More About Fry’s – Houghton and 22nd

This rather lengthy piece  was taken from Steve Kozachik’s latest newsletter. You may recall my earlier piece on the subject based on my attendance at a public hearing. Steve’s interest is the same as mine, the casual way that city government treats its legal and ethical obligations to our communities. The motivation is economic with our local politicians prioritising economic growth and tax revenue over the environment and community wellbeing. With all of the economic activity near the city center, we should expect similar problems sooner or later. There is a lot of detail here but Steve laid out the issues better than I did. 

This policy statement is taken directly from the City’s Unified Development Code. It is the basis for everything that follows:

Last week we voted on a rezoning option that’s called a Planned Area Development (PAD) for a new Fry’s with some associated other retail uses. The vote was the culmination of about three years of work that involved lots of community interaction. Even on the night of the vote though, there was a clearly divided sense as to how the PAD should be developed. The proposal passed 6-1.

The Metro Chamber felt compelled to send out this rather predictable graphic.

It was both predictable and uninformed. The Fry’s going in at 22nd and Houghton will replace one that already exists down the street about a mile away. Fry’s will not agree to a non-compete clause in the sale of the old building, so what the M&C agreed to do is to shift some jobs to a new location. There’ll be a slight addition, but this ain’t an “east-side Caterpillar” that we approved.

The real contention in the vote had to do with whether or not the developer was fulfilling the terms of the Houghton East Neighborhood Plan (HENP). That’s a requirment for any rezoning. Area plans are the city’s commitment to private property owners that we’ll honor the investments they’ve made and give them a sense of security in how the area around them is developed. M&C has been firm in resisting the new UA Honors Dorm because the way it’s being developed took the public voice out of the rezoning process and the requirement that it be consistent with the surrounding area plan. In order for the Fry’s PAD to be appropriate, it needed to meet the conditions laid down in the HENP.

As recently as last Friday, a city zoning examiner (ZE) decision validated the need for compliance with area plans, even those out on the east side. This sentence is from that ZE recommendation:

So, they have value. Our job is to make sure what’s being proposed for rezoning fits with the terms of the affected plan.

Here’s one example of where I feel Fry’s failed to do that. In the HENP they define Consolidated Open Space like this:

But in the PAD, the developers inserted this language to define Open Space:

One could argue – and many of us in the room, if not at the dais did –  that retaining and screening walls, as well as revegetation and riparian mitigation are not consistent with the HENP where it states “undisturbed area free of structures or other improvements.”

There’s more.

The HENP prohibits “channelization, detention/retention basins, and other improvements in designated spine channels.” These graphics which I took from the PAD document show washes, spine channels and Xeroriparian areas located throughout the development site:

It doesn’t matter whether somebody cares about grading out those elements. The issue is whether or not the HENP allows for it. If not, there’s a process we have to amend those conditions. A rezoning is not that process.

One of the prohibited uses in the PAD document is what’s called a Large Retail Establishment (LRE). That’s a retail store of over 100,000 square feet. In our Land Use Code that term is defined to include “the aggregate square footage of all adjacent stores that share checkstands, management, a controlling ownership interest, and storage areas.” Early in the zoning process the developers reduced the size of the Fry’s from 124,000 square feet down to 99,918 square feet. This paragraph from the zoning examiner’s report validates that approximate 20 percent reduction in size:

Objections were raised – with which I agreed – that the proposal exceeded the 100,000 square foot limit when the gas pumps were added into the equation. That was based on this graphic which had been presented multiple times, directly from the developer’s own PAD presentation:

I believe that upon hearing the objections that were raised, the developers reduced the size of the main building in order to fit the gas pumps in under the 100,000 square foot limit. The issue I raised during the public hearing is that the change came as a surprise to everyone in the room who had attended the public hearing conducted by the zoning examiner. To that point, the opponents of the PAD had this frame prepared in their PowerPoint:

As with the washes and riparian areas, the question we had before us wasn’t whether or not we like big box stores. It was whether or not the PAD contained one, as defined in the UDC. A larger issue for me was the fact that I don’t believe the change to the PAD had been made in sufficient daylight to allow for input from the opponents.  This frame appeared in the Fry’s power point on the night we took our vote:

If all they had done, as was alleged, was to change the size shown on the main store to include the 300 square feet of the gas station, the store would be shown as 99,618, not 96,000 square feet. I was disappointed that the city attorney allowed the change in after the zoning examiner public hearing. But we voted on the amended size. There was no specific condition placed on the vote to formally constrain them to the 96,000, but since we discussed it at length, I can only hope our development team will hold firm if further changes are proposed.

We’re also allowing them to place retail and gas pumps in a floodplain. Overlay the image shown above with this one from the PAD document that shows where the area is overrun with flooding issues:

When I raised the issue during the public hearing staff assured me the map didn’t mean what it says it does (“100 year floodplain”). Silly me for believing the material we were supposed to be voting on.

Add to that this language from the HENP related to site development and drainage:

It’s difficult for anybody to argue that carving out a 1,200’ strip of landscape buffer around a 16 acre site, adding over 120,000 square feet of stores, excavating to accommodate 12 gas pump storage tanks and the footings and foundations for the retail stores, and surrounding all of that with asphalt for parking is “integrating the site design with the natural terrain.”

In March, 2015 the city produced a planning document called our Low Impact Development and Green Infrastructure Guidance Manual (LID/GI). The LID/GI manual says, “the placement of development within regulatory floodplains, riparian habitat, and areas with concentrated flow causes a greater overall impact than development that is located in already disturbed areas. Thoughtful site layout would avoid disturbing these areas.”

We’re ignoring all of that with the Fry’s development.

Last week I wrote about some infill projects. It’s stunning to me that the zoning examiner refers to the Fry’s PAD as “infill.” It’s a 16 acre commercial development out a mile from the Saguaro National Monument East buffer zone, composed of over 100,000 square feet of retail and a 12 pump gas station. That’s not infill.

One of the projects I mentioned last week is the Palm Shadows development at Speedway and Campbell. In the PAD document for that project they justify the density of the project this way: “Tucson is currently in a paradigm shift in terms of its predominant philosophy on growth and development. The prior grow-low-and-spread-out mindset is being replaced by a new paradigm that embraces a fresh and more appropriate urban form.” It strikes me as ironic that some of the same people who were standing in front of us promoting the Fry’s are the same ones who are promoting this “new urban form” at Campbell and Speedway. Community members who recognize that inconsistency may be calling on the development team to do some redesign.

Emerson said “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” While that may be true, some consistency in development philosophy and integrity is going to now be called for by people who are involved in both the Fry’s and actual midtown “infill” work. There’s a network of well-informed neighborhood groups throughout the city who can connect dots when they see an area plan in one part of town being altered through a rezoning, while they are being asked to consider amending their own for a different project across town. Our job as a governing body is to ensure consistency in how our policies are implemented.

The Chamber may feel my position was a “job killer.” I think it’s clear they simply didn’t do their homework again.

I believe this is such a clear case of a rezoning not being consistent with the terms of an area plan that I will be asking some of my colleagues to bring the item back for  reconsideration. That does not mean we’d be killing the Fry’s. What it means is that we would be discussing amending the HENP [Houghton East Neighborhood Plan], consistent with the policy statement with which I opened this section.

Thanks to those of you who voted to reelect Steve. This is an example of the clear thinking and principled votes he brings to the council. Those of you who have friends from the other wards should ask them to contact their council members to advocate for community preservation. 

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