Bitter Development

Embattled neighborhoods face newly empowered builders

Not so long ago, the West University Neighborhood Association fought plans for a private high-rise dorm in its midst.

The brawl was nasty and prolonged. And when the project finally collapsed, residents in West University sighed in weary relief, amid the swell of newfound neighborhood muscle.

Some 20 years later, that strength is being tested, as the recession adds heft to builders' demands for streamlined permit and rezoning processes, and the City Council—eager to plump downtown development along the pending modern-streetcar route—seems happy to go along.

This shift is abundantly evident with The District, a massive student-housing project now rising on West University's western flanks; according to dismayed residents, the 756-bedroom development completely ignores both the scale of surrounding single-family homes, and the aesthetics of a historic neighborhood. Two old homes were razed to clear the way.

The revived building juggernaut is expected to impact several neighborhoods in the downtown area. Prodding it along is a special, city-created infill-incentive district, which entices construction with sweeteners such as reduced or waived fees, and scrapped restrictions on height and density.

In terms of stripping red tape, it would seem to be the salad days for business. Yet resentment lingers among builders over the enduring ability of neighborhood groups to throw hurdles in their path.

This became obvious recently, when the United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona announced it was axing the popular PRO Neighborhoods program. (See "Pro or Con?" Currents, Jan. 19.) Over nearly two decades, the program—founded as a partnership between the United Way, Pima County, the city of Tucson and the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona—offered grants and workshops aimed at building neighborhood cohesiveness.

Although the partners insist that red ink is solely to blame for PRO's pending demise, others see business venting its frustration with neighborhoods—and PRO Neighborhoods by extension.

"I have heard that," says Robert Medler, vice president of government affairs for the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. While maintaining that the chamber has no overt beef with PRO, he has noted aggravation among the membership over neighborhood meddling, particularly when it comes to rezonings and sign-code-waiver requests.

"Anything coming through that, some people call a giveaway to business," says Medler. "Nine times out of 10, the people saying that introduce themselves with, 'And I live in this neighborhood,' or, 'I'm a neighborhood activist."

This ongoing tension is not lost on council members themselves. At a well-attended Jan. 9 meeting of the group Sustainable Tucson, Ward 3 Councilwoman Karin Uhlich spoke of "a false assumption out there, but a strong one, that may create divisions in the community that don't serve us well. And that is that being pro-neighborhood is being anti-business."

In a subsequent phone interview, Uhlich describes how the business community's own narrow attitudes seep into council debates. "When local elected officials are responsive to neighborhood concerns, we're openly criticized for it," she says. "Which seems odd to me, because neighborhoods are the residents. Those are precisely the people we are elected to represent, and a lot of people who own businesses live in those neighborhoods."

If neighborhood associations weren't "fighting tooth and nail to sustain the quality of life in their areas," Uhlich says, "the city would have entirely frayed at the seams long ago."

Still, nearly all power held by Tucson's neighborhood associations resides solely in their ability to influence the City Council and rezoning boards—tactics now being short-circuited by infill incentives. This is more than a bit ironic, given that the only ace in the hole for neighborhoods is the formal notification they receive about rezoning requests within their boundaries. In theory, that offers them time to fashion a response.

"Other than that, they basically have to go through the process as any citizen would do," says Anna Sanchez, principal planner in the city's Department of Housing and Community Development.

While it's hard to stop a project that's following the rules, "sometimes, when neighborhoods get involved, they start a dialogue with the developer," she says. If that results in an agreement, "it may make the developer's project move more smoothly."

Of course, some builders might find it smoother to just avoid the whole conversation. "Developers would like the neighborhoods to go away entirely," says longtime Tucson urban-planner Corky Poster. "But the results are always better when those developers engage with the neighborhoods in a productive way, and come to a solution that largely meets their goals, but also respects the issues that the neighborhoods are raising."

To builders, however, the process can sometimes involve neighborhoods that seem selfish—or downright unrealistic—in their opposition. "I do think there's been some frustration on the part of the business community, when they look at some project that should have succeeded, but it didn't, for one reason or another," says Bill Viner, of Pepper-Viner Homes.

"Sometimes it might have been that the project wasn't right for the neighborhood. I don't think it's always the neighborhood to blame. It just takes a little more work to make sure everybody has a clear understanding that what we're trying to accomplish is best for the community."

While Pepper-Viner made its name with suburban developments, the company is now proposing to build a 14-story student-housing complex near the UA—one of several recent proposals drawing opposition from the West University Neighborhood Association over height issues, and the potential demolition of historic homes.

Although Viner calls it "incumbent" upon developers to work with surrounding neighborhoods, he also argues that residents should appreciate projects such as his, which would concentrate students now dispersed through the university area, and increase downtown density.

Try telling that to Chris Gans. As president of the West University Neighborhood Association, he was recently faced with his own agonizing choice: Sell out to developers, or dwell in the shadows of the massive District complex.

After 20 years of living on a formerly tranquil street, Gans and his wife took the developer's offer. But the bitterness remains, and it's directed as much toward the city's infill policy as toward The District's builders.

"West University has a planning committee, and we meet regularly with a variety of different developers," he says. "We aren't anti-development. We're actually pro-neighborhood-appropriate development."

But neighborhoods such as his can also suffer devastating losses from the wrong projects. "If you look at the impact of The District in our neighborhood," Gans says, "it is really an inappropriate development for an historic residential neighborhood."