Guest Opinion

Neighborhoods should take measures to protect themselves from unwanted developments

In the early part of the 20th century, the University of Arizona occupied a quaint, two story brick building now referred to as Old Main. Meanwhile, not far away, a number of "sanatoriums" were being built for tuberculosis patients arriving in Tucson from all around the country.

The neighborhood north of Speedway Boulevard was nicknamed Lung Hill. Today, the University of Arizona has metastasized into a gigantic sports, research and educational facility with an international student body that numbers around 38,000. Lung Hill is now Feldman's Neighborhood, and many of the sanatorium buildings, along with homes of the same vintage, still stand. Feldman's Neighborhood is primarily residential, composed of both owner-occupied and rented houses, with a mix of university employees, students and others.

As the university student population has ballooned—doubling over the last few decades—the market for student housing has also ballooned. Naturally, areas around the university have seen an increase in student residents. Often, a parent would lease, or even purchase, a house near the university, and the child, along with any number of friends, would occupy it. Eventually, developers began to respond to market demand by building rental structures designed for the student customer—nicknamed "mini-dorms."

Long-established residents of these neighborhoods suddenly realized that they did not live in gated communities, and as Bob Dylan said, "The times they are a-changin'." The folks in Feldman's Neighborhood were on the cutting edge of these changes, and they did not like them one bit. Seeing—or seeking—no alternative, they sought the force of government to freeze time and turn their neighborhood into a preserve.

Of course, a villain was necessary. The obvious one is the University of Arizona. Its inability to provide accommodations for its students is the root of the problem. The behavior of students themselves, not their existence, is the problem itself. One might even blame the residents for not protecting the neighborhood with extreme zoning beforehand. But somehow, all of these parties were overlooked, and the mini-dorm developer, Michael Goodman, became the bad guy.

I would not want affordable student housing in my neighborhood, either. However, I find it hard to condemn a developer who is satisfying a need in the community while staying within zoning laws and codes. He purchased the land he wished to change, and he did not seek the help of city government to force a change on other people's property. A primary function of property rights is to settle the question of land use: If you want to call the shots, you buy the property. The alternative is large and protracted fights over land use, with some arbiter making a decision that pleases nobody. The idea of ownership also tends to direct land to the best use. For example, a couple with children would be willing to pay more for a four-bedroom house than a retired couple, so they each end up in suitable houses. In fact, professionals often buy properties on which to build structures to satisfy a local need—and then they become the villain.

While Feldman's Neighborhood may have no choice but to resort to extreme zoning, other neighborhoods might take pre-emptive action. Imagine a neighborhood that came together, pooled resources and bought the properties that came up for sale. Once there was a consensus, the residents could contract with each other to adhere to guidelines that go above and beyond the zoning. They could get the city to give them the streets and public areas, could limit access, could take responsibility for the roads and be at peace with each other—like those in a gated community.

I know that gated communities are not at all "cool," but we're not posing here. People talk a lot about loving "diversity," but they don't mean it. I'm sure many of the residents of Feldman's Neighborhood hold "diversity" close to their hearts—until it arrives on their streets. They then clamor for tighter zoning. The point of zoning laws, my friends, is to prevent diversity. No family wants to live by a meat-packer, a mini-dorm or a 24-hour coffee shop.

Hopefully, the example of Feldman's will lead residents in other areas to secure neighborhoods through co-operative rather than combative methods.

About The Author

Jonathan Hoffman

Jonathan Hoffman moved to Tucson from Connecticut in 1977 and never looked back. He attended the UA, ran for City Council Ward III in 2001, and made regular contributions to the Guest Commentary section of the Tucson Weekly for over five years. He helped launch the Southern Arizona News Examiner. He is a former...
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