Tim Steller, columnist at the Arizona Daily Star.


The one thing you’d expect would result from a proposed 20-story tower in midtown Tucson is neighborhood protests.

But plans for the tower on the northwest corner of East Speedway and North Campbell have received something remarkable — an embrace from most neighbors.

“We’ve never heard any opposition to this project in our neighborhood,” said Grace Rich, president of the North University Neighborhood Association, where the proposed project is located. “We think it would be nice to have something interesting there. We would love to see it also function as a place where people could go and have tea or see a movie and art exhibit or something like that.”

Only one neighbor seems to be aloof from the project, and it’s a big one — the University of Arizona. The UA owns three neighboring properties and last year described itself as a possible joint-venture partner in the project. But for now the university is no longer involved because it is about to launch a master-planning process, spokeswoman Andrea Smiley said.

That leaves the project, led by property owner Richard Shenkarow, isolated to 2 ½ acres where the private Palm Shadows Apartments property sit. And it’s likely to be taller than it would be if the neighboring, UA-owned Babcock Apartments were also part of the project as previously discussed.

“The shame of it is that what is a really good project right now could have been a really, really good project if we could have incorporated a bigger footprint,” said Council Member Steve Kozachik, who represents the ward.

Kozachik and the five other council members voted unanimously Tuesday night to approve a change to the University Area Plan that is necessary for the proposal to move forward to the re-zoning process. The current, outdated zoning would limit the height of a building on that corner to 30 feet, architect Philipp Neher told me as we discussed the project outside City Hall Tuesday afternoon.

Team members Neher, Shenkarow attorney Keri Silvyn, Jim Portner of Projects International Inc. and others have made a point of having regular communications with neighbors leading up to the vote Tuesday night. They’ve done five presentations to neighborhood groups and held two broadly publicized neighborhood meetings. They also formed an advisory group of neighborhood leaders and met with them.

One of the key factors in their presentation is that this is transit-oriented development — a project that lends urban density to a key transit corridor. In this case, the project is about a block from the northeastern end of the new streetcar, another factor that has won over neighbors.

The West University Neighborhood Association, known as tough battlers against some proposed developments, supported the plan amendment that the council approved Tuesday night.

“Part of the reason we’ve supported it is the process has been the most inclusive process that we’ve seen to date,” West University president Chris Gans told me. “Hopefully this becomes the prototype.”

The Blenman Elm Neighborhood Association did not take a vote on whether to support the plan amendment, because support for the plan wasn’t unanimous, president Alice Roe said. But she is a vocal supporter of the plan — in part because the planned housing that will be part of the project is not student housing but market-rate.

“New housing that might appeal to a higher income level and a good job level is really highly appropriate for our community. I can’t think of a better place to put it than right there,” she told me Tuesday.

Shenkarow, who has been building this plan for years, is himself a resident of Blenman Elm.

While the project won’t be completely fleshed out until the re-zoning process, it is intended to include a grocery store — probably a Whole Foods — on the ground floor, with a parking structure to the north, and offices and residences in the stories above.

If the tower ends up at 250 feet or so, it would easily be the tallest building in the area. That’s about the same height as the blue Pima County Legal Services building downtown.

And that’s likely to be the main sticking point in the re-zoning debate — that the tall part of the structure is just too tall.

“If that first digit were anything but a 2, this would be a no-brainer,” Kozachik said.

My suspicion is that the 20-story height will be reduced to, perhaps, 18 stories in the final analysis — a height that seems much more reasonable once 20 stories are considered.

However tall the project ends up, Neher explained that the height is, in part, a function of the small footprint allowed by the 2.5-acre Palm Shadows site and in part a result of the desire to create open space on the ground floor.

“Going up gives us freedom to design the ground floor,” he said.

It’s a shame that the university, the big brother of all the neighbors in the area, has pulled back from being involved in what is likely to be a groundbreaking Tucson development.

But at least the project has largely won over the neighbors, who in the past have been likely to put up obstacles to this kind of development.

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