A Sustainable City

posted Wednesday, March 5, 2008        

2008 State of the City Address
Mayor Robert E. Walkup
February 1, 2008

“A Sustainable City”

The state of our city is strong.

We increased our investments in key areas-public safety, transportation, parks and water-after decades of neglect.

We diversified our revenues and cut costs. While Arizona state and city governments face steep deficits this year, Tucson’s deficit is manageable.

We should not raise taxes. Instead, we should cut costs internally to balance our budget and preserve programs and services for our people.

Your City Council has made tough choices in recent years. But they were the right choices. Each has put Tucson’s needs above any political agenda. Tucson is better and stronger because of all of their leadership. I’d like for all of them to stand now and be recognized.

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Our vision for Tucson is clear.

Tucson at its best is a desert city that balances the needs of its people and its environment. Our mission is to be a recognized leader in a knowledge-based global economy. And our top goal is the highest quality of life and place for all of our people.

Therefore, our policies must promote economic opportunity for all—for this is the foundation of a high quality of life.

And our policies must promote environmental stewardship of our land, our water and our air—the foundation of a high quality of place.

My honest assessment is that we are doing well. But we can do better. And we must do better.

There is a great focus these days on environmental sustainability. Specific steps to defend open spaces, preserve wildlife habitat, protect our water supply, promote energy-efficient construction and reduce our carbon footprint are all being aggressively pursued by the City, the County, the towns and the Native American Nations.

There is more to be done to protect our environment, of course. It is our duty, as a Boy or Girl Scout might say, to leave Tucson better than we found it.

But we should be proud of how far we have come.

I can tell you that other mayors across America are impressed with what we are doing in Tucson. We are capturing methane at our landfill and converting it to electricity, running a reclaimed water system, powering our buses with natural gas and biodiesel. Pima County’s Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan is recognized nationally. And the City Council is now working on additional water and energy conservation measures that will set a national standard.

Tucson is also recognized internationally. I have discussed water-treatment and alternative-energy projects with Israeli government and business leaders. Tucson and Israel have similar water and energy needs.

And I was recently invited to London along with five American mayors whose cities are recognized as environmental leaders. I got a good laugh when they quickly pointed out their rooftop solar panels through a break in the fog. J

Now what about our economy?

Much is being done across Tucson to improve our economy. Thanks to our hard-working people in business and labor (and the work of TREO), we have 57,000 more jobs and average earnings have increased 38% since 1999.

Our Gross Municipal Product, which measures the value of our local economy, is now above $31 billion.

That may sound like a lot. It is actually larger than the entire economies of five American states.

But, in my opinion, it is not big enough. Tucson’s economy is less than half the size of Milwaukee’s, Mike Hein’s hometown ($64 billion), and Austin’s ($66 billion).

A stronger economy is required to bring more opportunities to our working families. A stronger economy will help keep our best-educated children in Tucson. Our quality-of-life and our community’s sustainability are dependent upon it.

We must continue to focus on the areas that add to our economy and increase our quality-of-life. Retaining, expanding and starting new Tucson businesses is a vital community objective. Training our people for the jobs of the 21st century is essential. Improving our education and health care systems is critical. Supporting the arts and sciences to feed our minds and our souls is vital.

Many believe that economic and environmental initiatives are always in conflict. I strongly disagree.

Too many choose sides and divide the community. We must bridge the divide.

The truth is that economic sustainability and environmental sustainability are equally important. Both are required to achieve a sustainable Tucson.

We must pursue policies that improve our economy and serve our environment at the same time. And we must do so regionally, strategically and comprehensively.

Given our limited resources, I strongly encourage our City Council and our region to pursue the following five policy areas that serve both our economy and our environment simultaneously:

Fiscal Sustainability:

Investing in public safety, street repair and our parks and open spaces serves both our economy and our environment.

Better infrastructure and more crime fighting improves neighborhoods, increases property values, lowers insurance rates and protects businesses.

And a stronger central city provides residents an alternative to more urban sprawl.

