Development Dilemma

Some downtown-area residents and business owners fear the results of new, more-lenient land-use regulations

Rapidly shifting land-use regulations have some downtown-area representatives concerned that the city of Tucson has gone too far in its efforts to encourage infill development.

"They took (neighborhood) voices away," laments Ian Fritz, a past president of the Dunbar/Spring Neighborhood on downtown's northwest side. "That should be changed."

The city's infill regulations also include the Iron Horse area on the northeast side of downtown. What does association president Dan Twelker say about a new slate of regulations being considered for the area?

"We wouldn't like that," he says.

Some downtown-area residents have been concerned about infill-incentive regulations since the city's recent approval of a high-density housing complex in the West University Neighborhood called The District (See "Building Big," April 7).

This is the first project approved under the infill regulations adopted last October. Situated on three vacant acres at Sixth Street and Fifth Avenue, The District will house 756 students in a building up to 60 feet high.

The long-approved neighborhood plan for the property would never have allowed such a dense, large development. That plan calls for a new-development density of between 15 and 40 units per acre. Normal existing zoning also limits the height of any new building to 40 or 50 feet.

One stated goal of the infill changes when they were proposed was to make sure a project "has no significant adverse effect on adjacent properties."

In 2009, the City Council enacted the initial infill land-use incentives. In the downtown area—from south of 22nd Street north to Grant Road—the changes primarily impacted property along arterial streets, but included some residential areas as well.

At the public hearing prior to the rules' adoption, representatives from both Iron Horse and Dunbar/Spring spoke. The former supported the land-use changes, while the latter asked for some property in the neighborhood to be removed from the regulations, which was done.

The adopted rules permitted buildings up to 60 feet high and provided for other substantial land-use modifications to encourage infill development. At the same time, the rules required the city's Planning and Development Services Department director to determine that a proposed project "does not create significant adverse effects on adjacent residential property."

The infill regulations were changed by the City Council in 2010 after a public hearing at which no downtown neighborhood representatives appeared. This shift created a new downtown core area with different incentives while also retaining the considerably larger existing district.

Some of the previously adopted infill rules—including the 60-foot height—were preserved. However, the new regulations also required that no building could be taller than 25 feet within 10 yards "of the property line abutting an affected residential property."

The infill-project approval procedure was also amended: The Development Services director no longer needed to issue a finding that a project would have no significant adverse impacts.

To gain acceptance, years ago, a project like The District would have needed to go through a time-consuming process that would have included two public hearings before the City Council.

The current infill incentive requirements, on the other hand, only mandate a neighborhood informational meeting. Approval power is now solely in the hands of one city staff member, although an appeal to the City Council is possible.

"The process with West University was a little bit disturbing and alarming to us, the way zoning requirements were circumvented with no public input (to the City Council)," says Fritz. "There's some alarm and concern in Dunbar/Spring."

Adds Twelker: "We share West University's concerns. The zoning in (downtown) neighborhoods is very lenient."

Twelker points out another issue: The city is in the process of preparing a whole other set of land-use regulations for some areas along the proposed Downtown Links roadway. (See "New Options," March 3.)

Summarizing his position, Twelker says: "Much of this is confusing. There have been so many changes (in land-use regulations) over the last few years."

The Fourth Avenue shopping district is included in both the adopted infill area and the proposed land-use overlay zone. John Sedwick, director of the Fourth Avenue Merchants Association, acknowledges that there are a lot of land-use changes going on that will have unknown impacts.

"At this point," Sedwick says of the street's merchants, "they don't know which way things are going."

Given the new infill land-use rules, some fear that Fourth Avenue could go in the direction that Tempe's Mill Avenue went in more than 20 years ago. What was once a cozy shopping district with numerous locally owned businesses was transformed into a national-chain-dominated area.

Sedwick says those he's talked to don't want to see that happen on Fourth Avenue. "The merchants generally like the avenue as it is, as an eclectic shopping area," he says.

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