A compromise plan is brewing that could lead to a Sonoran Desert park being developed at the site of an old landfill near the base of “A” Mountain.
The plan, recommended this week by a Rio Nuevo advisory committee, would be a key step in granting the wishes of neighbors and conservationists to create a 29-acre park. Supporters say it will draw tourists and ensure the presence of a wildlife corridor from “A” Mountain to the Santa Cruz River.
Preservation also is seen by advocates as paying tribute to the base of “A” Mountain as Tucson’s birthplace, a site of human habitation for at least 10,000 years and of crop cultivation for 4,000 years.
At the same time, the plan would leave the door open for future, large-scale development if the interest and money materializes. In the immediate future, the park could be accompanied by a smaller-scale development to provide revenue to the state agency that runs the Rio Nuevo urban redevelopment project. It owns the prospective parkland.
The plan would allow the Pima County Flood Control District to at least temporarily place 85,000 cubic yards of sediment that it clears from the neighboring river onto the 1950s landfill.
The county needs a place to park the dirt and it would provide a buffer between the landfill, which can give off methane gas, and the possible park. The site lies south of West Cushing Street and east of South Grande Avenue.
This temporary measure would give time for Rio Nuevo and county officials, neighbors, conservationists and other interested parties to discuss the park’s fate. Its design and exact cost remain unknown.
Flood control officials have already started removing vegetation from the river between 29th and Cushing streets. They’ll remove soil to lower the riverbed and reduce the risk of future flooding overtopping its banks. They want to finish the work soon, to avoid clearing vegetation during springtime nesting season.
“This is such an opportunity for Rio Nuevo to honor this land, to honor the people who have lived all around this land for over 4,000 years of cultivating,” Katya Peterson, co-chair of the Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace, told the Rio Nuevo committee. “It’s kind of trite to say ‘do the right thing,’ but I’m going to say it anyway.”
Official says park would need to bring in money
Fletcher McCusker, Rio Nuevo’s board chairman, as recently as six weeks ago opposed the park idea as impractical technically, legally, environmentally and financially.
He told the full Rio Nuevo board at the time, “The days of Rio Nuevo funding a park died in 2010.”
He was referring to the year the Legislature reconstituted Rio Nuevo from a cultural project to an economic development project, after city officials failed to produce any cultural projects despite spending a decade and hundreds of millions of dollars planning them.
But at Tuesday’s meeting, McCusker agreed to consider the park. He would want it to include revenue-generating business and expressed willingness to meet with neighbors and county officials to work out particulars.
The full Rio Nuevo board will take up the issue Tuesday, Jan. 29.
Cultural preservation vs. economic development
This debate culminates longstanding tensions over the fact that since the state took over Rio Nuevo, its original vision, approved by Tucson voters in 1999, of preserving and restoring Tucson’s cultural heritage has been stymied. The area was used by the Tohono O’odham and their ancestors and later by early Spanish colonists.
Cultural projects that were part of the 1999 Rio Nuevo scheme remain on hold. These include restoration of the Convento site that housed Franciscan mission priests, and reconstruction of the demolished adobe Carrillo House dating to the 1890s. But Tucson has committed to spend $1.4 million on the Carrillo House.
Advocates for the park say that house, which adjoins the landfill, would be a perfect spot for a cafe to raise revenue to meet the state’s financial mandate. They’re working on a business plan for it, to submit to Rio Nuevo.
The 2010 legislation didn’t specifically require that each Rio Nuevo-owned parcel be developed for maximum revenue potential, McCusker said in an interview. But back then, then-state Senate President Andy Biggs “made it clear to us that our mission was economic development. Every project undertaken since then has had sales-tax enhancement features,” McCusker said.
Last year’s Legislature extended for another 10 years provisions allowing Rio Nuevo access to sales-tax revenues, “with a similar mandate. They appreciate the work we are doing with economic development. They expect us to continue,” McCusker said.
“To build a park for park’s sake, I’d never get approval of it,” he added.
“Sacred land of the first people”
But Rio Nuevo officials have been bombarded with many dozens of pro-park emails from conservationists and others in the community.
“This is truly the spot when Tucson began with the early agriculturalist developing small gardens and the earliest irrigation ditches in what is now the United States,” said Carolyn Niethammer, a local food writer and author of eight books, in one email.
At this week’s meeting, Josefina Cardenas, a longtime west-side barrio activist , said the area needs balance between economic development and cultural preservation.
“This site is not only just a landfill, but the sacred land of the first people,” Cardenas said. “I pray that this land be left as open space with wildlife, and not allow man anymore. It’s been desecrated too long.”
Lisa Grant, secretary for the Menlo Park Neighborhood Association, told the committee that while the dirt placed on the landfill could be removed for development in 30 years, today “we want a safe place there where we can walk and ride our bikes.”
In this growing area, west of downtown, “there are going to be serious traffic considerations from new development,” she said. “There are no signs, no signals.”
Park models exist, but methane is one concern
County Flood Control Director Suzanne Shields said the county wants to haul away much of the sediment before Tucson Water begins its release of treated sewage effluent into the river at 29th Street, now scheduled for May or June.
She suggested modeling this park on the county’s Prickly Park along West River Road near Thornydale Road. That 9-acre park contains 200 or more plant species
and has ramadas. Shields said landfills rehabilitated as parks in the Phoenix area show that ramadas could work at the “A” Mountain site.
Putting sediment atop the landfill would raise its elevation by 3 feet, and save the county $250,000 by not having to haul it farther — money that could be put to upgrading the park, Shields said.
“It would make it a vast improvement to the area, make it a draw,” Shields said.
But while Rio Nuevo is on a “pretty good track to make some significant improvements to some literally toxic land, I still have concerns,” Rio Nuevo board member Jannie Cox said.
“I hope everyone here understands if it’s a beautiful park and if someone gets on the park and there is methane coming out of the ground and someone is damaged by that, it’s all on us.”
Park advocates, however, said Chandler has done a similar project — dumping dirt on an old landfill for a park — and made it work safely.