A Tucson nonprofit is not giving up on its plan to turn part of a midtown property with a closed Fry’s store into a desert garden.
The Tucson Botanical Gardens had asked Cincinnati-based Kroger, which owns Fry’s, to donate the closed grocery store at East Grant Road and North Alvernon Way to it, allowing the landlocked gardens to substantially increase its footprint for the first time in decades.
However, the grocery chain balked Tuesday, citing legal contacts with an adjacent landowner in the same shopping plaza.
Michelle Conklin, the executive director of the gardens, said she isn’t giving up on a chance to extend the size of the public gardens all the way to Grant. The gardens property, 2150 N. Alvernon Way, is just south of the Fry’s shopping center.
After speaking to Kroger representatives, Conklin said the gardens will abandon its request for the land donation and focus on plans to partner with investors to buy the property and reshape the retail plaza.
Conklin said a Kroger executive told her the retailer has already received several offers for the property, with one offer of $3 million for the grocery store building and the adjacent land.
With a history of buying much smaller parcels surrounding the gardens — mostly homes — Conklin said raising the money to offer a bid isn’t the problem.
It is time.
She said the Kroger executive wouldn’t give her an answer on whether the company would give the gardens time to make an offer.
The company researched the possibility of donating the land after meeting with Conklin and other officials a few weeks ago, said Pam Giannonatti, a spokeswoman for Kroger.
“The common rules of the shopping center parking lot prohibit us from making changes that adversely impact the other retailers, so unfortunately we are unable to further consider a land donation,” she said in a written statement to the Star.
As Kroger does not own the entire shopping plaza, on the southeast corner of the intersection, it is unclear what would happen if the gardens and a private investor unveiled plans that include some retail while at the same time expanding the public gardens.
Kroger owns the former grocery store building and where the gas pumps were located, as well as most of the parking lot. The storefronts to the east and to the west of Fry’s as well as some parking spaces on the western edge of the property are owned by an out-of-state owner. The owner of those properties did not respond to a request seeking comment.
Plans for the once-proposed “Fry’s Children & Family Garden” would include tearing down the 55,000-square-foot grocery store and giving the gardens a chance to largely undo a decision it made 40 years ago, said Conklin.
The location, once the longtime home of Rutger and Bernice Porter and their Desert Gardens Nursery, had an option to extend the public gardens to Grant Road.
The volunteers managing the site in the 1980s, Conklin said, passed on the proposal, as they simply didn’t have the resources for a larger space.
“It would really solve some parking issues. We could expand our garden space,” she said at the prospect of adding several new acres of land. “We’d really like to build a 1- to 2-acre family garden, but we can’t do it under the current land constraints.”
With more land, the nonprofit could also expand its wildly popular Butterfly House. The exhibit offers visitors a chance to interact with rare butterflies surrounded by tropical plants and orchids.
City Councilman Steve Kozachik is dismissive of Kroger’s comments, saying the company is hiding behind the property agreement rather than working with the community.
“The parking issue is a dodge. If their corporate people were serious about becoming community partners, they’d sit down with the gardens, look at site design and make suggestions as to how it might be altered in order to address their concerns,” he said.
He was also confident that if given the time needed to put an offer together, it would be competitive.
“The gardens board isn’t afraid of the proposed sales price,” he said. “All they want is a seat at the table. This is corporate, out-of-state vs. local, nonprofit. In that game, the local community loses.”
Kozachik has been critical of Fry’s and Kroger after a series of store closures in Tucson and a controversial rezoning issue ahead of the building of a new store at East 22nd Street and South Houghton Road.
On Tuesday, Kozachik noted that the rezoning case could be headed to court, as residents opposed to the project have filed a complaint against the city for possible public-meeting violations.
Contact reporter Joe Ferguson at email@example.com or 573-4197. On Twitter: @JoeFerguson