It’s no coincidence that Tulsa city councilors and other local officials are headed to Dallas Tuesday to check out a couple of REI stores and a host of restaurants.
It’s a wonder it didn’t happen sooner.
The Tulsa Public Facilities Authority is in the middle of a legal battle to bring the sporting goods and outdoor merchandise retailer to the southwest corner of 71st Street and Riverside Drive and could soon need the support of the City Council to make it happen.
Plans for the nine-acre development also include a restaurant and entertainment venue.
Then there is the broader issue of development along the Arkansas River. The two-day trip includes a meeting with the Trinity River Vision Authority, which oversees development along an 88-mile stretch of the river. Next week, the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission holds its first public meeting on the city’s own proposed river development regulations, called the River Design Overlay.
The City Council will have the final say on those development regulations, and that vote is tentatively scheduled for July 21.
City Councilor Phil Lakin, who is spearheading the trip, said he knows some people will see it as being solely focused on what could be built at 71st Street and Riverside Drive, a parcel of land that for years has been identified as park land.
“People will say this just has to do with Helmerich Park, the nine acres,” Lakin said. “But I would say it’s much broader than that.”
Tours of the Recreational Equipment Inc. store in Highland Park, Texas, and another REI along the Trinity River in Fort Worth, for example, are intended to give officials a three-dimensional view of what a typical REI store looks like, Lakin said.
He noted that some people have criticized Tulsa’s proposed REI for its lack of windows along the north and west sides of the building, which would leave trail users looking up at a mostly opaque wall.
Seeing how the REI stores in Dallas are laid out, Lakin said, might help officials determine whether more windows could be built in the Tulsa store.
“Maybe we go, ‘OK, I get it,’” Lakin said. “Or maybe we go, ‘Yeah, that doesn’t make any sense. You can put windows in.’”
Another stop on the tour designed to help city officials address concerns about the proposed 71st Street and Riverside Drive development is The Grove at Harwood, a pocket park that includes a cafe and volleyball courts.
The development at 71st Street and Riverside Drive would be built on the site of popular volleyball courts. City officials have said they would construct new and better courts to replace them, and proceeds from the sale of the land would go to help pay for them.
“I continue to be a strong advocate for doing it (volleyball courts) right, wherever it goes,” Lakin said.
Visits to restaurants like The Rustic and Katy Trail Ice House, on the other hand, will provide examples of the types of development that could potentially be built up and down the Arkansas River corridor, Lakin said.
In fact, the layout of The Rustic is strikingly similar to the design of the proposed restaurant/entertainment venue at 71st Street and Riverside Drive. That venue would include a a large dining space and an outdoor stage facing the Arkansas River.
TPFA sold the Helmerich Park property to North Point Property Co., LLC, for $1.465 million. The agreement includes a requirement that the developer deliver a specific anchor tenant that has since been identified as REI.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit against TPFA — who include former Mayor Terry Young and several others — object to the use of park property for commercial development and believe TPFA did not have the authority to sell the land, and failed to follow the proper procedures in doing so.
City officials have said previously that they are not actively fighting the lawsuit to give TPFA time to address the plaintiffs’ concerns. Those concerns include the fact that the City Council has never voted to surplus the park property, an act the plaintiffs argue is required by law before the land can be used for commercial development.
City Manager Jim Twombly said last week that he believes TPFA might someday reconsider asking councilors to vote on the issue. Such a request was on a TPFA agenda earlier this year but was pulled before the meeting took place.
“Obviously, one of the issues (in the lawsuit) is that the city should have declared it surplus,” Twombly said.
Most city councilors on Monday said they had yet to make up their minds about surplussing the land but all agreed visiting an REI — and the other components of the Dallas trip — would help them in making their decisions.
“It really helps me to see examples of things,” said Councilor Anna America.
America said she would need to be confident that the 71st Street and Riverside Drive development is largely in alignment with the proposed River District Overlay before she could consider voting to surplus the property.
Even then, America added, she’s not in favor of councilors’ simply rubber-stamping the existing proposal.
“There is no way I would vote to surplus the land without also saying we need to have some say in what is happening there,” she said.
Councilor David Patrick said he’s inclined to support using the land as surplus for development.
“I think there is a way to have both commercial development that will enhance the river experience plus also have a nice park there that will have (more) money to make it a better park,” Patrick said.
City officials believe a lot is at stake at 71st Street and Riverside Drive. Mayor Dewey Bartlett and other public officials have said that, following the loss of the Simon Property Outlet Mall to Jenks, Tulsa’s reputation as a good place to do business would be severely damaged if another major development slips away.
The developer of the project, Don Bouvier with UCR Development, is leaving nothing to chance. He has hired sixPR, a Tulsa-based public relations firm, to coordinate media requests for information about the proposed 71st Street and Riverside Drive project.
SixPR helped coordinate portions of the Dallas trip, and Bouvier will be present for the councilors’ visit to the REI stores and The Rustic.
City Councilors Jeannie Cue, Blake Ewing, Karen Gilbert, Connie Dodson, G.T. Bynum and Lakin are expected to make the trip. The City Council allocated a total $2,500 to cover the cost.
Others scheduled to attend include Rich Brierre and Susan Miller with the Indian Nations Council of Governments; Jeff Dunn, chairman of the board of directors of the Tulsa Regional Chamber; and Jeff Stava, chief operating officer of the Tulsa Community Foundation and project manager for A Gathering Place for Tulsa.
Because a majority of councilors will be present, the trip is treated as an open meeting and the public may attend. America said she would love to see a few opponents of the 71st Street and Riverside Drive project make the trip.
As of late Monday, none had signed up. But Young said some plaintiffs in the lawsuit may try to be present at the contingent’s first stop Tuesday: Helmerich Park.
Read some of The Frontier’s past coverage of the REI controversy: