This new high-rise housing complex at Fifth Avenue and Sixth Street, west of the University of Arizona, helped spark recent controversy about building heights in the West University Neighborhood.

Shameful.

That's how West University residents described the City Council's contentious 4-3 decision to boost building heights by 40 feet in a section of the Main Gate Overlay District despite promising residents in May that heights would be capped at 90 feet.

Well before Tuesday's vote, speakers at a public hearing, and even some council members, spoke of a "compromise" to allow the added building height - a compromise in which the adjacent neighborhood had no input or participation.

"Obviously there were things going on behind the scenes," said West University Neighborhood Association President Chris Gans. "There were a lot of meetings we weren't privy to. We were told it was an open process, but it wasn't."

For months residents have been negotiating with the city and developer over zoning issues in the overlay district.

Residents say tall buildings and new developments could signal the end to their historic neighborhood. The city wants high-density housing along the streetcar route, and developers want to provide it.

In May, residents thought they had won a concession when the council voted to cap the tallest building in the Tyndall Avenue section of the overlay district at 90 feet.

While residents still disliked the rezoning, Gans said at least they had a decent height restriction in place.

But during Tuesday's public hearing on a developer's request to modify the Main Gate zoning restrictions, speakers began mentioning a 130-foot "compromise" for a parcel on the northwest corner of North Tyndall Avenue and East First Street.

Allegations fly

That's when Councilman Steve Kozachik said he became suspicious that a back-door deal took place well before Tuesday's meeting.

"I have been present throughout this entire process and have never heard of this 130-foot number before," Kozachik said. He said it became "obvious" that even as negations with neighbors were going on, "people involved in this deal were working the phones to cut a deal and screw the residents."

After the hearing, Councilwoman Shirley Scott moved to increase the height from 90 to 130 feet. It passed 4-3.

"Shirley, (Councilman) Paul (Cunningham) and the mayor clearly cut a deal," Kozachik said. "The mayor cut this deal with the two council members furthest away from the process. Shirley and Paul knew nothing about these issues."

Scott said Kozachik was "inaccurately portraying" the situation, and there was nothing inappropriate about raising the heights.

"This was justifiable and right," she said.

Scott said developer Bill Viner sent an email before Tuesday's meeting to four council members and the mayor explaining why he needed the added height.

"To me that's not a back-room deal because he reached out to the others," she said

However, he excluded both council members who represent the UA area, which Scott says probably happened because Kozachik and Councilwoman Karin Uhlich refused to communicate with him any further.

The Star obtained an email dated Aug. 5 from Viner to Scott. In it, Viner, who wants to build a high-rise apartment community at the site, explains that the parcel is too small and requires added height in order for the project to be feasible.

Viner said when the council reduced the height from the 159 feet originally approved earlier this year to 90 feet in May, it prevented the project from moving forward.

"We need your support and can make the project work at a compromise height of 130 feet," Viner wrote.

The person who answered Viner's office extension hung up on a Star reporter seeking his comments.

Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, who cast the deciding vote, said it was the most difficult decision he has had to make since assuming office seven months ago.

He said even though the council voted on May 8 to cap the height at 90 feet, the developer retained the right to ask for a rezoning at any time.

Rothschild said Viner did just that at the public hearing, and requested a height of 130 feet, which would allow for a 10-story building in a neighborhood replete with similar-sized buildings.

He said it seemed like a sensible compromise.

"Given the nature of the planned development, where a 14-story and a 13-story building had already been approved next door, this 10-story request was reasonable," Rothschild said in an email. "The dispute boiled down to the difference between eight and 10 stories."

Cunningham said if the city is serious about creating high-density areas along the streetcar line and around downtown, it can't allow projects to be stalled by disputes over nominal height differences.

"If we are going to be in support of businesses and encourage growth, we can't be bullied by neighborhood organizations," Cunningham said.

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It's about more than 40 feet

Kozachik said this isn't just about building height - it's about credibility.

"This is exactly why people don't trust us. We just blindsided the neighbors. Why would anybody want to deal with us when negotiations are just window dressing?" Kozachik said. "It sends the message that while we'll hold all sorts of discussions with you, in the end we will make whatever decision we want."

Uhlich said the decision Tuesday night could have lasting effects on future negotiations between the city and neighborhoods.

During the meeting, she said going behind the backs of residents would affect people's impressions of how the city handles negotiations, the same way Rio Nuevo affected people's impressions of how the city handled money.

"The trust level is very low right now," Uhlich said after the meeting.

She said she has trouble referring to the decision as a compromise because residents were kept in the dark.

"I don't think what happened could be called a compromise. It's a bad process," she said.

If the city expects residents to participate in future rezonings and other conflicts, she said it will need to start rebuilding the public's trust.

"This kind of poor process cannot be repeated," she said. "You can always get an outcome, but we need to think of the consequences also."

Councilwoman Regina Romero, who joined Kozachik and Uhlich in voting against the motion, said the process was "muddled" and needed to be reworked so the city can move forward with "densification."

"This is exactly why people don't trust us. We just blindsided the neighbors. Why would anybody want to deal with us when negotiations are just window dressing?"

Steve Kozachik

Tucson city councilman

Contact reporter Darren DaRonco at 573-4243 or ddaronco@azstarnet.com