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By Orisabiyi Williams, Chair of the Greater African American Affairs Commission
Have you ever wondered why these Dollar General and Family Dollar stores keep popping up? It’s because the community is unaware of the plans for development in North Tulsa. And we are unaware for a couple of reasons:
- Development meetings are on the first Thursday of the month at City Hall in the morning when most of us are at work.
- Many of us have no clue what the Tulsa Development Authority does.
Let’s talk about what The Tulsa Development Authority is and what it does. The Authority was formerly known as Urban Renewal in 1959. It seeks to identify, remove, and revitalize blighted areas with federal funds. Urban Renewal officially ended in 1974 but the Authority’s role broadened and today it works to help developers purchase land for “economic development.” I recently spoke with long-time North Tulsa resident Terry McGee, who is the CEO and president of McGee Enterprises and asked him to give me a brief history lesson for our readers on The Authority. Here is his response.
“Tulsa was the first major Oklahoma city to begin an urban renewal program. The Tulsa Urban Renewal Authority was formed in July, 1959. Its first project, the Seminole Hills Project, a public housing facility was begun in 1961 and completed in 1968. The Tulsa Urban Renewal Authority was renamed the Tulsa Development Authority (TDA) in 1976. TDA acquires distressed or unwanted properties within designated urban renewal zones in order to encourage new and better development. Members of the TDA Board are appointed by the Mayor, confirmed by the City Council, and supported by city staff employees. As a public trust, TDA can exercise the right of eminent domain.
One of the first major urban renewal projects was the Williams Center. The most notable feature of this project is the BOK Tower (originally named One Williams Center). This required the clearing of several blocks in downtown Tulsa near the Frisco railroad tracks, generally bounded by Detroit on the east to Boulder on the west the railroad tracks on the north and Third Street on the south. Thus, many of the oldest buildings in the city were razed. In all, nine city blocks were cleared of buildings. Notable historic buildings lost included the Daniel Building, Hotel Tulsa, the former Grand Opera House, Lynch Building (then Tulsa’s oldest remaining building) and Tulsa’s first bank building. The only pre-1910 building remaining in downtown Tulsa is the Pierce Block at Third and Detroit. During this era blacks coined the phrase “Urban Removal” because “Urban Removal” would remove structures in the black community with no reconstruction, thus the title “Urban Removal!”
It startles me when I hear people in downtown Tulsa say that North Tulsa “needs economic development.” Yes economic development is needed, but we have to be careful because the term “economic development” is extremely similar to gentrification, particularly when it comes to “urban” areas. In Tulsa, there is nowhere for developers to build except for north Tulsa. In fact, The Authority states on its website that their focus now is North Tulsa.
The Authority has already started achieving this goal by approving the continued development of “dollar stores,” like a recently approved Dollar General store that the community is fighting and had asked The Authority not to approve. Unfortunately, the Authority went against the wishes of the community. There is no rule that requires The Authority to inform the community of upcoming projects, but just because it isn’t mandated doesn’t mean it isn’t the right thing to do. The Authority should consult the community before making plans for “its betterment.” It should not consider itself a type of benevolent trust deciding what is best for the north side of Tulsa.
I believe it is vital that The Authority start to build a relationship with the community. That means the residents of North Tulsa should have a seat at the table when it comes to economic development in their community. There should be transparency and more importantly, a willingness to be transparent.
Community involvement is what separates “economic development” from gentrification.
Economic development needs to benefit the community and not solely the developer. Achieving this is what will help Tulsa be a resilient city. The City of Tulsa has a City Resilience Framework Wheel within its 100creport. On this rendering it has four main factors that contribute to resilience:
- Health and well-being
- Economy and society
- Infrastructure and environment
- Leadership and strategy
Then those branch out into other sub-factors.
Looking at these four Main factors, North Tulsa has missed the mark. When it comes to “health and well-being,” North Tulsa’s basic needs are not even met. When a community’s basic needs are not being met, it is impossible for them to see the new issues that have begun to attack them.
The lives of North Tulsa residents are 10 years shorter than those in South Tulsa yet The Authority, which is a part of The City of Tulsa, votes to add more “dollar stores,” which is proven to be bad for our health.
“Leadership and strategy” is a huge factor. Lately, North Tulsa has been cleaning house by electing strong leaders, such as State Representative Regina Goodwin, City Councilor Vanessa Hall Harper and District 3 School Board Member Jennettie Marshall. Tulsa has a new Mayor who recognizes the challenges of north Tulsans and has not shied away from keeping them in the forefront of his agenda.
Sadly, there are still too many people in positions within The City of Tulsa who are not representing North Tulsa. Julius Peagues was a pillar in North Tulsa for many years, but he is also Chairman of the Tulsa Development Authority. As chairman, he voted in favor of the protested Dollar General store despite the community’s concerns.
The gap in the life expectancy between Tulsans is a very serious issue. If this city is serious about closing that gap and being a truly “resilient city,” then one must ask if The Tulsa Development Authority’s goals are in line with The City of Tulsa’s goals, and can they ever be on the same page with such contrasts?
The Tulsa Development Authority meetings are the first Thursday of each month 9:00 a.m. at City Hall on the 10th floor.