Parking-Lot Desert?

When Leland Case Sold His Lush Desert Land To The City, He Envisioned A Natural Preserve -- Not More Ball Fields.

By Tim Vanderpool

THE GAPING PICTURE window of Leland Case's crumbling studio still faces the Santa Catalina Mountains, a cheap plywood flat stretching across its panes like a splintered cataract. Surrounding the adobe hut, a dense swath of saguaro, ocotillo and mesquite sweep up the hillside like a silent wave of green.

It's been 40 years since the late author came to this nearly untouched desert with his wife to relax and to write. It was here that Case decided to turn over 17 acres of his property to the city at fire-sale prices. And it's here that most residents of teeming nearby subdivisions now say the city is abandoning his vision for natural open space, in an ongoing quest for ball fields, parking lots and swimming pools.

Currents There's obviously rich irony in these neighbors' efforts to protect a patch of natural land in the midst of their uniformly bland cul-de-sacs and tan, assembly-line, tile-roofed homes. Or in the fact that, as Tucson struggles to retain remnants of real desert still existing within its perimeters, city leaders seem intent on blading a big chunk of the lush property at Harrison Road and Broadway Boulevard for recreational development.

But just as obviously, this eastside tussle speaks volumes about how Tucson and its masters view the city's future.

Chuck Sewell has a one-way window on the ground floor of his massive two-story house, where he regularly watches quail watering in his yard, or herds of javelina passing by. A palm-lined eccentricity in a sea of symmetry, Sewell's home is perched at the desert's fringe, and on this windy morning the retired geologist spots a dove disappearing into a maze of cactus.

Sewell was among Leland Case's long-time buddies. He says the writer, who died in the '80s, always saw this place as a pristine bulwark against encroaching development.

"We talked a lot about it before he died," Sewell says, his blue eyes flashing beneath a gray crewcut. "There's no doubt in my mind that's what he wanted."

Subsequent municipal purchases have boosted the original 17-acre parcel to 55 acres. Now the Tucson Parks and Recreation Department envisions two half-courts for basketball, 205 parking spaces, and a pair of ball fields on that land--despite neighborhood opposition.

City Councilwoman Janet Marcus, whose Ward 2 includes the property, says there's been agreement on retaining dawn-to-dusk status for the future park. But neighbors say that notion makes them nervous. Any ball fields will turn up the pressure for lighted nighttime games, they say, on fields topping a ridge directly in line with their second-story windows.

They also point to six sports parks already within five miles of Case. Three of those parks have swimming pools, four have ball fields, and all have basketball courts.

Still, "I think there needs to be a compromise here," Marcus says. "Kids need a place to play. I have to speak up for the kids. I don't think they should always have to get in a car to go to a park."

If there's apparently powerful support for a nature park, "there's also a strong number of voices for organized sports there," she says. "It's a complicated issue."

Residents call that a stubborn smokescreen dating back to 1989, when the city first unveiled plans calling for nearly full recreational development at Case. That blueprint was then shelved for nearly a decade, before being revived last year just before the holidays. In a mad dash, opponents responded with a door-to-door poll. According to Karen Johnson, a neighborhood activist who spearheaded the canvas, 86 percent of respondents favored the nature-park concept.

"Our poll showed that people want no active recreation there," she says. "They don't want basketball courts, they don't want a swimming pool, they don't want lights. But regardless of these concerns, Parks and Recreation seems to have their own agenda."

Marcus responds that Johnson's 86 percent were drawn from only a 24 percent response rate. "I've had people call me and say 'Hey, I can go out and do a poll, and get the same number of people who want a sports park there,'" she says.

In turn, she cites the city's own poll of roughly 7,000 area residents showing a much greater split. But Chuck Sewell calls that an odd survey, saying that he and many others living closest to the Case land never received a city questionnaire. And he says the city's poll, conducted by mail, had a response rate hovering around two percent.

Either way, the Parks and Recreation juggernaut seems intent on putting some kind of sports facility at the site. Despite neighborhood input, the plan has evolved little since its initial introduction in 1989, says Karen Johnson. "It seems like we've had to fight for every little change."

A 15-member steering committee was established late last year to make recommendations to the Parks Commission, which in turn makes recommendation to the City Council. The committee overwhelmingly supported the nature park, Johnson says. "But they were essentially ignored," she says.

Critics also charge that Larry Zukowski, a consultant paid $60 an hour by the city to help develop the park plan, has helped prod that plan towards large-scale sports facilities. Zukowski was also involved in planning Northside Park near the Rillito River, where neighbors recently scored a victory against Parks and Recreation by winning approval for a mostly natural park. Now he stands to gain a beefy contract for developing sports facilities at Case, opponents say.

Zukowski, who's been involved with Case Park since 1989, discounts such allegations. "I haven't heard that," he says. "I just tried to listen to what the steering committee was saying. And I think we've certainly changed the plan."

The city has responded to neighbors' wishes, says Glenn Dixon, Parks and Recreation administrative manager for landscape and architecture. "We've tweaked that original plan. In 1989, it called for 60 percent of the property to be left as nature park, and 40 percent to be improved. Now the ratio has changed to 80 percent nature and 20 percent improved."

He also says the department's open-mindedness is exemplified by Greasewood Park, a westside nature preserve established in 1972. And, echoing Marcus, Dixon says many folks near the Case property are split over its fate. "There's a small group that wants it left alone. But there are a lot of kids in that neighborhood" who would benefit from sports facilities.

"I'll tell you how I feel," Dixon says. "I think a majority of the people are in the middle."

But according to Chuck Sewell, most just want a relatively untouched bit of desert in their midst. "I talked to a Realtor who estimated that property values here could drop 40 percent if a sports park was built," he says. "But aside from that, the city needs to realize that times change, and the things people want change too. People are realizing that there are very few places like this left in Tucson. And I think they want them preserved."   TW

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