We want density and infill development in the Tucson area — all the plans, visions and town halls say so.
Denser development is supposed to give us more walkable neighborhoods, better access to businesses, less driving due to more public transit and, most of all, decreased suburban sprawl.
But when it comes down to actual projects, ones that would be tall or packed-in, we tend to fight them. Homeowner associations and neighborhood groups are especially guilty of this.
“They may talk at a more abstract level about how we need more urban infill, but when it gets down to it, they may not want the kind of urban infill developers are proposing,” Tucson architect Bob Lanning told me.
The examples have been numerous over recent years: Sam Hughes Place at North Campbell Avenue and East Sixth Street, the two new apartment towers going up in the Main Gate area. In each case, neighborhood groups made strong objections, winning concessions in some cases.
Now the battle zone is in the Tanque Verde-Sabino Canyon area. About 80 people turned out Wednesday for an afternoon meeting about Aerie Development’s proposal to build up to 249 rental “casitas” on 21 acres of empty land along both sides of Sabino Canyon Road, between Cloud and River roads.
The crowd overflowed the meeting room of the Dusenberry-River Library and consisted mostly of people from neighboring areas passionately opposed to the proposal, which requires a change to the county’s comprehensive plan as well as a rezoning before it can move forward.
Kristin Anderson was standing near me outside the door and was angry about the prospect of this being built near the house she bought just last June.
“I bought with the idea that this was nice and rural. They’re going to put in all these rentals, and my house will overlook all of them,” she said.
Among the many concerns neighbors brought up, perhaps the top one was traffic, but there was a simmering feeling in the crowd that the project doesn’t do the public any good while it causes them harm.
“Our elected officials are acting in the interests of a small group of wealthy people,” resident Edward Young said, referring to the developers. People who have lived in the neighborhood all their lives shouldn’t bear the burden of proving that the project would harm them, he added.
Two of the partners in the project, Bob Gugino and Roger Karber, presented their plans at the meeting and absorbed the audience’s repeated critiques.
Afterward, Gugino said of the project: “This is what growing smarter is all about. Use our existing infrastructure to build density.”
Karber noted the company has already built four similar projects in the Tucson area: “We’re renting them as fast as we can build them.”
So we’ve got a project that fits a broader definition of dense, infill development that apparently has a market and that the neighbors vociferously oppose. How do we resolve these conflicts?
First, neighbors need to recognize the property isn’t theirs.
“People see open land and they forget that it’s not owned by the county or the governmental entity. It’s not a park; it’s private property,” County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said.
County Supervisor Ally Miller, who represents the area, said, “We need to respect the property rights of the people who live there, but we also need to respect the property rights of the people who own that property.”
Recognizing that, they need to answer this question, said the Sonoran Institute’s Dave Richins: “If not this, then what?”
Neighbor Carmen Wiswell is unhappy with the project but was getting toward that question when we talked Wednesday afternoon.
“I don’t have a problem with development,” she said. “I have a problem with development that isn’t thoughtfully done.”
So here’s the rub: If neighbors are going to be talked into accepting dense infill development, they need to see the benefits of density.
More convenient retail is one. But this project is probably too small to include it.
Mitigation of the added traffic would be relatively simple, Huckelberry said. And compromises could be struck on the number of units per acre, Miller said.
Franklin Sax, one of the few neighbors speaking up in support of the project, said people need to recognize that the density of the project brings only an additional 100 or so homes than what a more typical three-units-per-acre would bring.
“Why are we picking on a tiny development which seeks to add 105 units, when we could mitigate effects of all this density by extending bus service from Cloud to Sunrise?” he said in an email.
These are the avenues neighbors need to explore when they’re getting upset about a nearby infill project: What changes can they negotiate to make the project work better for them?