Plan '98: We're outa Space

Prop 401's revisions to the city growth plan seem better than nothing, which is what we have now.

Since the community's first General Plan was approved way back in the 1940s, Tucson has adopted a series of fairly innocuous documents. A bitter battle in the early '70s attempted to give the plan some real teeth, but that effort failed miserably.

After that, the General Plan became a mostly meaningless, dust-collecting document of "apple pie and motherhood" goals and was consulted only occasionally. Tucson's leaders didn't want to be held accountable for implementing any specific recommendations or ideas that would stand in the way of the primarily unregulated free-market economy that controlled the land use and growth patterns of this sprawling, soulless city.

Instead, local elected officials consistently watered down as much as possible one urban planner's 1964 definition of a general plan: "the official statement of a municipal legislative body which sets forth its major polices concerning desirable future physical improvements."

Tucson's 57 neighborhood, area and other plans have actually been much more influential in the community's localized land-use decisions. But even they are subject to revisions based on which way the political winds are blowing.

The current General Plan, adopted in 1998, was tentatively amended in August by the Tucson City Council after a public participation process. As part of that process, participants at planning workshops were asked for their input. "The majority of the comments," according to the city, "focused on Capital Improvement Projects (CIP), such as the need for turning lanes at certain intersections and the desire for street lights in specific neighborhoods."

The revised plan, which doesn't address that level of mundane specificity, is now the subject of Proposition 401, a ballot measure mandated under the provisions of the state's "Growing Smarter" legislation. That controversial law, which some call merely a sop to the powerful Growth Lobby, requires a vote on a community's general plan.

The proposed plan has added two new sections from the 1998 version: one on growth areas and the other on the cost of development. In addition, the 12 other components of the plan, ranging from transportation to water resources, have been revised.

Keith Bagwell, co-chair of Citizens for a Livable Tucson, a group that worked to strengthen the plan, isn't impressed with the final product. "We got a nebulous thing that doesn't say anything except spewing a lot of platitudes," Bagwell says.

His group wanted to see the plan contain specific development impact fees for new construction that would have been based on the real cost of growth. They also sought, in Bagwell's terms, to "see lines on maps where growth would occur, where urban villages and higher density would be located, where light-rail lines would be built."

Critics of that approach countered that these were issues not appropriately addressed in the General Plan. So what the Tucson document proposes instead is to consider some of these issues at a later date. "It is only better than what we have now because of the promises it makes," Bagwell says. Based on that, he adds, "The plan isn't worth campaigning for or against."

Bagwell says he'll vote for Proposition 401, but only because it promises to eventually look at impact fees and growth issues. "It is better than what we have now because of that promise," he says. "At least there is an opportunity to do that."

Arlan Colton, a local self-employed planner, thinks there are other reasons to support the proposition. He chairs Citizens for Tucson's Future, which is pushing passage of the ballot measure through a speakers-bureau campaign.

Colton lists three primary reasons he thinks voters should support 401. "Number one, this plan is far more comprehensive and addresses issues never covered before," he says. "It is getting at the meat of issues such as that certain parts of the city should look different from other parts."

His second reason for supporting the plan is that he thinks it ties the city's capital improvement process directly to the planning document. Each spring the Tucson City Council adopts a Capital Improvement Program that outlines projects that will be built in the coming year and how they will be funded. "Planners do plans and engineers do the CIP," Colton says, but he believes the new General Plan forces those two, for the first time, to be linked together.

The final item on Colton's support list is the community-wide coordination the plan will require. "This plan is a blueprint from which to work," he says. Failure to pass it, he thinks, will retard any effort on transportation or the cost of growth recovery.

"The reality is that this plan is a blueprint for [having the community] work together," Colton insists. "That is why the proposition has broad community support from developers and neighborhoods."

Mike Grassinger, who works for The Planning Center and is treasurer of Citizens for Tucson's Future, agrees. "It will set the direction for city staff on dealing with the cost of growth," he says, "and it is time to get going on that." Plus, Grassinger adds, "The plan gives a better handle on tying issues together. It is better than what we have now."

But in the view of Joy Herr-Cardillo, the proposed revisions to the General Plan don't amount to much. Another member of Citizens for a Livable Tucson, she calls the new plan an amorphous document and says, "I'm very disappointed at the failure of the City Council to do serious growth management planning. Once again, all we get is lip service and meaningless gobbledy-gook that will sit on the shelf."

She adds, "The bottom line is there is no reason to defeat [Proposition 401], but it was a missed opportunity."

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