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Progress Delayed 

A groundbreaking date for the downtown Town West condo proposal is nowhere in sight

It's been more than eight months since the City Council gave the go-ahead to a contentious downtown condominium proposal.

But an 18-month countdown to groundbreaking hasn't even started yet.

Last September, the council agreed to sell almost 2 acres of land at Franklin Street and Ninth Avenue to Town West Design Development Inc., for approximately $700,000. Referred to as "the Nimbus site," because Nimbus brewery had earlier unsuccessfully proposed a project for the land, Town West had big plans for the property, which is currently used as a parking lot.

The company envisioned building 11 stories of condominium units on top of a ground floor featuring retail and office space, as well as a restaurant, east of Ninth Avenue. Town West would additionally install other amenities--including more condominiums and an art gallery--on land west of Ninth Avenue, near the historic Steinfeld Warehouse.

Because of past difficulties with builders delivering on their central-city condominium promises, this agreement had a series of specific three-month benchmarks. But the city's downtown redevelopment director, Greg Shelko, last week said the timeline for those benchmarks hasn't even started.

"The clock will start ticking when we deliver the report to them," Shelko said, referring to an environmental contamination study being done on the site. The property was the longtime location of a Southern Pacific Railroad freight warehouse.

Shelko indicated the study should be completed within days, and doesn't expect the cleanup to cost much or take long.

As this report is being finalized, Shelko said, other tasks are also being done. "We've looked at how to fund the public elements of the project," he said, "and how to put all the pieces together."

Another issue to be settled is the number of affordably priced units that will be in the complex. Six percent of the residential square footage was to be set aside for artist live/workspace, according to the initial agreement--a figure that didn't satisfy many artists.

"I was all for (the project)," recalled Mike White, former vice president of the Dunbar/Spring Neighborhood Association; the neighborhood sits north of the site. "But the majority (of the association's board) opposed it. ... They wanted to see more affordable housing."

The final percentage will be negotiated between the developer and city officials. Once the project clock starts ticking, they'll have 60 days to reach a deal--or the agreement can be terminated.

Project architect Raul Reyes said the final affordable figure would be set "according to whatever the city criteria are."

Shelko said: "It's a real point to be negotiated, because how does the city pay for or subsidize those units?"

Another issue that needs to be resolved is the sound of train whistles. The project agreement calls for a whistle-free zone to be created at least along nearby Stone Avenue, but Andrew Singelakis, deputy director of Tucson's Department of Transportation, said the issue goes well beyond that area.

Singelakis indicated the city is about to request consultant proposals to determine how to transform downtown into a "no-whistle zone." He estimated that implementation might cost $6 million, but no funds have been identified to pay for this work.

One way to get rid of the steady flow of train-whistle sounds would involve tunneling Sixth Street underneath the railroad tracks, thus removing the existing at-grade crossing which requires that a whistle be blown. This proposal--which has been around for decades but is now receiving serious attention as part of the Downtown Links roadway plan--is extremely important, in Singelakis' view.

"It's a key component," he said of the underpass. "We need it for the no-whistle zone."

The September Town West agreement also contemplated the construction of a parking garage on the west side of Ninth Avenue. But Shelko declared that's not going to happen.

Because Rio Nuevo tax funds are intended to help pay for the garage--and Ninth Avenue is one boundary of that improvement zone--Shelko said the garage location has been changed. Reyes added that a garage holding more than 400 vehicles is now planned for the project site itself.

Even though the agreement used the standard legal phrase "time is of the essence," only a few community-planning meetings about the proposal have been held, while several important issues remain unresolved. Thus, a groundbreaking for the complex is nowhere in sight.

When contacted last Wednesday, Jim Horvath, of Town West, asked for additional time to reply to questions about the project. He indicated he would have more to say after a meeting the next day, but he didn't call back or respond to a phone message before the deadline for this story.

However, some neighbors--opposed to the entire concept--were happy to speak.

"I want to see a smaller-scale building which is more integral with the (surrounding) arts district," reflected Natasha Winnik, who owns and works in a building across Sixth Street from the project site. "I hope this deal falls through. The city should talk to other people interested in the site. They didn't put it out for public bid, because they believed no one else was interested--but they are."

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