Something was seen in the city that is common in other cities but rare in Tucson.
My wife and I saw a shocking sight on a recent trip to the Barnes and Noble bookstore on East Broadway Blvd. in the City of Tucson.
The bookstore’s parking lot was crumbling, unkempt, and devoid of any landscaping. But that wasn’t the shocking sight. After all, the property resembled the many barren parking lots and ugly strip malls that we had passed for miles across the city on our drive to the bookstore, a drive almost totally devoid of any aesthetically pleasing properties or thoroughfares.
Two office buildings near the bookstore also weren’t shocking, although they were unusual for Tucson. They were attractive class-A buildings of about eight stories.
The shock was the Marriott Courtyard hotel on a side street across from the office buildings. Its grounds were beautifully landscaped and maintained, with no bare dirt, weeds or litter along its frontage. It looked so out of place in Tucson that I thought that we had been magically transported to another Sunbelt city or to one of the other cities where we used to live before moving to Tucson six years ago for family reasons.
An unfair, hyper-critical exaggeration? Not at all. Even a neighborhood ward office had foot-high weeds and litter in front of it.
Does Tucson look like this because it is poor, or is it poor because it looks like this? Are the conditions the result of decades of bad governance, citizen apathy, or what?
A clue to the answer can be seen in the wealthy part of the metropolis known as the Foothills, which is in unincorporated Pima County. (An astonishing 36 percent of metro Tucson is unincorporated.)
Actually, with a median household income of about $91,000, the Foothills is not very wealthy compared to truly wealthy locales in America. However, relative to the City of Tucson, it is wealthy. As such, unlike Tucson, it doesn’t have poverty and a low tax base as excuses for its subpar upkeep and bad governance.
The saving grace for the Foothills is its pretty natural setting on the slopes of the Santa Catalina Mountains, its views of city lights and mountains, its abundance of natural vegetation, and its large residential lots. But those positives don’t hide the negatives.
The negatives are the result of human actions, or inactions, not nature. They include deteriorated roads, bare dirt and scraggly and poorly maintained shrubs in medians and rights-of-way, illegal signs on roadsides and on utility poles, tacky signs and banners in violation of sign ordinances in front of businesses and apartments, and my top annoyance, litter, which my wife and I pick up on our daily five-mile walks.
Local government and utilities don’t help matters. After completing work along roads, they typically leave behind barricades, sandbags, piles of dirt, and litter. Likewise, car parts and broken glass aren’t swept up after auto accidents.
A subject for another day is the fact that in the roughly 30 square miles of the Foothills, there is not one civic center, municipal park, or public ball field, except for ball fields at public schools.
The operative word is “bizarre.”
Why do Tucsonans settle for less? I have no idea, but an experience of mine might be instructive.
Becoming tired of picking up trash and litter every day, I politely asked property owners along a one-mile stretch of a major street if they could help out by keeping their frontages clean. The property owners were a gated community of homes costing more than a million dollars, a private golf course where an annual membership costs $18,000, and a high-end resort. Only the resort agreed to do so.
Something is clearly amiss with the culture in Tucson.
This is in marked contrast to my experience in a city that Tucsonans think isn’t relevant to them, because they see it as hoity-toity and uber-wealthy, although it has the same median household income as the Foothills and was not very prosperous in its earlier years. It just looks wealthier than it is, due to having a good government that makes attractiveness and competitiveness high priorities—and a government with nonpartisan elections that had a vision years ago of what the city could grow up to be.
The city is the City of Scottsdale, a municipality 100 miles north of Tucson with a population of 241,361.
I was on the board of an ungated HOA in Scottsdale with approximately 4,000 homes. The desert landscaping along the HOA’s miles of public roadways was beautiful and well-maintained. It was also free of litter, for the simple reason that we had a worker drive around on a work cart once a day to pick up litter.
It helped that the City of Scottsdale, like other cities in metro Phoenix and across the land, has strict and strictly enforced ordinances and codes governing landscaping, property maintenance, and signs.
For example, one Scottsdale ordinance requires that property owners maintain the public rights-of-way along streets bordering their property, up to the curb of the street or the pavement. Dead, dry, or bare dirt areas are prohibited, and it is required that desert landscaping be maintained free of grass and weeds.
Another ordinance requires a detailed landscaping plan for all new construction, specifying which of the city’s authorized shrubs and trees will be planted, what authorized ground cover will be put down, and the number of plantings and their spacing in accord with city requirements, including a specified ratio of trees to parking spots in parking lots.
The City of Tucson and Pima County also have ordinances governing landscaping, property maintenance, and signs, but the codes are obviously inadequate or unenforced.
There’s no mystery as to where high-paying companies would prefer to locate their headquarters or major operations. But Tucson’s political, governmental and business establishment doesn’t seem to realize that curb appeal matters.
Photo credit: Craig Cantoni for The Prickly Pear
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