This spring, the city of Tulsa, Okla., held more hearings about Plan It Tulsa, its first comprehensive plan in 38 years. The plan focuses on creating a “sense of place” within the 182-square-mile metro area, which has been losing population to surrounding suburbs for a decade.
If successful, Tulsa’s plan would add about three times more new residents during the next 20 years than it would under current trends, mostly within the city’s limits. Currently, downtown Tulsa has only about 900 housing units. But recent polling conducted by the city’s Economic Development Commission (EDC) uncovered potential demand for up to 1,625 new rental units and 2,125 new for-sale units over the next decade. “I hope what they’re saying turns out to be right,” says Paul Kane, executive vice president of the HBA of Greater Tulsa. “But I’m not witnessing that demand right now.”
Who will build those homes, though, remains to be seen, as most builders here specialize in suburban single-family detached products, not the condos, townhomes, and mixed-use projects envisioned in the plan.
Tulsa initiated Plan It Tulsa in 2007 and has solicited input from nearly 7,000 Tulsans. “The city’s future lies with younger generations,” the plan concludes. But keeping them in Tulsa has been a challenge. “Young people move out, and they don’t come back until they are ready to raise families,” observes Martha Schultz, Plan It Tulsa’s project manager.
If this comprehensive plan falls into place as city officials envision, it would greatly expand Tulsa’s population and housing stock (see “Gravitational Pull,” page 31). Within the city limits there are 31,000 acres of developable land on which the plan foresees the eventual creation of 38,000 housing units and 40,000 jobs. Another 20,000 acres of property rimming the city are also available for development.
The EDC’s report—Tulsa’s first attempt to track housing demand in its central business district—found more than one-fifth of the 400 suburbanites called in a phone survey “very” or “somewhat” likely to move into the four neighborhoods within this district if suitable housing at the right price were available. Nearly three-fifths of respondents to an online survey said the same. But less than one-third of those polled are willing to pay a premium to live closer to downtown.
Some production builders here are wary about jumping into urban construction when the plan projects plenty of ongoing demand for single-family detached houses. “For me, the jury is still out,” says Glenn Shaw, owner of Shaw Homes, which builds about 150 homes annually, all in the suburbs. “There’s definitely a market [for downtown living], but I’m not sure how big it is yet.” Kane of the HBA of Greater Tulsa worries about mandates for community review of projects in certain areas, which he thinks would make development and construction more onerous.
John Fregonese, whose Portland, Ore.–based Fregonese Associates has worked with the city on Plan It Tulsa, suggests that public-private partnerships could initially fund “prototype mixed developments” to “crack the egg” and generate resident interest. He also recommends that the city begin with modestly priced rental units. “You want to have as fat a market as possible for whatever you put in.”
Even with limited new-home construction in the city, Fregonese is convinced Tulsa’s comprehensive plan can work. “If downtown Tulsa had 5 percent of the market’s housing starts, you’d really see change.”