City councilors, like it or not, are wading into the middle of a long-simmering dispute over the future of the Pearl District.
On Thursday at the council's request the chairman of the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission will sit down with councilors to discuss the commission's recent adoption of amendments to the district's small area plan called the 6th Street Infill Plan.
The council can either approve the amendments in whole or in part or can send them back to the Planning Commission for reconsideration. If the council takes no action, the amendments will eventually go into effect.
"My interest in meeting with a representative of the Planning Commission is purely to understand the issue with the assistance of someone who has worked hard to weigh all sides of the question at hand," said Councilor G.T. Bynum, who requested the meeting.
Small area plans are policy documents that lay out the city's vision for the development of a particular area. They are not regulating documents but serve the important role of informing decision makers including future planning commissioners charged with approving zoning changes and other land-use regulations.
The Pearl District amendments, which among other things increase the areas designated as manufacturing and auto-oriented and decrease the areas designated as mixed-use, were presented by the Pearl District Business and Property Owners Association.
The group includes more than 60 property owners in the district who employ nearly 1,000 people and have invested more than $90 million in their businesses.
According to the Indian Nations Council of Governments, the property and business owners in the association represent 17 percent of the total land in the district.
Association members say they were shut out of the process when the plan was put together nearly a decade ago and that the plan's vision for a walkable, pedestrian-friendly district ignores the reality on the ground and hinders their ability to operate and expand their more auto-oriented businesses.
It's fine to have boutique shops and restaurants lining Sixth Street, for example, but that planning model doesn't work for the entire district, the Property Owners Association argues.
"Probably the most important thing to understand is these are people making a large investment this is about protecting those properties," said association member Jim Cameron.
The 6th Street Infill Plan was approved by the City Council in 2006. The plan was initiated by the Pearl District Association no relation to the Pearl District Business and Property Owners Association with assistance from city staff.
Pearl District Association President Thom Crowe said the group's members are not happy about larger swaths of the district being designated auto-oriented and manufacturing.
"We see that as a step backward," he said. "It is not going to help the Pearl District get where it needs to go."
The mixed-use designation would expand the number of allowable uses on a property without limiting what the owner of manufacturing or other auto-oriented business could do with his property, Crowe argues.
"We were told by the other group that that is not something they wanted at all," he said.
Sitting in the middle of the controversy is City Councilor and Pearl District business owner Blake Ewing. Ewing owns The Phoenix cafe at 1302 E. Sixth St. The city councilor favors keeping the existing mixed-use designations for Peoria Avenue and 11th Street.
Ewing was the first to ask whether the council should request that the Planning Commission explain its decision.
"Do we need to invite the planning commissioners to come and explain why they voted the way they voted because that was not included in what (the packet) we got?" Ewing said during a committee meeting.
Speaking Friday, Ewing said he believes both sides are justified in their aspirations and is hopeful a compromise can be reached.
"I think it can all work," he said. "I think the charm of this neighborhood is it is one of the only neighborhoods in town that has industrial, commercial and residential all inside the same neighborhood."
Cameron said his group is willing to continue talking with Ewing if true compromise is on the table and "not just everything (has to be) his way."
But he questions whether Ewing is the right man to talk to about the amendments.
"I think he has a conflict of interest," Cameron said.
"Conflict of interest pertains to an elected official taking action to give themselves a unique advantage in a situation," he said. "There is no unique advantage to me one way or another.
"I would ask Mr. Cameron to explain how my actions have provided me with a unique advantage, which he can't. He just doesn't agree with my position in this case."
The year-long process of amending the 6th Street Infill Plan ended with the Planning Commission voting overwhelmingly to adopt the proposed amendments. Their votes were generally in line with staff recommendations except on two key issues the extent to which the auto-oriented and manufacturing designations should be extended.
Joshua Walker, who served as Planning Commission chairman during the amendment process, said the Business and Property Owners Association made a compelling case for the changes.
"It was one of the more thorough presentations that we have received at the Planning Commission," Walker said.
Kevin Canfield 918-581-8313