A Park's Plight

A neighborhood simmers over slated Aviation Parkway construction

By midmorning, the sad little lot on downtown's northern fringes is already searing hot, its wooden benches slowly fading white, the roofless ramada mocking any notion of shade.

Created by residents of the Dunbar/Spring Neighborhood, the renegade Ramona-Magon Memorial Garden and Autonomous Community Park recently fell to the divinations of a pending 1-mile road, fashioned to link the Barraza-Aviation Parkway with Interstate 10. If that plan holds, the new parkway will roll right over the tiny park, flattening its short-lived ambitions and striking a blow against the feisty neighborhood.

All of which really chaps Terrence McMahon's hide. Today, he glances through a chain-link fence, erected by the city when it was noticed that Dunbar/Spring folks were planting cactus, placing those benches and raising their ramada on the erstwhile empty lot. Although the land had lingered more or less vacant for eons, officials were suddenly fretting over soil contamination, dating from the days when it was purportedly used to store wood and other fuels.

But to McMahon and other neighbors, closure of the park was more about politics than pollution, a sharp rebuke to a neighborhood that had loudly protested the incursion of that planned parkway, called Downtown Links.

Indeed, it was soon after residents learned that the newest route would dissect the southern part of Dunbar/Spring that a group calling themselves the "Guerilla Gardeners" established the park on Ninth Avenue to make a point. "This was a protest garden," McMahon says, "a protest against the roadway. Then the city came and put the fence up, and started tearing things down."

The tiny park had also become a pleasant refuge, despite the traffic whizzing past on Sixth Street, just a few yards away. That made the city's actions all the more painful, he says. "The Guerilla Gardeners went to a lot of work, every Sunday for months. And I used to hang out there, sitting on the benches. It was really wonderful."

To understand the significance of this park dust-up, you need to know a bit about Dunbar/Spring. Once a rather dreary urban enclave, it has in recent years regenerated into an offbeat hub for activists and artists. Today, many of its aging homes sport solar panels, water-harvesting systems and sprawling vegetable gardens, and its well-organized residents know how to put up a fight.

Despite their best efforts, however, they failed to block the new Downtown Links alignment, which was unanimously approved by the Tucson City Council on July 8. That route begins at Broadway Boulevard and trails the railroad tracks westward, before turning north on Seventh Avenue. Under this plan, part of Sixth Street will be pushed one-half block north of its current route, meaning that Downtown Links will dissect the southern edge of Dunbar/Spring, disrupting art studios and cutting off the headquarters of the popular Bicycle Inter-Community Action and Salvage cooperative, better known as BICAS.

Until late last year, it appeared that Dunbar/Spring would be spared. The route then under consideration would have squeezed the link along the current Sixth Street. However, the railroad reportedly balked, claiming that this alignment would squeeze the tracks. There was also concern over potential damage to the nearby historic Steinfeld warehouse.

Then in January, city transportation officials announced the new plans that left many Dunbar/Spring residents furious. Among them was Ian Fritz, president of the neighborhood association. Fritz expressed his sentiments in a letter submitted to City Council members before their vote, writing that the new route "would destroy important community buildings and organizations, create a barrier between our neighborhood and downtown and increase noise and air pollution and visual impacts to our neighborhood."

That missive apparently fell on deaf ears. "There seemed to be a big rush to get this through," says McMahon. He's particularly bitter that the neighborhood's own Ward 1 councilwoman, Regina Romero, went along with the plan. "She really abandoned us," he says. "She was the one who seconded the motion to pass the new alignment, and now we're going to take a beating on this."

But Romero argues that she wrangled extra time for Dunbar/Spring residents to have their voices heard. After changing the alignment in January, transportation officials wanted final approval a month later. "I said no way," she recalls, "since we had just found out about it. I got (Dunbar/Spring) residents another five months" before the process to finalize the plan began.

Romero contends that the council needed to make a tough decision and end years of haggling. "But it's very unfortunate that Dunbar/Spring says I never listened to them, because I really weighed all their concerns."

Within that window of time, the renegade park also sprang to life--and quickly became a blatant poke at city officials. Nor did it take long for officialdom to respond; in June, the fence went up, after the city's real-estate division expressed concerns over soil contamination.

They also ordered the ramada dismantled, says city property manager George Parker. "There was no authorization for anybody to use that site. And the (ramada) structure was poorly constructed. There was a concern about it getting caught up in a wind storm or a dust devil and getting blown off and damaging cars."

Still, after neighbors complained, the city granted Dunbar/Spring's "guerilla gardeners" a chance remove the park's accouterments themselves. Parker says they haven't yet bothered to ask him for a key.

The city's Environmental Services Department also ordered a soil analysis, which turned up nasty contaminants ranging from lead to arsenic. "I would not have my child on that property," says environmental manager Lynne Birkinbine.

She denies that her department erected the fence for the sake of politics. "We had to go in to protect the public," Birkinbine says. "Normally, people wouldn't be digging in soil like this. People wouldn't be putting a garden in there."

But normally, folks also might not be raising such a determined stink over damage to their neighborhood, says McMahon. And that, he suggests, is precisely why Dunbar/Spring's park was shut down. "The city had to stop that kind of protest. So they ordered the soil test and found that it was full of oil and industrial waste. Then they threw a fence around it and put danger signs up."

Still, the fight may be far from over. Hooking a finger in the chain link, McMahon grins ever so slightly. "I don't know who's doing it," he says, "but that fence has already been cut several times."

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