7 stories high: Tucson keeps growing up around UA; Supes get border update

For a look at Tucson’s housing future, check out the area to the west of the University of Arizona.

I recently drove past the area that used to be home to aging business strips, Greasy Tony’s, tattered college abodes and vacant lots, and the New Yorker I traveled with noted that the area looked a lot like New York University. It does look like an East Coast city with high-density, vertical development. Residential units on top of street-level storefronts. It’s about to get even more so.

Capstone Collegiate Communities wants to build 144 apartments on 1.45 acres at East Speedway and North Euclid Avenue. That’s a lot of homes on not a lot of area. So the project requires a waiver to build up to seven stories. The Tucson City Council will vote on the development agreement for the project on a day when the agenda is heavy on housing.

The project will include 42 units of affordable “workforce housing.” Not sure I like that label, because it makes us seem like bees in a hive only existing to serve the queen. It’s called “inclusionary zoning” and demanding it is illegal in Arizona. So the city is doing a voluntary side deal as part of a broader agreement required to conform to the city’s Main Gate District overlay zone. Overlay zones provide developers an alternative to the zoning map to provide certain kinds of projects the community needs.

The project is also dooming the fates of some existing housing including old punk rock joint 818, which I’ve been told should be a national landmark, but I frankly don’t remember it.

The project’s units earmarked as “affordable” must remain that way for 30 years. 

Even if this project only serves University of Arizona students, giving them a place to live will take them out of competition for other off-campus rental units. That will lessen the pressure on demand. That’s with all things being equal and all things are rarely equal.

The Council will also vote to approve an annual tranche of mortgage bonds. The Tucson Industrial Authority and the Pima Industrial Authority offer financial assistance to first-time home owners to help cover down payments and other closing costs, paid for out of the issuance of bonds and paid back with a second mortgage.

Applicants must meet regular standards for lending and have a minimum credit score of 640.

During a study session Tuesday, prior to the actual meeting, the Council will get a progress report on the city’s plans to address affordable housing.

The Housing Affordability Strategy for Tucson has not been one of those plans a staff puts together just in time for it to be forgotten. The city is doing stuff about it.

It’s got a list of nine policies and multiple projects under each that are underway to address the affordable housing problem in Tucson. I won’t list them all here but feel free to check them out in a staff memo to the Council members.

The most consequential element, I would argue, is still underway. The Planning and Development Services Department currently are trying to brainstorm a list of changes in zoning and development standards to encourage more affordable housing. That’s good because the city, itself, is not going to build its way into affordability for the masses.

The private sector is going to have to fix this. Sorry, progs. The city can build a few hundred units. The community needs thousands because home building slowed in the 2000s and shut down in the 2010s. So the shortage is genuine because the region is two decades behind in supply.

The market is flattening out. Median home prices remained level in December at $353,000, which is near a record high. Demand is at a post-pandemic low. Homes are staying on the market longer and the Catalina Foothills prices fell year over year.

I’m sensing maybe a correction is in the works.

This is where I point out that my very first story for the Tucson Citizen involved housing costs. It was 30 years ago and I wrote about how the median home price for the first time in Tucson’s history broke $90,000. If it tracked the rest of consumer inflation, that cost would be $189,000 today. The going rate is about twice that. 

In a normal market, home prices are tied directly to local incomes. What a borrower makes determines how much banks will lend them to buy a mortgage. Something isn’t normal if the median income can only qualify for a $200,000 house and and the median sales prices remains over $300,000.

It’s either the lenders are playing games (see 2008) or money is coming in from somewhere else. A tech bro in San Jose can sell a 700-square-foot house for $3 million and come to Tucson, plopping down $700,000 for a four-bedroom house. They celebrate with a “Eureka!” and pocket the remainder for retirement (or roll it into three other modest rentals here in Ye Olde Pueblo to dodge California’s capital gains hit).

How long does that last? Evidence seems to show it’s trailing off.

There’s also a matter of private equity fleeing securities markets for real estate to turn what would be owner-occupied houses into rental units. 

The flip side, of course, is that most people in the area are homeowners and have gotten a lot wealthier (on paper). Also, those post-bubble shirkers look pretty stupid when they walked away from homes they could afford because they “owed more than it was worth.”

