North Tulsa revitalization plan nearly ready to go
By Samuel Hardiman Tulsa World
People have talked about fixing what ails north Tulsa for decades. With the tens of millions of private and public investment poised to be poured into the area, some believe action may finally follow words.
Some say that’s because the planned Bus Rapid Transit route that will extend north on Peoria Avenue to 38th Street North, the coming George Kaiser Family Foundation-funded industrial park and other improvements will enhance opportunities for the area.Others say the recent rash of violence across the country has made residents more active and aware of how to use their economic power.
Regardless, residents agree with what the data suggest: Development and change in the area have lagged behind the rest of the city.
The median income is well below the rest of the city — by $20,000 in some areas. There is no supermarket, whereas some stretches of south Tulsa and wealthy suburb Broken Arrow boast five within a square mile.
The area’s problems aren’t new. The popular narrative is that the southernmost part of north Tulsa, the Greenwood area, never recovered from the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921 that burned what was known as Black Wall Street.
Morris Rentie Sr. grew up in Greenwood in the aftermath of the race riot in the 1930s and 1940s. The area was rebuilt after the riots and became a vibrant community. One of 14 children, Rentie shined shoes up and down the stretch that spanned Archer Street to Pine Street, which he called the “good hustle.”
Rentie, now 82, said as a young man, he didn’t notice the area starting to come undone around him. You don’t notice these things when you’re young, he said, as the red and white Adidas at the end of his long legs looked up from the Rudisill Library floor.But, looking back, the area started to fade as the old people who had built homes and businesses started to die and the young moved away.
Absentee landlords led to vacant lots. Those vacant lots became overgrown and the neighborhoods just melted away. Sections of north Tulsa resemble the undeveloped parts of nearby Osage County more than the old neighborhoods surrounding the skyscrapers just a few miles to the south.
View to the future
A triangle of shrub-covered and land bounded by Mohawk Boulevard, Peoria Avenue, Lewis Avenue and 36th Street North is proposed as the key to rejuvenating the underserved area. The George Kaiser Family Foundation has, through a surrogate, quietly purchased more than a hundred acres over the past 26 months or so.
The Tulsa city website calls the site the Peoria-Mohawk Business Park. Property records show a limited liability company has spent more than $2 million since May 2014 buying the land from about a dozen different owners.
Josh Miller, head of the project for GKFF, said soon the rest of the land will be purchased, too. Then site work, which involves clearing what from the street looks like a small forest, capping a few old oil wells and removing what Miller says became a “dumping ground” of spare car parts and trash. And there are zoning changes to be acquired. It’s not going to look like the envisioned end product overnight.
The end product is a “1,000-job employer,” ideally a manufacturer or something similar.Miller said the foundation hopes some number of residents end up working there, though he acknowledged that it would be tough, and perhaps impossible, to mandate.However, he said, there is the possibility of an overall benefit for the area from the park just by being nearby. He said workers could visit restaurants on their lunch break and buy milk on their way home. There are other available sites to the north and east, but the foundation wanted it to be tucked in the neighborhood.
Mark Sweeney, a site consultant, said GKFF is doing something that’s commendable but not guaranteed to be a success. He saw a similar situation in another city, and said residents in the immediate area around the new employer were included in the recruitment process. “If somebody like this ... doesn’t take the initiative, if you don’t do anything, nothing is going to change,” he said. “It’s beyond commendable.”
He said the site, once environmental work is done, will be attractive to employers because of Oklahoma’s business climate and Tulsa’s solid reputation despite worries of tornadoes and the possibility of losing skilled workers to energy companies if the market rebounds. “I don’t think they’re building this in a place that’s not going to have any interest at all,” he said. “I don’t think that’s going to be a problem.”
Part of that interest will come from the proposed BRT line that will go past the park on Peoria Avenue.
The BRT route and $10 million in infrastructure costs for the industrial park are among the list of project passed with the Vision renewal vote in April.
Sweeney said the transit route will help the site attract interest because of industries’ evolving “green sensibilities.” He added the existence of nearby transit will allow workers to have another means of getting there except by car.
Miller said the proposed transit line “certainly a potential benefit for a future employer.”
The road to revival
Risha Grant said she appreciates the effort and investment GKFF has poured into her community and is hopeful about the jobs its most recent initiative could provide.
“But north Tulsa needs commerce more than anything else,” said Grant, who runs a staffing firm that helps companies hire diverse candidates. “There’s no stores. You can’t really shop in north Tulsa. It makes you spend your money in other parts of the city.”Grant is more enthusiastic about the proposed Bus Rapid Transit route.
“It could help change lives for some people,” she said. “You hear people don’t want to work. Some people can’t get to work.”
The bus route means transportation for some and a chance for investment for others. Bill White, business development manager with the Tulsa Regional Chamber, littered the map spread before him with red stickers Wednesday night. Quickly, the leafy vacant lots around Pine Street and Peoria Avenue saw splotches of red. The red stickers signified areas White thought were primed for redevelopment.
White’s color coding of a map came alongside others at a public meeting Wednesday for land use along the proposed Peoria portion of the BRT route — part of a city process to encourage the type of development other cities have seen along similar transportation routes. White is building a house not far from the proposed route. He knows the area like the back of his hand. A similar map sits above his piano. When he ran out of stickers, he used a pen and a highlighter to suggest lights
As an outsider, White said, it’s easy to see the potential for development along the bus route. Vacant cheap land and the lack of development gives people the chance to get in on the ground floor. Development could change the mindset of the place, he said.“To a certain degree, we emulate what we see,” White said. “If people in general do not see any progress and development, anything new, then often times they’re going to repeat that same thing they see. But if they see development as the status quo... you’ll start producing what you’re seeing...”
The lack of development feeds back on itself and, from White’s perspective, could keep banks from lending in the area.
“It’s going to be a tough lift,” he said. The coming public and private investment — the bus line and industrial park — are key, White and others said.
“Both of them have to go hand in hand, said White. “I think it’s a good start. Like any place, we don’t get where we are overnight. Having these processes in place that will eventually spur development that everyone wants to see.”
Always a risk
The coming investments don’t come without their risk. Development could fail to take off alongside the transit route.
Sweeney said as long as GKFF has patience, their project should succeed. But there’s no guarantee.
“There’s the risk that this thing doesn’t do what you want it to do,” he said. “You can’t drive the risk down to zero.”
Said White: “The question will be once that development takes place and property values start creeping up, will the citizens that it’s intended to help, will they be able to take advantage of it? That will be the big question.”
Grant said the coming investment is only one factor in changing the place. The other is the will to do so. That will is more visible now than it’s been in a long time. The racial strife and turmoil churned by up police shootings and protests across the country is multi-faceted, she said, and has grown into frustration with local economic stagnation.There have been a lot of city plans to improve north Tulsa, Grant said. Rentie calls it a few decades worth of talking.
“Everybody is awake,” she said. “Especially within the black community. We know that we have economic power. It’s become a conversation about economics and how we create and impact and change for our community. It’s sad that the death and the sadness all these things have to make this a priority. I don’t think we’ve been this alert in a long time.”
The Phoenix Development Council is a neighborhood association working to bring economic development to 36th St. N., the heart of the Phoenix District, created to work with the City of Tulsa to bring the 36th St. N. Corridor Small Area Plan to fruition. More info: www.phoenixdistricttulsa.com.
This article was written by Samuel Hardiman and was originally published in the Tulsa World, here: https://www.tulsaworld.com/business/realestate/building-blocks-for-north-tulsa-revitalization-about-to-be-put/article_4a72968c-cff5-5b35-a058-91855fb5c9b9.html.