Tucson ranks close to the bottom in Infill Developments
December 28, 2012
Encanto Village, an 11-home project north of El Con Mall, wears the trappings of infill on its sleeve. Homes are packed close together, close to their property lines. Lots fill less than a fifth of an acre. Many homes are two stories, in a neighborhood where most homes are a single-story. The colors are attractive.
But with eight homes now complete, only two have sold so far. While price is part of the problem – the homes cost $328,000 to $463,000 in a still-recovering market – the homes also represent an urban lifestyle that much of Tucson has never experienced, said Deborah Van De Putte, the project’s Realtor.
The project’s troubles symbolize the problem for infill development in Tucson, as laid out in a new national study by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Many officials, planners and environmentalists here have long preached infill as an alternative to sprawl. But only 9.1 percent of new housing built in the Tucson metro area from 2000 to 2009 qualified as infill, the EPA found.
That tied Tucson at 28th from the bottom out of 209 metro areas of all sizes. Among 158 metro areas of 200,000 to 1 million people, Tucson ranked 20th-worst for infill. The national average was 21 percent infill development.
The EPA study defines infill as new development in a census block – a Census Bureau planning area – in which at least 90 percent of the land was already developed.
Some progress has been made here on the infill front since 2009, and Corky Poster, an infill planner and architect, noted that several hundred million dollars’ worth of infill projects are under construction in our urban core today. Many planners and other experts expect more such development once the streetcar is running and assuming the housing market keeps recovering.
“If you looked at the last three years, my guess is it would be much better” than 9 percent infill here, Poster said.
But obstacles remain the same as ever, say people on all sides of this issue.
• Many developers say that neighborhood groups are a major stumbling block by opposing high-profile infill projects. The fights over two big student housing projects in the past year send a signal that infill isn’t welcome, said David Godlewski, president of the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association.
• Neighborhood leaders say that many of those projects – most recently, The District student housing project at Sixth Street and Fifth Avenue – don’t fit into existing neighborhoods and dump unwanted traffic into them. Chris Gans, president of the West University Neighborhood Association, where The District was built, said neighbors would welcome mixed-use residential and commercial infill projects that serve them and fit in.
• Many officials and planners echo Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, who said there have always been incentives, such as cheap land, for building on the metro area’s fringe.
• City development codes, requiring large building setbacks, wide streets and limited percentages of home lot occupancy, aren’t geared for inner-city living. “The city of Tucson zoning code is a suburban code,” said Bob Vint, a downtown-area architect, although SAHBA’s Godlewski said the city has recently improved that.
• Infill development costs are higher per housing unit and profits are often lower in an infill project, since many infill projects have far fewer homes than their suburban counterparts, Poster said.
Rothschild said the EPA study is a wake-up call saying Tucson needs to look at “intelligent infill projects,” particularly with school closings looming in the Tucson Unified School District that will lead to vacant buildings needing redevelopment.
“The opposite of infill is sprawl, and we’re all at a point where we don’t want that anymore,” Rothschild said.
The EPA study found that infill, by putting homes closer to schools, stores, transit lines and jobs, offers significant environmental benefits. They include less driving, which saves gasoline and cuts pollution.
Infill also reduces pressure to build on farmland, ranch land and native desert, the study said. Infill development uses existing sewer and water lines and roads, saving tax money for building new ones on the edge.
Van De Putte, Realtor for Encanto Village, said her project taps into such benefits. She sees it serving people who work downtown for companies such as Tucson Electric Power or at the University of Arizona – both of Encanto Village’s occupied homes have UA professors living there – and won’t want to commute to Oro Valley. It’s close to the Third Street bike route and within walking distance of the Rincon Market, she noted.
But she said she realizes that many Tucsonans “don’t get” infill. “Many people who come to Tucson want openness. They don’t want high-rises,” she said.
Encanto Village’s original developer, Eric Abrams, needed three years to get a rezoning because neighbors in the Miramonte area felt it was out of scale with surrounding homes. By the time the rezoning was OK’d, the housing market had crashed, so Abrams gave it up to a bank, and a new developer, Matt Kim, took it over.
Ruth Beeker, a Miramonte neighborhood leader, noted that several other recent infill projects were fine with neighbors. One is a two-story town house development built between apartments and single-family units. Another town house project that replaced “a couple of little casitalike houses” improved the property and provided densities the city likes to see, she said.
“What makes existing neighborhoods resistant to infill is the existence of the university. What we were getting for infill was minidorms, where … homes were torn down and what was being built was not in any way compatible with the lifestyle of people there,” Beeker said.
All players in the development “game” are reluctant to tackle infill and anticipate problems with it, said homebuilder Tom Doucette, who has built several infill projects in his 32 years of building here.
“It does take a tremendous amount of leadership and push from the city to specify what they do want and to help make it happen,” Doucette said. “I can’t blame any neighborhood if you are going to come in and change my neighborhood. … On the other hand, if we’re really serious about regionwide issues, then we have to set the goals for what it is we’re trying to accomplish and recognize there are some costs.”
Tucson rates low on infill scale
Infill percentages, 2000-09, Arizona, New Mexico, S. California and Nevada
Los Angeles 62.6
San Diego 38.2
El Paso 10.5
Las Cruces 8.6
Las Vegas 7.6
Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Contact reporter Tony Davis at email@example.com or 806-7746.