Distrust Thy Neighbor

After a period of peace, the UA and some Rincon Heights residents are squabbling again

A wound that healed almost 15 years ago—thanks to the adoption of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the UA and residents of nearby neighborhoods—has been split wide open.

"They're horrible neighbors," declares Rincon Heights resident Chris Wilke about the university administration. "There's no reason they have to be bullies."

J.T. Fey, of the university's Planning, Design and Construction Department, says the university is not being a bully.

"We're attempting to be good neighbors," Fey says, "but a lot of rhetoric is getting in the way."

The escalating disagreement focuses on the university's acquisition of residential properties south of Sixth Street offered for sale by their owners. The buildings have been demolished in order to use the land, at least temporarily, as parking lots.

In the last few years, neighborhood residents claim, this process has involved 11 houses—with three more soon to go.

Rincon Heights residents say the UA, under the MOU, has the right to develop designated projects, such as a proposed mix-used structure. But they point out that surface parking lots are not one of the uses indicated on the plan.

UA President Robert Shelton, in an e-mail, notes that temporary property uses are an "important budgeting and planning tool for the university," and questions why parking lots weren't specifically prohibited from the MOU if they weren't to be allowed.

Fey, who participated in the preparation of the MOU when he worked for the city's planning department, says about the document: "It didn't address temporary uses in general. No one brought them up, but should have."

Wilke says university administrators claim that the homes are uninhabitable and that it would be cost-prohibitive to repair them. But Rincon Heights residents, some of whom have rehabilitated their own homes, dispute that conclusion.

"We try to adaptively reuse (the homes)," Fey responds, while admitting that there has been little reuse. "But many are in really bad shape, and it's not economically feasible."

Pointing to yet another disagreement, Rincon Heights resident Mark Homan has photographs showing that some of the implemented parking lots aren't being utilized.

"Two years ago, neighbors were beating us up over not enough parking on campus," counters Jaime Gutierrez, chief of the UA Office of Community Relations.

These back-and-forth spats were common in the early 1990s between Rincon Heights residents and university officials. That is when Homan and others proposed a process to settle the issues through the preparation of an MOU.

UA representatives and residents of several neighborhoods around the campus worked on the document. To assist the process, planning consultant Paul Zucker was employed.

The MOU was developed during often-contentious meetings in 1995 and 1996, but in the end, the MOU was formally ratified by all impacted participants.

The agreement consists of three parts, and two exhibits supplement the main document: a list of planning policies, and a map of the area. One major accomplishment of the process was the reduction of campus expansion into the neighborhood.

The MOU planning policies state that university development in the Rincon Heights area "shall reflect the land uses" shown on an attached map. The MOU main document also recognizes "the legitimacy of university development within (its campus) boundary."

As a result of the disputes over home demolitions and parking-lot development, Homan says the UA has lost the neighbors' trust. "They do whatever they want. They're a difficult institution to trust."

Fey responds: "We're land-banking, but when there will be a need and funding (for a construction project), we don't know."

University officials contend that their use of the acquired properties for parking lots keeps with the "spirit" of the MOU.

However, Zucker disagrees. Although he says his files on the process are in storage, he writes in an e-mail: "My guess is that tearing down houses for parking may be inconsistent with the intent of our plan. We wanted to stabilize the residential area and increase home occupancy."

Despite disagreeing with UA officials, Homan insists that he doesn't want to fight them. Instead, in keeping with the numerous improvements made to the residential area in the last several years, he and his neighbors have developed a proposal that he believes will "de-escalate the situation immensely."

Homan identifies an idea to build a low wall along the southern boundary of the campus, from Campbell Avenue to Park Avenue. Landscaping would be installed on the street side of the wall.

The first phase of the project, Homan proposes, should be just a few blocks long. "It will define the area," he believes, "and say, 'That's yours.'"

Shelton wonders who would pay for such a wall, and notes the proposal "should require a great deal of thought and discussion."

UA community relations head Gutierrez says, "The wall concept is interesting, but it's not what we should be looking at."

Instead, he suggests the possibility of implementing a provision in the MOU that calls for mediation in cases that can't be resolved. "That may make sense right now," Gutierrez says.

Concerned about how that process would be paid for, Homan indicates: "If they don't agree to the wall, then the neighborhood will request mediation through its midtown City Council representative (Steve Kozachik)."

While representing then-midtown City Councilwoman Molly McKasson, Dave Devine was chair of the committee that drafted the MOU 15 years ago.