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Author Topic: Blueprint for Better Planning in Tulsa  (Read 2057 times)
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« on: September 19, 2008, 03:02:44 pm »

St. Paul's Letter to the Tulsans

Reviewing her survey of 1,000 Tulsans, Collective Strength's Robin Rather called attention to the absence of a "community infrastructure"--institutions that mediate between the individual citizen and city government. It's an issue that needs to be addressed to enable effective follow-up and ongoing citizen/government communication after the completion of the PLANiTULSA comprehensive plan effort.

Tulsa's planning districts were set up in the 1970s as part of Vision 2000, but Mayor Susan Savage ended city-sponsored planning district elections in the '90s, citing low levels of participation in the choice of volunteer neighborhood advocates.

Savage promoted the creation of neighborhood associations as the connection between City Hall and residents, but neighborhood associations strengthen as crises develop and then dissipate as crises resolve.

Volunteer leaders burn out, and neighborhood associations fail to develop new leaders to replace them. Neighborhood associations don't come close to covering all of Tulsa's land area. Communications between neighborhood leaders and residents become sporadic or die off completely between crises. Contact lists of neighborhood leaders quickly go out of date.

Tulsa's nine City Council districts are too large in size and population to mediate directly between government and homeowners, and most councilors rely on neighborhood associations, where they exist, to keep them informed about the neighborhood concerns and to spread the word about issues that will affect residents.

St. Paul's solution is worth considering: District planning councils, each including about 15,000 residents, supported by paid staffers.

In 1968, the City of St. Paul divided itself into 19 planning districts. Residents in each district then established a district planning council as a non-profit corporation. District boundaries have remained nearly constant since then. The city's seven city council districts are redrawn after each census, so most planning districts are represented by more than one city councilor.

Tait Danielson-Castillo, executive director of the District 7 planning council, told me that the councils are independent of city government, each with its own by-laws. Rules vary, but most district councils allow homeowners, property owners, renters, business owners, and others who work in the district to participate in meetings and the election of officers.

Councils hold an annual election meeting and a monthly community meeting (often accompanied by potluck suppers), plus a special meeting when an urgent issue demands it. In District 7, about 150 people show up for the annual meeting.

District councils receive some funding from the city. Federal Community Development Block Grant money funds councils in disadvantaged areas, in support of CDBG's crime prevention and citizen participation goals. Grants from the city's general fund underwrite other councils, based on a funding formula. Other funding comes from local philanthropies, such as the McKnight Foundation, the Otto Bremer Foundation, and the St. Paul Travelers Foundation.

Funds allow the districts to hire staff. Each council has between one half-time and three full-time staffers. Funds are also used to pursue neighborhood improvement projects.

Tulsa's neighborhood associations are led by volunteers, who have to balance neighborhood leadership with work and family obligations. But each St. Paul district has someone whose job it is to keep an eye on city government decisions affecting the area.

An Alteration of Attitude

Danielson-Castillo told me that the City Council looks to the district councils to find out what residents are thinking. Part of his job is to solicit opinions from district members on controversial city issues. Once the residents decide, he becomes an advocate for their position at City Hall, the County Courthouse, and, if necessary, the State Capitol.

Because the district boundaries were established by the city, the district councils have special standing when they address city boards and authorities about issues like land use, zoning, and licensing.

District councils don't seek to be adversarial with government bodies, but their independence allows them to put their residents' interests first.

Staffers also work with residents to keep the district plan up to date.

While Tulsa's comprehensive plan is driven by city government and the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission, St. Paul's plan is driven from the grassroots up. Each district creates its own area plan; the City Council reviews and incorporates the area plans into the city's comprehensive plan.

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PonderInc
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« Reply #1 on: September 29, 2008, 08:51:55 am »

The above excerpt is from a column by Michael Bates.  I'm sure Mr. Bates would appreciate the byline, when quoted at such length.

It's a fascinating proposition.  Tulsa's neighborhoods definitely struggle for representation in development decisions.  While the devlopers have professional staff, legal representation, and experts on the zoning code...the neighbors are lucky if they have a random, loosely-organized, over-scheduled group of people with diverse opinions and no clue how the system works, much less the zoning code.  ("What's a PUD?")  The current TMAPC and City Council seem so pro-development that they seem disinclined to vote against development of any sort.

The end result is that the develpers get whatever they want, and the neighborhoods are stuck with it.  Often, it seems that national chains make the decisions ("We can't do that, b/c our lease requires this...") instead of local residents.  These decisions shape the fabric and face of our city and our neighborhoods...but we don't really have a say.  So we get generic commercial developments that make Tulsa indistinguishable from Topeka, KS.

The citizens should definitely have greater control.  Step one, however, is that people have to get involved and care enough to pay attention.  Would having paid staff members help?  Possibly.  (Or they could become petty tyrants/gatekeepers, exerting THEIR vision over a neighborhood.)  

I hope that the PLANiTULSA process will spur conversations about topics like these, and lead our community towards new solutions to old problems.  I'm not sure what the best solution is, but I know the current system is broken.
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« Reply #2 on: September 30, 2008, 07:13:01 am »

The idea of changing the council districts is interesting (i.e. make them smaller or redefine the existing boundaries) but I'm not certain that it would fix anything.
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