Hey, Big Box Man!

Don't You Hear Your Neighbors When They Call?

JUST LIKE CLOCKWORK, as the blessed monsoons die down, here comes Tucson's Season of Contention. Have you noticed? Early mornings are getting cooler already; the traffic is slowly building up in the city's increasingly inadequate arterials; and -- ah, sweet sound! -- Tucsonans are screaming at one another again.

It's a time when the players return to our still-baking Capistrano and quickly turn up the heat on all the issues they left simmering on the back burner when summer first commenced to sizzle back in mid May.

The biggest brouhaha of the moment would seem to be at El Con, the once-proud midtown mall fallen prey to age, younger, more vibrant competition and, to put it mildly, indifferent management skills.

El Con's owners, members of the Kivel and Papanikolas families -- And what are we talking here? As many as 40 to 70 people? -- can't seem to get their act together.

Camouflaged as just-plain local folks with the best interests of our community at heart, they've carpet-bombed the historic midtown neighborhoods of El Encanto, El Montevido, Colonia Solana, El Conquistador, and Miramonte in a premeditated attack of heavy-handed arrogance, reaping in turn a firestorm of retaliation from the City of Tucson.

And it appears as though the war has only just begun. Here's a brief summary of the situation to date:

· Nearly four decades old, El Con was built before current commercial zoning requirements, which are much stricter when it comes to protecting nearby neighborhoods from intrusions of light, noise and traffic.

El Con property directly abuts the boundaries of neighborhoods on the north and west sides, where there is no buffer of streets, alleys or parks; it comes right up to the garden walls of many surrounding homes and stops abruptly at the kitchen and bedroom windows of about 22 homes.

Neighbors complain that in El Con's 36 years of business its management has offered one-sided proclamations at best and utter non-communication at worst.

That lack of bridge-building has apparently turned out to be a big mistake, because last year, when the Kivels/Papanikolases sought City Council approval to remodel their decaying midtown spread, the neighbors finally had an opportunity to vent.

· Even as they sought approval for remaking their once-lucrative property, the Kivels/Papanikolases were not communicating with nearby residents, who complain they didn't find out until well into the process which retailers might be involved, or even that two gargantuan superstores -- Wal-Mart and Home Depot -- were likely tenants.

The type of facility being proposed at El Con is known as a "power center" in the retail development industry. Besides the 20-theatre movie house, which is already up and running, plans reportedly call for a 200,000-square-foot Wal-Mart (bigger than America West Arena in Phoenix, critics claim) on the northeast corner of the property, and a 150,000-square-foot Home Depot on the northwest corner where the Firestone Tire Center is now. Neighborhood activists complain many Home Depots open at 5:30 a.m. as a courtesy to building contractors.

· Neighbors had been asking for mitigating measures like walls and landscaping for years before the whole big box fight erupted. When they finally learned what could be moving in next door, they exploded, demanding City Council action to protect them from what they fear will be an onslaught of traffic, noise and the general hubbub of 'round-the-clock merchandizing on a titanic scale.

At this point, the Kivels/Papanikolases did something so arrogant and stupid that it will undoubtedly be referred to in local development circles for decades to come:

They offered mitigation, all right -- some observers say as much as $3 million worth, much of which would have been required by the city anyway in light of the upcoming changes at El Con. But they said they would do so only if neighboring homeowners would agree to a set of conditions so Scrooge-like and one-sided that the words "serfdom" and "medieval" sprang readily from critics' lips.

The beneficent mall owners demanded the neighbors agree to "affirm and perpetually support" the mall in its redevelopment plans and request for rezoning, as well as to support them in their future righteous battles with the City Planning & Zoning Department.

Furthermore, according to the conditions of the proposed indentured servitude, if the homeowners refused to be drafted into the Kivel/Papanikolas cheering section, they could be subject to fines, attorneys' fees and interest payments based on the mall dynasty's mitigation costs.

Even former Pima County Assessor Steve Emerine, consultant-about-town and a generally cheerful, pro-business Mr. Republican archetype if ever there was one, pontificated on a recent John C. Scott radio talk show:

"What we have to do is look a little bit to the east and see how the Park Mall owners, who are out of state and supposedly not in touch with the people of Tucson, did a very fine job of filling in the neighborhoods every step of the way about their renovations and the new things they plan. They worked closely with the city to make sure there are no glitches or surprises, and that project is going very well.

"El Con, which is owned by local folks, [has] done a terrible job. I mean they were arrogant, they felt they didn't have to talk to the neighbors, they felt they didn't have to tell the city what they were going to do. They didn't have to listen to the neighbors or the city, and so they're in a deep mess."

· At any rate, Tucson's usually dysfunctional and moribund City Council, in what must surely rank as one of its finest moments, reacted decisively to the nascent two-bit Kivel/Papanikolas dictatorship. In February it voted to close all three streets -- Jones, Palo Verde and Dodge -- north of the mall.

Republican Councilman Fred Ronstadt suggested the move as a way to get all parties talking in earnest, and it eventually worked. But why would the mall owners care about those three small streets? After all, there are plenty of big boxes around with access only from one main arterial.

