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Josh Brodesky: Opposition by 12,000 underlies the overlay

Josh Brodesky: Opposition by 12,000 underlies the overlay

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Will the overlay be overturned?

You have to wonder, now that the people have sent an overwhelming message about the city's plans to allow massive towers west of the UA campus.

The committee to "Repeal the MainGate Overlay" needed fewer than 8,500 signatures to put the city's "transition zone" for towering student-housing projects on the ballot. The collection of campus neighborhood activists had 30 days to gather the signatures. That's an order almost as tall as the planned student housing. But they scrounged up nearly 12,000, submitting the sigs Friday afternoon after a rally outside City Hall.

About 35 residents of various campus neighborhoods turned out, sporting signs and buttons that read "No Way Overlay." While they expect a court fight over the signatures, organizers viewed their numbers as a sign of strength. In those eight boxes of signatures stacked outside City Hall, they were 12,000 strong. It was past time for the mayor and council to consider their voices.

"I think we declare victory," Val Little, a longtime West University resident, told me earlier that day. "The people of this community have spoken."

But will Hizzoner and council listen?

They sure didn't back in February when the zoning was approved on a 6-1 vote (Karin Uhlich voted no), and neighbors felt they couldn't get a word in edgewise.

The overlay vastly transforms the area between East Speedway and East Sixth Street, and North Euclid and North Park avenues. In particular, a 14-story tower is proposed in the area by Chicago-based Campus Acquisitions. There are also plans from developers proposing other towers.

City officials have hyped the overlay as a "transition zone," creating higher-density housing close to campus. It was thought to be a way to help address the minidorm issue. But it's left residents of campus neighborhoods, particularly West University, wondering what comes next. First, towers get built east of Euclid. Next, they say, towers will get built west of Euclid.

"It sets a pretty dangerous precedent," Chris Gans, president of the West University Neighborhood Association, told me.

While the city has maintained there is no way these megadevelopments would jump west of Euclid, Gans said, "There is no language in (the overlay zone) that says that won't happen."

In the past, City Councilman Steve Kozachik has characterized the student-housing issue in black-and-white terms: If people don't want minidorms, then they have to allow these high-density projects on major roads or close to campus.

"You can't have it both ways," he said in early March. "We can't keep minidorms out of neighborhoods if you don't allow density on the arterials."

But Little, Gans and many others take a more nuanced view. Gans told me neighbors submitted their own version of a transition zone that preserved historic homes, converting them into cafes and offices. It also gradually ramped up the heights of buildings to the equivalent of the nine-floor Marriott University Park.

"I think probably less than half of council actually looked at the plan," Gans said.

Meanwhile, Little has found herself wondering why a city itching to spark downtown redevelopment and encourage streetcar riders would allow massive student housing projects right next to campus.

"You don't put the dorm where the students want to be. You put it downtown where you want the vitality, and they can ride the trolley," she said.

It's ironic, isn't it? The streetcar is supposed to reflect history and revitalize historic neighborhoods, but it's spurring generic student housing and threatening historic neighborhoods.

So what happens next?

Typically, this type of petition is challenged in court by developers wanting to preserve their projects.

In this case, though, residents may also have to fend off an almost unheard-of slap by the city. Per city advice, campus neighborhood residents modified the language of their petition in mid-March, but they were left to believe the earlier signatures were still valid. City officials have since threatened to disqualify everyone who signed the earlier draft of the petition. That could be thousands of signatures.

If the referendum drive does survive, the mayor and council can either reverse the decision to allow these towers to get built or let voters decide the matter in November.

As the old saying goes, luck is the residue of good planning.

But when it comes to the streetcar, and the student-housing bubble it has spurred, we are reminded that discord and alienation are the residue of bad planning.

Contact columnist Josh Brodesky at 573-4242 or jbrodesky@azstarnet.com


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