There’s a reputation that new development in the Tucson region often gets met with resistance. None more so than infill projects.
Building projects that seek to fill in vacant gaps between already developed areas create opposition among nearby residents and neighborhood organizations, and the potential for conflicts likely will increase as more infill sites open up around Tucson.
“The problem is, historically you have so many vocal people out there saying ‘we don’t want growth’,” said Lucinda Smedley, publisher and CEO of the Trend Report and coordinator of the Real Estate Development Program at the University of Arizona College of Architecture.
Smedley said she understands the concerns of neighbors who want to preserve the character of neighborhoods, but said the anti-growth mentality present in many quarters of the region needs to come to terms with the inevitability of growth otherwise the patterns of regional sprawl would continue.
“There is a tremendous amount of vacant land within the city of Tucson,” Smedley said. “The discussion has shifted from no growth versus growth to how we are going to grow.”
She notes that Pima Association of Governments and others have estimated the population within the city limits could swell to more than 800,000 people by 2040 from about 520,000 now.
She and others in the development community say the impending growth can either occur in available parcels in the city or continue to push further into the peripheries if people resist developments proposed in their neighborhoods.
“Because of the cost of land, especially within the city, development is going to follow the path of least resistance,” said David Godlewski, president of Southern Arizona Home Builders Association.
Godlewski said the potential for delays and additional costs that a battle with neighbors could create makes many builders reticent about pursuing infill projects.
“We have members who want to build on those kinds of properties but chose to go to more rural environments because it’s a less expensive process,” he said.
An infill project that became a heated issue this year was over a 14-story student housing building on Tyndall Avenue near Speedway west of the UA campus. Neighbors in the West University Neighborhood Association opposed the height of the building and the traffic the new residents would create.
“We understand the need for new development,” said West University Neighborhood Association president Chris Gans.
But Gans said not enough was done to mitigate the potential traffic issues from the new development, and other student housing projects near Fourth Avenue and Sixth Street that the neighbors opposed.
Residents proposed an alternative plan for the high-rise the developer chose not to adopt.
He and the West University residents also questioned the speed with which the student housing developments were allowed to navigate through the city’s approval process.
“You need an open, inclusive process, otherwise you’re not going to get neighborhood buy-in,” Gans said.
Protecting the character of neighborhoods often comes up as the main concern of residents.
A 2005 study written by the University of Arizona’s Drachman Institute noted that neighbors most wanted to see the “integrity of existing neighborhood patters of development” maintained.
Tucson City Councilman Steve Kozachik said the growing student population at the UA, which is expected to surpass 50,000 in the next decade, would make such struggles more common.
“There’s an inherent tension between how you accommodate the undeniable need for student housing and growth,” Kozachik said. “The dynamics surrounding the university and the downtown core are unique.”
In part, that’s because the city has been promoting greater density and mixed-use developments near the university and downtown as Sun Link, the modern streetcar project, continues to wind its way through the area.
But it’s not just the university and downtown where infill projects have caused controversy.
A 108-home infill proposal for the closed Wrightstown Elementary School, 8950 E. Wrightstown Road, drew criticism from nearby residents and was dropped.
City Councilman Paul Cunningham said the plan for the 9.2-acre site presented issues because the proposed density exceeded what was permissible under a neighborhood plan and would have required a rezoning. The development would have added traffic in the largely rural area.
“It wasn’t going to be an easy rezoning,” Cunningham said.
Disputes like the one over Wrightstown School likely will become more frequent as Tucson Unified School District considers closing as many as 30 additional schools in an effort to close its $17-million budget gap. The closures would leave hundreds of acres up for grabs in neighborhoods across the city.
Cunningham said that during the first round of school closures the city might have made an effort to work with TUSD to establish concepts for the school sites so that neighbors wouldn’t be surprised when developers begin to propose new projects.
The city and TUSD could create a task force to set guidelines for what sort of developments are best suited for the school sites, Cunningham said.
That way, developers would know what sorts of developments neighbors have already come to terms with and potentially mitigate any conflicts.
TUSD did hold meetings with neighbors following the school closures but without close coordination with the city.
Mayor Jonathan Rothschild said neighborhood involvement has consistently been a complaint the city hears.
“Certainly, the complaint we hear is that they’re (neighbors) not involved early enough,” Rothschild said.
Of course, the city does require new development proposals to make numerous plan submittals for administrative approval, in addition to notification of neighbors and approvals from the Community Design Review Committee.
A lengthier and more involved process of meetings and notification of residents in a wider radius are required for rezoning projects. Those also provide additional opportunities for nearby residents to protest and potentially delay or derail a project.
Rezonings also require city council approval.
“There’s a reason why the majority of national homebuilders will not build in the city of Tucson,” Smedley said, adding that navigating the city’s bureaucracy and regulations can be unpredictable.
Despite the challenges, Smedley and others said there are many opportunities to grow in ways that respect neighbors while minimizing sprawl.
“The general idea is that we need to build within the city,” Rothschild said. “But we have to do it in intelligent ways.”
Contact reporter Patrick McNamara at email@example.com or (520) 295-4259.