What the Devil won't tell you
Tucson's infill incentive district doesn't just need an extension, it needs expansion
Tucson's Planning and Development Services Department is toward the end of updating its efforts to put density in the Downtown core.
God knows nothing sounds sexier than a "Downtown infill overlay zone" but the city has used this land-use designation to help resurrect that area and the surrounding neighborhoods. Expanding it could help heal much of what ails the rest of Tucson.
The overlay zone was established in 2006 and updated in 2013, but it's set to expire at the end of January.
City officials will host the final public meeting in this process on Oct. 11, and people should check it out.
Not only does Tucson need to keep the overlay zone in place, I would humbly suggest it should be expanded to include, oh, pretty much the whole of central Tucson. These zones mean more density, less sprawl, less traffic, lower costs associated with growth and they are one of the most important ways the local government can fight climate change.
Why not look for ways to make higher density development more attractive from 6th Avenue to Alvernon Road and Grant Road to 22nd Street.
Hell, push it out to Swan Road and up to River Road.
Tucson has sprawled. And it hasn't stopped growing and it likely won't stop.
Even if it does, the Tucson area right now faces a housing shortage because new construction slowed in the 2000s and all but came to a stop in the 2010s. The city needs more "units" — bureaucratese for "places for people to live." More sprawl is bad for the community, the environment and anyone who talks about social justice. Yes, it can be good for builders.
That Oct. 11 meeting will be the last one before the move to extend the term of the infill district makes its initial appearance before the city's Planning Commission in November. The plan is to put the extension in front of the City Council in December.
The meeting will start at 5:30 p.m., at the Sentinel Building, 310 N. Commerce Park Loop. People can attend virtually on Zoom.
This is one of those city initiatives where the more people pay attention early, the better the project will work later because public buy-in is pretty much required for infill projects to work.
So far, the public response has been supportive, said Daniel Bursuck, the city's manager of code development.
"People think it has worked pretty well," he said with an emphasis on "well." "They feel like it's done a good job of incentivizing infill development."
This being Tucson, some had what we will call, constructive criticism.
"Some people had concerns about some of the projects," Bursuck said. "The design review could have been better with a couple projects."
Design review is the part of the approval process that, yes, reviews the design to make sure a project meshes with the aesthetics of the pre-existing neighborhood.
I'm going to be banging on the drum for density because so many of Tucson's challenges are land-use challenges related from leapfrogging sprawl.
By any other name ...
Let's back up: What is an "infill overlay zone?"
A question a child might ask, but not a childish question.
Start with infill. That's just growth that happens within the urban footprint.
Overlay zones are a bit trickier.
Basically, the city grows and develops according to zoning maps and land-use plan designations. The distinction here is important.
The land-use plan is a guide. Every 10 years or Arizona cities will update their comprehensive plans, which will identify what parts of town should be high-density and which should be low. Where does Tucson need commercial and where is it safe to allow industrial construction? Where should more houses and apartments be allowed?
It's just a guide. If a proposed project matches a land-use designation, that's not enough to win approval.
Zoning is the law. Say I want to build a project on X piece of land. It's zoned for Y. When I buy the land, I basically just buy rights to it and one of those rights is to build according to its zoning designation. If my land is commercially zoned, I can build a store or a strip mall or anything else allowed for under the particular commercial zoning designation slapped on my land. That also includes restrictions on set backs (the distance from the lot boundary to the construction), parking requirements, building height and even types of uses.
A project that meets its zoning but is in conflict with the land-use designation can still proceed.
The city doesn't regularly update its zoning maps. There are a lot of reasons why such an idea would be politically charged but basically, it's messing with people's property rights and therefore the value of their land.
An overlay zone offers builders an option to the underlying zoning. It establishes, among other things, density bumps, waivers on parking requirements and exemptions from existing Downtown industrial and commercial zoning that would prohibit residential units.
This zone runs basically from South Tucson to East University Boulevard and 6th Avenue to 4th Avenue – is called an "infill incentive district."
