Last Tuesday evening, in front of a packed room and after a public hearing that lasted nearly two hours, the City Council approved an amendment to the Houghton East Neighborhood Plan that will allow construction of a grocery store.
Changes to the East Tucson neighborhood's zoning rules haven't occurred since the 1990s.
The council removed a 20-feet-in-height restriction to build a Fry's Marketplace grocery store (124,097-square feet), a gas station (4,500-square feet) and two other smaller retail spots (12,900-square feet) on the northeast corner of 22nd Street and Houghton Road—less than 2 miles from Saguaro National Park. Zoning restrictions for nonresidential buildings were created more than 30 years ago intended to keep high-density development away to preserve the natural surroundings, including the park.
The proposed Fry's and strip mall development has emotionally split neighbors in the area. One side says a new grocery store will be a great asset to the neighborhood, and another side is concerned about the Saguaro National Park and the Houghton Road Scenic Corridor.
Members of the Save Houghton East Neighborhood group, which has gathered close to 600 signatures in an online petition against the Fry's project, says Plan Tucson goals and policies—a sustainability plan approved by voters in 2013 for everything from economic to environmental development in the city—are being ignored and violated. The group points out the section that reads: "the City's Office of Conservation, Sustainability and Development coordinates with City departments, businesses, neighborhoods, and other organizations to protect and enhance the integrity of our unique Sonoran Desert ecosystem and improve the environmental quality and livability of the urban environment."
"Why should we allow a developer from out of country to alter a 30-year-old contract?" Linda Schaub, a member of Save Houghton East, said at the meeting. Schaub lives one street from the proposed development site. "The people in office may change, but the documents must be respected if we were to have a city government that is perceived as trustworthy. You lose your credibility when you don't honor a 30-year promise, let alone ignore the violations of the goals and policies of Plan Tucson that voters gratified just two years ago."
The height limit amendment are made specifically for this project, headed by Brentwood Development, a private real estate company that does work in the U.S. and Canada. The amendment allows for an additional 6 feet in height, but all-in-all the structure could be as high as 36 feet if you count architectural fluffs, such as signage. Also at issue are the two vacant grocery store buildings and an empty gas station not too far from the development site.
Another big opponent of the project is Saguaro National Park Superintendent Darla Sidles, who's worried about the light pollution a development of this size will bring.
"The park is not opposed to economic development at all," Sidles told the council. "In fact, we are very much in favor of economic development. The park attracts more than 700,000 visitors every year. The results of that is an economic contribution to Tucson of about $58 million a year. When there has already been a thoughtful height plan in place done so in conjunction with the community ... we just ask you [to] respect that plan."
"We believe that this 20 feet is quiet reasonable," Sidles added. "The 6 feet being requested is actually not a small request. [It is] 25 percent greater than the current situation. That extra 25 percent would negatively impact the park and the Rincon Mountains."
The 22nd Street Baptist Church is caught in the middle, as the church is in negotiations to sell their property to the developers to make room for the Fry's project.
Last Tuesday, residents excited for the new grocery store outnumbered critics, at least physically. Supporters are happy about the shorter driving distance from home to the grocery store, as well as the jobs the development project could create.
The turnout at the meeting amazed City Councilman Paul Cunningham, whose Ward 2 includes the development site, because he says he's used to the neighbors vs. businesses scenario. This time around, a neighborhood seems to be split up.
That night, he reluctantly voted to allow for the height restriction changes. Councilman Steve Kozachik, Ward 6, was the sole "no" vote. Before it made the council, the plan didn't get the recommendation from the planning commission, because the commission did not unanimously support the amendment.
Cunningham says there is still a long way to go, and that his support for the project could retract.
"It will come down to what is presented in the next few months," he told the Weekly. "I think we would be doing a disservice to the community in general if the final height, including architectural features, goes over 30 feet. That would be awful. We have two [vacant] grocery stores, if we can't get one of those leased, at least on paper, then I am very skeptical that I am going to be on board with this."
About one of the empty grocery buildings, Ryan Gaston, a Fry's representative, has said that the space is only 70,000-square feet. The new model will have more amenities, including areas for "a sushi bar, enhanced meat products, enhanced organic produce products, a Pan Asian bistro, Starbucks and a wine bar. The new model requires more building space and thus more land. The land available at the 22nd/Harrison site is not sufficient to meet the requirements of the Marketplace model," he said at a public meeting in July of last year.
Linda Morales with the Gordley Group, a local company contracted by Brentwood Development to work with the neighborhood and other Tucson stakeholders, says she's unable to discuss the project with the media. But in a statement she sent to the Weekly, the company says they are excited and encouraged by the council's decision to amend the 20 feet height restriction.
"As evidenced in the public hearing, there are many people in the area who are excited about the project, which will serve nearby neighborhoods with shops, restaurants and a Fry's Marketplace. This was just the first step in the public process," the prepared statement says. "The next step is to rezone the property, where we will be working with city staff, neighbors, Saguaro National Park representatives and other interested parties to craft a plan that our community can be proud of. Our hope and expectation is that those who have concerns will be willing to have a productive conversation with the project team as we move forward."
Schaub says development plans in Tucson need to find a balance between economic growth and the protection of natural environments, especially those that are so distinctive to the Tucson desert. She and other members of the Save Houghton East will continue to pressure the city to help pull the plug on this project, or at least minimize its size.
"This is about protecting Tucson ... Saguaro National Park [is a] monument," she says. "If we let this go forward, if we don't fight this, it's going to end up looking like another Oracle Road."