Tulsa Mayor Wants to Cut Off Sidewalk Access to City’s Fabulous New Park

Tulsa's planned $350 million new park, A Gathering Place, promises all the best in urban park amenities. But thanks to the city's mayor, it may lack sidewalk access. Image: Agatheringplacefortulsa.com
Tulsa’s new park, A Gathering Place, is supposed to provide an oasis to the public, but thanks to the city’s mayor, the public may have a hard time walking there. Image: Agatheringplacefortulsa.com

Tulsa, Oklahoma, is getting ready to build a new flagship park, called A Gathering Place — a $350 million project supported entirely by private foundations, most notably the Kaiser Family Foundation. The park will contain a skate park, sports fields, a boat house, views of the Arkansas River, a “swing hill” and all sorts of other goodies. But thanks to Mayor Dewey Bartlett, it might lack one very basic amenity: sidewalk access.

A few months ago, Bartlett, who is also president of the Keener Oil and Gas Company, issued an executive order eliminating plans for a sidewalk connection on Riverside Drive, an important north-south street that fronts the park and connects to downtown, not far away.

This rendering shows plans for a sidewalk on Riverside Drive. Image: Smart Growth Tulsa Coalition
Mayor Dewey Bartlett has tossed aside the most basic provision for walking access to the park: a sidewalk on Riverside Drive. Image: Smart Growth Tulsa Coalition

The finished park is expected to draw about 1 million visitors a year. But will any of them walk without adequate pedestrian access?

A growing coalition is demanding the the sidewalk be reinstated. About 300 people packed a City Council meeting late last month urging city officials to maintain pedestrian access. Because of fire codes, supporters actually had to be turned away, says Bill Leighty of the Smart Growth Tulsa Coalition, which has been organizing the campaign for sidewalks.

Leighty says the mayor’s decision violates the city’s complete streets program and seems to have been motivated by prejudice against people who would walk to the park.

Early in the planning process, he said, “some meetings were held with the adjoining neighborhoods. There was an enormous amount of opposition from those neighbors, for reasons that are suspect, I would say. They didn’t want ‘undesirables’ coming to their neighborhood.”

This is what Riverside Drive looks like now. The road carries 25,000 cars a day. Photo: Smart Growth Tulsa Coalition
This is what Riverside Drive looks like now. The road carries 25,000 cars a day. Photo: Smart Growth Tulsa Coalition

The historic neighborhoods surrounding the park are very wealthy, and the local press has reported on relationships between nearby property owners and the mayor that may present a conflict of interest. Bartlett’s Keener office, for instance, rents space from a member of the Maple Ridge Homeowner’s Association, which opposes the sidewalk, reports the local CBS affiliate. (The city auditor concluded that Bartlett did not violate ethics rules.)

Bartlett contends that a sidewalk on Riverside Drive would not be safe for pedestrians — because speeding drivers might mount the sidewalk and injure people. Instead, the anti-sidewalk contingent has proposed a circuitous park access route that would compel people to walk on a bridge over Riverside Drive and through some trails.

Leighty says the safety concerns are “a smoke screen” to obscure the fact that opponents simply want to keep people on foot away from their neighborhood. The sidewalk proposal, he says, is much safer than what you find on most other Tulsa streets.

“There are ways to slow the traffic down and maybe tighten the lanes and do things that would lower the speeds,” he said.

Rather than calming traffic next to his city’s new flagship park, Bartlett has said he wants to wait until the park is complete and then reevaluate the sidewalk. That would mean Tulsa residents might have to wait years for pedestrian infrastructure that is supposed to be a standard on all streets, and residents of growing neighborhoods north of the park would be left without walking access.

Leighty says advocates for a livable Tulsa view this as an important fight for the future of the city. “We have a great comprehensive plan, we have great complete streets policies, we have other plans that are in place to help us move forward and change,” he said. “But when the big issues come up we tend to miss out.”

He cited Tulsa’s failed parking reform effort as an example of how important reforms can get tossed aside the moment a specious concern is officered by local power brokers.

“There’s an enormous appetite for change, and the tide is turning but it’s like a steamship,” Leighty said.

  • Mike McCurdy

    After using this park, people can then drive to their spinning class. Makes sense to me.

  • JacobEPeters

    I actually don’t see the issue with there not being a sidewalk on riverside through the park area, due to the large number of trails that seem to be running parallel to the street, and the fact that Riverside Drive seems to be bridged by land bridge portions of the park.

    Is this about eliminating the sidewalks on the portions of Riverside Drive north and south of the park on the east side of the street? I am having trouble understanding where the access is being eliminated since there is a trail running parallel to Riverside Drive between the Riverview neighborhood next to downtown and the Creek Turnpike 7 miles south. In some places that trail even seems to act as a sidewalk for the road.

    Could a graphic be included that shows where this sidewalk is being eliminated and how this lack of a sidewalk in this area will create unsafe access conditions? From the graphics and articles linked, it seems like access to Veterans Park would be provided by the trail being built on the eastern edge of the park running north to 21st street.

    The Mayor’s argument against the sidewalk is idiotic considering the trail on the west side of the road, but it would seem that people would take the multi-use paths that lead to and from the park rather than along a sidewalk that would lead to the same places but require crossing several more intersections.

  • StefanieA

    I don’t live in the Tulsa region, so I haven’t followed the project closely. However, my understanding is that this sidewalk is part of a larger project for Riverside Drive that significantly increases the curb-to-curb width of the road to provide wider travel lanes and a landscaped median. The current Drive currently has four undivided lanes just over 10′ each, and the plan calls for two inside lanes of 12′, two outside lanes of 14′, a 16′- to 21′-wide median, 5′ planting strip, 5′ sidewalk, and a fancy wall to separate people walking from yards. Turning radii would be increased as well. I believe most of this extra width is on public ROW that is currently used/seen as yards for the homes.

    Homeowners have said they are against the sidewalk because a sidewalk cuts too far into their yards and ruins the historic character of the neighborhood. But they’re seemingly OK with losing, IMO, that yard and character to benefit automobile traffic.

  • StefanieA

    Oh right, my point: a reallocation of ROW among the users could answer all the issues raised (except for the racism/classism piece) and still provide a parkway-like environment. For example: Reduce the overall width to avoid taking so much of the yards, mostly from the median but also narrow those travel lanes to 12′ max (the posted speed limit is 35). Further reduce the median and increase the planting strip between driving lanes and sidewalks, and plant a bunch of trees there.

  • Brent

    ‘Merica!

  • davistrain

    Do I detect an unwritten line that might go, “If we make pedestrian access too easy, the vagrants will wander in and turn the park into a hobo jungle.”

  • Anandakos

    I think you’re right; it’s the east side sidewalk north of the park to 21st Street that is apparently being eliminated. Yeah, those eight blocks are ultra chi-chi, and it’s a stone cold bet that the occupants are flaming classists (and it being ol’ “biggest white on black race riot ever” Tulsa, probably racists, too).

    All that said, those people will never use the sidewalk and as you point out, there’s a multi-use trail on the river side of the boulevard for real people to access the park from farther north.

    So I’d say overall, let ’em stew in their little gated community. If they’re so scared of “those people” in the park, they’ll never need to walk to it, will they?

    I think the stupidest thing about the plan is that parking lot opposite the big multi-unit development between the creek and 33rd. There’s a large supply of actual, you know, “people” living there who might use the park, especially the part closest to their homes, but the planners are going to pave that part.

    Muy intelligente as they say south of the border.

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