Lay of the Land

The city's rapid-fire downtown-development plans raise a ruckus

City leaders recently faced a pissed-off citizenry, as plans for reshaping downtown hit a furious snag.

The slow burn began in early March, when folks in the West University Neighborhood, unhappy with a massive, rapid-fire rezoning on the UA's fringes—one that would leave them staring at 14 stories of student housing—convened a referendum drive to have the rezoning overturned.

While critics accuse the neighborhood of trying to block progress, the neighbors say they're just trying to keep so-called progress from blocking their view.

And after gathering nearly 12,000 signatures in less than a month, they've forced the City Council to listen—despite the fact that most of those signatures were tossed out on a suspicious technicality.

Meanwhile, the city's push to establish a central business district downtown, with special tax breaks targeted at development, got off to a bumpy start when Councilman Steve Kozachik threatened to yank his Ward 6 from any involvement.

Under state law, such tax incentive districts must lie within established "redevelopment areas"—and the Arizona statute creating those areas also endows them with the right of eminent domain and condemnation.

That condemnation language has stirred up bitter memories from the 1960s, when most of downtown's barrio was razed under the banner of urban renewal. It also prompted Kozachik to raise a stink with City Attorney Mike Rankin, who had apparently failed to mention that statutory detail. (See "Building Rancor," Currents, March 22.)

While the city can always use eminent domain under certain circumstances, the central business district approach adds a particularly sinister nuance: Participants must sell their property to the city and then lease it back, making them eligible for nearly a decade of property-tax abatements. In return, they'd be required to improve the property's value by 100 percent.

Critics worry that this is a recipe for the bundling of properties into large development projects—and the demolition of existing structures. Particularly in the downtown area, that demolition could involve historic properties. And folks standing in the way of a favored project, perhaps to save their old homes, could be shit out of luck.

This might not have been such a big deal had the proposed incentive area remained tightly bound to an already existing downtown redevelopment district. But other council members—namely Ward 3 Councilwoman Karin Uhlich and Councilwoman Regina Romero, who represents Ward 1—wanted the zone stretched to include struggling areas in their own jurisdictions. As a result, a revised plan shot the zone up along Oracle Road and down to the fringes of South Tucson.

Enlarging the incentive area also diluted perceptions that it would be just another sop for downtown players such as Hotel Arizona owner Humberto Lopez, who has long sought taxpayer money to rehab his shabby lodge.

All of this came to a head on April 3, when Albert Elias addressed a meeting of the City Council. Elias heads the city's Urban Planning and Design Department, and he assured the council—Kozachik in particular—that the central business district ordinance had been newly plumped with property-rights protections. For instance, a "statement of intent" now declared that properties listed on the national historic registry, and those eligible for listing, would be preserved.

He also touched on the delicate topic of eminent domain. "The statement of intent is that condemnation of property is not a primary objective" of the redevelopment area, Elias said. "And the use of eminent domain for slum clearance is not anticipated in the redevelopment area."

To some observers, "not a primary objective" and "not anticipated" are a tad short on backbone. Among those urging fewer weasel words in the proposed ordinance was John Burr, president of the Armory Park Neighborhood Association. Burr's historic neighborhood stretches along downtown's southern flanks.

Speaking at the April 3 meeting, he also asked the council to beef up the ordinance with a solid public-participation process—the lack of which bedeviled the West University rezoning.

"Looking at the actual resolutions, we're clear that your intentions, collectively, are good," Burr told the council. But as the resolution stands, "it will allow any future mayor and council to declare practically anything for future (zoning overlays) with no formal process created for public input, recourse or discussion."

Others pointed out that owners who've let their properties deteriorate would now be rewarded for their slovenly ways, a possibility that irked local sculptor Barbara Grygutis. Along with photographer Tim Fuller, she owns a downtown building that's home to the Etherton Gallery and Janos Wilder's newest restaurant.

"We, as artists, have been able to redevelop our building and have paid our taxes," Grygutis told the council. "We have subsidized those who do not."

After the last public speaker had finished, Mayor Jonathan Rothschild suggested to Rankin and Elias that some of the "woulds and shoulds" peppering the proposed ordinance could be made "more active than passive."

Kozachik then made a motion to delay a decision, giving two more weeks to fine-tune the ordinance. "The goal in this whole process," he said, "is to get it right."

The councilman doesn't need to look far to see the consequences of getting it wrong. Repercussions from the plan to build a high-rise for students translated into thousands of petition signatures, which might be considered a verdict on his leadership with the West University rezoning. In a phone interview, Kozachik said those petitions have since led him to single out a particularly nettlesome portion of the zoning overlay for more review.

That concession is seen as good news for West University, and for an emerging coalition of neighborhoods that helped in the petition drive.

Of course, roughly half of those signatures were thrown out by the City Clerk's Office, which cited incorrect language on the petition forms—a rather odd eventuality, considering that the forms came from the city clerk.

Two petition-signers have subsequently filed suit over having their signatures tossed. Their case is being handled by Tucson attorney Bill Risner. (See Guest Commentary, Page 8.)

Among Risner's questions is whether the clerk's office innocently disbursed screwy petitions, or deliberately planted a "poison pill" to doom the referendum.

"The city clerk handed them a form that was defective—and, in fact, had the very defect that was later used to reject the signatures," Risner said. "But the Arizona Constitution has specific provisions regarding referenda, and the citizens complied with them. ... In regards to the key portions that are required by the city charter and the Arizona Constitution, they did everything right."

The case is slated to go to court April 20. Citing the litigation, Assistant City Clerk Suzanne Mesich declined to comment.