Planning expert gives city blueprint for improving downtown

5 April 2017
Michaela Flonard, News Editor

TU students offer opinions on planning expert Jeff Speck’s suggestions.

The Downtown Coordinating Council paid planning expert Jeff Speck to prepare a detailed plan on how to implement a downtown master plan. Speck walked and reviewed almost every block of downtown Tulsa, and came up with multiple improvements.

Speck’s plan came with several suggestions such as changing one-way streets to two-way and adding more parking. The report emphasized how changing downtown Tulsa could attract and retain millennials. His report can act as a roadmap for city officials to change downtown with concrete steps supported by research. Many of the proposed changes hope to increase safety for those traveling downtown, as well as make it a more enjoyable experience.

The first part of Speck’s plan involves the “reversion of all one-way pairs downtown.” One-ways, according to his research, can raise safety risks and also damage retail districts. Ellen Emeric, a student who’s done research on city planning, mentioned that two-ways can be safer because “anything that makes traffic feel like there is ’friction’ against their lane is be considered a traffic-calming device. Curbs do this, trees do this, medians do it and two-way roads are the same concept.” Another student, Bella Stark thinks such a change could be confusing, but other students, like junior Ashley Bailey, favored it. “There’s not really a good way of them planning it out so you always know which way is gonna be one way and which is gonna be two way,” Bailey said.

Another potential improvement to downtown is adding bike lanes. This would increase safety for cyclists and encourage biking, according to Speck. Stark thought such a change wasn’t necessary, as “with all the one-ways it’s easy for people to see you and move out of the way.” While Natalie Santa-Pinter, a senior, approved of adding more bike lanes, she also acknowledged, “I don’t know if Tulsa’s there yet,” mentioning the lack of funding and how the city is trying other venues to encourage outdoor activity. While Emeric also supported the idea, she wasn’t sure how many roads could fit a bike lane.

Providing on-street parking was also important to Speck’s recommendations. People walking feel safer with a barrier between them and the street, he said, and parking also encourages successful shopping districts. Tulsa, however, lacks parking because of driving lanes that are too many in number or too wide. With this parking, Speck encouraged planting trees, which improve safety and potentially act to slow drivers.

Students had varying opinions. “I think parking is fine, if you’re willing to pay for it,” Stark said. “But I think there should be more parking where you don’t have to pay for it.” Emeric acknowledged that “parking is never completely free. The asphalt must be maintained, the paint kept fresh … what seems like a high price to pay for parking your car is actually an investment in quality local infrastructure, which will typically pay off much more in the end.” Bailey added that parking meters with short limits — such as two hours — should be changed. The time limit, she argued, causes people to not spend as much time downtown, as they’re worried about going over their allotted time. Nicole Davos, however, thought the issue might be more to do with drivers, saying “the real issue is whether students know how to parallel park and I know many Oklahoma natives have no clue how to do it. The main reason for that is because the only place you really need to know how to parallel park is in downtown.”

With parking, Speck suggested that improving transit could have a positive impact on Tulsa. A dependable, accessible transit would free people from car ownership, and could improve safety, such as preventing drunk drivers. Bailey agreed that more transit would be valuable to those who can’t drive.

Students suggested that changes to the structure of downtown might also increase their enjoyment of the area. “Honestly, I think they have a lot more restaurants than actual stores and I think it would be nice to see more shopping districts than restaurants,” Bailey said. As a native of the area, she noted downtown has improved since she was younger. “Before they brought in BOK, it wasn’t a big area. I do think more people are interested in being downtown. It’s become more of a social gathering place than it used to be.”

Santa-Pinter echoed this view, saying “If there were a lot more, it’d be a lot easier to just say, ‘hey, let’s go downtown, and just walk around.’” She mentioned Oklahoma City’s Bricktown as an example of an area with a variety of shops, restaurants and sights that encourage walking around. “In Tulsa, you almost have to have your destination in mind,” she continued. But, she said, the city is growing so that just walking around downtown and stopping at a restaurant is possible. Emeric emphasized this, saying “no one will ever just go downtown simply because it *is* ‘downtown’.”

Davos noticed that food has taken over downtown, but believes “there should be more shopping stores in downtown. The stores can be anything, clothes, souvenirs, antics, art, anything. Overall, I think adding stores would help increase downtown.”

Other parts of Speck’s plan involved decreasing the width of city streets for safety reasons, limiting sidewalk curb cuts (where driveways cross a sidewalk), replacing signals with all-way stop signs and changing the number of driving lanes. One of the other, less discussed issues was increasing the amount of housing downtown so that it would match the amount of jobs available.

The original 250-page study with 300 pages of appendices is available at downtowntulsaok.com. Speck’s presentation to the Downtown Coordinating Council is also available at that site. Those interested are welcome to share their input at FeedbackTulsa.org. The city hopes for public feedback before the final draft can be completed.