Photo courtesy of G.W. “Bill” Miller

Get ready to speak up!  After the Vision Tulsa election on April 5th, Tulsans can turn their attention to a matter of crucial importance to sustaining and improving the quality of life in the Arkansas River corridor. For well over a year, a group has worked to establish design standards and guidelines for new developments in what, if approved, will be the first Special Area Overlay District incorporated into the city’s new updated zoning code. I’m pleased to offer the following background information to bring you up to date on the process as it works its way to the Tulsa City Council for review and possible adoption.

Fortunately, the steering committee was somewhat more balanced in terms of representation of real estate developer’s, planners, architects and academics than some authorities, boards and commissions. That being the case, not so many concessions have been made during the planning process as we sometimes see.

As is typical, the process itself has remained relatively quiet to this point, with very little media attention on the steering committee as they have been about their work. You can be sure that is about to change and we can expect things will start heating up soon after the April 5th election.

You can be sure that some if not all of the usual suspects will be coming forward soon to challenge many aspects of the proposed guidelines. These will be the same people who contested PlaniTulsa and the new comprehensive plan, the proposed Form-Based Code in the Pearl District, the Riverside Sidewalk, and who also turned a zoning code update that should have taken one year, into a 3-year hand-wringing experience.

Expect the same arguments. ‘You are infringing upon our property rights,’ and “no developers will deal with these unfair restrictions, and they will take their business elsewhere,’ ignoring the fact that they are already subject to many restrictions, including use, setbacks, height, and many others. And it won’t just be individuals who complain, there will be highly respected businesses who are considered good corporate citizens, that try to make the case for relief from the proposed standards.

PlaniTulsaThese individuals and groups have lots of resources and political connections, and they typically stop at nothing to get their way. Rather than adapt their business models to accommodate development strategies that benefit the entire community, they often bully their way through the process, making as few concessions as possible. And, quite frankly, they usually prevail.

If Tulsan’s are ever to achieve the sense of place that we strive to achieve, where open space is celebrated and preserved to enhance our quality of life, both now and for future generations, we must stand up to these special interest groups and demand that our voices be heard. Our elected officials must learn that there are consequences to be dealt with when they ignore the pleas of citizens for responsible development practices that align with our adopted plans.

We urge each of you to carefully review the proposed standards and be ready to get involved when the public review process begins. We can settle for something that is pretty good, or we can strive for some standards that will be really great. Which will it be? 

Riverside TunnelBackground: A steering committee, comprised of 4 City Councilors, representatives from the Mayor’s office, urban planners, local architects, developers, homebuilders and more, was established in early 2015 to begin working on design guidelines for the area surrounding the Arkansas River. The steering committee was formed as a result of a joint Mayor and City Council retreat held in February 2015, where they identified a shared goal of “drafting regulatory tools to guide river development” and “adopting river corridor design guidelines.”

The proposed Arkansas River Design Overlay District will be the first Special Area (SA) Overlay District incorporated into the City of Tulsa’s new Zoning Code, which took effect on January 1, 2016. The proposed Arkansas River Design Overlay District overlay will address uses, building placement, design and site features, parking, landscaping and screening, lighting, signage and circulation and access.

Helmerich RFP imageMore intensive heavy commercial and industrial uses are not favorable for riverfront development- rather the uses and types of development envisioned along the river are those that encourage people activity – such as retail, restaurants, recreational venues, etc. Design must focus on river orientation and pedestrian connections to the river trail system and to other parts of the river corridor. The intent is that people can park once (walk or bike) and spend a day walking to various destinations along the corridor – shopping, dining and recreating.

Current Status: In September, 2015, the City Council adopted a moratorium on certain uses within the boundaries of the proposed overlay, expiring on March 15, 2016. The City Council may choose to extend that moratorium to allow time for the overlay to be adopted and become effective. The uses prohibited in the moratorium mirror the prohibited uses in the proposed overlay.

INCOG/TMAPC staff has been the primary lead on the drafting of the overlay provisions, with significant input from the steering committee. An initial draft of the proposed overlay has been produced and staff is working with Kirk Bishop, Duncan Associates, to review and reformat the proposal consistent with the new Zoning Code format. In addition, a local landscape architect has also been retained to produce 3-D digital images to illustrate the design concepts proposed in the overlay. These will assist as staff and members of the steering committee begin to engage the general public and property owners in discussions about the overlay.

Proposed River Design Overlay Summary 

I.     Purpose and Intent

The RDO, River Design Overlay regulations establish regulations governing form, function, design and use. The regulations are generally intended to maintain and promote the Arkansas River corridor as a valuable asset to the city and region in terms of economic development and quality of life. The regulations are also intended to:

  • Support and enhance the Arkansas River Corridor as a lively people-oriented destination, connecting nodes of high quality development with parks and open spaces;
  • Protect the city’s investment as well as the investments of property owners, developers and others who enjoy the benefits of Arkansas River Corridor;
  • Encourage development that enhances the appearance of the Arkansas River Corridor and the surrounding area;
  • Ensure development that is sensitive to the area’s natural resources and environmental qualities;
  • Establish the area as an interconnected, pedestrian-oriented, cultural and recreational destination, attracting both residents and visitors to the Arkansas River; and
  • Foster a sense of community and civic

II.    Districts. Three RDO districts are established, as follows:

A.     RD0-1

The RD0-1 district is primarily intended to apply to park, recreation and open space uses adjacent to the river. RD0-1 regulations help promote development that is compatible with public parks and green space and that complements park uses.