While mall lawyers did not return The Weekly's calls, neighborhood big box foe Leo Pilachowski thinks he has the answer. Pilachowski says the mall's leases with its big tenants give the tenants some say over the layout of the parking lot. Pilachowski theorizes the mall owners are afraid tenants will demand renegotiations given the road closures. In other words, the Kivels/Papanikolases would lose a few bucks.

Also, El Con's lawyers have told several Council members that if Dodge is closed, the families will lose roughly $200,000 on their lease with the mall's new 20-theatre complex. Pilachowski believes that's because El Con would then have to provide after-hours access to its southern parking lot, and that would require late-night security guards at several major entrances.

However, a more likely explanation for the mall's insistence that the roads remain open, Pilachowski says, is the fact that under existing zoning codes there simply aren't enough parking spaces to accommodate the big boxes. Keeping the northern routes open would provide additional parking relief, he believes.

In fact the Kivels/Papanikolases have asked the city to change the parking requirements for regional malls. The matter is scheduled for discussion at a September 1 public hearing before the City Planning Commission. Someone in the chair-rental business will undoubtedly make a killing at that one.

· After the parties got together to talk, and Dodge was re-opened, a period of relative dormancy, known as the Hellish Tucson Summer, set in.

Then, several weeks ago came a move so swift and stunning that it jolted even the most jaded City Hall lounge lizards from their summer torpor. Councilman Steve Leal proposed -- and, freakishly, his colleagues unanimously approved -- ordering city staff to come up with several possible methods to prevent big boxes, defined as 100,000 square feet or more, from infringing on established neighborhoods.

Such a move may block the superstores from going in at El Con, Leal says, if the City Council approves an ordinance in time.

Furthermore, Leal says, local developers have told him big boxes at El Con are by no means a done deal. He says several developers have talked with Wal-Mart officials about dropping a big box in outlying areas. And as far as anyone seems to know at this point, El Con and the giant merchandisers have not yet inked leases. There are unconfirmed rumors, however, that Home Depot has signed a lease.

· Finally, the Kivel/Papanikolas forces retaliated last week, announcing through their attorney, Bob Gugino, that they were mad as hell and they weren't going to take it any more. They withdrew their mitigation plans and sued to force the reopening of Jones and Palo Verde, and to keep Dodge open as well. A judge ordered the city to keep its mitts off Dodge until a hearing today, Thursday, August 19.

· Whatever the outcome of today's minor skirmish, the El Con War appears far from over. That's because, as usually happens in this sort of civic conflict, both sides can at least agree on one central fact-the issues are well worth fighting about.

LEAL COMPLAINS HIS position on the matter wasn't quite as simple as initially portrayed. He doesn't seek to ban all big boxes, per se. "What we're trying to do," he explains, "is prohibit negative impacts on neighborhoods beyond a certain level. These companies are all capable, and do, build facilities of various sizes, so it's not whether El Con can do business with them, the issue is just what type and size stores they build there."

Ron Sparks, a physician and El Encanto resident, presents a laundry list of horrors that could result from a big box invasion of the elegant old midtown neighborhoods:

· Studies show that for every 100 low-paid jobs without benefits generated by a Super Wal-Mart, 150 better jobs in retailing disappear from a community. And when superstores go under, they typically lay off hundreds of workers at a pop.

· Another impact of the El Con plan would be a decline in home values and tax assessor-generated revenues.

· Since 85 percent of the business generated by a Super Wal-Mart and big Home Depot, as proposed in the El Con plan, is take-away business, the consequences to established mid- and small-business retailers will be devastating. The net tax revenue generated actually will go down as these merchants go bankrupt.

· And studies have also shown that because the superstores' merchandise is so cheap, stores in the same mall invariably suffer large revenue declines. "If I were a retailer in El Con now," Sparks says, "I'd be shaking in my boots to think those stores are going in.

· Big boxes typically increase roadway and related costs to accommodate just-in-time deliveries by 18-wheel semis at all hours of the night and early morning, not to mention thousands of additional car trips to the area.

"According to the books I've read," Sparks says, "a 150,000-square-foot store generates 10,000 cars a day. If you have a quarter-million-square-foot box, you may be looking at 30,000 to 40,000 cars a day on average -- more if there's a grocery store involved, and one is planned for Wal-Mart. And they'll all be coming up Alvernon, Tucson Boulevard, Country Club and Broadway."

· The storage of lumber and hazardous materials outside Home Depot-type big box stores has been the source of at least one major fire in Arizona.

· When Wal-Mart came into the Christown Mall in Phoenix in 1995, crime in the area shot up. Statistics for the applicable Phoenix Police grid indicate auto thefts doubled from 108 in 1994 to 209 in 1997. Auto insurance rates rise with the rate of auto thefts in the area. Burglaries climbed from 82 in 1994 to 137 in 1997. Home insurance rates rise with the rate of burglary.

Big boxes are more clearly appropriate in an industrial warehouse district, and certainly off of major interstate highways -- not in the middle of midtown residential neighborhoods, Sparks says.

