Greater Gridlock

The City Council approves a plan to build a commercial project in an already congested area.

Can bringing more automobile traffic into an already congested area help improve its pedestrian character?

The Tucson City Council apparently thinks so, because over some neighbors' objections, it on Monday night approved 5-2 a large housing/commercial project right on the University of Arizona's doorstep.

Planned for the corner of Park Avenue and First Street, where a Bank One now sits across the street from a dorm, the proposal calls for a six-story structure that would house 150 condominiums and 50,000 square feet of retail space. This project would be the latest in a series of developments that are turning the surrounding area into a high-intensity mixture of retail and office space combined with a multi-story hotel and a parking garage--adjacent to single family homes.

Because of its height and density, the West University Neighborhood Association opposed the project. But the City Council ignored them.

"This is the type of development that's needed," said Councilman Fred Ronstadt, who represents the area. "This is what we want to see happen. It will attract people with an alternative-mode mentality, but we're not naive enough to think they won't have cars."

Ronstadt also downplayed the impacts the project and the vehicles using its 438-space parking garage would have on surrounding streets. That may be wishful thinking.

According to the Pima Association of Governments, the nearby intersections of Park and Speedway Boulevard, and Euclid Avenue at Speedway, both have a level of service D on an A to F scale. That means during rush hour, the average vehicle's wait time is normally between 25 and 40 seconds.

When the UA is in session, it isn't unusual to see mass congestion, especially on Park Avenue, a two-lane local street which carries a whopping 14,000 cars a day. As traffic tries to move south of Speedway on Park, drivers run into three consecutive stop signs, which is one reason why they are urged to use Euclid to go southbound instead. During the afternoon rush hour, the situation at Park and Speedway is often close to gridlock, and this has neighbors worried about the traffic impacts of the proposed project, which will generate almost 2,000 more daily trips.

Nearby resident Brian McCarthy recalls that at one time, city officials desired to reduce the number of cars on Park. "The traffic on Euclid is intense, and this project will only add to it," he says.

Architect Jody Gibbs, McCarthy's neighbor on Euclid Avenue, thinks local traffic is "maxed out" and questions the idea of bringing even more cars into an area which, he says, the city and university want to make friendly for pedestrians.

"This won't be a pedestrian environment," he says, "but a vehicular/high-density environment."

Gibbs blames the UA for creating the problem, because it hasn't built enough student housing on campus.

"The city will approve anything that makes them money," he says.

A frequent critic of the City Council, Gibbs is especially concerned about the future impacts that other similar projects could have on the area. Pointing out that there is additional real estate close by which could also be redeveloped, he asks: "What happens if you dump another 500-car parking garage or two in the area?"

To analyze the specific impacts of the current proposal, a detailed traffic study is being conducted. It will look at replacing the existing stop signs at the Park and University intersection with a traffic signal. Another change, which will reportedly soon take place, is the installation of a signal a few blocks away at Park Avenue and Sixth Street.

To decrease the traffic impact of the project at Park and First, Gibbs wonders if it could provide no parking at all. If needed, he says, its occupants could obtain parking space in university lots or garages. But there's a waiting list for those affordably priced permits that range from $235 to $450 a year.

Bob Patrick, chair of the City's Planning Commission, considered parking variances such as this when he was on the Board of Adjustment. In retrospect, he believes the city's parking requirements for new construction projects are minimal and shouldn't be waived.

To address Gibbs' concern about future housing projects piling even more traffic into the area, Patrick supports the preparation of a plan for the immediate vicinity. Longtime West University resident John Patterson endorses that idea, but only if the current proposal proceeds through the rezoning process and is implemented. Local architect Thomas Sayler-Brown, who is working on the project, also thinks the concept of a plan that looks at potential redevelopment in the area makes sense.

Councilmember Ronstadt, however, doesn't believe a new plan is necessary.

"I think everyone involved--property owners, the University and the city--has a good handle on what's in store for the area over the next 10 years," he says.

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