Please forgive the length of this post. I’ve gotten several e-mails and feel like it would just be best to draft a complete response to the questions and comments that are being made regarding this issue.
In the time I’ve been on the Council, I’ve been fortunate to be presented with only a few issues of heightened controversy.
I knew when I was running that Tulsa’s midtown was prone to disagreements regarding the appropriate use of property, especially in areas where the corporate interest seemed to collide with our most treasured and historic neighborhoods.
Being an elected person is a difficult job, one we’ve chosen to pursue, not because of some great financial benefit, but because we believe in and love our community and desire to serve.
While it has become popular to distrust politicians and to assume corruption, I’ve found that most of the time our conflicts aren’t born out of callous self-interest, but out of genuine human disagreement about the best way to advance the community. We’re all different. We’re not always going to see things the same way.
Even amongst a group of people who agree that they don’t like something, you’ll find that many of us disagree about why. We’re seeing this in a few places in our city right now, most notably at 71st and Riverside and at 15th and Utica.
I’m not suggesting that the disagreements amongst the objectors regarding this proposal somehow nullify each other’s points, only that the wide array of comments on the issue have made it impossible to find a solution that could appease everyone. My repeated mention of these contradictions seems to upset some of the nearby neighbors, and perhaps I’m just communicating poorly, but I’m doing it to make the point that when there are a multitude of opinions regarding an issue, the best we can hope for is a compromised and balanced consideration of all of the opinions, along with other outside factors.
We’re tasked as councilors with considering the community good. We’re asked to represent, not just those who show up at meetings or send e-mails, but those who may not even know that a development has been proposed. We have to contemplate how developments impact, not just the adjacent neighborhoods, but the city as a whole. Further, we don’t just consider things like infrastructure, traffic flow, migration patterns, livability, tax revenue etc., but also the less tangible things like the city’s self-esteem, reputation and track record. Some of these elements are weighted differently, but they’re all considered.
For those of us on the Council that evaluate these issues based on evidence more than just the number of e-mails and phone calls or the volume level of those in favor or opposition, it’s a complex process of contemplating the longer-term community good as well as all of the varying opinions we hear throughout the process.
Believe me, it would be much easier to upset one developer to the immediate delight of a group of neighborhood residents if it was just about getting through the issue with as little pain as possible.
The thing is, without definitive regulations, there’s no way at all for me to assure any of you that this property doesn’t remain as it is for the next five years, or that five years from now a new developer who is much less willing to work with us won’t use his or her influence to place an altogether different and less desirable project in the location. I don’t know who will be on the council at that time, or what direction our city will have gone. None of us do. I’m tasked with making a decision now, regarding this active application, in contemplation of the present and the future of the area and the city as a whole.
I could have voted no on this development application. That would mean the gas station will remain on the corner and the other buildings will remain as they are for the time being, or the developer will go back to the drawing board again to try to figure out what it will take to win over enough neighbors and councilors, or it could mean another developer comes along with a different plan that maybe goes over better.
I chose to say yes. Because of that, we get a brick building built up to the sidewalk with windows and landscaping, parking in the rear, blade signs, and respectful lighting. Does it have two uses in it? No, it does not. Is it an improvement to the area and a benefit to Tulsans to have this use in this building on this site? I believe so.
I understand that sometimes we just want our elected representative to stand firm and hold his ground on an issue. Sometimes we want them to compromise. Those things are fluid. We don’t always want rigidity. We complain about it, in fact, when politicians don’t work together and don’t flex. We also complain about it when they do. Mostly, we just complain about them when we disagree with them. That’s completely understandable. I’m guilty of it as well. We’d all love elected people who always, without fail, represent our personal opinions. Sometimes, however, we’re disappointed. Trust me that I don’t like disappointing a room full of my constituents and will always try to figure out a way out of that. Sometimes, it’s just not possible. There are times when doing what I believe to be right will just inevitably conflict with the desires of my neighbors. Nobody likes it when that happens.
The thing is, I’ve not just been elected to take a poll of my constituents and cast a vote accordingly, but to research and learn and to use my best judgment, and to work with others to achieve the best outcomes for our city considering all things. For those of you who have followed my short political career, you know there have been times where I have stood my ground, refusing to flex on something I believed to be right, and other times where I have given and taken to achieve the best possible outcomes. As you might expect, I’m sure I’ve delighted and upset my neighbors along the way. There are actions of which I’m proud and some I’d do differently if given the chance, so I’m well aware of the reality of my own flawed humanity. I’ve been consistent, however, in that I’ve always done what I believed to be right at the time.
I agree with so many of you about the ideal. Multi-story, multi-tenant buildings are wonderful. Many of us would love to see more of them in the midtown area, especially as infill projects. If I felt like holding to that ideal in this case would ultimately lead to a better longer-term outcome, I’d take a different approach. Instead, I believe approving this project to be in the best interest of our community. I see it as a step in the right direction for our city and consider it proof that our planning process is working and that having a high self-esteem and high standards produces better outcomes. I also believe that holding to my ideal of a larger, mixed use project would upset some of the opposition, who have expressed far more concern about the traffic counts than about the density of the site, and others who are upset about the demolition of nearby properties, which would certainly also be required in a larger-scale project. There was simply not a way to insist on an outcome in this case that would’ve answered all objections. I hope that’s clear.
