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Building Big

A 756-resident student-housing project has West University neighbors concerned

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History may be repeating itself in the historic West University Neighborhood.

Almost 25 years ago, a proposed high-density student-housing project, slated to be located just west of the UA campus, caused controversy. A somewhat similar situation is now occurring near Fourth Avenue.

Back in 1987, UT Commons, a high-rise complex for more than 1,500 students planned at Euclid Avenue and University Boulevard, stirred neighborhood passions. Eventually, financing for the proposal fell through, and the more-acceptable Main Gate commercial area rose instead.

Today, the West University Neighborhood is confronting The District at UA Student Housing.

To be built on three acres of vacant land near the intersection of Sixth Street and Fifth Avenue, The District site was once home to a YMCA. After its demolition, a 126-unit condominium development was proposed, but never implemented.

The project location is adjacent to Fourth Avenue, the modern streetcar route and several single-family homes. When constructed, The District would be up to 60 feet tall and accommodate 756 residents.

Many people in the neighborhood, along with nearby neighborhood associations, are aghast at the prospect. One resident wrote the city: "It is far too high and too dense for the area."

As of last week, officials at City Hall had received more than 40 objections to the project. They had also gotten seven letters of support, one stating: "This would be a God-send for the neighborhood and would decrease the demand for mini-dorms."

Just as they supported UT Commons, the city staff is supporting the new proposal. The District needed five modifications of development standards, and all were approved on March 8.

The West University Neighborhood Association (WUNA) has filed a notice that it will appeal this decision to the City Council. The association has until April 7 to submit additional information.

In approving UT Commons back in 1987, the City Council disregarded pleas from neighborhood residents that the project would be a social disaster. This opinion was based, in part, on unruly behavior at a similar complex built by the same developer next to Arizona State University.

Some of those involved with The District may not have a sterling record when it comes to student housing in Tucson.

Conrad Sick is senior vice president of California-based Valeo Companies and is assisting the developer of The District, Residential Housing Development, LLC, of Houston.

Almost a decade ago, according to his company's website, Sick "led the planning and development of several hundred units of student housing" at the UA.

This 325-bed graduate-student project, named La Aldea, was to be a long-term public-private partnership with the UA. Built on Euclid Avenue between Fourth and Fifth streets, the project had problems even before it opened in August 2003.

In addition, management issues in its first year were a constant irritation for tenants of La Aldea. Ambling Companies, a firm Sick once worked for, managed the complex to widespread criticism.

One tenant referred to in a 2004 Arizona Daily Wildcat story reported: "He's heard many complaints from residents throughout the past year, ranging from maintenance problems to delayed construction."

Another tenant, in an online critique labeled "Sucks," wrote of the development: "There is NO beautiful landscaping unless you like cement and dirt. ... What happened to the 24-hour security that was promised to us?"

Based on criticisms like these, the UA purchased the complex in January 2005. In recommending this acquisition, student regent Ben Graff told the Arizona Board of Regents: "When students lived in this complex, they did not have access to university administration, and no one listened to students' concerns."

Sick believes those who criticize his former company's role with La Aldea are misinformed. "We didn't control the management company," he declares, "and there was a separate contract with them and the university. ... It's not a fair blanket statement (to lump us together)."

There are also similarities between The District and UT Commons. To build the latter, several historic homes were demolished, while the developer of the former is planning to acquire some nearby historic houses—and reportedly plans to tear them down.

Also, the demand for this type of high-security student housing is questionable. A 2009 student-housing market study prepared for the UA concluded: "There appears to easily be sufficient demand for 2,500 to 5,000 beds, assuming varying segmentation."

Presently, the university is adding 1,100 beds on campus. It is also looking to partner with a private-sector developer or developers, and is hoping to house up to 1,000 students downtown. A decision on which of seven submitted proposals to select is due shortly.

Given these university moves, will there be enough demand to support The District?

Sick believes his project has a superior location to the UA proposals. He also thinks whichever development opens first—with The District developers shooting for August 2012—will have a distinct advantage.

For his part, Jim Campbell, a local developer who is waiting to hear about his UA housing proposal, suggests there is enough demand to support several student housing projects. But he does say of The District's 756 beds: "That's a lot."

Campbell also doesn't think rapidly rising tuition rates at the UA will negatively impact housing demand from students.

"The student housing guys I'm working with," Campbell observes optimistically, "aren't concerned about that."

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