Deal of the Century Tower?

After coaching from city officials, Don Martin and Bob McMahon raise the cost of the proposed Century Tower

Promoters of the controversial Century Tower have backed off their demand for exclusive acquisition rights to the green at the Joel D. Valdez Main Library--and have jacked up the projected cost of the 27-story building by 42 percent.

Manufacturer Don Martin and restaurateur Bob McMahon, after periods of coaching and hand-holding by city staff, and polite but steady criticism from downtown residents and workers, have revamped financial projections that once put the cost of Century Tower, minus parking, at $55.6 million. They also have increased the price of the building's condos, once projected to sell for an average of less than $350,000. Construction estimates are now at $100 million, and condo prices have gone up $100,000.

Martin and McMahon vowed to get $5 million from investors they call "the gallant 100." They have failed to name any investors.

The two appear to have adhered to the free consulting primarily provided by Greg Shelko, director of the city's downtown renovation effort, Rio Nuevo.

Shelko has been busy for months directing Martin and McMahon on cost estimates, plan development and public and government relations. Shelko is paid $121,000 a year to marshal the city's tax-supported effort to build new attractions and lure private investment into downtown and within Rio Nuevo's boundaries, which extend down Broadway Boulevard to Park Place Mall. He has appeared to act like a private development consultant to Martin and McMahon, but City Manager Mike Hein defends Shelko as doing for them what city staff would do for anyone.

E-mails and memos Shelko began writing in April show that he provided everything from criticism of the thin nature of the Century Tower proposal to advice on how to handle opposition.

In May, Shelko sought to hook up Martin with businessmen with experience in retail and restaurants on nearby North Fourth Avenue and in the UA area.

In one such e-mail, on May 11, Shelko asked Larry Cummings, a restaurant and bar man who also has had success in real estate, to help Martin.

"He is one of the developers of the proposed Century Tower mixed use project at the main library plaza," Shelko wrote. "While speaking with him this morning, he emphasized their intent to recruit local business to their retail space, and to incubate new business. He said he is establishing a relationship with the U of A retail center in that regard. I said you'd give him a call. I can see us collaborating with him in a couple of ways; you wearing your ED (economic development) hat sharing your small business assistance knowledge with him, and, wearing your new retail hat seeing if/how we might assist him in the future."

Shelko projected the "collaboration" before the City Council reviewed the Century Tower proposal.

It is an advantage afforded Martin and McMahon that few others receive and access that provoked strong reaction from those who have long worked downtown, including lawyer Bill Risner, who questioned whether McMahon gained special access because he got out in front of the effort to have the City Council drop its national search for a city manager and to pick Hein. At least a half-dozen people with direct knowledge of the multi-level, bipartisan approach to pull off that move for Hein say McMahon had little to do with it, other than signing a letter and hosting a party at his steakhouse. Those people spoke on the condition that they not be named. Some have ongoing business at City Hall. Others said they didn't want to embarrass Mayor Bob Walkup, the Republican who is comfortable with McMahon and who quickly acceded to the push for Hein.

But the advantage extends beyond Hein and Walkup.

Assistant City Manager Karen Thoreson, now a finalist for city manager of Greeley, Colo., has been at the center of all critical city issues. She wrote favorably about Century Tower and Martin and McMahon in a May 27 memo to the City Council, describing them as "civic-minded businessmen."

Asked how she developed her opinion, Thoreson told the Weekly that Martin has "for sure on his own time and his own nickel tried to generate interest in downtown." McMahon, she said, also has attempted to promote interest and investment in downtown, though she concedes that he has balked, except for a proposed restaurant in Century Tower, at locating one of his Metro restaurants downtown.

Martin moved from his North Fifth Avenue home on the edge of downtown home to a Tucson Country Club estate he bought for $575,000 three years ago. He sold that Fifth Avenue home on July 5 for $450,000, county records show.

McMahon, who unlike Martin, has a sparse voting record, has long lived in an exclusive foothills neighborhood. Shelko, in several recent media interviews, has pushed the need for increased residential for downtown to succeed. But he, too, lives far outside the city in a Sunrise Presidio home he bought for $479,000 11 months ago. Shelko has not responded to Weekly questions about why he didn't buy a home in one of the downtown neighborhoods.

Well before the City Council heard about Century Tower, Shelko was guiding Martin. On April 6, he offered a detailed agenda for a meeting he and Martin had with other city officials two days later. "If we ask the Mayor & Council to entertain an unsolicited offer to purchase and develop the property, it would seem to me that this is the critical information we need to present," Shelko told Martin in an e-mail. "We want to represent in no uncertain terms that we have a feasible proposal from a credible development team to build what conforms to our design standards in a reasonable period of time."

Other key city development reviewers got involved at the city, including Randy Schuler, special projects manager; Sarah More, a longtime planner; and Marty McCune, head of the city historic preservation.

More, in an April 6 e-mail, expressed alarm at the Century Tower location.

"Do you guys know about this??? It is the 'grassy knoll' next to the library that is City property."

"Sarah," Shelko responded, "yes we know about it, but not in any detail yet."

"OK, thanks," More responded. "And, Randy S., we will have lots of comments. Not the least of which is the relationship to the historic courthouse across the street."

By the time the April 8 meeting was over, More was fielding questions and complaints from McCune.

McCune: "Have we seen any of these applications? This is making me CRAZY!!!!"

"No," More replied, "we haven't seen them. And, I thought the Century Towers was put on hold."

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