For those of you who don’t understand my process in this case, I’ll do my best to communicate it. Here were the things I considered along the way:
I considered The Developer’s Rights
- The property doesn’t belong to me or to anyone other than the developer.
- The developer should not be subjected to an ever-changing standard, which moves according to the impulses of the appointed or elected people.
- The property owner has a right to pursue the development of his property, so long as it is done in concert with the laws of community.
- The developer should be expected to respect the surroundings and should work to ensure his development is to the benefit of the community and is respectful of the community’s stated desires.
I considered The Community Opposition
Some argued that the proposal didn’t contain enough density and that it should be multiple stories. Some were fine with two. Some believed the best scenario was a multiple story building that would better match the buildings across the street.
- Some argued that the new development would create a multitude of traffic issues around the 15th and Utica intersection. Their argument was that the higher intensity use would cause additional congestion.
- Some argued against the use, stating that there are too many pharmacies in the area.
- Some argued that the building wasn’t walkable.
- Some argued against the demolitions of the existing properties.
- Many in opposition also opposed the projects across the street to the south because of the large parking lots and the undesired infringements into the neighborhood.
- Some referenced a nearby development on Cherry Street as a desired development and a good example of what would have been appreciated on the corner.
- Some advocated for multiple uses inside the building.
I then factored in My Personal Observations, Considerations and Conclusions
- The Small Area Plan can serve as a foundation for rigidity, but isn’t, in and of itself, a design guideline. Those who have taken the time to review the small area plan know that the outcome of that process is a series of recommendations, not definitive standards. This has been an area of some debate, but I don’t interpret “recommendation” to mean anything other than “a suggestion or proposal as to the best course of action, especially one put forward by an authoritative body.” I believe this single difference of interpretation to be the cause of a great deal of the angst in this issue, as the majority of communications to me throughout the process referenced my disregard of the Utica Corridor Small Area Plan, a plan to which I appointed the members, was involved personally, and enthusiastically approved legislatively. I didn’t disregard the plan. I used it as a basis to help transform this project from a typical, run of the mill CVS, to the best designed CVS in the state.
- I believe that this is a part of establishing a reputation for expecting that developers honor our standards. The progress that was made and the compromises made by the developer throughout the process will be to the benefit of our community and to that corner.
- This one is especially important. I’ve considered the potential ramifications of erroneously treating the small area plan like some sort of definitive design standard. If our development community believes the plans the city makes will be used to create a subjective and unpredictable atmosphere for development, they are much more likely to discredit and devalue the planning process moving forward. I want us to be working to cultivate a trust between developers and nearby neighbors that our plans, zoning, and even potentially our design guidelines will be respected appropriately. I want the development community to actively participate in the plans we make for our city, not use their undeniable influence to crater the countless hours of work that have gone into the planning. If we allow these plans to be stretched beyond their intended purpose to force developers into our subjective ideals, adulterating their purpose as a foundation of community desires and recommendations, we’ll invite them to disregard the value of the plans and fight against future planning efforts. We should not knowingly create enemies of those who can hamper the progress we’ve made in recent years regarding land use in Tulsa. We have to be consistent and predictable.
- The current building on the corner is unattractive.
- I consider the final application to be respectful of the recommendations of the small area plan and would be an aesthetic improvement to the site.
- The application had majority approval of the TMAPC.
- The application passed muster with professional planning staff.
- Our lack of existing regulatory framework turns the Council into a subjective review committee, which should not be the intention of the small area plan, the city’s zoning code, or our legislative process.
- When there are existing regulations, The City Council can reasonably be tasked with working to determine if the application is consistent with the law, but when an application is made, and all that exists in the written community record is a set of plan recommendations, we are then tasked with working with the property owner to best respect those recommendations as they relate to the proposed development, not with distorting the process and assigning more weight to recommendations and whimsically creating design guidelines on the fly.
- The best the council can do in cases like these is to consider all comments and work towards the best possible outcome under the circumstances. I have to respect the process and the intent of our community’s charter, zoning code, comp plan, and my assignments as an elected representative. Stepping outside of this framework, even when it delights a group of neighbors, is an inappropriate over-reach of my political responsibilities and is not consistent with my own values.
- I want our laws to matter. I want our plans to matter. To ensure that happens, they have to be respected and honored as they are intended, not used according to my personal whimsy.
