El Con's Owners Pushed Their Neighbors Too Hard, And Tucson's City Council Punched 'Em Back.
By Emil Franzi
ONCE AGAIN, WE'RE surprised--even shocked--by a local government saying 'no' to a big developer. Last month, the Pima County Board of Supervisors denied Fairfield Homes its Canoa Ranch rezoning. This month the Tucson City Council closed three roads giving access to El Con Mall from Fifth Street.
The power of the Growth Lobby is clearly diminishing. Both rejections are of historical importance and both share at least one common thread--in both instances, the proponents were almost suicidally arrogant and inept.
In El Con's case, the arrogance was utterly flabbergasting: As part of the deal the mall owners proposed placing covenants and conditions on nearby homeowners that would have required them to support rezonings--or anything else the mall owners might want, now or in the future--as a perpetual condition binding not just the current residents, but any future homeowners.
The El Con Mall, owned by the Papanikolas and Kivel families, was once the site of Tucson's most elegant resort hotel, the original El Conquistador. But in 1956 the city rezoned most of the area for Tucson's first shopping center. But not all the land was rezoned, which is why the mall owners needed new approval from the City Council.
Competition from Park Mall, just over two miles east of El Con on Broadway, and from the newer Tucson Mall on North Oracle Road, has reduced El Con's shopping preeminence, just as El Con once upon a time displaced downtown Tucson as the city's premier shopping hub. But El Con's owners now face limited options: They can upscale their property, which would be difficult when most of the classier stores are pulling out for better digs; or they can find something else to do with all that land in the middle of town.
Many inside players say Dillard's, J.C. Penney's and Robinson-May will all be gone, with the latter already on a 90-day lease and headed for Park Mall. No hard confirmations are available--mall owners and the businesses involved are as evasive as Bill Clinton at a deposition. But off-the-record statements are everywhere. One probable replacement: Loew's, a national competitor to Home Depot. Already confirmed as a future occupant are a 24-hour Wal-Mart and a much larger movie theater.
OBVIOUSLY THIS MAKES the neighbors nervous. The change from high-end department stores to a Wal-Mart and a big lumber yard is hardly an upgrade. El Con owners also have major problems in the number of parking places allowed if there are changes in the existing site plan, and they would need rezoning and other actions to modify some existing usages.
This was enough to get the neighbors and the developers into negotiations. The mall owners needed to eliminate protests over their future plans. Neighborhood concerns centered around traffic mitigation and the changes that would come about with a 24-hour discount store.
The neighborhoods were represented by three organizations--El Encanto Estates to the west, El Con- Miramonte to the north, and El Montevideo to the east. The three groups had different concerns, and El Con representatives played upon those basic divisions from the beginning in the protracted negotiations that have been going on for over a year.
El Encanto group was concerned only about the dozen or so of its members whose homes bordered Jones Boulevard west of the shopping center. El Montevideo was primarily concerned about Dodge Boulevard and the proposed Wal-Mart, while El Con-Miramonte was divided between those north of Fifth Street and those south.
It was obvious that any agreements would vary by neighborhood, and so mall officials began hammering out three separate deals. The residents were also divided between those more willing to accommodate El Con and those who wanted to drive harder bargains. Few residents actually believed it was possible to get all three roads closed.
The mall owners were to have provided all three groups with a variety of mitigation items, ranging from walls and reconfigured entrances to buffer vegetation and dimmer lighting. The city would have had to accept the improvements and other legal modifications, including changes in the configuration of nearby public property. The three neighborhood groups, as well as many of the individuals themselves, would have been required to make certain concessions as outlined in the final agreements between all the would-be signatories--each association, El Con and the City of Tucson, plus numerous individuals. There were treaties ending major 18th-century European wars with fewer players that were shorter and more quickly negotiated.
There's some dispute about why the next step occurred. Councilman Fred Ronstadt (whose ward contains the mall and surrounding areas) placed the possible closure of all three northern entrances--Palo Verde, Dodge and Jones--on the Council's agenda. Ronstadt says he did that to 'get the attention' of El Con's owners and goose stalled negotiations. The center's spokesmen, attorney Bob Cugino and planning consultant Frank Thomson, have not returned The Weekly's calls.
Thomson was also the lead presenter for Fairfield in the recent Canoa hearings, placing him dangerously close to the all-time record for bad luck. Thomson, a competent consultant and a decent guy to boot, shouldn't take all the heat--in both situations his clients apparently made the really dumb decisions.
SOME NEIGHBORHOOD folks dispute Ronstadt's actual motives, but everyone agrees the road closure proposals were postponed for several weeks pending final negotiations. And all observers agree on two other things, namely that El Con officials offended almost everyone by what they formally presented; and that former Ward Six Council candidate and long-time Democratic activist Leo Pilachowski, who was acting as a negotiator for the El Con-Miramonte Neighborhood Association, became a key player for all the neighborhood groups.
El Con didn't produce the final versions of the agreements until the morning of the Council meeting. When an angry Pilachowski dropped copies on all the principles, it caused considerable incredulity and resentment. By the time the late afternoon meeting rolled around, El Con had modified some of the language, but the oppressive, one-sided substance of the proposed agreement remained unchanged. The damage had been done.
Pilachowski says the restrictions El Con wanted to impose on home owners were unconstitutional and could have devalued the properties to which they would have been attached. Under full disclosure laws, imagine a potential homebuyer's reaction were he told, 'You're also compelled to support any rezoning the shopping center asks for, and you're further compelled to attend Council meetings to support said rezonings. Failing this, you must repay the center for the cost of that wall between you.'
Legal or not, this proposed 'deal' revealed the arrogance of those who drew it up.
Their plan apparently was for the Council to take no action and move back to negotiations. But Pilachowski had already circulated most of the repugnant verbiage to the Council and many of the affected homeowners, prompting a loss of confidence in El Con's ability to negotiate in good faith. Instead of a delay, four Council members--Jerry Andersen, JosÈ Ibarra, Steve Leal and Janet Marcus--voted for an agenda item its author, Ronstadt, never intended to support: the road closures.
Both Ronstadt and Councilwoman Shirley Scott agree that El Con helped cause the problem. Ronstadt says he knew they'd 'blown it' when he saw the full text of the agreements. Scott, who with Ronstadt and Mayor George Miller voted to keep the three streets open, found the verbiage 'disturbing.' She admits the proposed agreements were a catalyst in the street closures.
Pilachowski and others have been accused of trying to 'kill' the Wal-Mart by forcing the street closings. Pilachowski denies this, and points to the Costco/Home Depot complex in Marana. That complex, about half the size of El Con and growing, has few problems with access from a single road. In fact, it was designed that way.
ARE THE ROAD closures a done deal? Will one of the four Council members reconsider? Pilachowski points out that the neighborhoods are far more unified now--there's a definite attitude change, and part of it includes a stronger desire to hang together. Many who were ready to give up or cash in are now heartened by the Council's unexpected action.
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