El Conclusion

The City Council Opens The Door To Two Big Box Stores At The Midtown Mall.

AT THE LONG-awaited big boxes meeting on Valentine's night, a minister gave an invocation pleading with elected officials to follow the loving spirit of the holiday by doing "unto others as you would have them do unto you."

The mayor and City Council hardly took her advice. Instead of invoking the Golden Rule, they turned the meeting into what one neighborhood activist called a Valentine's Day Massacre.

By a vote of 4 to 3, they allowed not one but two big box stores into El Con Mall. Distraught neighbors and their supporters from neighborhood groups around the city jeered and booed, seeing the vote as a victory for business over neighborhoods, money over people. The deteriorating central-city mall is jammed between some of the city's loveliest historic neighborhoods and across the street from Reid Park, Tucson's flagship urban park. Neighbors fear these urban treasures will be degraded for narrow commercial interests.

"This will add tens of thousands of additional miles of driving every day," neighborhood activist Tres English warned.

Protests notwithstanding, the new agreement allows a 125,000 Home Depot on the east side of the mall near Montevideo Historic Neighborhood, and an unnamed 130,000-square-foot big box, on the west, hard by El Encanto Historic Neighborhood. And while Home Depot must operate under moderately restricted hours, closing from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m., the plan allows the other store, so-called Big Box B, to be open 24 hours a day. Nor does the new law provide restrictions on hours of operation of other future tenants in the existing mall stores.

These privileges are codified into law for a 20-year period. Even if the Big Box Ordinance ever emerges out of its present legal limbo to become law, El Con won't have to comply with it. Jones and Palo Verde will remain closed, but Dodge Boulevard will stay open, with some zigs and zags built in to deter speeding cars. The city could kick in as much as $1.5 million as a sweetener.

Proponents declared that the plan was a fine thing for everyone involved. This will "protect the integrity of the neighborhoods," opined Fred Ronstadt, council member for Ward 6, triggering catcalls of "liar" from the audience. "This is not perfect, and it will not ever be totally perfect, but it takes us forward," put in Shirley Scott (Ward 4).

Hooey, said Jerry Anderson.

"We've let the community down," said the dissenting council member from Ward 3. "We've made a lot of mistakes in our land-use development. This could be the biggest one yet."

Barbara Jamieson, a gray-haired widow who lost her husband in October, wept openly at a microphone after the vote. Her bedroom in her El Encanto house, she told the council, is just 250 feet from the mysterious Big Box B. That means that a 24-hour store may well operate not far from her pillow sometime in the near future, and the value of her home will plummet, she said.

"Carol West," she demanded. "How could you do this to us?"

West, a Democrat, had campaigned in the neighborhoods by the mall, telling residents that she didn't believe Home Depot belonged there. Yet West joined Republican Ronstadt and Democrat Scott and Republican Mayor Robert Walkup in OK'ing the new development plan. An angry José Ibarra, Ward 1 council member, declared that the vote signaled a new pro-business, anti-neighborhood coalition on the council. He singled out the mayor, who had campaigned on a platform of compromise, for special condemnation.

"You've turned down the community for the special interests that gave to your campaign," Ibarra said. "This is where it starts...There are going to be a lot of deals to help out your contributors."

After the meeting, Walkup brushed off Ibarra's accusation, saying, "Oh, gosh, no," he hadn't gotten calls on the issue from wealthy business supporters. As for the tearful widow, "She'll be behind a substantial wall. I think she'll be OK," said the mayor, who himself lives in a subdivision with no big boxes at all. "I'd like to talk with her in one year. I think she'll be OK."

Neighborhood activists don't agree.

"This is another sad day for Tucson," said El Encanto activist Jean-Paul Bierny. "There's no way to reverse this. Four votes are in the pocket of developers. They have no interest in what's right for the neighbors."

IT COULD HAVE been worse.

The new law provides more mitigation for the neighborhoods than an earlier plan that was pushed by the mayor. The council was set to vote on that scheme on January 24, when council members Steve Leal of Ward 5, Anderson and Ibarra staged a walkout. Without a quorum, the remaining council members by law had to abort the meeting, torpedoing a plan that contained very few neighborhood protections.

The mayor's January plan would have allowed deliveries and loading at all hours of the day and night, trash collecting whenever it served the mall's convenience, overnight camping by RV'ers and idling trucks throughout the night. Benny Young, the assistant city manager who served as point man for negotiations between mall owners and the neighborhoods, said some modifications proposed by West would have been introduced as amendments on January 24 if a vote had taken place.

In the weeks after the walkout, widely viewed as a humiliation for the new mayor, new conditions were hammered out. Young believes the new restrictions "closely parallel" the standards of the Big Box Ordinance. Deliveries and loading will be prohibited between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., no trash may be collected between 4 p.m. and 9 a.m., no trucks will idle between 6 p.m. and 7 a.m., and no RV parking will be allowed overnight. Ten-feet high walls and landscape barriers will buffer the neighborhoods, and lights will be shielded. The architecture must be "compatible with the general area."

Big Box stores, with their outdoor loudspeakers ("Attention Shoppers!" "Joe, Call on Line One!") are far noisier than conventional department stores. Young said their loudspeakers must be set 250 feet from houses, and any noise must fall within the city's regular noise standards. However, there are no special rules governing forklifts, whose annoying beeping sounds may easily traverse the sound-barrier walls.

Perhaps most importantly, the new agreement doesn't require any kind of public disclosure of mall plans, as the Big Box Ordinance would have. While neighbors were castigated at Monday's meeting for trying to interfere with a revitalization plan that had been in the works for several years, the fact is the mall owners never came clean with their unpopular big box strategy until last summer. Proponents of the new law argued that it was important to come to some agreement with El Con, because without it the mall would have been free to do whatever it pleased.

That point raises the question: why are current city regulations so lax in protecting neighborhoods?

Young chooses his words carefully. "The basic zoning decision goes back 40 years. That's the fundamental decision we're constrained to deal with. We have a pretty good zoning code but we have no special controls for large retail facilities over 100,000 feet."

The city did try, as he pointed out, to enact an ordinance to deal with these gigantic stores, which some urban critics believe are already lumbering toward extinction in the new Internet economy. But Wal-Mart, a wealthy corporation based in Arkansas, poured $33,000 out of its vast coffers to fund a petition that would override decisions made by Tucson's local elected officials. The ordinance is inoperative right now, pending legal maneuvers. And in its absence, developers legally have free rein to push through whatever they please, urban planning be damned.

At El Con, a "tripartite commission" of neighbors, mall reps and city staff, will "monitor" compliance with the development agreement. Neighbors fret that the commission will have no teeth, but Young says from what he's seen of the neighbors' diligence, that's not a worry.

"When the citizens are watching, there's power behind that," he said.