Strange Doings -- For Tucson, Anyway -- In The Old Fort Lowell Neighborhood
By Dave Devine
NEXT WEDNESDAY night, the city's Planning Commission will consider the fate of an 11-acre vacant property on Swan Road north of Fort Lowell Road. A proposal to develop offices on the site was originally met with skepticism by local residents when it was first suggested several months ago.
But now something unusual--for Tucson, at least--may be happening. Neighbors of the property and the developer, working through a cooperative negotiating process, are close to agreement on a plan acceptable to both sides.
The to-be-developed land is part of a much larger parcel of scattered shrubs and a few mesquite trees, which gently slopes toward the Rillito River. Early one recent morning, traffic streamed down from the foothills past the site. The sound of rolling tires from some of the 36,000 cars the street carries on an average day drowned out the chirping birds.
In May, developer Jerry DeGrazia proposed to construct offices on the land, which is part of the Old Fort Lowell Neighborhood, and thus covered by the city's adopted plan for the area. DeGrazia argues offices will be more compatible than the 20-units-per-acre residential uses which the plan currently allows. Plus, he points out, offices are permitted both north and south of the property, and there's plenty of demand for more office space along the street.
There's a hodgepodge of land uses along Swan Road north of Grant Road. The area offers everything from intense commercial strips to some single-family residences to large tracts of vacant land near the river which are available for commercial development. Plaza Palomino, Penelope's Restaurant and other trendy places also are found nearby.
This mix of uses is typical of many of Tucson's major roadways. The pressures Swan now faces are also common along these other arterials. As traffic volumes increase, the demand for office and commercial developments, instead of residential uses, grows.
This shifting land-use situation is occurring throughout the city, on vacant properties, as well as in older, existing neighborhoods facing the potential of redevelopment. Along Broadway, Grant and Craycroft, among others, single-family homes are being replaced with offices and other commercial buildings. Land-use decisions for these streets made now or in the near future will determine what the city looks like for decades to come.
The speed at which DeGrazia proposed to amend the Old Fort Lowell Neighborhood Plan and proceed with his project alarmed many of the surrounding property owners. In addition, they were concerned with issues like traffic, access to nearby Alamo Wash, architectural style and the density of the development.
But instead of simply fighting the proposal, the neighborhood association asked for the process to be slowed down. They established a committee to meet with DeGrazia to try to find solutions both sides could support.
DeGrazia then did something very unusual in Tucson's recurring developer/neighborhood battles: He didn't send in hired-gun consultants to do his negotiating for him. Instead, he's been attending the weekly meetings himself. While the going has been slow, both sides report they're making progress toward reaching a compromise.
William Podolsky, an architect who serves on the neighborhood committee, has high praise for the process. He also compliments DeGrazia for sitting down personally with the group. But he doesn't know if all of the issues concerning the project can be resolved by next week's Planning Commission meeting.
DeGrazia says both sides are trying to be reasonable. He won't speculate, however, about what will happen if they can't reach a final agreement before Wednesday.
The chair of the neighborhood committee, Dan Perino, says that with a lot of hard work they'll be able to hammer out such an agreement. But he adds, "Time is running out," and the property is very important to the neighborhood. He believes this 11-acre parcel will set the tone for the other 100 acres of undeveloped land also in the area. Perino says his group doesn't want Swan to look like north Campbell Avenue with its wall-to-wall offices. "We don't want just asphalt, concrete and glass" along Swan, Perino says.
He also says that if the two sides can't reach an agreement, his group will oppose both the plan amendment and the rezoning application that would have to follow. He isn't sure, however, what their chances would be in front of the City Council, which would make the final decision on both requests.
Negotiating sessions will continue right up until next week's public hearing. If they do resolve their differences, this case in the Old Fort Lowell Neighborhood could help set a tradition of developers directly dealing with residents to help settle future land-use controversies in Tucson.
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