Breaking a Lease?

A social-services agency will get the boot if the city and a developer get their way

The city and a developer are cooperating to build a towering, mixed-use project just west of the UA campus. These plans have left some unsettled--including a current occupant of the land, the DIRECT Center for Independence.

Since 1986, DIRECT has served disabled people from a single-story structure it rents on Tyndall Avenue just south of Speedway Boulevard. The building is owned by Catholic Community Services, but the land underneath belongs to the city of Tucson.

Last year, DIRECT assisted 450 clients and received about 15 percent of its annual budget from the city. As executive director Wendy Dewey observes, "We provide people with the opportunity to obtain skills and services that can help them succeed at whatever they want to do."

Dewey says DIRECT's current location "is critical because of its accessibility." She praised the building's accommodating design.

"I hope the proposed project doesn't come to fruition," she says, adding, "We have a right to be here!"

The redevelopment proposal involving DIRECT began with homebuilder Bill Viner. He and a partner own a deteriorating two-story apartment house at the corner of First Street and Tyndall, which is temporarily occupied by the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. The area immediately adjacent to this complex is a mix of single-story historic homes occupied by both residents and businesses. A mosque and a 46-foot high parking garage are across the street.

Viner initially proposed replacing only the fraternity with a four-story residential structure. But according to Jaret Barr, of the Tucson City Manager's Office, city staff recommended adding the DIRECT site into the concept.

As a result of City Hall's suggestion to include the DIRECT property, the current redevelopment concept is for a 12-story building with ground-floor commercial space, and four floors of parking holding almost 450 vehicles. On top of the garage would be seven stories containing 169 condominiums, a density of approximately 112 units per acre.

Project consultant Mike Marks says the city would own the commercial and parking components, while Viner and his partner would be responsible for the housing portion.

Hoping to break ground by early 2010, Viner first has to obtain an amendment to the West University neighborhood plan. The current plan specifically limits buildings on the affected property to between 15 and 40 residential units per acre. If the plan amendment is approved by the City Council, the zoning on the land would also have to be changed. It now allows low-density residential and commercial uses with a height limitation of no more than 40 feet.

Marks recently presented the current concept to a meeting of the West University Neighborhood Association. Among other points, he indicated the project would supply 68 more parking spaces than are legally required. Marks also stated a plan amendment would be filed "in the near future," but the developers would meet with the neighborhood association again. He stressed the proposal met several city goals, as it was an infill project with mixed uses that was transit-oriented.

"We believe this project is well-suited for the area," Marks told the 30 or so people in attendance.

Reactions to his comments ranged from outrage to conciliatory. Several longtime residents of the neighborhood found the idea totally unacceptable. They labeled the project's lack of concern for its residential neighbors as "astounding" and asked why it couldn't be restricted to five stories.

However, some newer residents of the area were more optimistic, saying they hope for a "positive dialogue" with the developer.

Councilwoman Nina Trasoff was present at the meeting and thinks the city has a responsibility to encourage greater density in some areas.

"We need to do a lot of work with the neighbors," Trasoff says of the Viner proposal. "... I believe the neighborhood association was willing to support going higher (than 40 feet), but maybe not 12 stories."

Both Trasoff and Barr downplay the potential perception of a conflict of interest, with the City Council voting on a proposal in which the city government has a prominent development role. In Trasoff's opinion, more parking is needed in the area, but she doesn't think the city will make money off the project.

Peg Harmon from Catholic Community Services hadn't heard about the idea until last week. She wonders how City Hall could void the agreement her agency has for the land that's occupied by the DIRECT building.

"There's a 25-year commitment," Harmon states, "with two extensions of 25 years after that."

Viner says he believes it's the city's responsibility to deal with DIRECT--but Dewey has yet to hear from them. Instead, she originally learned about the proposal from a nearby resident and was informed of the details by the Weekly .

"To think that the city and a social-service agency could come together 22 years ago to make this building happen was a beautiful thing," Dewey says. "But it's distressing to think (that relationship) could be dissolved."

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