graphic of the word Tilt

Important lessons will hopefully be learned from the trouncing of Vision 2 on November 6th. It should serve as the mother of all wake-up calls for its advocates. And, it has to be crystal clear by now that we need to immediately change the way we operate around here.

That said and all things considered, the defeat of Vision 2 was not really that surprising, nor was the rather predictable reaction of shock and dismay of its proponents. It is a sad reflection of just how utterly and desperately disconnected some of our elected officials and business leaders are from the heartbeat and aspirations of most Tulsans.

The Tulsa Metro Chamber’s effort to retain jobs at American Airlines was laudable. But voters overwhelmingly rejected the strategy to save them, presumably because there were too many unanswered questions.

Corporate welfare is always problematic, and it appears to have little public support in Tulsa. The fact is Tulsa has a carefully crafted strategic business plan that has been summarily ignored by a lethargic Mayor with a lackluster track record for visionary thinking.

That plan is the product of unprecedented public engagement, developed with the guidance of thousands of Tulsans. In a loud and clear voice they expressed a desire for dynamic change in the way we develop our city.

In Vision 2, the Mayor, the Chamber and the County paid little more than lip-service to Tulsa’s Comprehensive Plan. They seem to view it as either an inconvenience, an irrelevance or as a threat rather than the huge asset it is. The behind-closed doors, rushed, premature and patronizing tone of Vision 2 only made voters all the more skeptical.

The Tulsa Metro Chamber is going to have to adjust to a narrower and more modest role in capital planning and funding campaigns. It has to learn to respect the City’s Comprehensive Plan and to work collaboratively within its framework.

Every capital improvement investment should be vetted for its compatibility with and support of that plan. It (the Plan) more than anything or anyone else, including the Administration, the City Council, the County Commission and Metro Chamber, articulates and represents the collective wisdom and ‘Vision’ Tulsa citizens imagined as a model for growth and development in the future.

Utilizing a set of guiding principles during the PlaniTulsa process, Tulsans imagined a community with a vibrant and sustainable economy which attracts young people and provides transportation and housing choices in walk-able neighborhoods and town centers. Those guiding principles should serve as the foundation for all future capital improvement planning and funding efforts to insure that the comprehensive plan remains consistent with that vision.

Citizens want convincing evidence that their tax dollars will produce a predictable and sustainable return on investment. They insist on value for their money and obviously they were not convinced that Vision 2 would deliver that return.

It was hurried, reactionary, void of support for our new land use policies, made no provision for expanded transit options and lacked sufficient public engagement. The more citizens are involved, the more likely any capital improvement program will be used to further the strategic goals and objectives of the community.

So how do we get it right next time?

Let’s be clear, Tulsans are not disinclined to invest in their community. However, they have historically insisted that a very convincing case be made for approving tax hikes or extensions, especially when coupled with bonded indebtedness for capital improvements. They expect and deserve an open and transparent planning process and a predictable and verifiable return on investment.

PlaniTulsa revealed beyond any doubt that citizens wanted to see a vastly different development approach including smart growth policies which deliver a vibrant, diverse, accessible city with a competitive transit system and safe, walkable neighborhoods.

Successful strategies today focus tax-payers’ scarce resources on improving the city’s quality of life, as the best way to retain and attract employees and the employers who so desperately need them.

In marketing-speak: ‘added-value’ approaches are the way to go. Giving money away devalues any product. The best solutions are not rocket science: Funky, urban walkable neighborhoods, bike lanes, an efficient bus system, decent sidewalks, attractive streetscaping, well-designed and maintained public spaces and well-integrated civic amenities form most of the key ingredients.

With properly designed infrastructure, progressive policy tools and efficient city development processes and procedures in place, the private sector quickly steps in to take care of the rest. It starts up neighborhood businesses, opens coffee shops, creates a ‘sense of place’, and generates the spark from which more good ideas flow.

As a result we get the kind of city Tulsans, by the thousands, demanded in PLANiTULSA. Synergies should be sought from every funded project and combination of projects. If we don’t adhere to this most basic of investment disciplines, we have no right to ask tax-payers to foot the bill.

All along, we should have been focusing on the city’s 3rd Penny Sales Tax extension and the successor to Fix Our Streets which expires June 30, 2014, not Vision 2025 which expires in 2017. We must insist that only projects that explicitly deliver key plan objectives, strategies and goals are included.

No single project or proposal is more crucial or should take precedence over the development of a viable mass transit system here in Tulsa. Our present system is among the most underfunded and poorest performing for a city our size in the entire nation. A vastly improved transit system is one of the very highest priorities of our comp plan because it is vital to support our progressive new land use policies.

What we need now is Action.

Ordinary Tulsans deserve to see the Plan they participated in come to life. They are entitled to walkable neighborhoods, attractive public spaces, safe streets, corner grocery stores, a sustainable environment, and a decent bus system. These are the things they asked for; these are the things they expect, these are the things they deserve.

Last year’s ‘Polishing the Pearl‘ and last week’s ‘Building a Better Block‘ in the Kendall Whittier neighborhood brought these aspirations vividly (albeit temporarily) to life, with pop-up shops, street music, galleries, cafe’s, 2-way bike lanes, narrowed streets, dawdling traffic and food trucks. Lots of people of all ages attended and enjoyed themselves, laughing, chatting, joking, and sensing a new world of possibilities. Their aspirations had nothing to do with writing checks to large, bankrupt companies.

Money and power will always seek direct access to our elected officials in an effort to advance their goals. But in Tulsa, money and power should be humbled by the humiliation of Vision 2 and they need to learn from it. The people have spoken, again. Power-brokers take note and get with the program or face the sure prospect of declining relevance.

Published in Urban Tulsa Weekly November 14, 2012

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