B.    RD0-2

The RD0-2 district is primarily intended to apply to privately owned lands with direct access to the river. RD0-2 regulations help to ensure safe, attractive and activated pedestrian areas by requiring that new development is oriented to the river and abutting streets. The regulations also promote integration with the River Parks trail system and avoidance of adverse environmental impacts.

C.    RD0-3

The RD0-3 district is primarily intended to apply to privately owned lands that do not have direct access to the river but that are visible from riverfront areas. These areas benefit from proximity to the river and contribute to the overall visual environment of the riverfront area.

River Overlay District Map

There were a few minor tweaks to this map last week, but this is the most recent map available at the time of this publications.

III. Applicability

The RDO regulations apply to all properties within the boundaries of the RDO overlay districts, except as otherwise expressly stated. Applicable RDO regulations may not be waived or modified through the approval of any new or existing PUD, MPD or CO zoning district.

IV.  Exemptions

The following are exempt from compliance with the RDO regulations:

  • Existing detached houses and duplexes and additions to existing detached houses and duplexes;
  • New detached houses and duplexes;
  • Uses and structures that are accessory to existing or new detached houses or duplexes; and
  • Nonresidential uses in existence on [insert effective date of overlay], provided that all exterior building alterations and site modifications requiring a building permit must comply with all applicable RDO

V. Restoration or Re-establishment of Nonconforming Structures

  1. Nonconformities that exist within an RDO district are governed by the regulations of Chapter 80, except as expressly stated in this
  2. If a nonconforming structure within an RDO district is damaged or destroyed by an act of God or an action other than an intentional or reckless act of the owner or gross negligence of the owner, it may be restored, provided that such   restoration:
  • Does not increase the extent of the nonconformity that existed prior to sustaining damages; and
  • Building permits for the restoration are obtained within 2 years of the date that the damage occurred. If required permits are not obtained within 2 years, the structure’s nonconforming status is lost.

VI. Administration

No building permit for proposed use or development in an RDO district may be approved until such use or development has been reviewed by the land use administrator and found to be in compliance with all applicable RDO regulations.

VII. Uses

A.  Intent: 

The RDO regulations are intended to allow for a mix of uses to promote a pedestrian environment, while prohibiting uses that will hinder the long-term viability of an attractive, vibrant and active riverfront area.

B.  Proposed Regulations

  • Principal uses are allowed in RDO districts in accordance with the use regulations of the underlying (base) zoning district, except as expressly
  • Prohibited uses differ slightly between RDO
  • Examples of prohibited uses include:

Certain low intensity residential uses;

Cemeteries and certain utility and public services facility uses;

Certain commercial uses, such as: business support services, maintenance & repair, check cashing store, pawnshop, bail bonds, plasma center, building supplies and equipment, self-service storage facilities, sexually oriented businesses and vehicle sales and service;

Industrial uses, including wholesale, distribution and storage uses and recycling;

Agricultural uses of animal husbandry and horticulture nursery; Billboards (Off-premise Outdoor Advertising Sign); and

Drive-in or drive-through facility (as   a component of an allowed principal use)

VIII. Building Placement, Design & Site Features

A.  Intent

The building placement, building design and site design regulations are   intended to:

  • Ensure building orientation respects both the river and abutting streets;
  • Organize buildings to create and frame usable outdoor spaces;
  • Encourage pedestrian activity through compact and well connected development;
  • Ensure that new development is constructed of durable, long lasting materials;
  • Enhance pedestrian interaction with the natural and built environment by providing building articulation and transparency of building facades at pedestrian levels; and
  • Promote incorporation of design features that encourage outdoor activity and emphasize the presence of the river and

 B. Proposed Regulations

  • Regulations relating to building placement, building design and site design vary between RDO districts.
  • All buildings must have a faade in a Build-to-Zone (BTZ), except if projecting beyond the river
  • On parcels with river frontage, buildings must occupy at least 70% of the parcel’s river frontage in the BTZ prior to constructing in the street
  • When building in the street BTZ, a minimum of 60% of the street facing building faade(s) must be located in the
  • Buildings must be oriented toward the river, river trails and adjacent public street and shall have direct pedestrian access from public entrances to the river trails and street sidewalk
  • Facades facing the streets and the river must have a minimum of 40% transparency on the first floor elevation; other faades must provide a minimum of 20% transparency
  • Minimum parking setback from the street right-of-way is 30 feet.
  • Minimum parking setback from existing dual river trails is 20 feet.
  • Service areas, mechanical equipment, refuse collection areas, storage areas, and loading docks shall be placed a minimum of 50′ from the roadway and river
  • Use of Exterior insulation and Finish Systems (EIFS) or simulated stucco is limited and vinyl and aluminum siding are prohibited building
  • Blank walls absent architectural detailing/articulation at expanses greater than 35′ are prohibited.
  • Parking structures must be designed to visually conceal parking at ground-floor level through the use of architectural detailing or liner
  • All new utility services shall be installed underground and those required to be above ground shall either be screened or located away from public view.

