Everyone Seems To Agree Tucson Will Need A New Four-Year College In The Years Ahead. But Where, O Where, Do We Put It?
NEW CAMPUS!" A cheery female voice chirps out these optimistic words every time the telephone rings in the offices of Celestino Fernández, the University of Arizona vice president and provost charged with putting together a brand-new four-year college in time for the fall 1996 semester.
But Fernández and his staff aren't sitting in anything that looks like a college, at least not yet. As they ponder plans for what they claim will be a college unlike any heretofore seen, they work out of rented office space in the elegant Old Pueblo Club downtown.
In fact, where the new campus eventually will materialize--out at the IBM site on the far eastside, or in the heart of the city--is a hot issue the City of Tucson is hoping very much to influence. Tucson wants to pluck this plum, a college that is supposed to attract some 10,000 students eventually, and plant it downtown. There, presumably, it would bear economic fruit--not only in the restaurants and retail shops that would spring up to serve the students, but in the "knowledge industries" attracted by a three-college hub formed by the UA, Pima Community College and the new school. A new campus, Tucson officials hope, might be what just what's needed to help revitalize the sorry central city.
"The economic effect of an undergraduate school with 10,000 students and facilities...stretches the imagination," Mayor George Miller exulted during his January state of the city address. His enthusiasm is echoed by at least some city council members, and by a lineup of downtown boosters including the head of the Greater Tucson Economic Council, the director of the Downtown Development Corporation and head of the Tucson Arts District Partnership. Andy Bush of Design Studios West, the Denver urban planner who put together the City Center Vision and Strategic Plan, rated a downtown campus as an important ingredient in Tucson's overhaul, a trigger for the "knowledge gateway" he envisions linking the Old Pueblo to Mexico and the rest of Latin America.
And the university's own community advisory committee, a blue-ribbon panel of 14 local bigwigs appointed by UA President Manuel Pacheco, strongly recommended the campus go downtown, or at least nearby.
"The committee is delighted the city has taken an interest in this," committee chair Donald G. Shropshire, president emeritus of Tucson Medical Center, said last week. "I hope the city will present an attractive plan."
AT THE FRIDAY, March 10, Arizona Board of Regents meeting, city officials were hoping to do just that. They were to make their case to put the school downtown. Their top site is Rio Nuevo South, a city-owned tract on Congress Street just west of Interstate 10 and the Santa Cruz River. Now a desolate mud flat interspersed with scraggly palo verdes and mesquites, the land has a long history. Hohokam dwelt here and nearby was the Convento, an early Spanish building whose subsequent demolition still enrages local historic preservationists. There's an old landfill snaking along the riverbank. The latest tenant, a supermarket, bit the dust a decade ago. It's the same piece of land where investor Robert Shelton has been hoping to build Colonial Tucson, a tourism project, and that others have suggested for a baseball stadium.
If the regents go for the city's newest scheme for the tract, Tucson would hand over the land for free, and propose a financial package for a new college building.
The regents, appointed by the governor to rule the state university system, said last week they're happy to keep an open mind and listen to the city's offers. The nine regents aren't unanimously in favor of the IBM location--Judy Gignac of Sierra Vista is one notable exception--but the board has already voted to situate the still-unnamed school on the far eastside of the valley, at least temporarily and possibly permanently. They've already got the place, a building or two in the old IBM corporate park they bought for virtually nothing in a crafty leaseback deal last summer.
Set on the windswept desert along Rita Road and Interstate 10, the plant is some 15 miles from the heart of the city. The UA will run its long-desired research park on the site in other buildings, some of which are now rented out to IBM and Hughes Missile Systems, and the college would occupy what is now an empty office building.
Unlike the typical college campus, which Fernández notes is usually one of the most open and freest of social spaces, the design of the IBM plant exudes a corporate craving for security. The park is surrounded by a fence and visitors have to explain themselves to a guard at the gate. Inside, IBM and Hughes employees with ID cards prominently displayed on their shirts stroll the covered paths between the center's numerous buildings. Emergency outdoor showers have signs cautioning people to remove contaminated clothing. Pockmarking the desert plantings between buildings, the showers are grim reminders of the plant's days in manufacturing. Nowadays, says Joel Valdez, the UA's vice president for business affairs, it's all "clean industry--research and development only."
