While two city councilmen opposed a measure to delay seeking applications from developers on how to transform the Ronstadt Transit Center, they had very different reasons behind their decisions.
Councilman Paul Cunningham wanted to dump the matter entirely because all the federal red-tape attached to the project will likely deter interest.
“I don’t see how a developer could make money on this deal with all the stipulations,” Cunningham said.
He said he wasn’t willing to go through another process where the city ends up wasting money on project planning with no discernible return.
“The costs of the city are going to be zero. The liability is going to be zero,” Cunningham said. “We need to be completely insulated on this.”
Councilman Steve Kozachik voiced opposite reasons.
He said dragging out the process can only hurt the city’s chances in attracting qualified applicants.
“We’re just asking for resumes,” Kozachik said. “If we keep pushing this back, the dust will never settle on this thing. We gain nothing from delaying the process…And I think we dissuade potential developers by delaying this any further.”
The council voted 5-2 Tuesday to delay the start of the city accepting applications from November to early next year.
Members of the Tucson Bus Riders Union were outraged over the vote.
They accused the council of selling them out to monied interests.
“They didn’t listen to the people,” said Jimmy Ortega, from the Bus Riders Union.
Activist Brian Flagg promised to fight any plan that would turn over the transit hub to developers.
“When all these developers come to town and tryout to develop the Ronstadt Center,” Flagg said. “They are going to get a big, huge dose of the Bus Riders Union and all of our allies. And we’ll see what developer wants to wade through everything that we put in front of them to develop that site.”
Flagg also accused Councilwoman Karin Uhlich of going back on her word. He said she promised his group the issue would get tabled.
Uhlich said while she listened to all of the bus riders’ concerns leading up to Tuesday, she doesn’t commit herself to positions before any item is presented at a meeting.
“I try not to make promises in advance of the meetings especially when there is more information coming,” she said.
Uhlich placed some of the blame for the rancor on the city manager’s office.
She said she was unaware the city manager’s office was going to recommend putting a November timeline on the process until she saw it in a powerpoint presentation during the meeting.
She said the council acted as best it could to strike a balance between moving the process forward and ensuring everyone’s voice is heard prior to any concrete decisions being made.
The extra couple of months would give the city time to complete its comprehensive transit analysis and collect additional community feedback before engaging developers, she said.
Uhlich would like to see a discussion on how and when city staff presents materials to the council before a meeting.
“I think that’s a process we should review with the manager. If there’s a recommendation it should be in the cover memo that we get and not in the powerpoint,” Uhlich said. “It makes it tough for all of us to react to a specific recommendation when we don’t know its coming. I understand why (the bus riders) are disappointed and we need to do a better job in letting people know what recommendation we are debating in advance of a meeting.”
The current flare-up dates back to 2012 when city officials were negotiating a deal to hand over the Ronstadt Center and up to two other downtown properties to the owners of a scenic 284-parcel in the Painted Hills as a way to block development there. The city would have then sold the Painted Hills parcel to Pima County for $3.6 million.
When word leaked about the discussions, bus riders and their advocates voiced their opposition to what they feared may have been a backroom deal to hand off a vital transit hub for commuters to wealthy develops.
Last February, the mayor and council temporarily assuaged those fears by directing city staff to create a "development vision" for the center that will maintain it as a transit hub while allowing for some mixed-use development.