Border Skirmish

Hostilities Flare As The UA Looks To Expand Its Empire.

THE RELATIONSHIP between the University of Arizona and the neighborhoods which surround it is a tricky thing. At times both sides are cordial, but now, due to recent mistakes on the university's part, feelings are strained.

Problems began a few months ago when UA officials unexpectedly announced to neighborhood representatives at a meeting of the Campus Community Relations Committee that they intended to buy the Casa Feliz apartment house. This building, located on Drachman Street, is one block outside of the university's legally adopted boundary. The university intended to convert the complex into housing for freshman students.

Both the immediate neighbors of Casa Feliz and other neighborhood representatives vehemently protested that the campus boundary was meaningless if it could just be ignored, but university officials insisted the purchase would go forward. Once the media got involved, however, UA representatives started pointing fingers at one another about who was to blame for the public relations blunder. Eventually, UA President Peter Likins killed the deal.

But that eruption of neighborhood concern over a potential violation of the campus boundary has not been completely quelled by Likins' decision. In trying to justify the university's intended action to purchase Casa Feliz, spokeswoman Sharon Kha told the morning daily that the apartment house "was already 'so close to the boundary' and that the boundary would be up for revision next year anyway."

That statement was news to many university-area residents who are concerned anytime the UA starts talking about changing its boundary. When that happens, people's homes and businesses can be threatened with extinction to make room for campus expansion.

According to David Duffy of the university's Department of Campus and Facilities Planning, the UA will soon begin a two-step process to update the adopted 1988 campus plan, including an examination of the boundary issue. The first phase will use an interdisciplinary team of professionals from around the country to make recommendations about what the university has done well, how it can improve, and the changes which need to be made to the campus plan.

Duffy expects this process to begin in October and be completed by next February. As part of the effort, the planning team will meet with the Campus Community Relations Committee.

At the same time this review process is under way, the university will also be conducting an enrollment growth study to consider whether the long-held cap of 35,000 students is still appropriate. This figure has been in place at least since the early 1970s, when one university official said that the 530 acres then within the university's boundary would "comfortably harbor an enrollment of 35,000 students."

But times change, as do the university's calculations about how much land was actually within the campus boundary when the area was designated in 1968. In 1973, the figure was given as 530 acres; in the 1988 campus plan, it is listed as "approximately 540 acres"; and now university officials say it was really 575 acres.

Whichever is accurate, the current campus contains 490 acres, bits and pieces of the original having been chopped off over time to reflect changing conditions.

"The boundary has actually been shrinking, but the public perception is that it has expanded," says Duffy. Of the total area within the boundary now, 367 acres are owned by the university, 74 are privately held, and the remainder is in streets and other miscellaneous spaces.

University officials regret Sharon Kha's statement about the Casa Feliz apartments being so close to the current boundary as a justification for the proposed purchase. At the same time, they deny that any decisions about expanding the campus boundary have already been made. Those issues, they say, will be addressed in the soon-to-be-started planning process.

After the outside consulting team finishes its job next spring, the next step will be to actually update the adopted campus plan. Duffy indicates that the university hasn't decided exactly how the update will be done, but expects it to be under way by the summer of next year. "We will look at all options," promises Duffy.

"It is possible that the boundaries will be expanded, but that also may not be in the cards," adds Jaime Gutierrez, assistant university vice president for community relations.

But Matt Somers, chair of the Campus Community Relations Committee, believes expansion of the campus area should only be considered if the university can give good, solid reasons for changing the existing boundary. "If they can't, it shouldn't change," says Somers.

One area which will certainly be part of the planning update is an 11-acre parcel near Park Avenue and Eighth Street. This land, over two city blocks in size, hangs like a disjointed appendage onto the existing campus. The Tucson Unified School District owns this property, which was added to the campus planning area in 1996 as part of the often controversial but ultimately partially successful three-year negotiations over boundaries between the university and its neighbors to the south.

The TUSD site was intended as a location for a UA family housing project, but the school district decided it wasn't interested in selling. So it is distinctly possible that university officials will want to add 11 acres onto the existing campus somewhere else, again raising the specter of demolishing people's homes to make way for new development.

At next week's Campus Community Relations Committee meeting, the battle lines over future campus boundaries could start to be drawn. Somers sounds a cautionary note on the future: "Neighborhoods have always been where the UA dumps its problems."

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