At the far south end of the tract, baking in unshaded heat within earshot of the interstate, lies Building 71. This empty two-story structure needs a fair amount of renovation to convert its warren of cubbyhole offices into usable classrooms. Presumably the untended scrubby desert outside, hot already in early March, would get some landscaping attention to make it more congenial to students. This is the place most of the regents want to go with for the college. They say the state's budget constraints limit their choices to the building they have in hand.
"The bottom line is money," says regent Eddie Basha, the Democrats' defeated candidate for governor last fall. "It's a five-letter word. If our illustrious governor says now is the time to build projects for our future, fine. But we're gonna build prisons, not schools."
Location of the college has everything to do with money. Planted outside the city limits, among empty tracts of land up for sale, the college would germinate economic fruits of a different color from those downtown. No one doubts the college, along with the research park, would spur real estate development in the far reaches of the valley.
Hank Amos, a regent who heads Tucson Realty and Trust Company, is typical in his enthusiasm for the site. His decision isn't set in stone, he says, but adds, "I like the location. The eastside is a growing part of town." And Regent John F. Munger, a Tucson attorney, says, "There is the factor of trying to accommodate something besides the inner city. People do live elsewhere."
DOWNTOWN BOOSTERS AND suburban tract developers are almost always at odds in Tucson, but the new campus adds a twist to the familiar battle. As one UA administrator says privately, "Whenever you decide to put in a new college, the location always gets political."
The administrator is speaking in understatement. Apart from the regional rivalries the college plan has laid bare, charges of secrecy, undue haste and conflicts of interest have wracked the formation of this new college almost from the start. Discussion of the right place to put it somehow got waylaid by the negotiations to acquire the IBM plant for a research park.
But the research park and the college are two separate things. Serious public debates about the pros and cons of each suggested location for the college simply haven't taken place.
Plans for the college were triggered by a 1991 report to the regents that projected some 55,000 students above current enrollments flooding the three-university state system by the year 2010. To help meet this new demand, the overcrowded University of Arizona was charged with crafting plans for a new college in Pima County dedicated almost exclusively to undergrads. The college clearly will be important to Tucson, indeed to all of Southern Arizona, for generations to come. As Fernández himself says, awe shading his voice, "This college is basically forever. It will go beyond our lifetime. To do it right is the challenge and the reward."
Yet the University of Arizona organized no public meetings at the outset of planning. Nor were there calls for proposals for a location. The community advisory committee, hand-picked by Pacheco, included no students. That committee's report recommending the downtown location was delivered just weeks before the IBM deal was concluded. The university held the first big public meeting--and it was an angry one--on the subject a month after the deed for the IBM site was inked.
Pacheco declined to be interviewed for this article, claiming he was just too busy to talk. Fernández defends the secrecy of the IBM negotiations, even though he wasn't involved in them.
"I don't want to deal with what should have been done," Fernández says. "It wasn't simply a university decision or a regents' decision. IBM was a partner in this, really the one that requested their discussions be confidential...I like to talk about the future."
And Fernández has a suggestion on how to make the citizenry feel a part of things from here on in:
"There ought to be community involvement in naming the institution," he suggests. "Maybe even a competition, a contest."
OPTIMIST Fernández may be, but a christening contest won't exactly bury the lingering impression of impropriety the IBM deal left.
IBM deftly converted itself from owner to renter of the property it had been trying unsuccessfully to unload since 1988. The title change relieved IBM of some $1.5 million in annual property taxes and the $2.8 million annual tab for operating the plant, while it remains in the same buildings doing the same work. Tiny Vail School District lost its biggest taxpayer. And as a tenant in what is now designated a research park, IBM gets still more tax breaks.
As an extra sweetener, the deal was pushed through in time for IBM to take advantage of a state law that forgives taxes on the entire year, if the owner signs over a property to the government before the third Monday in August. The deal was concluded August 5, 1994. In exchange for all this, IBM financed the deal through a $98 million bond package. IBM's annual rent, about $9.3 million, will pay off the bonds.
