The city of Tulsa has failed to be transparent about or provide proper compensation for developing a portion of Helmerich Park for commercial purposes, a nationally recognized advocate for park preservation said Tuesday.
Ernest Cook, senior vice president of The Trust for Public Land, spoke at a press conference as the guest of the Helmerich Park Defense Alliance.
“I would say at the very least that the process to date has not been up to any kind of standards that one would expect when a public asset is being considered for sale,” Cook said.
The Helmerich Park Defense Alliance is opposed to the construction of a roughly nine-acre development on the southwest corner of 71st Street and Riverside Drive — property that was donated to the city more than two decades ago as part of Helmerich Park.
The proposed development would include approximately 50,000 square feet of commercial space, including an REI store and a restaurant/entertainment venue.
Opponents of the plan — including five Tulsans who have filed a lawsuit to stop the project — believe the Tulsa Public Facilities Authority had no right to sell the land for commercial development. They also argue that the city failed to follow proper procedures when the City Council was left out of the process.
Typically, the council must declare park property surplus and no longer needed for park purposes before it can be used for another purpose.
Cook said it was his understanding that “there was no public process at all.”
Informed after the meeting that the development plan for 71st Street and Riverside Drive had been discussed publicly at the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission, the Parks and Recreation Board and at TPFA, Cook suggested that often times the public is unaware of those kinds of meetings and that they are poorly attended.
Putting the issue before the City Council would be a better option, Cook said.
“They (councilors) are supposed to represent the interests of the citizens,” Cook said. “So that would be one way the broader public interest would be taken into account.”
He also suggested putting the issue to a referendum or doing polling on the subject.
“If the public says we don’t care for the park, then it shouldn’t be a park,” Cook said.
Across the country it is not unusual for city leaders to compensate for the loss of park space by providing more park space elsewhere, Cook said. In Colorado Springs, for example, the city chose to develop public land but designated as park space three times the amount of land it developed.
“That even got your advocates of no loss of park land kind of scratching their heads,” Cook said.
By developing property intended for park use, the city is jeopardizing future donations of land and creating an atmosphere of mistrust, according to Cook.
“Selling that land for development is not a great way to honor that trust relationship,” he said. “It makes me wonder how many more people in the future” would be willing to donate land.
The city of Tulsa ranks 45th among the nation’s top 75 cities for the quality of its park system, according to TPL’s scoring system. The organization takes into account the number of parks, their proximity by foot and other factors when scoring a city, Cook said.
“When you’re 45th out of 75, I really question the idea of giving away park land when it looks to me like Tulsa needs more, if anything,” Cook said.
The city of Tulsa is fortunate to have park land along the river, Cook said, adding that he was pleasantly surprised by the separate bicycle and pedestrian trails and the abundance of wildlife. In just two days Cook has seen herons, swallows and a bald eagle along the river.
“It’s very nice as a natural area — more natural than I expected,” he said.
Cook said he’s seen the proposed development plan for the Helmerich Park site and believes it has too many parking spaces.
“It’s really just eliminating that corner of the park as park land without getting any mitigation that I am aware of,” he said.
The proposed development would be built approximately three miles south of A Gathering Place for Tulsa, a $350 million park along Riverside Drive that is scheduled to be completed in late 2017.
Cook said he had not met with city officials to hear their side of the story and that he did not intend to. Asked whether he believes he should have done so before speaking publicly on the issue, Cook said “No.”
“We speak on behalf of parks, always,” Cook said.
The development of park land is not a black-and-white issue and there are instances when development can be appropriate, Cook said.
“There could be reason to accommodate some limited commercial development in a park,” he said. It’s often done with restaurants, for example. … It’s usually controversial, but it draws people to the park, it makes for a great park experience.”
TPFA in August sold the land in question to Dallas developer North Point Property Co. LLC, for $1.465 million. The agreement includes a requirement that the developer secure a major outdoors merchandise and sporting good retailer, which subsequently has been identified as Recreation Equipment Inc.
The issue is tied up in court, where the city has yet to respond to an updated petition filed by the plaintiffs, who include former Mayor Terry Young.
City officials have argued that TPFA owns the property and therefore has a different process for approving projects that does not include going before the City Council That process included taking comments from the public.
They also point to a letter from Walt Helmerich, who donated the land, that they say supports their contention that Helmerich knew all along that at least a portion of the property might someday be sold for commercial development.
The city’s contract with the developer calls for a portion of the proceeds of the sale of the land to be used to make improvements at the park, and the city has committed to construct new, better volleyball courts that would replace the courts that are to be removed to make room for the development.
Without the sale, city officials say, there would be no funds to do anything to the courts or property.
The city has struggled for years to come up with money to maintain its park system. The 71st Street and Riverside Drive development would help address the city’s funding woes by bringing $1 million a year in sales tax revenue, city officials argue.
The Trust for Public Land is a nationwide nonprofit that works to ensure that everyone has a park, garden or natural area within a 10-minute walk from home, according to the organization’s web site.
Young said Cook offered to visit Tulsa after hearing about the Helmerich Park controversy and paid his own way to get here.
Young said the Helmerich Park Defense Alliance plans to ask TPL for advice on the design and planning for all of Helmerich Park.
Cook said TPL charges for those services and is typically paid through donations or a consulting contract.
“There has to be something that covers our costs,” he said.