"These places are very much like permanent construction sites," notes Chris Tanz, an El Encanto resident and president of the newly formed T.U.C.S.O.N. -- The Union of Citizens to Save Our Neighborhoods. "And unlike J.C. Penney and the older-style department stores, big boxes have forklifts operating all the time and a lot of selling outside. They seem to have outdoor loudspeakers blaring at all hours."

Sparks says his neighbors say they have no real problem with the old El Con. "We all moved here with a very attractive mall already in place. And we feel it's very important to our neighborhoods that we have a vital mall."

On the other hand, says Tanz, "A power center will destroy these neighborhoods' peaceful way of life, their quiet streets, and erode the value of their cherished homes."

BIG-BOX ADVOCATES HAVE accused the neighbors of shedding mere crocodile tears for an ailing El Con. Ronstadt, whose Ward 6 encompasses the mall and its neighbors, has even gone a step further, publicly accusing some neighborhood residents -- his own constituents -- of elitism, saying they think it's all right for Wal-Mart to build stores on the southside, but not near their own upscale homes.

"This will certainly come back and bite him on the face," says an angry Tanz.

She adds, "Clearly, these giant stores should be somewhere where they're not going to ruin life in any neighborhood. Yet he's trying to divide people on the grounds of class and ethnicity over this issue. I don't know what he's trying to accomplish, but it's incredibly irresponsible and immoral. He's being a demagogue of the worst kind."

If by the "worst kind" she means a demagogue who speaks from both sides of his mouth depending on his audience, Tanz just may have nailed the boy-wonder politico's major flaw.

She points out that in a taped interview airing on the August 10 edition of Channel 13 News, the councilman said: "There's been an elitist sentiment that's been communicated from some of the neighborhood people living around the mall. For example, they say, 'We'll accept a Nordstrom's, but not a Wal-Mart. They say, 'Put the Wal-Mart on the south side of the city.' "

This shabby soundbite -- obviously designed by a P.R. huckster to justify corporate greed with an emotional appeal to the red-herring issue of civic fairness -- was slithering over the airwaves at the same time Ronstadt was addressing 60 or so concerned constituents. They showed up for his Ward 6 Town Hall meeting that evening specifically to discuss the big box issue.

Tanz and others present at that meeting recall Ronstadt grudgingly telling his audience that he didn't think a Wal-Mart and Home Depot belong at El Con.

Furthermore, Tanz says, that mumbled admission came only after Ronstadt's staff reportedly tried to discourage attendance at the meeting by telling some callers beforehand that the El Con matter was not up for discussion.

Ronstadt did not return The Weekly's call.

Every war has its casualties, and if he's not careful Rondstadt could discover El Con is his Waterloo -- midtown residents tend to be older, with considerable pride in their homes, deeper roots in their neighborhoods, and long memories. And they've been known to vote on a regular basis -- a phenomenon Ronstadt will come to fear if the Super Wal-Mart sign is soon keeping folks awake at night, not to mention the constant beep-beep-beeping of those damnable Home Depot forklifts.

THE BASIC ISSUE, says Leal, "is that when it comes to the impact these stores have on the community, the community should have the right to discuss it and deal with it. I don't think our community, or any other community for that matter, should ever be forced into the situation of having to adapt itself societally and culturally in the wake of decision-making by large, powerful corporations or individuals. After all, that's one of the main reasons democracy was created in the first place."

The pro-big box forces, such as conservatives Ronstadt and talk-show guru Scott, don't seem to have much of a comeback to Leal's argument, other than to maintain, as they did over the air last Friday, that market competition must be allowed free rein.

It's a response that's not directly on point to those arguing on behalf of community and neighborhood considerations. Unless, that is, what Scott and Ronstadt are really advocating is a sort of dollar-based fascism, the exaltation of America's national corporate values over local values and local control.

It's a view to which Leal quips in response, "A totally unregulated marketplace would eventually drive us down to the point where poor people are selling their kidneys."

Advocates of corporate supremacy in the face of genuine local concerns are also more likely to buy the argument that a commercial property owner is entitled to reap the maximum profit possible from his land, as critics charge the Kivels/Papanikolases are attempting to do with El Con.

But, argue the neighborhood types, such has never been the thrust of local zoning laws in American towns and cities -- despite the current rantings of the private-property rights advocates against so-called government "takings through zoning changes."

The thrust of our zoning laws, the neighborhood types say, has always been to ensure the public safety and maintain over-all quality of life for citizens, while balancing the needs of industry and commerce.

Leal, Tanz, Sparks and others opposing big box development at El Con are now also saying Tucson's zoning laws should be updated to take into consideration the effects of these new forms of retailing and their impact on our community.

"One thing about zoning law is that it's always changing as our cities and towns evolve," Tanz says. "People wrote the old zoning laws, and now they need to write new ones."

Soft-spoken though her words are, they're nothing less than a declaration of civil war.

Dan Huff has lived in Tucson's San Clemente neighborhood at Broadway and Alvernon for 16 years. He would prefer a chainsaw enema to seeing a Wal-Mart/Home Depot go in just down the street.