The transaction, which critics and supporters alike agree was brilliantly brokered by Don Pitt, a Tucson investor and former regent, made the university owner of the $98 million corporate park--which includes 2.2 million square feet in the buildings and about 1,350 acres of land--at very little cost. The deal was, more or less, what university officials call "revenue-neutral."
"We got the title and they have the debt," says Valdez.
The UA paid $658,965, the costs for closing, environmental studies and legal advice. Even in the unlikely event IBM should default, the UA's title to the property will remain free and clear. The UA will have to contribute to operating costs, but Valdez says they're expected to be offset by the money the UA will collect from other tenants in the research park.
Pitt came in for his own share of criticism. He has an interest in the neighboring Santa Rita golf course. His business associate, Don Diamond, holds title to the eastside Rocking K Ranch, a project that's seen its own controversies. If the research park takes off and the college is put in place, their property can be expected to rise in value.
Pitt also recommended his former law firm to the regents to handle the deal. According to Dick Roberts, the UA's chief budget officer, the firm, Miller, Pitt & McAnally, collected $202,987 to act as special counsel, a fee that made up a little under a third of the university's costs. While giving Pitt's ingenious brokering its due, critics contend the deal was tainted by at least the appearance of a conflict of interest.
Pitt dismisses the idea that he acted to benefit himself.
"I happen to own 10 percent of a golf course six miles away," he says, "and I don't think it is material in any way to where a university should go or shouldn't go. I involved myself in the IBM transaction as a community service. I gave two years of my time putting it together...I didn't do this for compensation."
THE UNIVERSITY IS not the only party to secrecy in the saga of the new campus. The City of Tucson kept its own proposal tightly under wraps in the weeks before Thursday's regents' meeting. So tightly, in fact, that one city council member, Molly McKasson, learned of the upcoming presentation to the Board of Regents from a Tucson Weekly reporter. A supporter of the idea of a downtown campus, McKasson then insisted City Manager Mike Brown add a discussion of the proposal to the agenda of the Monday, March 6, council study session, but her fellow council members squelched it during the meeting. Which meant there was no public airing of the city's plan before it went to the regents.
Nor had the residents of Menlo Park, a poor Hispanic neighborhood just west of Rio Nuevo South, heard a word about it from the city powers.
"A lot of time the city people and the politicians say what they'd like to see in our neighborhood," says Lillian Lopez-Grant, president of the Menlo Park Neighborhood Association. (Lopez-Grant was also on the university's community advisory committee.) "Nobody's asked our opinion."
And the neighborhood's opinion, she adds, is solidly behind Shelton's Colonial Tucson, a reconstructed Southwest village attraction Shelton believes would bring in the tourists who routinely bypass the downtown. "That's a job-intense project," she says. "And we desperately need jobs in this neighborhood. Bob Shelton and (partner) Dino Alfaro are homeboys. I know where I can find them. They're very, very good about talking to the neighborhood...If the Shelton project falls through, we'd certainly be willing to discuss the university."
Bruce Wheeler, the council member who represents the ward where the Rio Nuevo South tract lies, takes the same tack. A longtime supporter of the Shelton project, he notes Shelton's deadline for putting together a funding package has passed. If Colonial Tucson bites the dust, he believes the tract "would be an ideal location" for the new campus. Echoing the mayor, he says the college "could mean the revitalization of the whole downtown." Still, he says, "It's very important to have neighborhood participation."
Shelton says he'll have to look elsewhere for land for the project he's been working on for years if the regents take the city's bait. But he has few kind words about city officials.
"They did everything they could to discourage us because they really want to do the university thing," he says. "It's difficult to stand out there in the middle of the road when the truck's coming down with Mayor Miller at the wheel trying to deliver the property to the university. It's an election year. It makes great political rhetoric (to say) 'We're gonna have a downtown university.' "
Miller, his aide said, was unavailable for comment.
IF THE TWO college sites were lined up side by side, in an even fight untainted by politics, which would win?
Well, in a time of financial austerity, there's no question an existing building already has an advantage. Yet there are costs for the IBM site. It's not "free," as many regents have said.
First off are the costs of renovation, which Fernández says he is unable to estimate until the legislature gives him a budget for the next fiscal year. (He's requested $5 million for fiscal 1995-96, which he says would cover renovation, administrative and planning costs, hiring of new professors and staff, and recruiting students.)
