Sacrifice Zone

The city may be throwing historic neighborhoods under the bus—or, rather, the modern streetcar

Relentless traffic clogs Euclid Avenue, passing a church, a bank and a cluster of old houses that survive as refugees from the UA's endless expansion.

In Tucson's rush to plant high-density housing near the planned modern streetcar line, and under white-hot pressure from big developers, even those old dwellings may soon feel the ax. The City Council took a big step in that direction Dec. 13, when it voted unanimously to loosen historic-preservation protections in a new urban overlay zone.

If that leads to an expected rezoning of this area, demolition of those homes could be a done deal, as they make way for two high-rise student apartment complexes.

Critics might be pardoned for thinking the fix is in, especially since the developer—Chicago-based Campus Acquisitions—has already submitted its paperwork to the city's Planning and Development Services Department, before the rezoning has been granted to allow its projects.

Detractors may be rightfully concerned, considering that this rezoning could result in the loss of nearly 30 historic buildings. According to the city's historic preservation officer, that would fuel a trend, potentially threatening the West University Neighborhood's status as a nationally registered historic district.

For a glimpse into the future, one needs to look no further than The District, a 756-bed student housing project rising on West University's southern flank. That project added insult to injury by prompting the demolition of two old homes in its path, including an 1880s adobe.

The collegiate behemoth arrived in West University thanks to the infill-incentive district, another city-initiated zone encouraging downtown-area development by reducing or waiving permit fees, and scrapping height and density restrictions.

Such sweeping changes, planned for nearly a half-dozen "overlay districts" circling downtown, have put leaders of inner-city neighborhoods on high alert.

Among them is John Burr, president of the Armory Park Neighborhood Association. The neighborhood encompasses a residential area south of downtown that also includes an expansive, federally registered historic area. Burr argues that planned changes where West University brushes against the UA—the so-called "transition zone" near Speedway Boulevard and Euclid Avenue—should raise red flags for everyone.

"It's the first time the city has decided to backtrack on one of its federal historic districts," he says. "I find it threatening if this sets a precedent for disregarding historic districts as being important to the overall cohesive character of downtown."

Preservation activist Ken Scoville is blunt.

"This has probably been the first time, that I know of, where there's been a major assault against a major historic district," he says. "It's a Trojan horse to see if (the city) can get this through and incentivize the demolition of historic properties by these height overlays."

Scoville is referring to a key component of the transition-area overlay zone, which relaxes current height restrictions on area properties. While city officials say the move is meant to encourage adaptation and reuse of historic properties, Scoville calls it a recipe for destruction.

"The city can say anything they want about the property owner still having to go through the demolition process" for a historic home, he says. "But that height overlay will ultimately win out, to destroy the property."

Under the proposed overlay, preservation could become voluntary for those owning historic properties. For instance, they might seek demolition approval from the City Council by showing that their old structures couldn't be readapted in any economically sensible way.

"I think it would possibly be a tool" to demolish historic properties, concedes Ernie Duarte, director of the city's Planning and Development Services Department. "Still, what we're building into the (urban overlay district) are incentives ... to rehabilitate historic properties for commercial purposes that you can't do right now."

The city's historic preservation officer, Jonathan Mabry, takes a darker view. Because the City Council wasn't interested in granting him an agenda slot, Mabry filled out a speakers' card at its Dec. 13 discussion of the transition zone. He then used his four minutes to describe how 55 structures have already been demolished since West University's historic district was created in 1984.

"Clearly, previous councils found rationales compelling (demolition) about 50 times," Mabry said. "Twenty-nine property owners in the transition area now have a significant incentive to apply for demolition applications. Based on the historical trend that I just described, it's not far-fetched to think that 10, 15 years from now, all or a majority of those historic properties will have demolition applications approved for them. ... That type of erosion to the historic district may lead to a loss of the historic district designation over time."

Contacted later by phone, Ward 3 Councilwoman Karin Uhlich described her unsuccessful motion at that meeting to have a historically rich portion of the transition zone reconsidered by the city's Planning Commission. "I didn't feel comfortable with the extent of the process," she says.

This breathless approach also sparked concerns from the Tucson-Pima County Historical Commission, which was nearly left out of the discussion altogether, and now opposes the current plans.

Indeed, process—or the lack thereof—seems to be the hallmark of this shotgun debate. Critics call it part of a blind rush toward downtown development. But to Duarte, the "goal is to encourage transit and pedestrian-oriented development, as there is a $300 million investment with the city of Tucson in the streetcar, and it will cut right through this area."

But that goal could affect historic areas across the heart of Tucson, from the El Presidio Historic District in Ward 1 to Armory Park in Ward 6.

Ward 1 Councilwoman Regina Romero didn't return repeated calls seeking comment. But Councilman Steve Kozachik, representing Ward 6, says that everyone has enjoyed a chance to pipe in. "Neighborhoods aren't locked out. But the fact is that nobody is going to get everything they're after."

Unless, of course, you're a big developer with money to burn. At least that's the experience of Chris Gans, president of the West University Neighborhood Association. Gans watched plans for The District take shape on his doorstep. "The neighborhood expressed concerns about the heights, the zero setbacks, densities, the architectural aspects," he says, "and none of that was responded to. In fact, we got greater density; we got greater heights and no change in setbacks. And architecturally, it is nothing that relates to our neighborhood."

This attitude puts the very heart of Tucson at risk, he says. "A longer-term vision is really required here, and I don't see that coming about. They're really just trying to do something that's convenient and quick."