We are entering year three of our ten-year plan. This year’s investments include:

• 40 more police officers
• 31 more firefighters, paramedics and other fire personnel
• 16 more square miles of neighborhood street repair
• 14,000 more hours of park maintenance and
• 10,000 more hours of parks department programs for seniors and children

I strongly recommend to the City Council to stick to the Fiscal Sustainability Plan as our top priority. It is our job to maintain public safety, good streets and safe parks in this city—no one else’s. And all Tucsonans—not just some Tucsonans—depend upon these investments.

As we now know, the failure to invest leaves payday loan-like debts for future generations.

For example, the failure to maintain a city street regularly at $2 per square yard now costs us $46 per square yard to replace.

The failure to invest properly in our Tucson Water system in the 1970s and 1980s contributed to the CAP debacle of the early 1990s. We saved our predecessors a few dollars a month from regular maintenance costs twenty years ago. But we are now paying hundreds of millions of dollars to fix the problems we inherited.

Water rates should be as low as possible. But we do Tucson no favors by deferring today’s problems, leaving sky-high debts to our children and risking future catastrophes.

Regional Land Use Plan:

I propose that the City, County, towns and Native American Nations all join together to form a consistent, unified land use plan for our entire region.

It would help our economy and our environment at the same time.

The plan would identify where homes and jobs and fire stations and hospitals and roads and parks and water lines should go—and where they shouldn’t.

It would provide certainty to homebuyers and business owners and reduce infrastructure costs. It costs our taxpayers far more to come back and fix the problems caused by unplanned growth than it does to do it right the first time.

And a unified regional land use plan would help our environment as well. Open space reserves and protected washes and trails should be continuous no matter what jurisdiction they happen to be in. Native species and hikers and bikers don’t care about the lines in the sand that serve politicians. They need a regional and comprehensive system.

A unified plan may also help us merge separate planning concepts into a seamless whole.

For example, the City employs Desert Village concepts in planning the southeast side. Desert villages aim to serve many human needs—jobs, parks, hospitals and fire stations—in compact areas.

Both economically and environmentally, it is unwise to approve residential developments where the future residents have to drive seven miles to the nearest supermarket, or ten miles to work, or many miles through traffic to the nearest emergency room.

Pima County’s land uses are guided by the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan. Concerns for habitat and natural resources help determine the location of future growth. Its goal is to balance economic and environmental concerns.

I propose that we work to put together the best of both ideas.

I believe that there is a way to use the Sonoran Desert Plan to help guide development in the city. I believe that it can evolve to be more relevant to urban development. And I believe that Desert Village principles can assist in the planning of suburban, unincorporated communities.

A unified regional land use plan also presents the opportunity to develop new guidelines for new development. For example, if we are serious about addressing climate change, we should consider requiring that all new development—City, County or town—has reasonable access to transit.

If we are serious about making growth pay its own way, we should consider requiring that growth only occur in areas that offer the highest return on tax revenues, especially state-shared revenues.

Impact fees only address the cost of the original infrastructure. But tax revenues pay for the police, fire, paramedic and street repair services the people will need year after year. We must plan new growth with an eye towards economic and tax-revenue sustainability, too.

Our region has come together to consolidate transportation and economic development efforts. Now a unified land use plan for our entire region is the next big step we must begin this year.

Infill:

Support for infill is a key strategy to deal with growth and serve both our economy and our environment.

It costs taxpayers less to steer growth where the streets and roads and fire stations already exist. And central city development means less demand for sprawl development and all the environmental issues that come with sprawl.

Almost 33% of the land within the city limits is undeveloped. It ranges from empty lots within neighborhoods to large tracts of State Trust Land.

Also, many Tucson neighborhoods were built without any planning. The houses were not subject to any building codes. Too many of these homes are substandard in quality and energy-inefficient.

I believe that we have an opportunity to transform our central city into a 21st century model for balancing economic vitality, historic preservation and environmental stewardship. But new approaches and attitudes towards infill are required.

The partnership between the City, State Land and Westcor to plan 12,000 acres of state land is a good model for planning undeveloped land. This is an infill area. It is surrounded by existing development: Vail on the east, Corona de Tucson on the south and central Tucson to the north and west.

