Tin Soldier

An Update On Developer Alan Levin's Plot To Impose A Vast Mental Monstrosity On Quaintly Historic Armory Park.

By Margaret Regan

DOWN ALONG THE tree-lined streets of downtown's Armory Park, the city's first-ever historic district, things seem peaceable enough.

There's not much traffic in this little pocket of Tucson's history, a railroad neighborhood that owes its eclectic architecture to the new ideas and materials that chugged into town with the first trains in 1880. Longtime Hispanic families live alongside Anglo rehabbers, and their modest red-brick Victorians doze in the mid-afternoon sun, their wooden porches wrapped around them like comfortable shawls.

At the northern fringe of the district, along 12th Street, where historic charm blurs into urban grit, it's busier. A plasma center at the corner of 12th Street and Fourth Avenue conducts a lively commerce, attracting down-and-outers who make their way in the world by selling their own blood products. To the east, a group of men gathers noisily outside a group house, and a woman walking by carefully edges over toward the street as she passes.

Currents Soon, if the state Department of Economic Security has its way, and if developer Alan Levin has his, 12th Street will be even more hoppin'.

DES wants to move its downtown welfare office from a building across from the Ronstadt Transit Center to a weedy industrial lot Levin owns on the eastern edge of Armory Park.

Brought together with Levin by real-estate matchmaker PICOR, DES settled on the site at 12th Street and Third Avenue with zero consultation with its new neighbors. Since they're moving only half a mile away, DES officials claim, they're not legally bound to get public comment.

Right now, the project is stymied in litigation. The City of Tucson has repeatedly denied Levin the permits he needs, so he filed a lawsuit. He claims his right to build a gigantic "big box" warehouse or whatever else he pleases on his land, literally across the street from the historic district's charming pitched-roof houses. The city argues the proposed warehouse's immense size--38,400 square feet--sheet-metal walls, and flat roof simply don't conform with the design guidelines set out in a 1979 city plan. Buildings abutting the historic district have to match in scale, texture, style and color.

DES, in turn, has been putting the screws on Levin. When the two parties signed a lease back in March--on a structure that had yet to be built or even approved--Levin agreed to a $1,200-a-day fine if he didn't deliver the new building by August 1. He didn't, so now he's paying.

The case ended up in Pima County Superior Court last month before Judge Robert Donfeld. After a couple of days of inflammatory testimony by Levin's team, Donfeld directed the two sides to get together for talks, and to report back to him November 24. City Attorney Michael McCrory now says that they "are in negotiations of a sort. There's been some movement on all sides. We're trying to come up with an agreement."

Both parties may yet come out smiling, but the nasty stuff that erupted in court illustrates the cynical politics of development. Levin's lawyer, Thomas Parsons, asserted an interesting new legal right, what you might call the Precedent of the Ugly Building. It goes like this: Since Levin had already gotten away with putting four ugly warehouses on the property (one houses the Tucson Cooperative Food Warehouse, another the Rocks and Ropes gym), he had established a right to build still another ugly building. The city can't invoke design rules at this late date, he reasoned.

Parsons is certainly right that Levin's vast sheet-metal warehouses are darn painful on the eyes, but in cross-examination McCrory was able to extract from Levin the truth that in the past he had been made to conform with looser design rules governing warehouses. The 1979 plan allows the city to be pickier with the fifth and final building, McCrory says, because it will be the closest to the historic houses. The plan also requires a developer to run his blueprints by the neighborhood's historic review board, which Levin claims amounts to a private body being empowered to reject his project. Nonsense, McCrory says. "Review" is not the same as "veto."

Worse even than the Precedent of the Ugly Building and the Right to Ignore the Neighborhood, Parsons invoked the Divisive Race Hatred Principle, portraying the Armory Park homesteaders as a band of racists bent on keeping DES clients of color out of their neighborhood. As always, it's a curious tactic for a millionaire, white developer who lives among his own kind to brand residents of a mixed, inner-city neighborhood as racists. And Armory Park already has in its midst plenty of social service agencies helping people of all colors, which is one more reason residents don't think DES should locate there. (The judge, to his credit, squelched this whole line of racial reasoning.)

But Levin is just another garden-variety developer asserting his Sacred Property Rights at the expense of the property rights of homeowners who have less money than he has. The bigger question is, what sort of corruption is motivating DES? Because while Levin shamelessly played his race card, DES plotted to make life a little bit harder for the people, brown, black and white, it's charged to serve.

The new DES place will be more convenient for the DES staffers, who'll be able to drive to the suburban-style complex and park with ease. But it'll be a real step down for their clients, who include disabled people and single moms, some of them pregnant, many of them laden down with babies and toddlers. Now these clients get off the bus at Ronstadt Center and easily head across Sixth Avenue to the DES office. If DES prevails, these clients will have to hike nearly half a mile to the new place, south across busy Broadway Boulevard, and then east past the blood sellers and street loiterers of 12th Street.

And in these days of dwindling welfare budgets, taxpayer-funded DES will divert more of its cash to administrative costs in the new building.

Levin will be collecting a top-dollar rent of $15.75 a square foot in the new place, about double what DES pays now on Sixth Avenue. No wonder he's eager.

IT LOOKS like Tucson will be able to use its zoning laws to persuade the unbending Levin to work with the neighborhood. What's the big problem, after all, in making a more attractive building, one that will serve as a buffer between warehouses and historic houses? But the state is recalcitrant. State officials, hell-bent on putting the DES at the edge of Armory Park and near the much-ballyhooed new gateway to downtown, have shown no desire to work with the city. Instead, they, like developer Levin, have declared their Right to Do What They Want Where They Want, the city's own plans be dammed.

And what they want is to force the city, and their hard-pressed clients, to accept an out-of-the-way building that nobody else wants. TW

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