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Overlay Overdose

The city beats a retreat from free-for-all zoning

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The District on 5th is many things to many people. To roughly 750 UA students, the five-story megaplex is home, albeit one divvied into four-bedroom-four-bathroom apartments.

To longtime residents in the West University Neighborhood, the building's brief tenure—this is its second year—has been marked by speeding traffic, crazy parties and the aesthetic horror of a five-story slap-up plunked among their historic homes.

And for city officials, who seem a bit shocked—shocked!—that downtown neighborhoods just might object to such massive, ill-fitting incursions, The District seems an epiphany of sorts.

At the very least, it has sparked enough political heat to prod city staffers into rethinking their development-at-all-costs dogma.

These belated realizations may not help neighbors of The District. But activists say they could resuscitate protections for downtown neighborhoods—now at risk of being further steamrolled by city ambitions—and perhaps start mending the badly frayed trust between those neighborhoods and Tucson officials.

A major shift occurred on Sept. 10, when the City Council directed staffers to revisit the prolific zoning overlays created in recent years to attract downtown development. Empowered by state law, the zonings offer plums to builders that range from discounted building-permit fees to nearly nonexistent design and compatibility reviews.

Under state law, such tax incentive districts must lie within established "redevelopment areas." And the Arizona statute creating those areas also endows them with the right of eminent domain and condemnation.

The Infill Incentive District, or IID, is the granddaddy of them all. Shooting north up Stone Avenue, it includes a broad swath along Miracle Mile, encompasses most of downtown, and reaches south to Silverlake Road. It also brushes against—or even treads into—several downtown neighborhoods.

But for city leaders to ever think this free-for-all was a winning idea—or that battered neighborhoods would silently succumb—is something of a head-shaker. It certainly befuddles folks such as John Burr, president of the Armory Park Neighborhood Association. Stretching south from downtown, Armory Park is registered as a national historic district. But that doesn't mean its antique buildings are currently protected from unsuitable new neighbors, or even from demolition.

Nor are those possibilities lost on builders, says Burr. "Developers are seeing the cracks they can go after. It's now possible to put up a six-story office tower, lot line to lot line, next to an historic home without any redress."

The city's director of planning development services, Ernie Duarte, didn't return several calls seeking comment for this story. But we did finally reach department administrator Jim Mazzocco, who offers a faint mea culpa. "When the IID was drawn up—and I don't know anyone on the current staff who was involved with that—they were very careful to go around neighborhoods," he says. "But there were a few places, usually in the Fourth Avenue area, where it goes right up the neighborhood boundary."

Of course, no current staffers could have had anything to do with dismal glitches such as The District.

"Everybody was looking at the big picture and nobody was looking at it from the little pictures," Mazzocco continues. "Thus the first one came into a very sensitive area because it's across the street from an historic preservation zone. And there are a couple of areas where the IID overlaps into the historic zone."

But that overlap—and the accompanying risks—may itself soon become history. Following a slew of public meetings, the Tucson City Council this month approved sweeping adjustments to the IID. Top among them was expanding Downtown Links, an overlay zone meant to coincide with the new road tying Aviation Parkway to Interstate 10. The new and improved Links would largely supplant the IID, and include the design reviews and other safeguards the incentive district lacks.

The city hired local planning firm Poster Frost Mirto to help mastermind the change. Urban design veteran Corky Poster described the current situation at a recent neighborhood meeting, including particularly muddled zoning around the junction of Fourth Avenue and University Boulevard. Because of this regulatory chaos, designed by the city's handsomely paid staff, several vintage homes and storefronts could be up for grabs.

Another potential victim is the Iron Horse Neighborhood, straddling Ninth Street east of Fourth Avenue. Not only is Iron Horse a federal historic district, but it's also in the IID. "So theoretically," Poster told the meeting, "someone could buy all those houses, tear them down, and build another District."

But even with reforms underway, perhaps the biggest challenge is restoring trust between neighborhoods and city leaders. That's a formidable task, dating from the Main Gate debacle, which resulted in high-rise student apartments right next to the West University Neighborhood. That process—complete with backroom conniving by Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, Ward 4 Councilwoman Shirley Scott and Ward 2 Councilman Paul Cunningham—resulted in building height allowances of 130 feet, rather than the 90-foot maximum promised to neighbors.

The high-rise skullduggery outraged Councilman Steve Kozachik, who wasn't privy to secret negotiations with the developer, even though the project was in his own Ward 6.

"I am much less worried about the 130 feet than I am about what this says about us as a governing body," Kozachik said at the time.

Today, he's still repairing the damage. Kozachik suggests that a thorough revamping of the various overlays—along with robust public oversight—will be a good start. At the same time, he plans to keep close tabs on city staffers and their autocratic impulses.

"My sense is that somebody needs to hold them accountable for bringing forward proposals that have good public process built into them," Kozachik says. "That was lacking in The District."

The District and the Main Gate betrayal still sit hard with Chris Gans, president of the West University Neighborhood Association. To Gans, it's even a bit ironic that neighborhoods have been getting screwed by the city, because not so long ago the city was pleading for their help. "Back in the 1970s," he says, "the city came to neighborhoods and said, 'Look, people are leaving the downtown area in droves. We need to preserve our neighborhoods so we don't lose them, but we also need to draw people back into them.'

"So neighborhoods like West University and Armory Park did the work, and contributed thousands of volunteer hours to conduct the studies and create the documents to establish historic preservation zones.

"The mayor and council at that time passed those," says Gans, "and gave people some assurance that if they moved into neighborhoods like West University, their investments would be safe because the city wouldn't allow incompatible development that would destroy their property values."

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