Will “Parking Madness” Champion Tulsa Punt on Reforms?

Tulsa, Oklahoma, is Streetsblog’s reigning “Parking Madness” champion — earlier this year readers said its downtown was scarred by the worst parking crater in America. It seemed at the time like Tulsa was going to take action to mend its downtown, but recent news has not been so encouraging. Will Tulsa enact a new surface parking moratorium or continue bulldozing the city to make way for surface parking? It could all rest with an upcoming City Council decision.

Earlier this month, the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission, acting in an advisory role, voted 10 to 1 against the moratorium on new surface parking. The final decision rests with the City Council, but the commission’s decision is ominous.

This image won Tulsa the "Golden Crater" in Streetsblog's Parking Madness tournament earlier this year. But will local leaders punt on reforms that could help repair the damage? Image: Google Maps

City planners spent five and a half months working on the legislation, gathering best practices from around the country. A previous version of the legislation had been passed and was extended this summer. In Denver, similar legislation enacted 30 years ago helped turn around downtown development.

The trouble in Tulsa began shortly before the planning commission hearing, when a group of about a dozen property owners expressed opposition, saying the legislation would “handcuff” them and “take away their [property] rights.”

Bill Leighty, the sole dissenter on the planning commission, told Streetsblog he was frustrated with the decision. The legislation, he said, is really very “middle of the road” and would still allow developers to demolish buildings for parking lots — it just required an additional level of scrutiny.

“It was a sad moment for me when we had so many people say, ‘Well it’s too late,’” Leighty said. “It’s never too late. Our building stock has been depleted so much that every single property has enormous value in terms of protecting our historic assets.”

There has been some question about whether the legislation could be sent back to the planning department for some changes. But Leighty says opponents are not willing to compromise, and Mayor Dewey Bartlett is all too willing to discard the agreed-upon precepts of the city’s comprehensive plan in order to appease business interests. Even if the City Council approves the moratorium, Bartlett may veto it.

Leighty says few people in Tulsa, outside of downtown residents, really understand the problem. The local culture is resistant to change, he said, and that is hurting the city’s ability to attract talented young people. ”We’re not moving in the right direction,” he said. “We’re hanging on to these old ideas.”

In the meantime, local young professional organizations and groups like Tulsa Now, a land use advocacy organization, are prevailing on City Council members to support the moratorium. Tulsa Now’s Carlos Moreno says there’s a group of people fighting “tooth and nail for what’s right for downtown.”

“When a city invests public money into a downtown area, as Tulsa is doing, it’s in the public interest for the city to enforce its design intent,” he said. “Just a short trip down Route 66, Oklahoma City has seen their downtown flourish, in no small part because of a solid land use code, which is much more restrictive.”