Foothills Fight

Developments near Skyline and Swan make DeGrazia officials, area residents wince

Lance Laber, executive director of the DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun, stands near the gallery's north property line off North Swan Road, which will see additional commercial growth.
Ted DeGrazia moved his famed gallery to Skyline Drive and Swan Road to escape the city growth that dwarfed the artist's studio at Campbell Avenue and Prince Road.

If DeGrazia were alive today, Lance Laber is convinced that the artist would be packing everything up and searching for another piece of desert paradise.

Laber, the executive director of the DeGrazia Foundation's Gallery in the Sun, points to a large, framed black-and-white picture taken in the early 1950s that hangs in the former residence of Ted and Marion DeGrazia. The picture shows the adobe mission set against the mountains, surrounded by acres thick with saguaro. Now, the 10 acres--on the National Register of Historic Places--are surrounded by homes that dot the foothills, with saguaro in between.

"He was the first one out here when it was a kind of paradise, and then 30 years later, you've got exactly what happened to him in the middle of town: You've got the city encroaching, and we're ending up being a little island," Laber said. "It is kind of a sad ending."

What Laber worries about most now isn't home construction, but recent commercial development that, Laber and other critics said, is completely out of character with the neighborhood.

The commercial development is yet another story of a big, bad developer being battled by powerless residents. However, Laber insisted the story could have been different had the developer simply talked to area residents before breaking ground.

The development by Lilak LLC, headed by Frank Kalil, is a remodel of the former single-story Harris Bank building into a two-story, 14,000-square-foot office complex. The second floor, currently under construction, towers over an existing residential area south of the development and blocks the mountain views of six to 12 homeowners.

The Tucson Weekly contacted Lilak LLC CEO Steve Backerman at the Kalil and Co. office, but Backerman was unable to comment as of press time.

Laber and other neighbors complained to Pima County Development Services almost two months ago. At first, they thought there was something more to the development. Something, they told themselves, must be wrong: a county mix-up, perhaps, or maybe something shady was going on.

Now, Laber said, complaining about the building is like beating a dead horse, because the neighbors know there is no recourse.

Tamara Olson, a resident south of the development, said she also hoped there would be something the neighbors could do to prevent it. If the Pima County vision of the area includes developments like the Lilak property, the unique nature of the area at Skyline and Swan will die, and the area will become like any other part of Tucson, she said.

North of the Lilak development is a 7-Eleven convenience store that could be redeveloped under the same codes that allowed the Harris Bank to be redeveloped into a two-story structure. In 1995, a Catalina Foothills Subregional Plan limited the height of new buildings to 24 feet. Olson and her friends thought that would prevent construction from continuing--but the county and developers discovered agreements going back to 1964 that allow remodels to go higher.

Carla Blackwell, deputy director of Pima County Development Services, said a 1964 rezoning agreement allows Lilak to build more than 24 feet. Lilak and the county are also not required to hold a public hearing prior to approval of the development application, and Lilak is not required to notify neighbors of its plans.

Blackwell said the county feels limited in what it can do to address what may seem to be outdated codes, because of Proposition 207, which passed in 2006 and requires governments to pay property owners if new laws or regulations decrease property values.

"In an ideal world, it would be good for developers to (talk to neighbors)," Blackwell said. "Unfortunately, that didn't happen in this instance."

Another property, owned by real estate broker Andy Courtney, is slated for groundbreaking next month north of the DeGrazia land. It will be home to a commercial complex of three condominium-style office buildings, acceptable under the same agreements that are allowing development of the Lilak property.

Laber said he has known about that proposal for more than four years, but he just found out that the development is breaking ground in December.

"Now we feel like our hands are tied; we feel like we can do nothing," Laber said.

Laber remembers when a commercial development went up south of the DeGrazia property; Marion DeGrazia asked Laber, then the facility director, to hide the eyesore--so Laber planted eucalyptus trees. When the 7-Eleven went up, Marion DeGrazia asked Laber to build a fence so she didn't have to see the store's sign.

Now, Laber looks at the area where Ted DeGrazia is buried, and wonders if he needs to plant more trees or build a higher fence to cover Courtney's future development. He said he'll probably plant more trees along Swan Road to block the view of the Lilak development from the museum's entrance.

"We were told that this is going to be a parking lot," Laber said, standing at the DeGrazia north property line, where the Courtney development begins. "There's just nothing more obnoxious that I can think of than a parking lot butted up right against our property. Unfortunately, it is their property, and we've now learned there's not much we can do or say."

Three years ago, the gallery discussed buying a strip of property between the DeGrazia land and the Courtney development to create a buffer. Courtney said those discussions happened before Laber took over as executive director of the gallery. It was decided the development couldn't afford to lose property, he said.

Courtney said the back building of the complex to the northeast is the only two-story building (with the rest being one story). Courtney confirmed that he has not talked with officials at DeGrazia, but he said he did speak with residents of the Chapala neighborhood north of the development to discuss the obstruction of views, because the commercial property was originally part of that subdivision, Courtney said.

Laber said he wished the city and county realized how important the gallery is to the area's economy, and that his neighbors were being respected--with their property values protected.

"Who wants to live there now? I'm beating a dead horse," Laber said, regarding the Lilak property. "It's been very frustrating to me, because I have so much to do besides worrying about this. This has taken a good amount of my time over the last month and a half. The result is nothing."