Shawn Schaefer mug:Concerned citizen 2015-10-17 at 8.26.10 AM

Shawn Schaefer


Q: Why should people care that the zoning code has changed?

A: I can think of no law that affects more people on a daily basis than zoning. Zoning and related land-use regulations have a profound effect on quality of life. Zoning controls the configuration of every property owner’s home or business. If you are a renter, it might decide which neighborhood you can live in. Beyond that, it influences transportation choices for everyone by determining density and distribution of uses.

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: The development of the new code took a predominantly additive approach. In other words, most of the existing code remains. This approach, combined with the limitation that there would be no map amendments, means that many of the changes to the code will not be immediately apparent.

For example, the code introduces over 60 new mixed-use designations, but since no properties are currently zoned for mixed use, the adoption of these provisions will most likely be piecemeal and slow. If the mixed-use requirements had instead been adapted to commercial districts, then thousands of properties could use them immediately after they are adopted. This incremental approach, rather than any specific provision, has the most significance since it delays the impact of the new code on the city.

Q: What proposed change was not made to the code that you wish had been made?

A: I would have liked to have seen off-street parking requirements removed entirely. Nothing in the code does more to promote suburban style development than the parking requirement, since it often means that a building will cover only 25 percent to 50 percent of its site and be surrounded by surface parking lots. Eliminating the requirement would not prohibit anyone from building parking, but at least it would not mandate it.

Q: Do you believe the code changes have made developing a project in Tulsa easier or harder? Why?

A: I am unsure if the new code will make getting approvals for development more or less difficult. It has provisions for some administrative reviews by planning staff that could reduce the need for hearings. Likewise, a number of flexible requirements have been added, like the new provisions for shared and alternative parking, which could reduce the need for variances.

On the other hand, the code introduces the possibility of a variety of new overlays and special districts, which might complicate things. It also still has more than 700 special exceptions. With something as complex as this 293 page ordinance, we may have to wait for time to tell.

Q: What issue in the proposed zoning code update would you encourage city councilors to examine most closely? Why?

A: In an unusual departure from its sometimes verbose generality, the comprehensive plan explicitly states that the city should rely less on the Planned Unit Development, or PUD. Inexplicably, however, the new code seems to strengthen the PUD in a new guise, the Master Planned Development District, or MPD. The revamped district is transformed from an overlay district that needed to comply with underlying base zoning to a full-fledged, base district in its own right that looks like an invitation for developers to enter negotiations with the city to create their own custom development restrictions.

Furthermore, the nine intended purposes listed in the section of the code are so broad that virtually every property owner could make a credible case that his or her development is eligible for this treatment. Councilors should take note.

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: This is probably an unfair response since I am not addressing the code directly, but the link between street design and land use is profound. The one municipal policy I would change would be to lower the speed limit on arterial streets to 25 mph throughout the city. Lower speeds would make the streets considerably safer for motorists, cyclists and pedestrians, especially.

Lower speeds also mean more capacity per lane, since following distances increase nonlinearly above 30 mph. Reducing lane miles can have a significant impact on construction and maintenance costs, which is important given the city’s fiscal situation. Furthermore, research also shows that retail sales increase on streets with lower speeds, which might lead to more sales taxes. These all seem like tremendous benefits to me given that trip times would only be increased to the tune of maybe 15 percent to 25 percent.