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Archive for February 28th, 2011

University neighborhoods want edge protection, but urban edges still need the right development, so what gives.  Many recent attempts at UA housing infill along key edges have stalled or pulled out all together for one reason or another.  “The District at UA” is the latest serious attempt at housing infill along a key urban edge.  Its location is the site of the now demolished old YMCA site in the southeast  arterial corner of West University Neighborhood (WUNA).  You can pull up drawings and elevations @ the City of Tucson’s PRO site.   The “District” is a nice looking project, reflective of the Infill district and UA housing needs, but falls in vacuum of necessary guidance to make it work for everyone.  The issue for WUNA is a transition to low density and respect for its interior.  The district plans do not do the job well enough.  The project narrowly skirts WUNA’s  local historic preservation zone (HPZ) and abuts 5 historic homes also outside of the HPZ with five story construction.  Property owners afraid of the project are selling out to avoid it and as a result, the homes will likely be leveled and the issue will just move in closer to the interior of WUNA or  shifting 5 homes to the North @ WUNA’s boundary.   This really points out the need for an edge development strategy.

The District is not a bad project.  It just falls into a planning vacuum.  the closest document we have to give any guidance is the City’s UA Area Plan – pdf download.  It is 22 years old and doesn’t say much about edges, infill, transitions or incentives.  A badly needed update could morph it into an  underlying document to incentive overlays much like the infill district itself, which is also linked in with its own sub overlay proposals for urban development; downtown.  The Infill Incentive district (IID) also impacts The District at UA project, but lacks discussion of an edge strategy.

What frustrates neighborhoods is the inability to regulate out of  the incessant encroachment of bad infill.  Unlike WUNA, most have no HPZ protection making the issue much more threatening to their survival.    2006 property protection laws canceled out any new regulation or new HPZ’s  as a means to expanding protection to neighborhoods that need help.  What could happen is for the City, the UA and the UA neighborhood community to come to grips with the right edge development vision and preservation strategy; basically, a common consensus for the area.  It’s  clear that the UA states in its own master plans that supporting the viability and attraction of its adjacent neighborhoods is key to its own success, so why not?   It’s all part of the big picture.  There just isn’t any action or incentive to help that vision along and the City of Tucson is painfully silent on these issues.  Neighborhoods are desperate to do something.  Consider for instance that UA neighborhood, Jefferson Park (JPNA), over run by mini dorms, is now investing its own resources to force the City of Tucson to simply define what an R-1 use is.  R-1 zoning abuse alone,  is tearing apart a lot of single family residential context around the university.   Like the FNA’s precedent design manual, the  JPNA NPZ design manual may not insure  the kind of protection they want, so they becoming more politically proactive.

Nonetheless, plans like the downtownLINKS, the streetcar plan,  the evolving downtown core district and others do exist and good things will happen as a result.  Its just time to extend our expertise to the issue of edges and transitions impacting many UA residential neighborhood assets that surround the University.   If no comprehensive edge vision occurs at all, these plans can take some of the pressure off neighborhoods by attracting density and infill housing around the 4 mile streetcar route and the downtownLINKS corridor.   Imagine how much greater an impact a community consensus could add.  That it positive attraction.   The University should know this, otherwise they wouldn’t talk about how important surrounding neighborhoods and  developers are to  their master plan.  The UA is also a key factor in this happening, so they need to speak out.  Downtown development has languished since its mid 20th century hey day.  The UA’s expansion plans downtown and support for infill housing development could possibly turn the tide.  Consider just the start of their plans;  a down down arena and  a downtown campus one block from the streetcar line.

As the visionary architect, Jaime Lerner, of Brazil’s City of  Curitiba puts it;  “It’s possible”  It’s possible for Tucson.  It’s possible for neighborhoods.  It’s possible for the U of A.  It’s just possible.

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