and be adaptively reused easier than today’s zoning code allows. Many people want to live or work in walkable, mixed-use areas — especially, but certainly not limited to, the young people we want to retain and attract. Mixed use is the development model of the future. It is essential that Tulsa makes it easy for developers to create these places so that Tulsa remains competitive with our peer cities.
Q: What proposed change was not made to the code that you wish had been made?
A: The changes proposed by the Tulsa Preservation Commission were not included by the Planning Commission or consultant. (In fact, I hope the City Council gives them a second look, as well.) Revision of the demolition provisions for historic resources inside of HP Zoning districts needs consideration. Currently, even if the Tulsa Preservation Commission denies a demolition of a historic resource the owner only has to wait 60 days before he or she can receive a demolition permit. During that time TPC can try to work with the owner on alternatives; however, 60 days is not sufficient time.
Many of our peer cities do not have a “demolition delay” period, only an appeals process. Those that do provide a six-month delay and require property owner participation in reviewing alternatives to demolishing a historic resource. Historic Preservation Zoning districts make up less than 1 percent of our residential districts, and the purpose of HP Zoning is to protect the historic resources and therefore the context that makes these districts important. There are provisions that allow for a building to be removed quickly in cases of life safety, or if the building does not contribute to the historic district. There should be careful consideration and a sufficient time for review of those that do contribute to the character of the district.
Q: Do you believe the code changes have made developing a project in Tulsa easier or harder? Why?
A: I believe the code changes are intended to make developing a project easier. Time will tell. There are certainly folks who are very comfortable with the status quo, and they’re going to resist change. Once everyone learns the new system, I hope the flexibility of the new code will be appreciated.
Q: What issue in the proposed zoning code update would you encourage city councilors to examine most closely? Why?
A: The argument over the Special Character Overlay downtown deserves more consideration. It is foolish to take this tool out of everyone’s toolbox because of fear, and misconceptions about what it is and what it would do abound.
Having a few well-consider design standards in place for special districts would be incredibly useful and an incentive to good development. As such, holding your neighbors to the same standards as you hold yourself protects your investment. These overlays can and should be structured to be simple to administer and specific to certain areas — that is the intent. No one is calling for a blanket overlay of downtown, or widespread limits to development, or a slowdown of the development process. An overlay’s primary function could very well be to add development options and incentives. We’re shooting ourselves in the foot to reject the idea.
Think about this: the Blue Dome District property owners had to move heaven and earth to allow the rooftop and projecting signs in their entertainment district a few years ago. Remember what it looked like seven or eight years ago? Dead, dead, dead. Unless there was a show at the Cain’s Ballroom, the only (grandfathered) sign you’d see lit up from the north side of the Inner Dispersal Loop at night read “MIDTOWN ADULT SUPERSTORE.” Wouldn’t it have been nice to be able to implement a special overlay for signage? Route 66 runs right through downtown. Why would we not want to be able to incentivize development of great new neon/LED signs along Route 66?
Q: If you were king or queen for a day and you could change one thing about the new code, what would you change?
A: Special overlays would be easy to obtain after a well-executed and well-considered public process, and they would be quick and easy to administer by development officials, everywhere and anywhere that they are needed.