Steller: Time for Tucson's ugly asphalt sea to recede

2014-01-12T00:00:00Z Steller: Time for Tucson's ugly asphalt sea to recedeTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

You angle for a window seat in a comfortable Tucson coffee shop or restaurant.

You ease in, look up to enjoy the view, and see ... rows of cars, yours among them, and acres of blazing blacktop.

It’s one of the disappointments of life in the Old Pueblo, where for decades, car culture dominated to such an extent that it was enshrined in local ordinances.

The result: a landscape along our main streets dominated by a hot and repellent sea of asphalt.

This, along with the lack of sidewalks, has always been a pet peeve of mine about life in the Old Pueblo. This city, despite its beautiful sky-island surroundings, can be awfully ugly in the middle.

The reasons for it are simple: Most of Tucson developed in the post-World War II decades when everything was designed for automobiles and land was cheap. Not only did city ordinances require an amount of parking that today seems excessive, but businesses and customers expected open parking waiting for them between the street and the door.

Traditionally in Tucson, architect Raul Reyes of Town West told me, “People want to drive up to the front of the building, park exactly in front of the front door, and then walk in.”

That’s the mentality enshrined in the Tucson ordinances that required one parking space for every 200 square feet of shopping-mall or office space. That is typically enough parking to handle all the cars that would arrive for a building’s maximum usage, such as a shopping mall on a weekend before Christmas.

“For years now, the city of Tucson’s parking regulations were seen to be very suburban in nature,” said Adam Smith, the city of Tucson’s principal planner in the planning and development services department. “They required an overabundance of parking.”

That simply reflected the dominant thinking of the time. When changes were proposed in the last decades, residents shot them down, said Jonathan Mabry, the city’s historic preservation officer.

“The neighborhoods lobbied the City Council to maximize those (parking) requirements,” Mabry said. “They feared that any excess would spill into the neighborhoods. Every time the City Council considered reducing the parking requirements, the neighborhoods would object and say, ‘We don’t want any spillover into our neighborhoods.’”

While that meant convenient parking, the downsides were both aesthetic and practical.

“By any stretch of the imagination, the strip mall architecture, these are not going to be historic buildings,” said professor of landscape architecture Ron Stoltz of the UA’s College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture. “These are buildings designed for a 20-30 year lifespan, then they’ll be torn down and replaced.”

In addition to making for ugly streets, the parking lots contribute to environmental difficulties: They collect heat and force water to run off, hastening flash floods and reducing percolation into the ground.

“All of this asphalt is contributing significantly to the heat-island effect,” Stoltz said.

If there’s one thing we don’t need in Tucson, it’s more summer heat.

Fortunately, long-overdue change has been happening. In 2008, the city increased its requirements for shade trees planted in Tucson parking lots. Now, instead of one tree for every 10 spaces, there must be one for every four spaces — and palms do not count toward this requirement.

In 2011, the city heavily revised its parking ordinances. Now, many of the shopping centers and office complexes that required one parking space for every 200 square feet only need to have one space for every 300 square feet. Pima County made similar revisions in 2008.

“I think this is a watershed time in our urban development,” Mabry said. “We are retrofitting our sprawling town to become a modern city.”

The change is most visible in the UA and downtown areas, where housing towers and other dense development are going up. Because of transit options in the area — the streetcar, buses and bicycles — little parking is mandated.

But the asphalt sea never dominated that small, historical section of Tucson the way it does in most of the city’s square miles. Change in midtown, the southwest side, the east side and other areas will come more slowly.

One by one, old strip malls and shopping centers surrounded by expansive parking lots are reaching the end of their natural lives, thank goodness. We’re not going to stop driving cars, but those places can be redesigned to reduce the asphalt expanses, pushing parking lots to the side or even in back of buildings.

Some existing shopping centers can also add structures because of the reduced requirements for parking. Some will become “transit-oriented developments” where people can live, shop and maybe even work in closely clustered communities.

But change will only occur as the economy dictates. Let’s hope it comes soon.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

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