Paving paradise: The (possible) story of how an outlet mall will eat Tulsa’s Turkey Mountain

A look across the river toward Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness, Tulsa's lone wild green space. Could it be endangered by developers?

A look across the river toward Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness, Tulsa’s lone wild green space. Could it be endangered by developers?

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.

The proposed outlet mall tract, in red.

The proposed outlet mall tract, in red.

The outlet mall tract superimposed on a map of Turkey Mountain's trails. A large section of those trails (admittedly on private property) will be gone if the mall is built.

The outlet mall tract superimposed on a map of Turkey Mountain’s trails. A large section of those trails (admittedly on private property) will be gone if the mall is built.

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.

An endangered view.

An endangered view.

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.

AD! Help us stiff-arm wanton commercial development! ( photo)

AD! Help us stiff-arm wanton commercial development! ( photo)

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Bob Doucette

39 thoughts on “Paving paradise: The (possible) story of how an outlet mall will eat Tulsa’s Turkey Mountain

  1. One of the questions that never seems to be addressed by developers and city councils is “why abandonded property is not demolished and rebuilt upon?” It truly bothers me that more and more of our natural areas are becoming obsolete. I’m all about the economy and providing jobs, but it seems like society in the USA is becoming less and less concerned with those things that are truly important and more and more emphasis is being placed on chasing the almighty dollar…

    • Agreed. Conservation is a lost art. No problem with wanting to do some business, but other quality of life issues matter, too. You wipe out those woodlands and they are never coming back. Thanks for the input!

      • I was just talking to someone today that said Colorado is so nice compared to San Antonio, because San Antonio is nothing but pavement. I replied that I must be spoiled then, because I compare Colorado now to what it was 25-30 years ago…

      • Oh NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! my gosh, build it somewhere else, leave Turkey Mountain alone. I will never go into a “mall” and shop that has over taken a place that is is unique to the Tulsa area. Preserve what is here for those of us who would like to run and hike and breathe. Build your mall in some abandoned building that is doing nothing but taking up precious space.

      • I’ve heard several people suggest just that. It would be a shame to lose all those woodlands and trails. The tough part will be convincing landowners and the city to find another use, and prodding them all to a more productive and beneficial long-term strategy in preserving what’s left out there.

    • I agree with you and often wonder the same thing. I find it ironic to drive by a chuch recently built in a pasture when down the road there are empty buildings that could have be re-furbed or torn down and the land re-used.
      In the Boston area we have a fair amopunt of “bropwn fields” development. These are abandoned industrial sites that will never be pure again, but can be cleaned up and capped. i think they can only build commercial buildings on most of these sites.

      • Definitely like the idea of fixing up what is old/abandoned. I think that would be hard with the outlet mall format, but I think there would be better places to build that would be less intrusive.

  2. Fantastic points, and the map overlay is much appreciated, so we can get an idea of how much they want to take. I am curious about the owner…Is it someone far away who doesn’t realize the real value of what they have? I hope some sort of “Save Turkey Mtn.” campaign or crowdsourcing can get going.

    • I think there are rumblings of just that. The city council member who represents that area of the city is having a town hall type of meeting pretty soon, so I think a lot of people with interesting in preserving the woodlands there plan to attend and speak up about it. As you may have seen from the links I embedded, the fella who owns the website has come out pretty strong on the issue. The Tulsa outdoor community is a pretty vocal bunch. Stay tuned!

      As far as the landowner: I’m not totally sure, but I think the ownership of the land is local. But I’ll need to check on that.

  3. Hard to believe big money won’t win on this deal but more concessions could be a possibility. The east facing part of the mall should become a shared parking area that RiverParks desperately needs. Done respectfully with consideration to native and naturalistic landscapes and park amenities – trees, picnic tables, restrooms, trail head, etc….

    • At the very least, the city needs to make sure the developers are taking the nature of the area into consideration. Those are some pretty good ideas, if it gets that far. Here’s hoping for, at minimum, come concessions like the ones you suggest.

  4. What I don’t understand is why development has to be detrimental to the wilderness area? Why couldn’t we demand for a developer or architect that are willing to put out the extra money and effort to develop a area that supports the use of Turkey Mountain. Stores such as Backwoods, REI, and Sun & Ski could (theoretically) develop a wonderful experience of outdoor equipment shopping adjacent a unique wilderness area. This could all be achieved while still keeping intact the natural landscape and promote it’s use.

    We need more buildings that are connected to their place.

