Down here in Oklahoma City, we are a fractious lot: grousing about influence peddling and the susceptibility to same exhibited by City Council and the Mayor, and wondering just exactly who benefits by such and such a decision. The noise level got to its highest this year, when a mysterious 527 group called the Committee for Oklahoma City Momentum poured some $400,000 into Council elections, and came away with a .667 record: of their three preferred candidates, two were elected, though they apparently spent far more on the seat they lost than on the two seats they won. Still, at the end of the day, we give a symbolic upwards tug to our big-boy pants, and we intone: "Well, at least this isn't Tulsa."

Not that there's anything physically wrong with Tulsa, which occupies a bit of ground generally prettier than ours, and which offers a slightly-superior Urban Experience, at least by some definitions. But T-town has been working for years to nail down the Dubious Governance Award, and a couple more hammer blows came this week. As Michael Bates observes, historic-preservation zoning in Tulsa is questionable at best:

Let's say you've decided you want to live in a historic home, and you want to live next door to and across the street from other historic homes. You carefully research the zoning and find a house to buy in a historic preservation overlay (HP). The houses across the street are in the HP district too, albeit right on the edge, backing up to properties that are zoned office or commercial. So you have every reason to believe, based on the zoning map, that your house will remain surrounded by other historic homes indefinitely.

There are half a dozen such districts in Tulsa, covering less than 1.5 square miles. Oklahoma City has nine. Perhaps more important is that HP zoning in Tulsa is an overlay; in Oklahoma City, it's a basic zoning code. Also in Oklahoma City, there exist urban conservation districts, less strict than HP in that they don't require specific Historic Preservation Commission review; Tulsa has none of these, though arguably Tulsa's HP zoning is barely on par with OKC's UCD zoning:

But then a developer buys the HP-zoned houses across the street, then goes to the planning commission with a zoning change proposal for a planned unit development (PUD), to include the historic residential lots across the street and the commercial lots on the same block. Under the zoning code, a developer can use a PUD to group together lots with different zoning classifications, and then move the uses permitted in those zoning classifications around within the PUD. So in a PUD encompassing a couple of residential lots, a couple of lots zoned commercial, and a lot zoned office, the developer could put a restaurant where the houses used to be, and put parking on the area zoned for offices and retail.

Suddenly, your historic home no longer faces other historic homes, as the zoning map led you to expect. Instead your front porch looks out over a dumpster, a surface parking lot, or, perhaps worst of all, a blank screening wall where the sidewalk used to be. Your investment in a historic home in a historic neighborhood has been significantly undermined. The HP zoning you thought would protect your investment turns out to be worthless.

So last Thursday, a proposal came before Tulsa Council to eliminate this possibility, by forbidding the use of PUDs to shuffle zoning codes. Council voted 7-2 to approve the change, but with a twist: it's only valid through the first of December:

Councilor Maria Barnes, who spearheaded the amendment, voted against it because the sunset clause was added... Barnes said she could not support something that in seven months "we're back to where we are today."

The argument was made that this would buy the city some time to hire a new planning director and to implement further changes in the comprehensive Tulsa Plan. Cynics might say that this buys developers some time to develop a counterstrategy.

Does this herald the second coming of what Bates called the Cockroach Caucus? Not necessarily. But the days of Business As Usual are far from over in America's Most Dutiful City.

The Vent

  8 May 2011

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 Copyright © 2011 by Charles G. Hill