Fees like fleas

City fees are also set for an increase, as the Council will vote on providing a notice to raise development approval costs by 3.5 percent this summer and by the same amount in July 2025. The fees haven’t been increased since 2010.

Same with parking fees. Oh man, are fees going up for on-street commuter parking around the University of Arizona and 4th Avenue. The highest price for a parking permit would increase from $475 to $550 in July and then bounce up an additional $50 in July 2025 and again in July 2026. The priciest permit would then cost $650 a year. 

Along 4th Avenue, the $120 permit price today would go up $30 a year at each successive July for three years until it costs $210 a year in 2026.

Fees at various Downtown parking garages would increase by a $1 for each day and night.

Again, the Council is simply announcing its intention to raise these prices but it won’t hold the vote April 9. No, that’s not Easter week. I checked to see if they were going to sneak these votes behind a holiday.

Parks fees are also getting a notice of intent to increase. Some fees are going down. Most will get pricier.

Why? It’s been a while since they were last raised and prices have increased. Plus, y’know … they can.

Tucson’s Council will also vote on a prevailing wage ordinance, which is basically a local version of the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires certain wages for federal government contracts.

If approved, contractors working on projects for the city government would have to pay prevailing wages, depending on the job. A plumber would have to make the going rate among plumbers, for instance.

It’s not an increase in the minimum wage. Any business paying the prevailing wage now can still apply for city contracts. Businesses without contracts aren’t affected. 

The state Legislature had banned local governments from passing such an ordinance but in 2016 voters approved a statewide minimum wage increase and the measure’s language included allowing it.  So conflict in the law required an interpretation by state Attorney General Mark Brnovich and he ruled the ban stood.

Along came Democrat Kris Mayes, who took office in January 2023 and has since ruled the voter-approved language trumped the legislative ban. 

So Tucson is seizing the moment.

The Council will also discuss their continued haggling with other jurisdictions in the Regional Transportation Authority to get a better deal in the RTA Next proposal.

The Pima Association of Governments is running point on the RTA overseen by a board comprised of other representatives from other local governments, the tribes and the state. So Oro Valley and the Pascua Yaqui Tribe have an equal say to the city, which includes 55 percent of the population that will generate 65 percent of the revenues for RTA Next.

So Tucson is trying to get its priorities included. I’m talking about rapid mass transit, street maintenance and projects the city was supposed to get in the existing RTA program before the money ran out.

The current list of proposals presented by a citizens committee submitted to the full board includes 55 percent of earmarked work for Tucson between 2026 and 2046.  That’s less than the 65 percent the city wants. So the city staff is recommending an effort to shoehorn in projects under headings like “safety” that don’t yet have a sub list of projects. They’re basically trying to jump the line and ask for stuff before anyone else does under categories that haven’t yet been fully fleshed out.

So we’ll see where this goes.

Heinz’s 60

Pima County Supervisor Matt Heinz will ask the Pima County Board of Supervisors to increase funding to outside agencies by $60,000. This is the money the county gives to nonprofits (typically) to do the work that needs being done.

For some reason, outside agency funding always sparks Republican rage. This is strange because they are the same people who have always talked about farming social services out to nonprofits and getting the government’s grubby mitts off the money.

But when local government does just that, outside agency funding gets derided as a “slush fund.” 

Heinz says the pandemic and its aftermath have left vulnerable populations even more exposed to the wind sheer of inequality in the free market. 

On the other hand, one letter of opposition to the funding starts with “Outside Agency Increase: Just think of the BOS didn’t use fear mongering for the fake China virus…” and then I stopped bothering to read that.

The county board will also get an update on the situation at the border. They could just read Paul Ingram’s coverage on this here nonprofit online news site. People are coming to America for the same reason they always have: their native country has gone haywire. It’s what happened to launch Italian, Swedish, Irish, Armenian and German migration. Y’know, all the people who built this country — and now their descendants want to shut the door.

One party will only provide the money to deal with the surge at the border if they get the maximum immigrant-bashing changes to federal law. This is otherwise known in Washington and elsewhere as “both sides have failed.” 

Closer to home, six development projects await supervisors in either the form of a rezoning or a  comprehensive plan amendment. 

