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Building Rancor 

Plans for downtown redevelopment summon the ghosts of urban renewal

Old ghosts were recently summoned downtown, as the Tucson City Council pondered a new economic cure with timeless, bitter roots.

The ghosts were named "Condemnation" and "Demolition." And in an old town with a long memory, they still haunt with ease.

They certainly grabbed headlines 50 years ago, under the gleaming banner of "urban renewal." That's when the city cannibalized its soul by condemning and demolishing our wizened barrios, stretching for block after downtown block—and occupied mostly by brown people.

In their place, we now have that monument to progress called the Tucson Convention Center.

So it's hardly surprising that a ruckus arose over similar semantics popping up in a latter-day scheme to boost downtown development. It was in January when the council began chewing over a possible "central business district," in which business owners willing to sell their property to the city and then lease it back could be eligible for nearly a decade's worth of property-tax abatements. In return, they'd be required to improve the property's value by 100 percent.

But under state law, any such district must lie within a formally designated "redevelopment area," created to address slums and blighted zones. And amid the fine print of that redevelopment statute resides the authority for cities to claim eminent domain over included properties, and have them demolished.

Knowledge of this little nugget grew out of a Feb. 28 council meeting, when one local citizen asked how the proposed district might screw with historic neighborhoods encircling downtown.

This left Ward 6 City Councilman Steve Kozachik wondering the same thing. Of course, he was in a position to get answers. So after chatting with the chap who actually authored Arizona's redevelopment law, Kozachik arrived at a disturbing conclusion: After several months of discussion, city attorneys had never mentioned its sweeping powers of condemnation.

The councilman was not pleased. He followed with a scorching assessment in his March 7 ward newsletter, noting that a healthy chunk of downtown residents "are still reeling from a similar process by which historic barrios were leveled to make way for the TCC."

Until the condemnation language is neutered, Kozachik wrote, he would yank all neighborhoods in his ward out of the proposed redevelopment area.

Which brings us to City Attorney Mike Rankin, who'd already been roughed up during a February study session. That's when council members Karin Uhlich and Regina Romero berated his initial central business district map as too tightly focused on downtown's core, while ignoring other struggling business corridors. And now Rankin was getting swatted by Kozachik.

So why had he failed to tip off the council about creepy condemnation language in a measure it was getting ready to approve?

Contacted by phone, Rankin is circumspect. "We knew about it," he says. "I think I talked at least briefly in the study sessions about redevelopment areas, and one of the things you have to be sensitive to is the fact that redevelopment areas do have this eminent-domain feature to them. But it's entirely possible that I didn't.

"It is true that one of the things that come along with the designation of a redevelopment area—sometimes called slum and blight area—is specific authority for eminent domain or condemnation, to acquire properties for redevelopment. That is not the purpose behind this particular direction and action of the council."

Rankin adds that the use of eminent domain is already a long shot in light of Proposition 207, a ballot measure passed in 2006 that requires government to compensate owners when its actions reduce property values. The measure was passed with financial support from developers, and from an Illinois-based property-rights outfit.

Regardless, he says his folks are crafting a way out of this legal corner, with plans to nullify any condemnation language in the final ordinance.

"Councilman Kozachik is right to point it out," Rankin says, "and I've got some work to do to get the information in front of the mayor and council."

Yup.

"If I'm city staff," Kozachik says, "the first thing that's going to come out of my mouth (about redevelopment districts) is, 'You can do that, but understand that it gives us the right to initiate condemnation proceedings. And there might be some collateral damage you may want to consider.' ... For me to have to go dig that out really pissed me off."

Kozachik calls condemnation "very much an open wound" in parts of his ward. As for how the city attorney plans to address this, "they have not gotten back to me," he says.

Or to John Burr. He's president of the Armory Park Neighborhood Association, and the fellow who sparked this fracas during the February council meeting. Burr worries about the council's rush to create a slew of zoning changes and business-incentive areas, many of them nipping on the fringes of downtown's historic neighborhoods.

The central business district is just the latest. While Burr says he's glad the condemnation specter has received an airing, "it doesn't ease my fears entirely."

According to Burr, Proposition 207 makes the use of eminent domain more dicey, but hardly impossible. The city attorney "forgot to realize the larger ramifications," he says. "They are in effect opening themselves up for another round of urban renewal. Which is exactly what was intended by the corporations that sponsored Prop 207 and its 10 or 12 stepchildren all over the country."

Others suggest that the moment is nigh for downtown's rebirth—and that the council has tight reins on any risks to the neighborhoods. Among them is Michael Keith, who heads the Downtown Tucson Partnership. As Rankin was getting lambasted during that February study session, Keith stepped outside of the council chambers to discuss downtown development. He glanced around drowsy El Presidio Park, as sunlight crested over a forest of government towers.

Fear should not be allowed to stall progress, Keith argued. "This is the city's moment to step up and define itself. And in all the years that I've been going to council meetings, I've never seen a council that's more focused on the people who live in their districts."

Nor are they likely to forsake Tucson's historic core, he said. "That's what is going to make this a one-of a-kind district that nobody else in the country has. Because the historic neighborhoods are there, that's what makes it special."

Not everyone, however, puts so much faith in the promise of good intentions. Such as all those ghosts lingering in the shadows of the TCC.

More by Tim Vanderpool

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