One local real estate developer cautions that by remodeling the university will be devaluing its own property, renovating a high-tech property worth about $200 a square foot down to a classroom building worth about $100 a square foot. An alternate plan, to build a whole new building on the IBM site, would cost a lot more. Valdez notes the college would have to pay its rent, just like any other tenant in the research park.
Regent Amos likes the idea of students getting valuable internships from their corporate neighbors in the research park. But Regent Judy Gignac of Sierra Vista is against "siting a liberal arts undergraduate school at a research park. My concern is you site something like that in a research park and it takes on the coloration of its surroundings."
After all, she points out, the whole reason for being of the new college is to teach undergraduates, in an environment quite different from today's research-oriented university. Gignac, like most observers, doesn't believe for a minute that a "temporary" campus, once installed, will ever be anything other than a permanent campus. The Sierra Vista regent is also protective of the UA's classroom center in her hometown. She'd rather see a new campus a greater distance away, in a place like Marana.
Basha points out the city will probably grow to reach the IBM campus in the next 20 years. Right now it's a heck of a commute: 15 minutes to 20 minutes in non-rush hour traffic by freeway from downtown, longer from the burgeoning northwest side. The time it will take students to get to the on-ramp has to be added on to the freeway drive. And the college undoubtedly will be a commuter school, at least in its early years.
"There's a terrible problem in transportation to the IBM site," says city Councilwoman Janet Marcus. So far, there is no bus service out there, though SunTran might be persuaded to add a route once the college gets going. All those students traveling in cars will make their own contribution to the city's air pollution, add their own pressure to the highway system. And what they'll have when they get there is a building that won't teach anybody a thing about good desert design, a veritable wasteland in terms of cultural institutions and no place at all for a good college Rathskellar.
Downtown, as the mayor pointed out in his state of the city speech, is once again becoming the central geographical point in the valley, what with developments booming in the northwest, southwest and eastside. Though the Tucson Arts District has its troubles, at least it's got an art museum, a library, theatres, music clubs, restaurants and a big university nearby with its wealth of research resources.
Students have the option of getting downtown by bus. Of course, many might drive anyway. Critics like County Supervisor Ed Moore, who'd prefer a commercial enterprise at Rio Nuevo South, say traffic would be a nightmare. Lopez-Grant counters that traffic solutions will have to be found no matter what project develops on the land. Other critics say the plot of land is just too small, while opponents retort that at least you'd have a campus designed from scratch to be a campus.
Because of the old landfill along the Santa Cruz River, the Rio Nuevo site requires environmental studies. "There's an incredible landfill with methane gas that's going to have to be dealt with," Shelton says. Because of its ancient Hohokam dwellings and the cherished Convento site, it also needs archaeological excavation. And the neglected neighbors need to be consulted. A downtown campus is a major undertaking no matter how you look at it. But the idea has its supporters excited.
"If you talk to people in the community, a downtown campus makes an incredible amount of sense," says Councilwoman Marcus. "There are all sorts of facilities in the core of the city. Students could use the university library. They could work with the university and we wouldn't have to replicate facilities. I see the linkages between the UA, Pima and the new school as being incredible. One of the focuses of the new campus is international studies. An urban campus is more international."
AT LEAST FOR the time being, Fernández is downtown. It would be too expensive to open up the whole office building at IBM to house the new campus staff of five administrators, two clerical workers and two part-timers. It's up to the regents to decide where the college--and Fernández--will end up. He thinks it might be a good idea to have an independent consultant assess both locations and come up with a recommendation.
Meanwhile, he's not saying which site he likes better.
"I can make it go in any location," he declares. "A college takes on a separate flavor, depending on the location, its milieu, its social and cultural environment. I'll be interested in seeing the (city's) proposal...Every site has its benefits and drawbacks."
For now, though, he says, "I'm proceeding as if IBM is our temporary location."
City of Tucson officials are scheduled to present their proposal for a downtown campus to the Arizona Board of Regents at 9:40 a.m. Friday, March 10, in the Rincon Room on the second floor of the UA Student Union.
Hannah Glasston provided reporting and research for this story.
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