The Great Tulsa Pearl District Form-Based Code Controversy

I’m in Tulsa, Okla., today after doing a speaking event last night and have been fascinated to learn that there’s a big ongoing zoning controversy here in the “Pearl District” neighborhood east of downtown. The word that gets thrown around a lot locally is that it’s all about the adoption of a “form-based zoning code” although the real issue seems to be less the principle of form-based vs. Euclidian zoning than the actual content.

But the basic idea is that the form-based code would allow for more mixed-use structures and denser building, but would prohibit strip mall-style construction where buildings are fronted by parking lots. Instead you’d have to tuck parking behind the structure in a more urban style. This has prompted the outbreak of two warring local business groups. One, the Pearl District Association favors the new code while the Pearl District Business and Property Owners Association is on the other side.

If I had to pick between the two sides, I’d say the Pearl District Association clearly has the better argument. The new code is a big improvement on the status quo. You can see that there are a lot of business springing up in some of the historic Pearl District structures that pre-date the era of mandatory suburbanism, and there’s a very strong case for allowing new structures along the same lines to be created. But the fact that the controversy has to exist at all is a sign of the overly prescriptive mentality that dominates American land use. The basic problem is that while the status quo doesn’t allow high-density structures or mixing of uses, essentially mandating a commercial corridor of low-slung buildings surrounded by parking, the new code would needlessly prohibit this development pattern by requiring new buildings to be two stories tall with parking in the back. It’s easy to understand why the local McDonald’s franchisees, the QuickTrip convenience store, and some other local business owners don’t want this change. But it’s equally easy to understand why the members of the Pearl District Association hate the way the current code blocks them from implementing their own ideas for bringing new businesses and development opportunities to the area.

The right choice would be to recognize that it’s not actually necessary to choose. We can allow for more urban-style construction without banning suburban-style construction. The right choice is for land owners to have the flexibility to do whatever they think will be most successful, without assuming that we need to mandate either an urban or suburban form. Over time, we’ll just see whether extensive parking or multi-story structures is the best use of the space.