“But it’s private property. They can do with it what they want.”
That’s the argument I hear the most when talking about opposing the planned outlet mall on the west side of Turkey Mountain.
But that argument, as reasonable as it sounds to some, is far from airtight. I’ll get to that in a minute.
To recap: Mall developers/corporate behemoth Simon Properties announced in August that it was near to closing a deal on a patch of privately owned property at the northeast corner of 61st Street and U.S. 75 in southwest Tulsa. The parcel is one of many privately owned plots in the Turkey Mountain area, west of land already owned and maintained by the city of Tulsa’s River Parks Authority.
There are a lot of trails all over the west side of Turkey Mountain, including the 50-acre site for the proposed outlet mall. If the mall gets built, a minimum of 1.5 miles of trails and a whole lot of wild woodlands will get wiped out. This will squeeze wildlife that live in the forest, and construction of the needed infrastructure for a mall will certainly eat more woodland acreage in the form of road widening and other needed projects to handle the automobile traffic that would come with a large, busy shopping center.
Mountain bikers, runners and hikers have risen up in opposition of this plan, saying the mall should go somewhere else and to leave what is left of the forest alone.
Where it stands: The project is in its embryonic stages. The city of Tulsa has yet to receive any plans for the mall, and no requests for rezoning have been made.
And lastly, why the “private property” argument has some gaping holes: Simply put – and contrary to what many are saying – you can’t simply “do what you want” with property you own. At least not within the city limits.
Let me show you why.
Let’s say you own a nice one-acre plot in a growing, off-the-beaten-path subdivision that is interspersed with 3,000-square-foot homes and yet-to-be developed home sites inside a good school district. But then the developer gets a great deal from an investor, sells 20 of these plots, and then allows the investor to construct a 40-story office tower (with an adjoining parking garage) smack in the middle of your neighborhood.
Or maybe you live in an older, established neighborhood of Tudor-style brick homes, and a buyer snaps up 20 acres across the street, next door to your kids’ school, and opens up a commercial hog farm and processing plant.
Or let’s say you’re on a tony city block of stately brownstone row houses, and a private prison company plops a 200-cell lockup one block over.
The developers promise lots of jobs and increased revenues for the city.
In each case, we’re talking about developers buying land, and then with their new investment, doing what they please to make a buck. And yet, none of these situations would ever really happen, right?
Damn straight. And why is that? Because cities and towns have regulations on how property inside their boundaries can be used. That’s why zoning ordinances exist. It’s why we have planning commissions, which are in turn served by planning departments. It’s why those departments and commissions study proposed developments, hold public hearings (and allow ordinary citizens’ input) and make recommendations to city leaders.
It’s why fertilizer plants don’t operate in the middle of subdivisions, why strip clubs aren’t next door to schools. It’s the reason why we see residential areas separated from industrial parks, and why we don’t let people build in flood plains.
These are good things. As much as people decry government intrusion in private business dealings, these rules are in place so a community can function in a healthy, sustainable way. They are a reflection of community values.
I’m not so silly as to believe that an outlet mall is as outwardly outrageous as the fictitious scenarios I listed above. But I will make a case that leaving that 50-acre plot wild is far better than ripping the trees down and paving it over for the sake of yet another boxy shopping center.
As it exists, the acreage in question is grass, trees and underbrush. Part of it has been partially cleared. But it is still undeveloped, with the exception of several stretches of singletrack trail.
So let’s talk about those trails. People use them. They use them to get outside and get fit, whether that is on foot or on the seat of a bike. This is good. I’d go so far as to say it’s crucial.
Oklahoma has the seventh-highest obesity rate in the nation, according to a recent report from the Tulsa World newspaper. As reported by health writer Shannon Muchmore: At 32.5 percent, only West Virginia, Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky and Louisiana are worse. And Oklahoma’s problem is growing. Although the state was ranked No. 6 the previous year, the obesity rate that year was actually lower than it is now.
