Guest Commentary

With the Tucson City Council, neighborhoods take one step forward—and then one step back

The Tucson City Council recently approved a minuscule but important "clarification" in the land-use code that hopefully puts an end to the mini-dorm bonanza that has plagued neighborhoods around the university for 12 years.

From now on, a residence with more than four people living together who are not related to each other will be defined as a "group dwelling"—an illegal use in neighborhoods zoned for single-family residential (aka R-1 zoning). Developers will no longer be able reconfigure and bulldoze homes to ram 10 to 17 students into single-family lots, turning whole blocks into Party Central.

Thanks to the City Council, in particular Councilwoman Karin Uhlich, for voting in favor of quality of life and historic preservation for the inner city.

Unfortunately for the Jefferson Park and Feldman's neighborhoods (north of the UA), the numerous already-constructed minidorms will remain.

It could have been different: What if our elected officials had adopted a vision for inner-city preservation a decade ago?

Bob Schlanger and I recently talked about such possibilities over coffee at the Hot Rod Café on North Stone Avenue. We sat near a window, and I could see Bob's automotive business across the street. To the south, I could see the Paul Bunyan statue that's been a landmark since I was in high school. (A crew from Bob's shop recently donated a new paint job for Tucson's favorite lumberjack.) Bob lives in Jefferson Park and serves on the neighborhood association board. For 12 years, he told me, residents argued that minidorms were a violation of R-1 zoning and a threat to the neighborhood's residential viability. In the fall of 2010, as a last resort, residents hired a lawyer and filed a request for the city's zoning administrator to rule on the issue.

Bob took a bite of his pastry and smiled. Then he told me the story of how the clarification to the land-use code came about.

First off, it took dozens of residents like Bob, Diana Lett and Joan Hall volunteering hundreds of hours to stop the minidorm feeding frenzy in Feldman's and Jefferson Park. "Seeing what was happening in Feldman's 10 years ago," Bob said, "our association started pushing for a clearer definition of single-family dwelling." While the city agreed that students renting space in minidorms were not people who traditionally lived together and shared common cooking facilities (the code definition of single-family), the city ignored their complaints.

Bob shook his head. The city staff and council, he told me, were sympathetic but concerned about lawsuits because of Proposition 207 (a property-rights law favoring large landowners). Before the residents took legal action, only Kathleen Dunbar, the Ward 3 council representative before Karin Uhlich, was able to take action. She forced city staff to craft an R-1 parking code that slowed things down—until the developers figured out they could bulldoze homes to create on-site parking and keep building dorms.

Bob shook his head again. "This could've been solved through our zoning complaint," he said.

He then explained how Uhlich was sympathetic in her first term, but couldn't get much help from staff or the rest of the council. In her second term, she started pushing the city attorney to come up with a way to protect the intent of R-1 zoning in Jefferson Park, which led to the neighborhood association filing a "request for determination" with Craig Gross, the city's zoning administrator. Gross determined finally that the neighborhood was right about minidorms, which led to mediation.

Bob was perplexed that the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce had opposed them for so long. "This wedge that gets driven between business and neighborhoods drives me nuts," he said. After he made an effort to stay in touch with chamber officials, the chamber dropped its opposition.

As we parted, Bob told me that City Councilman Steve Kozachik had just nixed a rezoning for a mega-gas station in Feldman's. Things seemed to be looking better. Wrong.

Fast-forward to the Feb. 28 council meeting, where Kozachik made a motion to approve an urban-overlay zone that thumbs its nose at residents in the historic West University neighborhood and OKs 14-story buildings next to bungalows. (Councilwoman Uhlich was the lone "no" vote.) So much for a neighborhood-friendly vision.

For the good of the community, the council needs to reconsider this shortsighted vote.

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