Tucson City Council members approved a controversial new housing development Tuesday, a move that is expected to create about 137 new homes on 60 acres of property near South La Cholla Boulevard and West 36th Street.
The area is a largely untouched piece of Sonoran Desert that is situated between sparse neighborhoods to the north and west, undeveloped land to the south and a dense suburb to the east. Locals have protested the new development for years, saying it would wreak havoc on nearby wildlife and change the neighborhood’s character by taking up the open space that has defined it for decades.
But city officials said their hands were tied: The land is privately owned by a limited liability company called Buena Vista Properties 2000, which may have still been able to build over 100 homes on the property without receiving any special permission.
Council members instead voted 5-2 to adopt a compromise plan that is expected to leave 70% of the area undisturbed.
The agreement also required the property owner to build some affordable housing units, capped the total number of homes that are allowed to be built and limited the construction of two story structures in an effort to preserve more open space.
“What we have in front of us is the most responsible action we can take,” Mayor Regina Romero said. “I would love an open space park here, but the reality is that this particular piece of land is owned by someone. That someone is not Pima County, that someone is not the city of Tucson, and that someone is not me. If I were the owner I would love to be able to protect this piece of land, but that is not the reality that we’re living in.”
Ahead of this week’s vote, existing zoning rules still would have allowed the property owner to build two homes on each 36,000-square-foot lot.
That shakes out to between 110 and 144 housing units spread out over a massive area, which forced Tucson to the negotiating table. City staff said it would have “destroyed everything” in the surrounding landscape.
“They could have come in at any time and done a large subdivision without going through any process,” said Scott Clark, Tucson’s Planning and Development Services director.
Officials made a zoning exception for the company that allowed it to build homes closer to one another, called “cluster development,” in order to keep the area as open as possible.
City staff also said it reduced the environmental impact of the project, though it’s still expected to uproot hundreds of saguaro cactuses that will need to be replaced three times over, according to a separate law.
“We’re going to destroy hundreds of saguaros. That gives me a real problem,” said Councilman Steve Kozachik, who voted against the plan. “The replacement ratio is three per one. If we destroy 200, that means they’re going to have to transplant 600 of these things somewhere. I haven’t heard or read anything about that being addressed.”
Kozachik raised another concern about the cluster development strategy. It pushed all of the new housing units to a smaller area next to Oyama Elementary School and north of the Enchanted Hills Wash, which runs through the middle of the property.
Developers abandoned plans for construction on the south side of the wash as one of their concessions. It’s one of the reasons that 70% of the total area will remain undisturbed under the new plan, but the Ward 6 councilman said it wasn’t actually a compromise.
“That southern portion is largely unbuildable anyway because of the topography and the floodplain,” Kozachik said. “Moving to the north is not a concession, it’s where this was headed all along because they couldn’t have built on the south.”
If Kozachik is correct, it would mean that the future development could have been much smaller if the zoning tweak had not been approved.
Councilman Kevin Dahl also voted against the new plan because he said the city was breaking a promise it made to preserve the area when it was annexed more than four decades ago.
“The most compelling issue for me is that the city made an annexation promise to the surrounding residents when the parcel was brought into the city,” Dahl said. “I feel going back on the city’s promises is a disservice to the current residents and will impede future attempts at annexation.”
Vice Mayor Lane Santa Cruz, who spearheaded the negotiations and public outreach efforts for the development, pointed to the increase in housing options as a win for the city.
The agreement requires the property owner to construct 14 affordable housing units as part of the development. The other 123 homes being built on the site will also boost Tucson’s short-supplied housing stock, one of the most significant issues the city is currently facing.
“These types of decisions often feel like a choice between competing needs. How do you balance environmental protections and the need for housing?” Santa Cruz said. “The type of infill development proposed on this site meets the need and encourages the continuation of mixed income communities by setting aside 10% of the lots to be developed as affordable housing and protecting the natural open desert south of the wash.”
AUTHOR: Sam Kmack