Negotiations continue for Fourth Avenue makeover

By Chris Flora

Part of Tucson’s historic Fourth Avenue will soon undergo a makeover, a fact that has stirred discussions and led to the creation of a coalition of the area’s stakeholders.

The Fourth Avenue Historic District Coalition, a local group of merchants, property owners and neighborhood associations, is still in discussions with Tennessee-based developer EDR Trust regarding the Union on Sixth – a housing project that will soon call the corner of Fourth and Sixth avenues home.

The coalition’s concern is simple. They’re worried EDR – which specializes in collegiate housing – is going to create a project that doesn’t mirror the look and feel of Fourth Avenue, nor benefit those who live and work in the area.

The group has little to no legal recourse and there are also talks to substitute Maloney’s Tavern with an apartment complex soon. But it’s the current and future battles that led to the formation of the grassroots coalition, according to Shannon Riggs, a group spokeswoman. So far, Riggs says the developer has been amiable in talks.

“We were formed to negotiate,” Riggs says, pointing out that even though they’ve successfully created a community benefits agreement (CBA) with EDR, it would be futile to claim the organization as anything beyond a forum for discussion and compromise.

“It’s not very constructive to completely oppose the project, as much as we don’t like the size or nature of it,” she says. “The CBA will hopefully set a precedent for other developers down the line.”

The project is large. It would replace most of the block where the Flycatcher resides and, at its tallest, stand seven stories, though its highest point is set back some distance from Fourth. Because of its location and city council’s infill incentive district ordinance, the developer cannot designate the development as group housing without the governing body’s approval.

This has created a point of contention, because EDR has labeled the Union on Sixth project with a multifamily designation rather than group housing. Doing so means they do not have to get council approval, but only an OK from the city’s design and review board.

Councilman Steve Kozachik recognizes this loophole.

“It’s what EDR does,” he says. “I know exactly what they’re going to do. They’ve been pretty clear about it. I just disagree on that being appropriate for that area.”

Kozachik says on the day council adopted the IID ordinance, there was an in-depth conversation about whether student housing should be allowed.

“There was a discussion about whether or not we would allow group dwellings in that spot, and we specifically decided it should not be allowed,” Kozachik says. “They will say, and they are saying, that they are marketing to a different student client – graduate students and professionals. They’re being pretty upfront about that.

“But what they are building is student housing. The way they’re getting around it is by leasing by the room instead of by the bed. That’s the only distinction.”

One of the other caveats that allows EDR to fall into the IID is to offer retail space on the bottom floor, which they plan to do. Talks will continue with the city’s design and review committee, as will negotiations with the coalition. EDR executives were unavailable for comment, but have, in previous talks, stated they are lending an ear to the Fourth Avenue Coalition.

The coalition wants to be clear on few things. One: They have nothing against students. Two: They’re not against development.

“We don’t dislike students,” says Riggs, owner of Pop Cycle on Fourth. “The idea is if you’re going to build in the neighborhood that it should be for people who are going to stay and contribute to the community. We are welcoming EDR to our neighborhood and we are hoping they will explore options that benefit both sides. For us, if they’re going to build in our neighborhood and shopping district, we want them to participate in the life of that neighborhood and shopping district by making it a welcoming place.”

Mike Peel, director of Local First Arizona and a member of the Fourth Avenue coalition, says it’s also about well-thought-out design.

“We’re not anti-development,” he said. “The CBA is meant to explore the options that will be beneficial on both sides. All we are after is smart growth.”

Peel says some of the requests related to the development include accessible walkways and enough square footage on the retail floor to allow for local merchants to reside.

Mayor Jonathon Rothschild notes even though the project is controversial, the area could benefit.

“An increased population in the area should help the businesses in the area,” he says.

Rendering of the proposed Fourth Avenue makeover. (Photo special to LLIT)