Thursday, December 4, 2008

Tucson Shifts Building Inspection Focus - By Jimmy Petrol

Times are tough all over; especially in job sectors that were staffed-up to meet the demands of the housing boom. Now there are few new houses to inspect and the Tucson Building Department is left with little to do. The City of Tucson has been busy thinking outside the box and has found a clever way to maintain its staffing levels; they have found some dusty old regulations to enforce and are busy as little bees doing it.

For businesses, there are building codes that are (ostensibly) meant to protect the public from risk and injury that could arise from patronizing businesses that are housed in sub-standard buildings. Each kind of business has a different set of standards, with schools and hospitals being more or less fire-proof and restaurant made to have cooking and food handling facilities to keep salmonella at bay.

As America's standard of living has risen, the building code has imposed higher and higher standards on all types of buildings. Small offices and stores that were fine a few years ago are now code-washouts. However, one of the most onerous requirements to be put on small businesses in the recent past has nothing to do with the building code or public safety. It is rather the result of city planners that have neglected to evaluate existing business conditions properly. One of the most obvious results is a stalled, vacant downtown.

The new hot-agenda item for the Tucson Building Department is to close down all the rest of the businesses that remain in the older city core. The deal-breaker for small business is a requirement for off-street parking. This may be fine in sub-urban areas where new commercial buildings are built on newly developed land that has parking in mind from the outset. But in the city center, the buildings are there and the parking is not. To close businesses, especially now, because the parking is on the public street is absurd; what is the street parking for?

An example of this sudden turn in enforcement...for twenty-five years, a local computer-repair-recycler has been toiling away doing the "green" thing just outside of the quasi-trendy Rio-Nuevo boundaries. The area is home to a variety of different kinds of businesses, most housed in buildings that are older. The thing that is common to most of these business-buildings, just like the downtown area's buildings, is that there is little, if any, off-street parking. There is plenty of curb-side parking, the area being typically depressed just like most of the city core. Nobody is there, the curb-side parking is unused. Now the business is closed, hapless victim of the new city focus on businesses operating "illegally". While the city had new-building permits to administer, these hundreds of businesses provided safe, valuable services to the community. Now that the city has little to do, these micro-business owners have found themselves staring at a city inspector, suddenly aghast at the conditions of the building and the lack of parking.

Another thing that has happened in other cities, whose goal it is to promote business' success in their city cores where adequate parking was never designed into the matrix, is different from Tucson. Rather than close businesses which have no land in front of the building to park cars, the cities, like Portland, Oregon, have constructed municipal parking lots and allowed the streets to fill with parked cars.

Taking the parking burden off the back of very small, quaint and interesting businesses in areas which have stood developed for nearly a century is the surest path to a thriving downtown/city core. The City of Tucson has taken the opposite tack and unreasonably requires business which cannot provide parking to close.

Portland makes an annual profit on the parking garages that dot its thriving downtown. Multi-story lots are clean and well lit and provide safe, convenient parking for the thousands of tiny storefront-businesses which make Portland so vibrant. The little deli that makes the best pastrami in town? Still open and dishing out the sandwiches, thanks to city planning that puts the parking problem where it belongs: on the city's plate.

Rather then spend amazing amounts of Rio-Nuevo money to build another campus for the U of A, while allowing the city core to lie suffocating under the poorly-conceived parking ordinance, the City could take a look at Portland and get a clue. Building one parking garage downtown won't do; the City must take existing business areas as they come, parking or no parking...when the streets are lined with cars patronizing little Tucson businesses, the city's pockets will be lined with golden sales tax revenues.

Southwest offers flights to the dizzily-city from prices that have gone as low as fifty-bucks each way. Surely the city planners that are so good at thinking outside the box can afford a little outing for the sake of Tucsonians who yearn for success in our downtown, not larger and more suburb-like campuses.

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