Inner-City Blues

One downtown neighborhood takes the heat for Tucson's growth

In many ways, time has been kind to the Dunbar/Spring Neighborhood.

Reaching north from downtown to Speedway Boulevard, the eclectic mix of bungalows, warehouses, businesses and bohemia has enjoyed a resurgence since the 1990s, when it was plagued by abandoned houses and petty crime. Recent years have seen old homes rejuvenated as younger residents moved in, and the area has since become known for its well-organized neighborhood association, and for the activists—environmental and otherwise—who have fashioned an alternative enclave.

It's the hybrid of two old neighborhoods. Dunbar was named for the now-defunct Dunbar School, one of many then-segregated institutions across the country honoring celebrated black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. The John Spring Neighborhood, by turn, was named for one of Tucson's earliest teachers.

But neither venerable history nor renewed vitality can protect Dunbar/Spring from becoming a sacrifice zone for the city expanding around it. Consider the final link of the Barraza-Aviation Parkway to Interstate 10, approved by the City Council in July 2008. The route begins at Broadway Boulevard and trails the railroad tracks westward, before turning north on Seventh Avenue. Under this plan, part of Sixth Street will be pushed a half-block north of its current route. That means it will dissect the southern edge of Dunbar/Spring, disrupting art studios and cutting off the headquarters of the popular Bicycle Inter-Community Action and Salvage cooperative, better known as BICAS. It would also pave over a small community park created by area residents.

Now, Tucson Electric Power is making plans to stretch a brawny, 138-kilovolt power line from a substation near Grant Road and Interstate 10 to its big substation on Eleventh Avenue and Fourth Street. One route under consideration would bring that line down 11th Avenue, a residential street already draped with 46-kilovolt cables.

Allowing such infrastructure impacts on older urban neighborhoods goes against national trends, says Ed McMahon, a senior fellow with the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C. "Historically, inner-city neighborhoods were always the sacrificial lambs for growth. It was sort of like, 'You're in the way of progress; we have to widen the highway to make it easier for the suburbanites to get in and out of here, etc.'

"But in recent years, that has really been changing," McMahon says. "It's becoming more the exception than the rule. I would say that, in many, many cities around the country, the inner-ring city is kind of taking control of itself once again and saying, 'We're not going to sacrifice ourselves for the suburbs, or for the greater region.'"

Mayor Bob Walkup didn't return a phone call from the Tucson Weekly concerning Dunbar/Spring. But City Councilwoman Regina Romero, whose Ward 1 includes the neighborhood, says all downtown communities are feeling the heat. "That's what happens when neighborhoods—and those are very, very old neighborhoods—are right in the middle of expansion," she says. "I've been trying to mitigate (the impacts) as much as possible to the historic buildings, and to keep old families in the homes they've had for generations."

To soften the impacts of the pending Aviation Parkway project, Dunbar/Spring has received accouterments such as traffic circles and more than $500,000 in improvement grants. Romero's office was also heavily involved in routing the parkway to have the fewest repercussions for residents.

But that doesn't begin to solve all the problems, the councilwoman admits. "It's very hard," she says, "to balance out the issues in these neighborhoods in the downtown areas—these areas of transportation improvements."

Ian Johnson stands on the asphalt outside his home, looking up at the 46-kilovolt lines coursing along 11th Avenue to the Tucson Substation. If TEP has its way, he tells me, this street lined with tidy homes will soon host a massive 138-kilovolt line going to that same substation.

According to TEP's Web site, the transmission line is aimed at "increasing electrical system reliability throughout the Tucson area. The line is expected to be in service by mid-2010."

But first, the Arizona Corporation Commission must grant the utility a "Certificate of Environmental Compatibility" (CEC) for the project. According to commission spokeswoman Rebecca Wilder, TEP has not yet applied for a certificate—a signal that the project may be behind schedule.

If the potential new power line weren't enough, says Johnson, the utility company has also been cutting down mature trees as it swaps out old wooden poles for new metal replacements. That's only added to the hard feelings. "TEP doesn't have a great history with Dunbar/Spring or with anybody, as far as I can tell," he says. "They didn't need to cut down these trees to put those poles in."

At the same time, the neighborhood has argued for placing the new 138-kilovolt lines along the westside Interstate 10 frontage road and then turning east near St. Mary's Road/Sixth Street, a position supported by Councilwoman Romero. That would allay concerns ranging from aesthetics to health. The debate over the effects of electric and magnetic fields, or EMFs, created by high-voltage power lines has raged for years. According to the California EMF policy, under the California Public Utilities Commission, those risks are for real. In their research, scientists with the California Department of Health Services found evidence that EMFs "can cause some degree of increased risk of childhood leukemia, adult brain cancer, Lou Gehrig's Disease, and miscarriage," among other health threats.

When I contacted TEP spokesman Joe Salkowski, he refused to answer my questions regarding the power line project or the concerns of Dunbar/Spring residents. And Steve Lynn, the company's vice president of communication and government relations, didn't return several calls.

After a series of recent meetings between residents and TEP, Johnson and his neighbors remain uneasy about which way TEP will turn—and how Dunbar/Spring will fare.

"Our assumption the whole time has been that the 11th Avenue route is by far the cheapest and easiest for them, and that's what they want to do," he says. "We don't have any evidence. But it's obvious in the meetings that they're defaulting to that."

If TEP does choose that path, "we would have 90-to-100-foot poles running down our street, with 138 (kilovolts) literally within eight feet of many homes. It's kind of amazing. There's no place in town where a 138-(kilovolt) line comes this close to residences."

(Updated to correct volt/kilovolt error.)

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