Swap Meet

The University of Arizona resumes its battle with neighbors over plans for use of Tucson Unified School District headquarters.

The proposed sale of the former Tucson Electric Power Company administration building on west Sixth Street to the University of Arizona should close today, April 26. After buying the property for a reported $6.9 million, however, the university doesn't want it. The UA instead has its eye on the Tucson Unified School District headquarters at 1010 E. Tenth St.

Months ago the UA announced that it wished to swap the 99,000 square-foot TEP building for the 74,000 square-foot TUSD complex. To make up the value difference between the high-rise on Sixth Street built in 1967 and the two-story, much older and antiquated building on Tenth Street, the school district would have to throw several of its other properties into the deal.

At first the possible swap excited residents in the Rincon Heights neighborhood, near the campus and surrounding the TUSD complex. They thought a deal they struck with the UA five years ago would put family housing on the TUSD site.

UA officials have a different take. They first wanted to move their Facilities Management fleet to the site, and maintain they can put offices instead of housing on the TUSD property. In 1996, after a very contentious battle, the neighborhood association, the university and the city of Tucson reached agreement over university-owned land south of Sixth Street. Part of this settlement called for the university to remove 43 acres of that property from its future planning area. Rincon Heights residents would be assured they could continue to live in their homes without fear of an eventual UA takeover.

To replace some of this lost land, the joint agreement called for two and one-half blocks of property between Park and Fremont avenues south of Eighth Street to be added to the UA's planning area. This addition meant the TUSD administration building site could be included in the university's future plans.

Rincon Heights resident Melody Peters recalls that it was neighborhood representatives who first proposed including the TUSD complex and adjacent property within the campus planning boundaries. They did this, she says, so the UA could build family student housing on the site to replace part of the now-abandoned Christopher City complex. "It's a great location for foreign students and others with families," Peters said recently. "The project would enhance our neighborhood's character and diversify our population. We were very supportive of the idea."

Then, TUSD officials were not interested in pursuing a possible sale or trade of their property. But new superintendent Stan Paz supports the idea of swapping 1010 E. Tenth Street for the TEP building.

Shortly after the proposed UA-TUSD deal was announced, UA officials indicated that their Facilities Management division, with its trucks, equipment and storage yard, might occupy at least part of the TUSD site. The current location for Facilities Management is on the campus near Sixth Street and Highland and eventually will be replaced with another use. This announcement followed a January attempt by the UA to relocate Facilities Management to Seventh Street and Cherry, a move Rincon Heights residents persuaded them not to pursue.

The recent proposal to move Facilities Management to the TUSD site upset a lot of people in the neighborhood. "The land south of Eighth Street was intended for housing to strengthen the neighborhood by bringing families, not trucks, into the area," says Mark Homan, one of the key Rincon Heights representatives during the negotiations five years ago.

After hearing from the neighborhood, university officials retreated to a concept that only offices, but including those for the Facilities Management division, might be located south of Eighth Street. The trucks and equipment would be parked at the Health Sciences Center north of Speedway Boulevard.

This new idea has not appeased neighborhood residents. On a map, the 1996 "Memorandum of Understanding" (MOU) that concluded the UA-city-neighborhood negotiations shows the TUSD property and adjacent land identified as "Potential University Infill Development Zone (e.g., family housing)." Proposed uses are then described to include "student family housing, related support services, and University office uses."

Melody Peters insists her memory is accurate that this was intended to include only uses that would support a new housing development. "Offices required for the housing units, or a day-care center, fit with the residential character of the area. But they must be related to the housing units," she says.

David Duffy, director of the university's Campus and Facilities Planning office, disagrees. "I think it is clear that university offices, including those for Facilities Management, are allowed by the MOU," Duffy says. "After all, they would only be replacing the TUSD office function and wouldn't have any adverse impact on the neighborhood."

Rincon Heights residents maintain that the goal of the agreement was to stabilize and improve the neighborhood, not to provide additional office space for the UA.

Duffy also says negotiations with the school district are ongoing, but he hopes to have a preliminary understanding of the scope of the swap completed shortly. After that, he predicts, "There will be lots happening on this by the end of the month."

Duffy says that roughly 80 units of family housing could be built on the TUSD site and nearby land, but it is not guaranteed. Other sites, he says, also could get the housing project.

TUSD also will be monitored if the building swap is completed. Mike Gordy, Tucson Education Association president, says his organization won't oppose the deal because the move would be good for TUSD. But, he warns, "The district must be real careful that it just doesn't provide a fancy building for administrators while continuing to have substandard ones for the school kids. There can't be a huge remodeling budget for the TEP building, and the move must be done economically so there are no cuts in classroom spending.

"The district needs to follow the advice that as a society we can no longer afford to pay people to watch people," Gordy says. "We need to get administrators back into the classroom."

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