Hijacking the 'Hood

In South Park, businesses angle for neighborhood control

You let a bully come into your front yard," said Lyndon Johnson, "the next day, he'll be on your front porch." That's a lesson well-learned in the South Park Neighborhood, which just booted bullying businesses off the property.

Those business owners were packing association meetings, to pressure for increased commercial rezonings within neighborhood boundaries. This grew steadily worse until September, when residents finally voted to detach the troublesome, commercial-heavy area north of 22nd Street from their association.

But liberation exacted a high price, as homeowners nestled among those businesses were likewise cast adrift. "Really, we just got burned," says Patricia Garcia, South Park's co-chair. "We lost some really good people."

At the same time, Garcia also blames neighborhood residents for sitting on their hands while a business takeover commenced. "In a way, it's our own fault," she says. "But (business owners) even showed up at one meeting with a lawyer. We weren't ready for that. We're just volunteers."

Few saw this coming in the late 1990s, when South Park first offered businesses full voting membership. As it turns out, however there's a good reason only three or four neighborhoods--among about 140 city-wide--allow commercial members that power.

Conflicts are nothing new to this old community stretching north from Interstate 10 and 36th Street to about 17th Street, squeezed against the Southern Pacific Railroad's Nogales spur, and running alongside South Park Avenue. Long a thriving African-American community, South Park is now a working-class enclave of slump-block homes. And the split between industrial and residential zones is endemic; a 2004 study found that 77 percent of the neighborhood's industrial land lies north of 22nd Street, while 82 percent of homes stretch south of that road.

Still, these demographics are also in flux, as downtown's Rio Nuevo project inspires pockets of new residential development north of 22nd Street. They include the brick, circa-1920s Arizona Ice and Storage Co., now transformed into the trendy--and pricey--Ice House Lofts, and nearby Barrio Metallico's multi-use units.

Those developments are surrounded by at least 15 lots, mostly owned by expansion-minded businessmen who view with alarm any residential growth in their midst. Complicating matters, many of those business-owned parcels remain zoned for residential.

Not surprisingly, South Park meetings deteriorated into growling matches, says Claire Fellows. She was South Park's secretary, before the boundary shift also exiled her. "It got to the point where usually there were more business (owners) attending meetings than residents. Eventually, the association's regular business couldn't be conducted."

She says commercial members cared little about community concerns. "They weren't interested in neighborhood cleanups or cultural events. Their ultimate concern was that, if any more homes were built in the neighborhood, their businesses would be put in jeopardy. But we never did anything to jeopardize their businesses."

If that's the case, however, you won't get it from those suddenly timid business folks. They include Roger Becksted, the reportedly confrontational vice-president of Becksted Machine Inc. on East 20th Street. What about contentions that he sparked South Park conflict? "You're getting some bad information," is his answer. Queried about where good information might be attained, "Not from me," Becksted says succinctly, before hanging up.

Brett DuMont is nearly as short on straight answers. He's president of Grantham Fire Protection of Tucson, located in a low-slung block building on South Park Avenue and 20th Street. And though he's been in that location for 22 years, he suddenly became interested in joining the association only last spring, as rezonings became hot topics. Nonetheless, "we were asked to leave," he says. "There was not a conflict. We just weren't wanted."

That's a stunning understatement; at one point, says Garcia, there were 30 voting business members, and only 20 residential members. This gave rise to turmoil, such as one steamy June night when the association pondered rezoning a small parcel of land at Mountain Avenue and 21st Street from residential to commercial. A company called M&B Mechanical owns the parcel, and Brett DuMont (by then association co-chair) spoke up to support rezoning. Despite loud opposition from residents, businesses wielded their numerical power to endorse the change by an 18-2 vote.

M&B President Bret Fishel didn't return a phone call seeking comment. But soon after winning the rezoning endorsement, he watched as South Park residents voted to shift association boundaries south to 22nd Street, leaving him in the cold--along with Becksted and DuMont.

As the dust clears, some blame the city for failing to give South Park proper guidance. "There needs to be a clear set of planning recommendations and governmental decisions to resolve that conflict," says Corky Poster, director of the UA's Drachman Institute. "It's really not up to citizens to figure that out.

"Neighborhood associations are not meant to be legislative bodies," he says. "There are some difficult land-use decisions that need to be made north of 22nd Street, so there's conflict of opinion in those land-use decisions. And that's why we have a City Council."

Ward Five Councilman Steve Leal represents the South Park area. He didn't return a phone call seeking comment.

A look at the city's planning documents reveal a scattered approach to South Park. A 1970 plan promoted "neighborhood revitalization." But then came Kino and Barraza-Aviation parkways, both providing new transportation--and growing allure--for businesses. Another plan, this time in 1984, noted that "increased pressure to develop land will create potential compatibility conflicts among land uses in the plan area. Due to this pressure, policy direction is needed to both guide and ensure the compatibility with existing uses."

Even now, South Park's land-use blueprint "really says two different things," admits Albert Elias, Tucson's planning director. "It says that residential is fine, and industrial is fine, and they should really co-exist. That's one of the challenges of that policy direction."

And that is a recipe for problems: "I was always taught," Elias says, "that residential is not appropriate next to industrial, and industrial is not appropriate next to residential."

Soon, the South Park Association will vote to restrict commercial membership. Meanwhile, those exiled businesses north of 22nd Street are trying to form their own association. Ditto for Claire Fellows and other north-of-22nd Street homeowners, who met on Oct. 6 to start a separate mini-association--with no businesses allowed. "We already had a year-long experience with them," she says, "and would prefer not to deal with them anymore."

But Becksted and crew couldn't resist crashing that new homeowners' meeting anyway, perhaps to raise a ruckus for old time's sake. "They weren't invited," Fellows says. "They just showed up and created a stir. It was really quite something."

And yet again, blustering Becksted just clams up when the Weekly calls. "I thought I told you no comment," he grumps.

Bullies indeed.

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