Some big news hit my hometown this week.
A couple of days ago, a real estate development company announced big plans to open a high-end outlet mall on the Tulsa’s southwest side. Potential retailers named in the announcement include outfits such as Coach, Nieman Marcus, Polo Ralph Lauren, Ann Taylor and more.
Promises of new jobs and more revenue for the city were touted as potential benefits to the project. And it would dovetail quite nicely with the existing Tulsa Hills shopping center and a neighboring retail development to the south, The Walk at Tulsa Hills. It would seem that the southwest corner of the city was getting ready to explode into shops, restaurants and parking lots filled with happy customers all too willing to plunk down their hard-earned shekels on whatever goods they fancied that day.
But that corner of the city is also home to something that is the opposite of this proposed temple of free enterprise and commercialism. It’s home to the city’s only wild green space.
It’s home to Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness.
I’ve written about this place a lot. It’s where I go trail running, and when I feel a little more easygoing, a place I like to hike. I train here. I compete here. I have met some truly awesome people in this place, folks who I now call friends. It’s a slice of hilly, wooded wild land filled with twisty, rugged and wonderful singletrack trails that challenge trail runners and mountain bikers like no other place in the state. It’s the place where a mountain hound like me can escape, a small plot where I can get my adventure fix.
I’m not alone in that. Usage of the park, which is owned by the Tulsa River Parks Authority, has increased steadily over the years. People hike with their families here. Folks ride horses here. I can’t tell you how many miles I’ve logged since discovering this gem three years ago when I became a Tulsa resident. Green spaces like this are rare in this part of the country, and the citywide love for Turkey Mountain has grown mightily in that span of time.
And now developers want to plop a mall right next to it. Some would argue right on top of it.
I’ve been watching social media posts about the planned outlet mall, and where it would be located. It’s definitely somewhat complicated. So I’ll try to explain it as concisely as I can.
Turkey Mountain “proper” includes a chunk of land on a couple of ridges on the west bank of the Arkansas River. It’s bordered to the south by a major thoroughfare, to the north by city and industrial property, and to the west by privately owned tracts. Some might include those undeveloped western tracts as part of “greater Turkey Mountain,” as a web of trails runs through all of it, with landowners seemingly OK with allowing trail folks to explore unhindered.
On that west side is where the concern lies. The outlet mall would be built on a corner lot of private property. But like much of the west side of “greater Turkey Mountain,” the tract to be developed is intersected with trails. Here are a couple of images (courtesy of Ken “TZ” Childress) showing a map of Turkey Mountain and the outlet mall tract superimposed.
One of the tragedies: Losing trails there. If the mall goes in, the vista pictured below goes away, to be replaced by rows of stores, Dumpsters, and parking lots filled with oversized SUVs. It will be gone for good.
The deal is about done, though the timing is interesting. Developers of this proposal are admittedly competing for business from another developer looking to build its own outlet mall on the city’s east side. It sure looks like an unsubtle way of courting retailers to me, looking to stick it to a rival. Anyway…
I see a couple of problems for people like me, who would rather see the whole swathe of land stay wooded and wild. It’s private property. The owners can sell it to whoever they want, and if that buyer wants to build a mall on it, they can, provided the city gives its OK. I find it hard to believe that city leaders would turn down a money machine, at least not over the objections of non-moneyed people like me. I fully realize that when it comes to who gets heard, big money wins every time.
But we’ve been here before. A couple of years ago, another developer pitched a plan to build a theme park on the banks of the Arkansas River. Jobs, tourism and money, he promised. Besides, he said God told him to do it. All it would cost was wiping out some of the southern trails on Turkey Mountain.
A bunch of us objected. Loudly. And the Tulsa City Council stiff-armed the proposal as roughly as Adrian Peterson fends off opposing tacklers.
We breathed a sigh of relief.
But can we hope for a similar outcome here? I’m not so sure. An outlet mall is downright reasonable compared to the far-fetched, divinely inspired theme park scheme we brushed off in 2012. But if we speak up, there are possibilities for positive outcomes:
- We can convince the current property owner to scrap the deal and sell the land to River Parks, or to donate it for a sizable tax break.
- We can convince the developer that the fuss is not worth the fight, which could buy a little time to come up with a more long-term solution to preserving the green space.
- We can force city officials to win concessions from the developer to limit encroachment and impact on the wilderness area.
The cost of doing nothing? It’s hard to say. But it is within our nature as a society to erode our treasured wild places. It’s happening all over the country, even in places as sacrosanct as the Grand Canyon.
Some people won’t understand the sharp aversion to the outlet mall that me and thousands of others have. They like the idea of more shopping options and big-name stores.
But here’s the thing: We have malls. Lots of malls. A huge development in southwest Tulsa already exists, and another one is on the way. High-end retail already flourishes in places like Utica Square, and the whole 71st Street corridor surrounding Woodland Hills Mall (interestingly, owned by the same people proposing the outlet mall) has engulfed a huge chunk of south Tulsa with miles and miles of big-box stores, chain restaurants, department stores and other shops. We have places to shop already. And yeah, there is room for more.
But Tulsa has one – just one – wild green space. Only one sliver of undeveloped forest where parents can take their kids to explore nature. One place where you can be in 15 minutes and lose yourself in wilderness. One place where there is no pavement, no street signs, no honking horns, car exhaust or neon lights. It’s unique to the city.
And just to be clear, this is not just some silly trail runner being overly sentimental. Turkey Mountain is an asset, one that promotes physical and mental well-being, as well as explorative curiosity. And we need to protect it. We need to pass it on for future Tulsans. We can guard that asset or we can sell it out. And for what? Most likely, a brown-and-gray collection of boxy buildings with stores that will likely fade out for something else many times over.
Sometimes the best investment is plain old conservation.
This is that time.