Neighborhood Decay

As UA Officials Dither, Their Expansion Plans Continue To Haunt Small Merchants On Sixth Street.

By Dave Devine

ONE YEAR AGO, things looked hopeful for the string of small businesses on Sixth Street south of the University of Arizona. It appeared that despite campus expansion plans, the commercial area would be saved, and even improved.

The University announced it would demolish two blocks of buildings on the north side of the street between Park and Santa Rita. It needed the space to make room for the second phase of the Environmental and Natural Resources Complex and yet another parking garage. But campus officials were pushing a plan to relocate all of the displaced businesses to the south side of the street to retain the commercial character of the area (See "Street Hustle," Tucson Weekly, June 13,1996).

This concept was proposed only after the failure of a cooperative three-year effort to resolve the future of the commercial area. That effort, by University staff, city officials, nearby residents and business owners, reached a compromise solution on the future of the residential neighborhoods south of Sixth Street. But it failed to solve, or even adequately address, the problems of the small-business people in the area.

Currents The proposed relocation plan changed the perception of many people that the University was simply trying to force the businesses to shut down. Thus, last June, optimism was rising about the future of the area.

But then more delays and distractions occurred. The University's self-imposed September 1 deadline for approval of the relocation plan came and went. At the same time, UA Foundation representatives were negotiating to buy some of the north-side commercial properties. They were telling the land owner he shouldn't renew his tenants' leases when they expired.

At the start of the fall semester, a University parking lot which had previously been open for early evening use by business customers was suddenly gated until 10 p.m. That did it for Tom Palliser, owner of Pizza City. He closed up shop, accusing University officials of underhandedness in their dealings and of wanting to get rid of the businesses.

The other merchants on the north side of the street, however, hung on, determined to wait the process out. By November, the University had told them they could stay where they were through 1997.

In December, in an attempt to spur some action on the redevelopment plan, the Tucson City Council urged the Arizona Board of Regents to get involved. But last week, Tucson attorney John Munger, Regents president, said he had no idea if the Regents will ever pursue that idea.

About the only positive news lately for the affected businesses is that the University proposed in February to secure parking for them in an existing lot at the corner of Sixth Street and Fremont Avenue. But even that small hope has been held up for months, as the University has sought to have the city pay $11,500 for a control gate needed for the lot.

The city has not yet agreed to pay those funds, so the waiting continues.

Says City Councilwoman Molly McKasson, who represents the area, "The city is ready to move forward with helping with the redevelopment on the south side of the street, but we need certainty for the north-side businesses before we can do that."

So the redevelopment plan to move the businesses from the north to the south side of the street remains on hold. A new deadline for deciding if the plan will be pursued has been set for July.

In the meantime, the University is moving ahead with the demolition of a number of properties in the area. These will include the building on the north side of the street that the Sixth Street Pub once occupied. Also facing the wrecking ball will be the former Loft Theater. So by the end of the summer there will be a lot of vacant space around the commercial buildings remaining on the north side of the street.

Meanwhile, the issue of who will eventually buy those buildings has raised questions. If the University acquired these structures, as a governmental entity it would have to pay the displaced businesses for moving and related expenses. These costs can run up to $20,000 or more per business. In one case during its Speedway widening project, the city paid more than $29,000 to move a Domino's Pizza joint.

But the UA Foundation, as a private institution, would probably be exempt from these same rules. A poll of local real estate experts familiar with the law revealed that most believe the Foundation would not have to pay anything to the displaced businesses.

This technique was used repeatedly by University Vice-president Joel Valdez when he was Tucson city manager. He'd have non-governmental agencies implement projects for the city, thus avoiding regulations while pressuring individuals and small businesses to keep quiet and cooperate.

University officials have insisted, however, they will pay relocation expenses to the businesses.

Recently, the building once occupied by Pizza City was put up for rent. A small art gallery has opened, but the remainder of the space is still vacant. The property owner is offering a one-year lease, which means a new tenant will be in the building well past the time University officials told businesses they could remain in the area. Meanwhile, negotiations continue to sell this property to the Foundation.

A year ago there were eight businesses in the two blocks on the north side of Sixth Street. Today, six remain. There is hope along the street that the redevelopment plan will work out--hope mixed with the fear it might not. Meanwhile, like the refugees in Casablanca, the business owners wait, and wait, and wait. TW

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