The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

31 January 2005

By design

Michael Bates, on the sort of urban-design review that exists in Oklahoma City:

Tulsa doesn't have any design review districts, as such. We have historic preservation districts that are strictly residential and are concerned with maintaining the appearance of the appropriate period on a home's facade. Urban or neighborhood conservation districts focus less on the building in isolation and more on its relationship to other buildings and the street. The focus is not on preserving buildings of historical significance, but on preserving any valued characteristic of a neighborhood. It would be a great tool for preserving the small and shrinking parts of our city that are truly urban and pedestrian-friendly.

The destination, of course, is a lot more attractive than the journey. Two of four front-page stories in last week's Mid-City Advocate dealt with urban design, upside and downside. The city's Urban Design Commission turned down a plan for a new home on a vacant lot in Midtown because it was too much out of character with the rest of the street, what with the garage in front and all; the builders say that the lot is too small to construct a driveway that extends to the back yard. And a chain of convenience stores will have to give up its trademark color scheme to operate in the streetscape along 23rd.

This is not to say that Oklahoma City is single-minded about design considerations. In 1999, city planners and developers were so much at odds that a committee was convened to review the entirety of the standards and practices in use, and their report [link requires Adobe Reader] explains what happened:

[T]he ordinance and its processes and requirements mean different things to different people. The diversity of opinion about the intent and content of the limited design standards outlined in the ordinance, as well as a largely untrained Commission that has had inadequate guidance from its own enabling ordinance, has resulted in confusion and sometimes anger among residents, property owners and public policy makers throughout the community.

The Urban Conservation District rules also came in for some criticism:

The Purpose section suggests that one of the goals of the ordinance is to identify "resources worthy of conservation," yet it does not describe the types of resources that could be considered significant and the Criteria for Designation section sheds no more light on the question.

Unlike most communities' historic preservation or conservation district ordinances, the UCD statute fails to establish objective criteria against which a neighborhood, area or community is to be measured, thus usually leaving to neighborhood leaders the charge of devising their own review criteria, land use policies and any specific provisions that apply to a targeted area. The Planning Commission's charge to create an implementing ordinance that protects an area from "detrimental development action" and lists the type of regulation standards that may be included in such a district-designating ordinance does not specifically enable inclusion of architectural design standards.

In my district specifically, the architectural design standards are very loose, partly because there is such a wide variety of variations on the few basic themes that were used during its late-1940s construction. The neighborhood was conceived as slightly upscale, sort of entry-level junior executive, and the platting reflects that concept: the lots tend to be on the large side of average, and the houses range from contemporary for the period to downright eccentric. The primary focus is on retaining the relationship between house and street — setbacks must be preserved, and front-yard modifications are restricted — and on improving streetscapes themselves. (An ongoing lighting project will eventually install new mid-block lights to supplement the lights at intersections.)

The revised 2003 guidelines addressed most of the committee's concerns, though it's clear that there are always going to be some conflicts between property owners and the Planning Department. It's worth noting that while there is a single section in the Municipal Code which enables the Conservation Districts, each District has its own specific section that sets down its own particular rules: while there are similarities among them, there is no attempt to make one size fit all. If this approach smacks too much of "I know it when I see it," a more specific approach would probably be resisted as being too restrictive.

Still, the rules have been in place long enough — the first historic district was so designated in the late 1960s — that everyone has had time to get used to the idea. And for the most part, things work.

Posted at 8:26 AM to City Scene


The city's Urban Design Commission turned down a plan for a new home on a vacant lot in Midtown because it was too much out of character with the rest of the street, what with the garage in front and all; the builders say that the lot is too small to construct a driveway that extends to the back yard.

Don't tell me OKC's midtown area doesn't have alleys!?

Posted by: McGehee at 9:59 AM on 31 January 2005

I'm sure it does, though I haven't checked this specific block. They tend to be on the narrow side, though, which makes me wonder if he's planning to park Hummers or something.

Posted by: CGHill at 10:57 AM on 31 January 2005