The way of the future
Higher density infill projects contradict Tucson's instinct to sprawl.
Tucson's zoning code goes back decades. It's been updated with some technical adjustments but the big zoning map generally harkens back to decades long past.
Tucson's postwar mindset was born of boosterism around urban sprawl and urban flight.
It doesn't take much to hear the argument from the mid-1950s: "People want to escape the urban jungles of sky-high steel and crowded subways. They want to see the sun! They want off the sidewalk and into their station wagons! They want to live far removed from work and shopping. They want strip malls and super stores, surrounded by acres and acres of asphalt parking lots. Why, it's the way of the future!"
Gas was cheap. The pedestrian was an afterthought. Land was inexpensive and building seasons long so home prices remained low.
Over time, inspiration and priorities changed. People started asking themselves: Wait a second, what ever happened to those great old downtowns? We want to bring those back.
With that came a rediscovery of higher densities and mixed use. So a project would have residential, commercial and office units. It's like how New York has a bodega next to a pizza joint, beneath four floors of apartments and across the street from an office building.
No, Tucson needn't become become Manhattan, but maybe we should stop trying to channel our inner Los Angeles. Or Valley of the Sun.
Pursuing a high-density future in the urban core can help Tucson grow without perpetuating the problems it's now wrestling.
With sprawl came heat islands, traffic, blading of desert habitat, problems with air quality and taxpayers footing the bill for delivering urban services to development stretching ever outward. We got climate change and ozone, which are the direct result of motorists burning fossil fuels while commuting along surface streets broken up by stoplights.
That traffic requires new lane miles and requires a bunch of maintenance that comes at a cost Tucson has been reluctant to pay. The more Tucson's footprint grows out, the longer the commutes and the more infrastructure the community needs to accommodate new development.
Homes get more expensive if they call come with back yards in suburban tracts.
Infill doesn't mean the destruction of property values or gentrification.
Sam Hughes neighbors screamed bloody murder about Sam Hughes Place when it was first proposed. Well, 20 years later and home values in the high-end University of Arizona neighborhood top $1 million.
Infill can require cramming smaller developments into tighter spaces among pre-existing neighborhoods. Developer Tom Doucette was the master of this sort of work locally but his houses were pricey, in part because of the time his company took in getting prospective neighbors to accept his project.
He showed patience and the patience paid off.
It's an important process to embark on so developers don't just dump a Guggenheim Bilbao (if you think it's awesome, get your own column) in the middle of the Blenman-Elm neighborhood.
Bursuck said some neighbors can be unhappy with projects like the The Junction apartment building on East 9th Street. People complained it didn't mesh with the local character. As a former Iron Horseman, I an appreciate the nature of the gripe.
Mess with the Buffet Bar and Crockpot or Empire Food Market, and this columnist will go to the mattresses.
There are programs that give builders tax credits for building or refurbishing existing affordable housing. Problems have surfaced with these projects but they just require some strong local oversight.
Getting neighborhood buy in requires a lot of legwork, persistence and patience.
That's why Bursuck says as a code manager little of his time is spent on writing the code and most is meant on public engagement.
Build on success
Tucson has written a success story with Downtown redevelopment.
Rio Nuevo, approved by voters in 1999 as downtown redevelopment initiative, has worked. The infill incentive district was a part of that.
The city's numbers show that between 2015 and 2017, the city has added 1,825 residential units and 821,825 square feet of commercial development. These aren't superstores so more than 800,000 square feet is a goodly amount.
The infill incentive district was established in 2006, revamped in 2012 and it will sunset Jan. 31, 2023 if the council doesn't re up it.
The Main Gate Overlay Zone has helped launch projects that provided for student housing, which had been invading neighborhoods in the form of mini dorms.
Tucson's going to grow, it just must figure out how and where.
Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist, who worked in daily journalism for nearly 25 years and is the former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party. Now he’s telling you things the Devil won’t.