Historic Hassles

Developer Stan Abrams Wants To Build Apartments -- Maybe A Lot Of Them -- In The Armory Park Neighborhood

By Jim Nintzel

ARMORY PARK residents are worried a proposed downtown apartment complex could push their steadily rebounding neighborhood back into seedy decline.

Developer Stan Abrams and his son Eric Abrams have teamed up with real estate broker Paul Lindsey to take a shot at developing 14 acres adjacent to the eastern edge of the historic neighborhood.

"We'd like to do some housing--probably apartments," says Lindsey, who recently chaired the elected committee that wrote the charter Pima County voters rejected earlier this month.

Currents Although they've been eyeing the project for more than a year, the politically well-connected developers say they still haven't determined how many apartments they'd like to build on the site, which is zoned for up to about 400 units. They say they'd like to build a complex similar to downtown's La Entrada development, which currently has about a 33 percent vacancy rate.

Anne Lawrence, president of the Armory Park Neighborhood Association, is worried the development will create major traffic woes. With the pending completion of the Barraza-Aviation Parkway this fall, access to the proposed development could be limited to the neighborhood streets of Armory Park.

One of the largest neighborhoods on the National Register of Historic Places, Armory Park has experienced a renaissance over the last decade as residents have worked to restore old homes, plant trees and install sidewalks. They've held bake sales and home shows to raise money for neighborhood improvements, recently spending $18,000 to install five roundabouts to discourage traffic.

Lawrence, who owns several homes in the neighborhood, worries the proposed apartment complex will result in hundreds of cars passing through Armory Park, which would negate years of hard work at limiting traffic. She'd also like to see a development that fits the area's historic character.

Lindsey insists the developers are prepared to work with the Armory Park residents.

"Everything we do is going to have to be in cooperation and coordination with the neighborhood, and we're just really starting our meetings with them," Lindsey says. "We have some idea of what could fit on there, but it's sort of irrelevant. We just have to sit down with them and share ideas and come up with a plan together."

But until earlier this week, the developers had been working behind the scenes with the city's Economic Development Office to establish what could be built on the parcel, which has a complex history of development plans and restrictions. Even now, city staff appears uncertain what can be built on the property.

Carol Carpenter, who specializes in downtown projects for the Economic Development Office, says the city plans to include Armory Park residents in the planning process.

"We're working with the neighborhood because there are a couple of traffic issues and design issues and so forth that really need to be brought to fruition early, and the developer is going to be meeting with the neighborhood to work those out one-by-one," Carpenter says. "It's really early, but unfortunately it's gotten hot for some silly reason."

City Councilwoman Molly McKasson, who is stepping down at the end of her term this year, is upset that Economic Development had begun working with the developers without consulting the neighborhood.

McKasson says a city memo on the property says, "You can't run this thing through without getting the support of the people who live down there. So (City Manager) Luis Guttierez has been telling them you have to go through the neighborhood. Up to this point, they haven't."

She adds that the city has a responsibility to plan the project carefully.

"We really have to look at what's appropriate land use to enhance this part of downtown, not to detract. Lots of people have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars on their own to make this good. It makes no sense...for us to allow a development to go in there on that property that's actually going to cause the area to be diminished."

Her concerns are echoed by Councilman Steve Leal, who agrees the planning process has been flawed.

"The city has, to its credit, finally understood that the ratio of owner-occupied to rental housing is one that matters a lot," Leal says. "We spend a lot of money in neighborhoods where the percentage of rentals has gone past 50 percent. If the city were to ignore that issue in this situation, we'd be really remiss. Armory Park residents have worked by themselves for years now to bring those numbers back, and if we were to be indifferent to putting rental housing in there and throwing them 15 years back, we'd undermine and really send a bad message to all the neighborhoods downtown: 'The city will betray you and work against your interests.' The city has tried to get people to come downtown and buy houses and start businesses, and once we get them here, we've got to treat them fairly."

Councilman Michael Crawford, who has said downtown development is one of his top priorities as he campaigns for re-election, denies rumors his office has been promoting the development with Economic Development. He says he's steering clear of the project because his top aide, Ted Abrams, is the son of developer Stan Abrams.

"I have not attended any meetings about it," says Crawford. "I haven't been involved in it. We take our ethics very seriously over here."

Crawford has been working closely with the Economic Development Office on downtown redevelopment projects, including a recent test run for a business improvement district. In recent interviews with The Weekly, he's also stressed the need for more housing downtown.

"We need housing downtown," Crawford says. "We need a wide variety of different housing options for people. You don't only have wealthy yuppies living downtown. You have a mixture of options for people."

Crawford says he's not aware of any concrete plans for apartment developments other than the Abrams/Lindsey proposal.

Lindsey also says the developers have avoided working with Crawford.

"We're very conscious of the potential conflict it would put the Councilman in if we started getting him involved, and we're not going to do that," Lindsey says. "We're working with the leadership of the neighborhood to try to figure out what would work for them and what would work for us and what the city would like to see there. People have taken a run at this since the late '70s. For one reason or another nothing has happened, and I'm kind of understanding why now. It's just so complicated." TW

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