High obesity rates also mean higher rates of heart disease, diabetes, stroke and cancer. These lead to higher medical costs, greater household financial strain and higher insurance costs for all of us, regardless of how fit we are. We all pay more for our state’s poor health.
A wise public policy decision would be to encourage investment or maintenance of things that get people off their butts and active. Sometimes good economics is not measured in sales tax dollars collected, but rather money that is not spent on failing health.
An outlet mall won’t help here. A healthy trail system will.
On to the next point, and it goes straight into the heart of conservation.
We all need a place to live. For non-humans, wild places are home.
I was reading a piece from a publication called the Tulsa Voice, which interviewed a naturalist at the Oxley Nature Center, another small but well-preserved wild area near Tulsa. As reported by the Voice’s Molly Bullock:
“Eddie Reese, director of Oxley Nature Center, said the potential development would wipe out many smaller residents of the site, including hundreds of arthropod species, ornate turtles and three-toed box turtles, skinks, lizards and several species of snakes.
“ ‘All those things that live there now pretty much won’t be able to leave,’ he said. ‘They’re too small, too slow. So they’re not going to make it.’
“Flying squirrels, which occupy Oxley Nature Center and Mohawk Park, might also reside in the Turkey Mountain area, Reese said. Unlike the more common fox squirrel, flying squirrels are nocturnal, which makes them particularly vulnerable to development.
“ ‘The bulldozers will come in during the daytime and start pushing things around, preparing the ground for development,’ Reese said. ‘… [Flying squirrels will] be holed up in a hollow tree, and they will get pushed over.’
“Larger animals like foxes, coyotes and bobcats would be forced into territory already occupied by their counterparts. The reduced hunting and nesting area would also squeeze out Red Tailed Hawks, Screech Owls and other birds.
“ ‘[A habitat] can only get so small before some animals have to just leave the area completely,’ Reese said. ‘I don’t know how small that really is for them.’ ”
Reese went on to describe more consequences to local wildlife:
“ ‘I think sometimes people think that we don’t really need nature, because we’re separated from it,’ Reese said. ‘… What they forget is that everything is tied together, and when you start taking pieces of that puzzle out, the puzzle starts to fall apart.’ ”
“The connections are intricate and hard to overstate. For example, hummingbirds build their nests with silk from spider webs, Reese said.
“ ‘If you don’t have spiders … then hummingbirds won’t be making nests,’ he said. ‘They won’t be laying eggs, and before too long, we won’t have any hummingbirds. … Now, how many connections like that are there … that we don’t know about? How is a turtle important; what is it connected to? … How much can you afford to lose?’ ”
These are important points, as a lot of families go out to Turkey Mountain with their kids so they can see nature first-hand. How much encroachment will it take before that experience goes away? Can you put a price on what value such a thing has for a community?
So what does that boil down to? It’s pretty simple. What do you want your community to be? Do you want a say in how it’s developed? Because if you live in Tulsa, you have a say. Development and growth are natural progressions for any vibrant city, and no one is arguing that there isn’t room for an outlet mall in Tulsa.
But the question is how this specific piece of land is to be used. Is it better to leave it wild (and include that in a use plan that’s good for all parties involved), or do we allow it to be mowed down at the expense of trail users and existing wildlife? What levels of sacrifice are we willing to make for the purpose of making a buck?
At some point, Simon Properties – owners of malls in every U.S. state, including Woodland Hills Mall in Tulsa – will likely put forth a proposal to the Tulsa Planning Commission. Sometime after that, the commission will have a public meeting to discuss those plans. If this is important to you, contact Planning Commission members. If and when the outlet mall plan is discussed at a Planning Commission meeting, be there and let your voice be heard.
The property in question is private property. But how it’s managed or developed will have an impact on Tulsa, and for that reason, we all have a say in how that goes down. The rules that won’t allow a slaughterhouse to be built beyond your backyard fence are the same as those that will determine the fate of what happens at Turkey Mountain.