Developers asking for a plan amendment must convince the county there’s a better use for the parcel than its designation in the general plan. It’s like, “Hey, the plan calls for this piece of land to be built out at low-density residential, when it should be high-density residential.” Rezonings are submitted tied to a specific project and the onus is on developers to prove the land is zoned incorrectly and this project would be a much better use of the land.

That’s how it usually works. Scottsdale-based Sendero SBH’s is asking for a change to the general plan which is just a policy update and not a change in the actual designation. It’s needed to build a light industrial project on 818 acres at West Valencia Road and West Ajo Way.

The request isn’t for a rezoning so there’s no actual detailed project attached to the request. However the developer argues the change is needed to meet market demand for specific labor. OK, but why there? The request doesn’t say.

By contrast, an actual rezoning for a 65-unit subdivision on the Northwest Side has been submitted and no one seems to mind. The proposal is on 8 acres of land on North Thornydale and West Cortaro Farms roads. 

The Planning and Zoning Commission recommended approval of the project by a unanimous vote and no letters of opposition have been submitted going after it.

The county Supes will also discuss a letter of reprimand from the Arizona Auditor General’s office after Pima County failed to turn in on time its comprehensive annual financial report.

OK, well, there are issues reconciling the county superintendent of schools’ budgets and while Dustin Williams says he’s on it, it’s creating delays.

The superintendent acts like a transfer agent, receiving warrants from the school districts and cutting checks to the district for the amount requested. This is how they fund their operations. School districts don’t have their own bank accounts.

This seems like more of an accounting issue than an actual loss of money because 1) Republican Beth Ford isn’t publicly throwing penalty flags all over the field and  2) the school districts aren’t screaming about missing money. Ford would be a rock star Republican if she drew blood from the Dems running the county. 

Meanwhile, the state can’t audit the county and give its stamp of good standing until this is resolved, which could maybe have downstream effects on grants.

Anyway, the county has until March 31 to comply and get its financials to the state. If it goes much beyond that, expect the auditor general to start throwing stuff around the house and screaming.

Vibing no to Sun Tran

The Pima Community College Governing Board wants to clarify something regarding its refusal to help cover free Sun Tran service.

It can’t. Tossing cash to the city is verboten under state law because community colleges can’t fund other governments’ operations.

Pima Interim Chancellor Dolores Duran-Cerda has told the board in a memo that the city staff completely misstated its position and made it seem like it doesn’t want to help, when this help is prohibited.

Makes sense, except the tenor of the memo kinda “vibes” like the college really doesn’t want to toss in cash even if they could. Duran-Cerda explained that PCC offered students free Sun Tran passes in the past but only a tiny number took advantage. That’s a useless piece of information if the point is they flat out are barred from law to do anything other than buying more passes for students.

I know Pima community relations honcho Libby Howell records Zoom meetings and she zoomed into joint meetings with the city, Pima County and Tucson Unified School District. So she probably had the goods. 

I can see the city thinking “Yeah, but there are ways around that state law.” Buying Sun Tran passes funds the city’s operation. There’s always some sort of IGA going on where the college is doing something with someone at a cost.

Pima could get tricky but it is about to go through another round of accreditation after the last one a decade ago went horribly wrong. I’m not doing anything tricky, if I’m PCC. T’s? Crossed. I’s? Dotted. Hands at 10 and two. Make sure every grocery scans before putting it in the bag.

Meanwhile, the board still needs a permanent chancellor and is just now getting around to hiring a recruiter to do a national search. So the board will vote on delegating the process to Texas-based recruiter Anthem Executive. 

Lee Lambert quit as chancellor on July 31 and Duran-Cerda has been filling in since. Anthem’s plan isn’t to move particularly quickly. They want to do on-site visits, conduct interviews at Pima to assess the needs and talk to stakeholders. So maybe 2025, when community colleges are banned for not being “Trumpy enough.” I’m referring, of course, to former NFL tight end and NBC color analyst Bob Trumpy.

What the heck is the board going to do about the Drachman properties. PCC bought the old Tucson Inn and Copper Cactus hotels and is now turning the low-rent rooms into… something.

A working group of people with skin in how the properties are folded into Pima has met a few times and is brainstorming ideas to pay for redeveloping the lots. 

