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Josh Brodesky: City needs to stand up to mini-dorm developers

No one wants drunken UA students looking down on their undies.

But ever since developer Michael Goodman bulldozed the house next door to her for a planned mini-dorm, Joan Hall has been bracing for it.

"This is not fun," said Hall, a resident in the Jefferson Park Neighborhood north of campus. "I hang my laundry on the line, so they are going to be looking at my underwear."

Sure, it's easy to whittle down the dispute over Goodman's mini-dorms into just another one of our town's many NIMBY sagas. It's easy to tell Hall to go buy a dryer and deal with it.

After all, this drama comes with all of the caricatures and trappings of a NIMBY tale: distressed neighbors standing in front of bulldozers, holding candlelight vigils for historic homes; an indifferent developer with no regard for how his megahouses affect people who don't live in them; a city that really doesn't know where it stands, much less how to play referee in this dispute. Usual suspects.

But there's something about that image of partying UA kids staring at Hall's undergarments from their second-floor decks that makes this dispute so much more intimate. This isn't really about NIMBYs, it's about a man who chose to make a quick buck at the expense of others. Sin vergüenza.

For years now, Goodman's mini-dorms (and those of other developers) have been popping up north of campus, their party decks casting long shadows over the regular people who live there. The non-students who wanted to live near campus expected to deal with keggers and rental houses, but not with what Goodman conjured up: seven-bedroom, multistory houses that look nothing like what's around them.

Give Goodman credit, though. He read the rule book and he followed it to the letter.

His mini-dorms meet the city's building code for residential homes. It's just that he never followed the intent or spirit of the rules. That's easy enough to see in his mini-dorms' super-sized layouts with their multicar garages, second-floor decks and bright-color stucco. You can follow the rules, and still break them.

"I'm in business. A lot of the people in the neighborhood are in business," said Bob Schlanger, a Jefferson Park resident. "But we tend not to make money at other people's expense. And when you destroy other people's quality of life, you are making money at other people's expense."

And that's where the city has finally decided to push back. Not in the building code, but in the use. After years of saying there was nothing to be done because Goodman's mini-dorms follow code, the city has ruled his mini-dorms don't meet residential zoning requirements. There's nothing low-density or single-family about them.

In his March 14 ruling, Craig Gross, of the city's Planning and Development Services department, said Goodman's mini-dorms fit the bill for group housing. That they are more like frat houses than homes. Gross cited a number of reasons in his ruling: There's no head of household, the tenants are usually unrelated, the tenants sign separate leases and come and go from separate entrances, and various properties share amenities like swimming pools.

So what does this ruling mean?

That Goodman will almost certainly sue the city, of course. That no one really knows what it means. That it opens up a whole bunch of questions about rentals and households all across town. That while it pleased Councilwoman Karin Uhlich, who has been searching for some way to restrain mini-dorms, it fired up Councilman Steve Kozachik, who called it "gutless" and said someone should be fired for it.

The Koz raised all kinds of valid questions about the ruling, saying it invites the city into homes and defining households. And that it undercuts developers like Goodman who have spent big money in these mini-dorm investments over years. "We've allowed homes to be demolished. We've allowed investments to be made," The Koz said. "The city of Tucson just changed the rules of the game."

Fair enough. Goodman should be ticked off. This ruling is a mess. But Goodman had it coming - even if the city is way late in taking a stand. Goodman didn't want to talk about his mini-dorms for this column because we're so far apart in our opinions.

He's never worked with residents to address their concerns or to come up with a house that meets his investment needs and neighbors' desire for a little privacy and respect. Instead, he's built over them and boxed them in with no regard for anything or anyone other than himself. If the city can't stand up to that, then what can it ever stand for?

Contact Josh Brodesky at 573-4242.

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