There are some important environmental assets in this area that must be protected. But fewer than in other areas in our region targeted for development. And development inside Tucson will absorb some demand for thousands of new homes in sprawling Pinal County, Benson or Tubac.

But what about infill in developed areas? I believe that this is one of the biggest challenges facing the City Council and the City of Tucson right now.

Housing stock across the central city is aging and falling into disrepair. Layers of city codes have accumulated over the decades. They have made new development, redevelopment, home additions and even home repair more difficult.

It is frustrating to both neighborhood leaders and infill developers that the only projects that can get through the system are the mini-dorms that each side says they don’t like.

The system is dysfunctional. The cost of lower property values to homeowners, the city and the county, is immense.

The City’s new Neighborhood Preservation Zone program is a great opportunity to address the need for infill. But it must balance preservation of existing neighborhoods with the promotion of density and mixed-use development along major roads. One without the other is incomplete. Neighborhood and development leaders must work with each other and together with the City Council to ensure that the program is a success.

And the City must finally engage in a comprehensive reform of its land use code. We have put this off for far too long. Our code must promote the economic and environmental sustainability we seek. That means more density where appropriate, more “green” water and energy-efficiency requirements and clear design standards to match new, creative designs with existing neighborhood patterns.

We must also continue our current major infill project: Rio Nuevo. Downtown is the heart of the effort to build a larger local economy and an alternative to urban sprawl. It is far, far better to grow up than grow out.

The Council unanimously approved key infrastructure investments and new facilities last year. These include a new $200 million convention center hotel, a $60 million expansion of the convention center, a $130 million UA Science Center and a $130 million new arena. $37 million in infrastructure work is already underway.

Now a unified private sector, the Tucson Downtown Partnership, is at the table. Business leaders from downtown and across the region are now partnering with local government to bring the region’s top talent together for this key project.

Community leaders understand that we all have a stake in a successful downtown revitalization. They understand that transparency and public participation are required when tax dollars are being utilized.

And they know that we are committed to not repeat the mistakes of urban renewal projects decades ago. Downtown redevelopment will be for all of our people, not built on top of our people.

Of course we have a ways to go. But we are making steady progress:

New homes are being constructed right across the freeway and along Congress. Historic downtown theatres have been restored and are open for business. Roads and underpasses are being improved. Water, power and telecommunication lines are being upgraded.

You can see it as you drive home today. Something is happening downtown. And thank you for coming downtown during all the construction. J

Regional Water Planning:

As always, water policy is critical to the success of our economic and environmental objectives. Here, too, a regional approach makes sense.

More cooperation between Tucson Water and Pima County Water Reclamation is the best first step towards maximizing our water resources. Working together, we can lower costs, establish quality standards, improve conservation and coordinate our investments.

However, this is just the beginning of the process. Patience is necessary. And public input is essential.

We must take advantage of the unity that has been achieved through support of the County bonds, the RTA and the opposition of Proposition 200. Any decisions must be made with considerable public input: business, environment, human services and leaders from other jurisdictions. As always, the private and public sectors must work together for any new policies to ultimately succeed.

In my opinion, the goal is simple: safe, appealing, abundant and affordable water. And determining the best way to manage every drop of water throughout the water cycle—from the ground to the tap, down the drain and through the treatment plant and back into the ground—is the way to achieve that goal.

I am repeatedly asked: How will we govern our water in the future? Will there be a regional water authority?

Frankly, these questions are important, but they are premature.

The more basic question is this: how should our water policy meet our goal of the highest quality of life and place for all of our people? Or, in short, what is our water for?

From there the questions become far more complex:

How much water should be allocated towards economic goals, and how much toward environmental goals?

How much to support residential growth and how much to support commercial and industrial growth?

If a new manufacturer needs water, how much water is each new job worth?

Should growth be allowed in areas where water conservation requirements are legally unenforceable?

Once the community answers these and other questions, then we can analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the current system and decide whether a new system is warranted.

Green Economic Development & Green-Collar Jobs:

One of the key recommendations of the TREO Economic Blueprint is to focus on the Environmental Technology industry cluster.

A strong community focus on Environmental Technology will directly benefit both our economy and our environment.