The PCC board will discuss options and perhaps give guidance as to how to proceed.

Trucking and tech

Food truck courts look to have a future in Marana.

These are spots along the road where food trucks gather to leverage their numbers, provide variety and move product.

They’re an innovation of sorts and local government land-use rules are trying to catch up to consumer demand for them.

Marana town staff put time into reaching out to the broader public and potential operators about how to change town rules to allow food truck courts.

They’ll present an ordinance to the town council for approval which bans the use of on-site generators, requires six parking spots per court and requires that 25 percent of the properties used for this new caloric conveyance be covered in vegetation.

The council will also vote on a pair or rezonings to allow for 207 rental units built on 23 acres at the intersection of West Tangerine Road and North Vistoso Boulevard.

Two projects are being proposed together to be considered separately as each seek to rezone from a commercial designation to a residential one. One plan calls for an 88-unit apartment complex and another proposal would build next door and provide the market with 119 single-family detached and attached rental homes.

Both projects are part of the Rancho Vistoso master plan.

The Vail Unified School District Governing Board will take on technology. Rather, they will vote on an how to use technology without succumbing to its dangers. Well, that’s the goal.

The district has been developing a set of guidelines that hardly shatter understanding.

The plan is to embrace tech’s educational potential, protect privacy and enhance security and promote digital citizenship.

Why didn’t anyone else think of that? 

The hard part of course is making it work without overusing the convenience of technology at the expense of a common humanity. That’s what no one has figured out yet.

The district will also set its calendar for 2025-26 and provide two weeks of fall break (Sept. 22 to Oct. 2), two weeks of spring break (March 9 to 20) and two weeks around Christmas and New Year’s Day (Dec. 22 to Jan. 2).

Spring break? Two weeks? Fall break? Both seem odd to this native New Yorker.

The board will also appoint district teacher and administrator Rebekah Valverde the new principal for Cottonwood Elementary School. She currently serves as assistant to principal Linda Kubiak at the school.

The one thing

The Sahuarita Unified School District Governing Board will vote on a revised fee schedule and, manna from heaven, the district included relevant material in the agenda. A big ol attaboy/attagirl/attanonbinary individual goes out to the team for enlightening us as to what the board is doing.

The board will be presented with a plan to charge up to $320 for summer school, anywhere from $1 to $40 for National Honor’s Society and – this one hurts – $15 for Academic Decathalon. As a former bronze medalist in this competition, I feel their pain. Then again, I’m pretty sure $15 in the mid-’80s wouldn’t have been a deal breaker.

I was recently snotty about the district’s tendency to only publicly release the cover sheet of the agenda beforehand. So good on them for shutting me up (for now).

A lot of governments are meeting and not doing much this week. The staffs are just getting back from time off and typically take a bit to serve up full agendas.

For instance, the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors will vote on approval of a state grant of $149,716 for prevention of violence against women and a $85,917 contract for aerial photography services.

That’s about it.

The South Tucson City Council is set to discuss the RTA’s 40th Street realignment and the way it’s presented on the agenda is kind of funny as up for “discussion and consensus.” Consensus isn’t a word that appears much in government meetings. Reaching consensus isn’t rare. Most votes at virtually every meeting are unanimous but big deals often create disagreement. 

The South Tucson council has an old guard of vets and a new crop of activists lead by Hall of Fame rabblerouser Brian Flagg. Is consensus possible? We’ll see. The agenda seems to be saying “everyone play nice and get on the same page.”

The Sunnyside Unified School District will set its calendar for next year and they only get one week off for spring and fall break. Spring break will run from March 10 to 14 and fall break will go from Oct. 7 to Oct. 11.

The Nogales City Council will get a look at its financial situation during the Wednesday meeting and it’s not half bad.

Sales tax revenues in Nogales are running well ahead of the budget, having already raised 62 percent of what was expected for the full year, just six months into the fiscal year.

That’s good news, considering expenditures are running at 36 percent of what’s been budgeted. Throughout the pandemic, with a pretty much closed border, Nogales suffered financially and now seems to be recovering.

The Amphitheater Unified School District Governing Board will vote to appoint a new president and vice president and then do nothing but routine business like approving $4.9 million in vouchers for the Pima County Schools Superintendent to track and not lose.