Student Housing Shakedown

UA-area neighbors object to student housing project, but a developer holds legal leverage over the city

Tucson residents groaned as developers showed them slides of fancy modern high-rises coupled with words like "vision," "analysis" and "refinement."

The blowback was probably not what the Tempe-based architect had hoped to hear when showing a PowerPoint presentation at a neighborhood meeting last week. The slick plans did little to sell the hundred Tucsonans, who came out on a Tuesday night, that tearing down 12 historic homes in favor of five-story student housing is a good thing.

"It's very difficult to make everyone happy," said Eric Zobrist, an associate with Ayers Saint Gross Architects, clicking through slides of possible floor plans.

The houses and property, practically the entire northwest block of Speedway and Euclid, are owned by Michael Goodman, whose modus operandi is buying old campus-area homes, tearing them down, and building new homes for students that stretch the number of bedrooms to the zoning limit. A few of his mini-dorms (or as City Councilman Steve Kozachik puts it, "big, ugly yellow things") are in the Jefferson Park and Feldman's Historic District.

Neighbors and city officials have often clashed with Goodman over plans to tear down the old to make way for the new. In 2007, the City Council passed a building code amendment that added stricter regulation for any structure built before '54 within the city's Historic Central Core—so basically all the homes that existed back then.

In March 2008, Goodman took legal action against the city. He claims the City of Tucson owes him more than $12.5 million for the diminished value of his 23 properties affected by the code amendment, according to court documents.

Goodman and the city eventually came to a tentative agreement that he develop the corner of Speedway and Euclid, where he owns 14 homes. In return, he'll drop the lawsuit and his ambition to max-out the bang per buck at his other properties.

"We want to make sure this project meshes as well as it can with the neighborhood," said attorney Rory Juneman, at the neighborhood meeting. Juneman works for a local law firm that was hired by Atlanta-based Peak Campus developers, who are working with Goodman as well as Tempe-based Ayers Saint Gross.

That property is "very attractive," Juneman said. "And quite frankly, it will be developed, sooner than later."

The proposed student housing would be five stories along the main streets, stepped down to three and two stories on the inside, next to homes; no roof-top amenities or balconies (to mitigate noise); an 8,000-square-foot commercial plaza; underground parking for 200 cars; 163 units and 500 beds.

The details were met with gasps of horror from the neighbors. Two of the Goodman's 14 houses would remain as an added buffer between the 500 college students and the longtime Tucsonans in their historic homes.

The cost of the apartments would be $900 to $950 per bed. It puts Goodman's $12.5 million ask into perspective—the corner would earn that much in a little over two years.

Many of the residents at the neighborhood meeting were retirees who have lived in their homes for years, and they were not timid. Some asked smart questions, while others fell back on sarcasm. ("Just take the whole block!")

Former state lawmaker Demion Clinco, now serving as executive director of the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation, said that the developers are not from Tucson and their project would take income away from locals who rent to students. His comments were met with emphatic applause.

"We simply cannot support a proposal that proposes to tear down a dozen historic buildings," he said. "How much are you going to extract from our community?"

Juneman told the crowd that the student housing proposal would be a good thing: "The mini dorms are not appropriate in the interiors, next to residence, but they have to go somewhere," he said. "We're gonna have to grow up. You can't keep building out in the desert."

To close the meeting, Kozachik addressed the crowd, condemning the idea that the corner development has to be student housing. He thinks a commercial development—coffee houses, restaurants and retail shops—would better serve the University of Arizona and the neighborhood.

Projects like the The Hub at Tucson ll and the soon-to-be Honors College complex are "degrading the quality of life" in Tucson, Kozachik told the Weekly. But he does think the UA needs to grow up, literally—turning one- and two-story buildings on campus into seven stories.

Paul Durham, who was sworn into the city's Ward 3 seat this week, also attended last week's meeting. He said he agreed with Kozachik but has to review the agreement with Goodman further before he decides if it's worth a multi-million-dollar lawsuit.

But Kozachik seemed ready for a fight.

"If Goodman sues us, he sues us, but we should not allow one guy to drive development on that corner," Kozachik said. "At some point you gotta sleep in your own skin. Be a community asset instead of a community ass."