    • I agree, but just don’t take away more soil for another building for commercial profit. Use what is empty downtown or other existing facilities in the area.

  5. It actually does NOT look like it will”eat”” Turkey Mountain as the articles title suggests. Unless the map is wrong. There are also numerous green area that are still untouched, in and around the Tulsa area. That would be a good story to list all those areas. I’m sure many would get great use from those.

    • One thing the map does not show is how much space the needed infrastructure expansions would would consume. Street widening would take a big bite out of existing trails, even on city-owned property. It would be substantial, and might open up the rest of the west side for more development. Potential loss is actually quite higher than the physical footprint of the site. And there are environmental impact issues related to drainage that would also go beyond the mall’s footprint.

    • To Jim- Sorry, but I grew up in Tulsa and have seen the horrible urban sprawl take over a once beautiful city. All you can think about is shopping,and eating- why don’t you promote something healthy for a change like walking, biking, running. There are PLENTY of spaces that are already covered with concrete and would be more convenient. Let me guess you are going to put the very same stores that you can find anywhere in the states on top of Turkey Mountain while downtown Tulsa remains a ghost town. Great city planning.

      • People!! This is private land! Everyone seems to be more than happy to tell a private landowner what to do with his land. You’ve been happily trespassing on it for years. Everyone has such an entitlement mentality these days. It is almost appalling.

        Do any of YOU own land? What gives you or me any right to tell this developer what he can do with his land? It is HIS, not ours, not the City of Tulsa, not The Riverparks Authority. Look at the miniscule portion of trails that would actually “disappear”. Get over yourselves with your whole “what’s mine is yours” mentality.

      • It’s private land, but the development will affect other lands, including what is in the River Parks system. You can own private land, but by law, that doesn’t give you the freedom to do anything you want to with it. Many considerations have to be taken into account, and that’s what trail advocates are asking people to think about right now.

      • Oh and addressing the whole “get over yourselves with your whole ‘what’s mine is yours’ mentality,” Marisat 123 The attitude and mentality you display is what makes this country sink to the lowest common denominator. That is why I live in Europe and have a plethora of pristine running, hiking, walking trails usually no more than ten minutes from any point in the city or town.The only thing they build on most of these trails, (most of which are private land), are a bench so you can sit and take in the view. Very occasionally you will find a small restaurant that belonged to a farmer 300 years before and is now a little beer garden.
        I just hate seeing Tulsa fail to see what is special and cover it with concrete.

      • I think there IS a problem and people do have the right to say what is appropriate to to build and where. You want a private person to build a chicken slaughterhouse house next to your house or a junkyard/garage in your neighbor hood? You should see what other countries do with their zoning and land development; the bottom line isn’t just to satisfy someone’s pocket, it is for the betterment of the community and the environment. We have crumbling mall sites and shopping centers in Tulsa that need attention, why build on Turkey mountain.Why not support downtown areas and bring life back into the city center. By the way, Tulsa needs more options than just eating and buying cheap clothes. There is more to life ya know.

  6. Tulsa wants to build another strip mall? Shocker! They should level the whole city in lieu of Chili’s and Urban Outfitters. What a shit hole.

  7. As a avid trail runner and photographer I love Turkey Mountain and am very grateful for you putting this into a logical argument. It is not that any of us are against retail shops, jobs, or new development. There are so many empty shopping centers that would be gems if they were renovated / replaced. The locations are prime! Just naming a few off the top of my head that have easy highway access and mostly vacant storefronts -Crystal City Shopping Center, The Shopping Center adjacent to Best Buy on the Skelly Bypass (they can’t seem to keep anyone there) or the Sand Springs Kmart that is closing. Things that these areas have in common is a a road structure that is wide and has stop lights, drainage plans, and level lots. We have revitalized so many areas and made them into booming destinations for retail and nightlife (the Pearl, Brady Art District, and the Blue Dome just to name a few) why can we not continue with this trend of renewal? To me this seems like a much more sustainable business model.

  8. Please, let me know about the petition, I am more than happy to sign it. I see several posts that represent the same care and concern for preserving our natural surroundings. We will be better off, as will our great great grand children, when the mall is out of fashion and deserted in a few years, Turkey Mountain will still be home to many plants and animals and the humans can tread lightly on her trails.

  9. Pingback: A Mall On Turkey Mountain? Surely Not. | Tulsa Urban Wilderness Coalition

  10. Pingback: My 500th post: What a ride it’s been | proactiveoutside

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