B y M a r g a r e t R e g a n
ALONG CONGRESS STREET, just west of the bone-dry riverbed of the Santa Cruz and within earshot of Interstate 10, stands a eucalyptus designated as Tucson's largest tree. With a circumference of 13 feet and a diameter of four, it's the stoutest resident of the dusty tract of land known as Rio Nuevo South.
It's one of the only residents too, at least for the time being. But as a plaque affixed to the tree notes, "It is growing in a very favorable location." This weedy, deserted patch of city-owned land, 44 acres abutting the Menlo Park neighborhood, is the City of Tucson's top choice for the New Campus, the still unnamed four-year college scheduled to start up in fall 1996 under the auspices of the University of Arizona. Most of the time the place is quietly ignored--on a recent blazing day only a lone tractor-trailer idled there--but as a contender for the financial plum of the new college it will undergo some serious scrutiny in the coming months.
Tonight (Thursday, June 29), nearly four months after Mayor George Miller made his pitch to the Arizona Board of Regents, Tucson officials will hold their first public meeting on the El Rio Nuevo South proposal, from 7 to 9 p.m. at the El Rio Neighborhood Center, 1390 W. Speedway. Just last week UA officials inked a contract with NBBJ of Seattle, a consulting firm that specializes in site location and design. The company, for a fee just under $100,000, will evaluate all three locations that are under consideration for the college. And last spring the UA faculty formed their own New Campus watchdog committee, which will monitor both the location and a proposal to do away with tenure at the new college.
The outside study is meant to inject a dose of objectivity into the debate about the college's future home, which has pitted eastside developers against downtown boosters and an increasingly restive UA faculty.
"We have no economic interest or political point of view," says Bill Sanford, a principal with NBBJ and director of its planning studio. "We'll just give the best information we can. We're looking at the three sites. We're going to come up with a set of evaluative criteria and then rank the sites according to the criteria."
The other two sites are out in the desert along Santa Rita Road, 20 miles east of downtown, in the old IBM corporate park the Arizona Board of Regents picked up for small change last summer. One is already designated as a temporary site, though it may well become permanent. It's the uneuphoniously named (and unaesthetically designed) Building 71, an empty office building in need of renovation. The third possibility is taking some of the 1,000 acres that lie fallow in the sprawling corporate park, now a research facility managed by the UA, and constructing new college buildings on them.
Celestino Fernández, the UA vice president and provost charged with putting the new college together, hopes to get the NBBJ report in early September and take the issue to the regents at their late September meeting. He says it's imperative for him to know by then just where the school will be.
Tonight's community meeting "will be an opportunity for residents and business owners to come in and take a look" at the city's Rio Nuevo South proposal, says Lynn Witten, business development specialist for the city. Suggested designs will be on display. City staff will answer questions, collect neighbors' comments and bring them back to the mayor and council. Also on hand will be Fernández, who has remained conspicuously neutral on the question of the college's location. Fernández says he intends simply to explain the vision for the college, which will be a liberal arts school specializing in the teaching of undergraduates.
Menlo Park, largely low-income and Hispanic, is a dense mix of single-family homes, apartment complexes, small businesses and strip shopping centers. Lillian Lopez-Grant, president of the Menlo Park Neighborhood Association, criticized city officials in March for not consulting the neighborhood before presenting their proposal to the regents. And she's not pleased with the prospect of sharing the neighborhood with a college that may one day serve 10,000 resident students.
"The majority of folks here are really apprehensive," she says. "This is an old neighborhood; some families have lived here for four or five generations. Look at the neighborhoods around the UA. They rent cheap to students. They deteriorate terribly."
Some like the idea. Bélen Ramirez lives just a stone's throw north of the site, in a house where she "raised seven boys and lived to tell the tale." She says she would welcome the college as a neighbor.
"Any form of education is fine with me," she says. "I think it's good for the neighborhood, for the youth around here."
Others, noting that the regents have already said there's no money to build a new campus from scratch, think the city's proposal is just so much election year hot air, especially since the ward's City Council member, Bruce Wheeler, is challenging Miller for the mayor's office.
They're right that the regents have cried poor. Last spring the regents listened politely to Miller's pitch, but afterward fulminated to reporters about their duty to think about dollars and cents first. And, while the city offered the land to the regents for a dollar a year, the city's proposal didn't include any concrete financial package to help pay for the new buildings. Nearly four months later, there's still no package on the table.
As Fernández says, "If the city wants to be a serious contender, it has to provide more in terms of a financial plan. The board (of regents) has made it very clear: There would have to be a financially better proposal (than the IBM option). We've heard the city is interested in putting more on the table, but we haven't seen it. If they're going to do it, it's time while the firm is doing the study."
Witten, the city economic development specialist, says city staff can formulate a financial package while the NBBJ study is under way.
"We'll be on parallel tracks," she says. Can city staff meet the September deadline? "We'll keep our fingers crossed."
Money is on Fernández's mind for other reasons, too. The Legislature gave him only $1.9 million for fiscal 1996 instead of the $5 million he asked for. (He got $1.5 million for fiscal 1995.) He thinks part of the legislators' reluctance to give him all the planning and hiring money he says he needs can be traced back to continuing uncertainty about the college's location.
And he may face some UA faculty opposition as plans for the college firm up. One professor observed that the twin problems of an out-of-the-way location on the desolate eastside and the abolition of tenure are a "recipe for a second-rate institution." Any effort to get rid of tenure, especially if New Campus remains a branch of the UA, will naturally trigger a major battle with UA faculty. Several professors on the committee say the location is a point of real concern, and so is the administration's timetable.
"It's unfortunate such an important decision (about the location) is being decided in the months when the faculty is not on campus," says Jocelyn Reiter, a professor of music who's on the committee. "I have very strong feelings about the site. I very much prefer the downtown site."
Conceptual illustration of a place to dump the undergrads.
Illustration courtesy of Anderson Debartolo Pan
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