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Sign of the Times 

Regulation activists complain about City Council approval of a 100-foot-tall sign for a new southside movie theater

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Maria Inés Taracena

Over the last decade, Tucson's long-neglected south side has seen major retail development, including the Bridges project on a patch of land surrounded by I-10, South Park Avenue, South Kino Parkway and 36th Street.

The Bridges project—which is being developed by the New York-based Eastbourne Investments, alongside Retail West of Boise and Scottsdale's Land Advisors Organization— includes the UA Tech Park and Tucson Market Place, a complex that hosts Walmart, Costco and other much-needed smaller retailers.

In May 2015, Cinemark announced plans to build a 14-screen, all-digital movie theater in the area. Dave and Buster's restaurant and arcade will go next door and more is on the horizon.

Tucson City Councilman Richard Fimbres has called this the "renaissance" of the south side and his Ward 5.

"For more than the past 10 years, the four affected neighborhoods—Pueblo Gardens, Las Vistas, Western Hills and South Park—have been working with the developers to turn The Bridges from a dumping site with growing weeds and garbage to The Bridges Project that we have today," Fimbres says via email.

But not everyone is happy with the Cinemark celebration. Mark Mayer, who has long campaigned against billboards in Tucson, complains that the City Council unanimously approved a 100-foot-tall spire sign for the movie theater. The approximately-eight-story-high sign for the front of the building will read "Century." It is considerably larger than what the city sign code allows, which has led Mayer to wonder if the council is just going to start ignoring those rules for all businesses or if it was just making an exception for a wealthy, Texas-based corporation.

The sign has had support from city committees. The Design View Committee, which included members of the neighborhood associations in the area and letters of approval from several community residents, gave Cinemark the green light for its sign In April, the city's Sign Code Advisory Appeals Board voted 3-1 in favor of Cinemark's variance request, although that meant the Sign Code Advisory Board didn't actually approve the sign because the committee normally has seven members, so at least four votes are needed to approve a variance. (At the time of the vote, there were three vacancies on the board.) The sole vote against the project on the Sign Code Advisory Board came from Andrea Kennedy, who cited the sign's height.

The development firms appealed that decision to the City Council, which allowed the sign to move forward on June 7.

"The sign industry makes more money selling larger and bigger signs," Mayer says. "[They are] working overtime to dismantle Tucson's code and codes across the state. Compliance with the code is not exactly the norm to which the city operates. There seems to be a sense of desperation by the high levels of the city administration, the mayor and council. They just can't give all these things away."

He says the council too often rolls over for developers, the sign industry and other entities of commercial interests, neglecting neighborhood concerns as well as Tucson's distinctive cultural and scenic characteristics.

"Much of what citizens have worked on for decades is now at risk," says Mayer. He has a long history of battling the billboard industry, including efforts to remove what he calls illegal billboards that have invaded the south side—from South Sixth Avenue to Nogales Highway.

"Area and neighborhood plans that local citizens spent many months on to guide planning in their parts of town are being ignored and are now at threat to be eliminated entirely," Mayer says.

The sign would actually be built into the structure and thus be considered an "integrated architectural feature," meaning it isn't subject to the same rules as other signs, according to the city. In 2012, there was a similar process to approve a 59-square-foot cross on top of St. Mary's Hospital. But Mayer and Kathi McLaughlin, a member of the Citizen Sign Code Committee, see the Cinemark deal a special favor.

To Mayer, it goes beyond what he sees as city code violations in the name of economic development. He's been digging up dirt about Cinemark, such as the thousands of dollars its founder and board chair Lee Roy Mitchell poured into the 2014 Arizona gubernatorial race through the Republican Governors Association for the purpose of defeating Democratic candidate Fred DuVal. Mayer questions why an all-Democratic City Council would grant "special favors" to a company from out of state seeking to financially influence gubernatorial elections in Arizona to defeat Democrats.

Fimbres says this wasn't a special favor and that he wasn't aware of any political donations made in the past.

"There was collaboration and hard work to get [the] south side the stores and job opportunities needed," says Fimbres, who adds that it's a shame these type of allegations have been brought up against development in an area of the city that has been neglected for at least the past 20 years. "The neighbors who were at the [June 7] council meeting were asked if they wanted the sign and their response was 'yes.'"

McLaughlin says she fears this will set a precedent for so-called special permits. She calls the "integrated architectural feature" label a loophole that developers and their influential attorneys have used to undermine city sign codes.

After the Sign Code Advisory Appeals Board hearing in April, McLaughlin requested documents involving all type of communication between Ward 5, the developers and Cinemark to see if anything fishy went on during the talks about the sign. She even suggested that the neighborhoods may have been bribed by the developers to agree to the 100-foot sign. McLaughlin said she received an overwhelming amount of emails irrelevant to the concerns she raised and that skipped the dates after the board hearing in April. She says she didn't receive any information about her request until around the time the council approved the sign back in June.

McLaughlin says she isn't anti-development but she wants people to follow the rules.

"This business is getting more than other businesses would be getting and it is unsupportable," says McLaughlin, who represents Ward 5 on the Citizen Sign Code Committee. She's been a member of the committee since 1985, but at the time she represented Ward 6. "I fear for the ramifications, the domino effect that will fall from this."

Cindy Ayala, president of the Pueblo Gardens Neighborhood Association who has followed the Review Design Committee for Tucson Market Place, says she has no clue what McLaughlin and Mayer are complaining about.

"[McLaughlin] accused the neighborhoods of getting money from the developers to get this sign and get this project going," Ayala says. "She has accused the developers of bribing the neighborhood. She accused mayor and council of the same thing. It is all a lie. She doesn't know what the hell she is talking about. She is running her mouth and if she continues to do so, there will be repercussions."

Ultimately, Ayala says this is a development that benefits not only the surrounding neighborhoods but the city as well—more retailers means more sales tax for the budget. Ayala brushes off Mayer and McLaughlin as two outsider busybodies making unnecessary noise.

"As four neighborhoods, four communities, we are all very thrilled," Ayala says. "Jobs are coming to our neighborhoods. We need shopping, we need pharmacies, some place we can take our kids and keep our neighborhoods and our communities thriving."

More by María Inés Taracena

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