IX.    Parking

A.   Intent

The parking-related provisions of this subsection are intended:

  1. To minimize the visual prominence of parking, promoting increased pedestrian activity and enhancing the overall appearance of development; and
  1. To support more urban development intensities that encourage the most efficient use of land through the use of parking structures and reduced parking requirements in appropriate

B.  Proposed Regulations

  • Surface parking lots shall be organized as a series of smaller parking areas, each not exceeding 50 spaces and shall_ be separated by a minimum 12    foot wide landscaped
  • Minimum parking ratios can be reduced by fifty (50) percent.
  • Minimum bicycle parking ratios shall be 150% of that required in Zoning Code.

X. Landscaping and Screening

A.  Intent

To establish a distinctive landscape character along Riverside Drive through preservation of existing trees/vegetation, enhanced landscape standards and promotion of native, draught tolerant and non-invasive landscaping.

B.  Proposed Regulations

  • Total landscaped area shall not be less than 20% of the site beyond the top of the rive
  • Dumpsters must be screened from public view by masonry walls of sufficient height. The masonry enclosure shall be 6 foot tall or
  • Fencing, other than dumpster enclosures and mechanical equipment, shall not exceed 3 feet in height and shall not limit actual or visual access to the
  • Parking lots shall be screened from public streets and river trails by either a 1) three-foot-high berm or 2) maximum three-foot-high masonry wall with a 5-foot-wide landscaped buffer located on the outside of the
  • Landscaped areas adjacent to the river trails shall require a minimum of one tree for every 20 feet of river frontage.

XI.  Lighting

A.  Intent

The lighting provisions are intended to:

  • Ensure lighting is of pedestrian scale;
  • Minimize the negative effects of lighting on adjacent uses; and
  • Ensure unified lighting standards along trails and in parks.

B.  Proposed Regulations

  • In River Parks, lighting must conform to the River Parks Authority Design Guidelines.
  • Floodlights are prohibited and building mounted neon lighting is only allowed when recessed, or contained in a cap or architectural reveal.

XII.   Signage

A.  Intent

The sign regulations are intended to:

  1. Ensure that signage contributes to the visual continuity and quality of development in the river
  2. Allow for reduced sign allowances to minimize visual clutter
  3. Ensure that signage is primarily of pedestrian scale

B.   Proposed Regulations

  • All new or replacement freestanding signs shall be monument signs which shall not exceed 6 feet in height, 50 square feet in display surface and shall be consistent with the architectural character of the buildings on the site.
  • Internally illuminated plastic cabinet signs are prohibited.
  • Wall signs may not exceed an aggregate display surface area of 5 square feet per linear foot of building wall to which they are attached.
  • Projecting signs shall not exceed 12 square feet in display area (24 square feet allowed in the street BTZ) and project more than 3 feet from the face of the building.

XIII.   Circulation and Access

A.  Intent

The circulation and access provisions are intended to:

  1. Establish an efficient and safe network for vehicular and pedestrian linkages throughout the river corridor
  2. Integrate access management design features
  3. Accommodate multiple modes of transportation (motor vehicles, transit, bicycles, pedestrians, )
  4. Provide connectivity to the parks, river trails and the River

B.   Proposed Regulations

  • All parcels shall provide cross-access with adjacent parcels.
  • Driveways shall be allowed per each 300 linear feet of street right-of-way.
  • Internal pedestrian circulation systems shall coordinate and connect with public spaces, sidewalks, river trails, transit stops and other transportation systems.

Proposed Public Review Schedule

Below is the revised and tentative schedule for the river design overlay public review process. The original schedule, listed after this table, was amended because officials decided they did not want consideration of the proposed River Overlay, to detract from or add confusion to the Vision Tulsa vote on April 5th. Many, if not most of the stakeholder meetings were held as previously scheduled with the Tulsa Regional Chamber, NAIOP, HBA, AIA and GTAR to brief them on the draft River Design Overlay. The new schedule will take up where the old one left off, after the Vision Tulsa election.

April 5 Vision vote
April 6 Notify property owners of Town Hall meetings
April 14 City Council initiation of River Design Overlay & related Comprehensive Plan amendments
April 18 & 19 Town Hall meetings
April 20 TMAPC Work Session to discuss proposed ordinance & Comprehensive Plan amendments
April 28 Newspaper notice, mailing & signs for TMAPC public hearing
May 18 TMAPC public hearing to provide recommendation on proposed ordinance & adopt Comprehensive Plan amendments
May 27 Transmit RFA to Council, with TMAPC minutes
June 2 No Council meeting
June 9 City Council UED meeting
June 16 City Council 1st Reading for ordinance & approval of Comprehensive Plan amendments
June 23 No Council meeting
June 30 City Council 2nd reading, adopting ordinance w/ emergency


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