According to TREO, worldwide clean-energy markets will quadruple in the next ten years, from $55 billion in revenues to $226 billion. Demand for biofuels, wind power, solar power and fuel cell technologies will increase. Tens of thousands of new jobs will be created.

Tucson has a golden opportunity to become a global center for Environmental Technology. Public-private partnerships on research and development, the manufacture of environmental technologies, solar power generation and the application and utilization of environmental technologies are all necessary.

Other cities are already scrambling to build their own Environmental Technology clusters. Albuquerque, for example, just announced an agreement with a German company to build a $500 million, 1,500 job factory there. The product: solar modules for utility-scale solar installations.

Tucson has greater natural advantages than Albuquerque. But it’s not enough to have a lot of sunlight. Lots of places have a lot of sunlight. And lots of places can announce that they are the “solar-con valley” or the “Saudi Arabia of solar.” People see through gimmicks pretty easily.

Instead, we have to be competitive or we will lose out. We have to move quickly and smartly.

Our community must be united and must demand a comprehensive strategy. Who are our competitor cities? What are they doing? Who are the top environmental companies? What do they need in the short term and the long term? What partnerships are required? What financial and regulatory systems must be in place to assist and protect these companies? Overall, what must we do to make Tucson the best place in the world to start or relocate environmental technology companies?

We look to TREO to answer these questions. But the community, and especially the private sector, must support TREO at a higher level. A greater investment in our economic future is required.

Local government may have other resources that can support this effort. The City of Tucson has approximately 20,000 acres of undeveloped land in Avra Valley that was purchased for water rights decades ago.

The Council has recently discussed a solar-energy pilot project in this area. That is excellent. But we can go farther.

I strongly believe that the City should consider any and all proposals for how to put this land to use for solar and other environmental technology projects—public and private—as long as these projects are consistent with current water system and environmental protection efforts in the area.

The UA could locate solar research and development facilities there. TEP could expand its proposed pilot project and provide enough solar power for our water distribution system. Leading companies can use the land for manufacturing, development and possibly even power generation.

Also, in order to compete we need a trained workforce to support this industry. “Green-collar” jobs–building, assembling, installing, operating, maintaining, transporting and manufacturing green technologies and products.

We must work together to provide the skills and training necessary for these new jobs. Here, too, I welcome our friends in Pima County, job-training organizations, faith-based job trainers such as Jobs-4-Life, construction trade organizations and unions, and all other interested parties to come to the table now. We need their leadership and expertise to transform our economy, help our environment and strengthen our workforce.

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These five areas offer significant opportunities for our region to achieve the highest quality-of-life and place for all of our people.

It is an aggressive agenda. But it is achievable.

This community has come together in recent years to accomplish great things. Business groups, environmental organizations, non-profits and even political parties rallied together to support our County bond projects, improve our transportation system and defend our water.

That spirit of unity must expand in order to face new economic and environmental challenges. And we must go further.

We need the business community to engage on environmental issues. Smart business owners are learning more about how climate change is affecting consumer attitudes, methods of production and the bottom line.

And we need the environmental community to engage on economic issues. An environmental agenda that focuses solely on habitat restoration and open space protection is good. But transforming our local economy from one deeply dependent on land development to one focused on high-tech, clean industry is more sustainable.

Our leading public institutions—and especially the City and the County—must continue to work more closely together, too. I am very proud of the progress we have made. President Shelton, Chancellor Flores, fellow Mayors and tribal leaders and Supervisors and Councilmembers—we are all colleagues and friends. Our shared mission is to serve our people and this place as best we can.

For decades, our community was split on transportation issues between roads and transit. Many plans failed because we could not bridge that divide. Finally, community leaders on both sides realized that we had to come together. We needed both roads and transit. The RTA Plan included both, and our voters approved it.

Now we need to bridge other longstanding divides in our community. The business and environmental communities must come together. Neighbors and developers must come together. We must move forward.

I have laid out today the opportunities I see to begin to bend old swords into plowshares and build a better future for all of Tucson. I ask all community leaders with the vision to see past these old divisions to join with me in this great work.

Thank you. God bless all of you, and God bless Tucson.



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