- I believe that a primary aspect of walkability is convenient, “walking distance” access to basic staples. Pharmacies aren’t just places to pick up prescriptions. They also provide a wide array of basic goods that most people consider essentials. Milk, eggs, bread, toiletries, etc. are all available at a pharmacy, and locating a business in this commercial corridor means that an area of the city that is already considered one of the most walkable will now be able to meet the core, vital needs of urban lifestyle residents. While many of the objecting neighbors may not consider this worth the trade, I have to consider their hundreds of neighbors and other Tulsans who are not objecting and the benefits the CVS will be to them.
- I believe in giving the benefit of the doubt to objecting neighbors who just simply don’t want something. I don’t have to insist that their arguments are consistent with one another or that they make perfect sense to me. I also know that in cases like this, it’s natural to attempt to come up with tangible reasons why we don’t want something that we just don’t want. It’s common to get to work putting together the argument we believe will work the best to get us to the outcome we desire. That could explain the variety of arguments made against it. I believe it’s fair to reason that many of the objectors have reasons for opposing the CVS that they didn’t communicate, either because they don’t exactly know why they don’t want it (which is completely understandable), or because their reasons for not wanting it are not politically correct or appropriate for public discourse. I’ve contemplated those things as well. Sometimes we just like something or we just don’t like something, but we don’t always necessarily understand how to articulate why. Sometimes we know exactly why we do or don’t want it. I’ve tried to consider that the group of people in opposition is likely made up of a myriad of these positions and that their opposition alone, regardless of the reason, is worth noting in my process of forming my own position on the matter.
In consideration of the things I’ve outlined here, I concluded that supporting the application was the appropriate thing for me to do. I believe it to be a respectful design by the developer, which improves the corner, respects the small area plan recommendations, and complies with the law of the city. I believe it will not cause a notable increase in the traffic flow at that intersection. I believe its use will serve the nearby neighborhoods. I believe I’m acting within, but not outside of my responsibilities as an elected representative to approve it, while with considerations that protect the neighborhoods. I believe it will contribute to a more walkable intersection than we currently experience. I believe the size and scale of the building better contributes to the built environment than the current building on the corner and will prove harmonious with adjacent and nearby developments. I have stated repeatedly that I do not personally believe this to be the most ideal development, but I do not believe I should attempt to mandate my personal ideology in this case, as it would be an over-stepping of my political powers for the advancement of what may be a the most well-intentioned aspiration. I will remain optimistic that we can pursue, as a fellowship, some design guidelines for the area that will help us to avoid such dust-ups moving forward.
Our new zoning code allows for design guidelines through an overlay process. I was the biggest proponent of that tool on our zoning code update team. I believe strongly that a city should be able to identify standards for development and hold the community to those standards.
Part of the issue we’re seeing here is that the community doesn’t have a pre-defined standard for the site, only a series of often differing opinions about what should be there. Developers should be able to trust this process and know from the onset what is expected of them.
As I have mentioned previously, I’m glad to lead the effort to develop and implement Cherry Street Design Guidelines if that is the will of the stakeholders.
Lastly, I’ll respond to the elements of this that have clearly become personal to some. I am a passionate person. Like many of you, I get excited and worked up over issues of great importance to me. I ran for City Council, in fact, because I didn’t like the direction our community was going and was determined to try to make a difference. Like many of you, I am proud to be an involved participant in the process of making Tulsa a better place. Often, these passions lead to conflicts with other elected people, developers, and now neighbors. While I’m not accustomed to being on this side of the equation, I am accustomed to dealing with contentious issues and of the personal struggle they create. Sometimes I’m fighting for things you like. We like those times and I like being complimented for my willingness to fight so hard for things you care about. Some of the frustration for me in this regard has to do with the notion that I don’t care about our planning or our standards or that I’ve deceived you with statements made in the past about the importance of our plans.
Some of you may know the truth, that I’ve been our city’s top elected advocate for planning, smart growth, high density infill, historic preservation, a progressive, urban-minded zoning code update that created new zoning designations like MX zoning, allowing bike parking to help meet the parking requirement, reducing parking requirements in urban commercial settings, allowing for buildings to be built to the sidewalks, the inclusion of design guideline overlays in our zoning code, our state’s first dedicated public transit tax, increased annual funding for transit, funding our bike and pedestrian infrastructure, funding our main street programs, etc.. I’m not just saying it. Ask literally anyone at City Hall with whom I’ve worked on these issues. They’ve likely been annoyed with me at some point for my continued insistence that we do a better job of building our great city and of making sure Tulsans of all backgrounds are considered in our planning and development efforts.
I suppose I let my skin get too thin in the face of accusations from people who know better that I’m either ignorant or apathetic to our city’s plans or that I don’t care about such things. I’ll work to do better there and to continue the hard work of fighting for higher standards and a more walkable, bikeable, community. I sincerely apologize for the moments where I allowed my emotions to hinder my decorum. I hope to lead by a better example and to be someone who helps bring a city together. I can certainly learn from this issue.
I’m truly appreciative of the hard work and involvement from so many people over the last few months. I’ll remain optimistic that we can work together down the line and that our failure to see eye to eye on this issue will not define our relationship forever.