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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Proposed biotech park could transform city

    The Quincie Douglas pool is located directly across from the site of the proposed UA Bioscience Park, East 36th Street and South Kino Parkway.  Bioscience Park would place the UA at the forefront of the biotech technology.
    The Quincie Douglas pool is located directly across from the site of the proposed UA Bioscience Park, East 36th Street and South Kino Parkway. Bioscience Park would place the UA at the forefront of the biotech technology.

    The UA and Tucson’s intellectual and economic identities are slated for big changes if city council members and developers can reconcile over details of a proposed 309-acre UA biotechnology park near South Tucson.

    The 65-acre park, located at South Kino Parkway and East 36th Avenue, would be the key component of a research community allowing university discoveries to become real-world services and products, according to Bruce Wright, UA associate vice president of economic development.

    “”Biotech is going to be to the 21st century what microelectronics were to the second half of the 20th century,”” Wright said. “”It’s going to be the leading-edge technology that will help to drive the U.S. and world economies.””

    The biotechnology park could catapult the UA to the front of the world’s fastest-growing research industries during the next two decades, but the plan is in danger as developers and city officials continue to disagree over proposed land-swaps and building plans.

    The UA biotech vision

    The UA Bioscience Park project would kick off with 200,000 square feet of multi-tenant office and laboratory space (artist’s rendering above) that would allow hi-tech bio-companies to interact with UA professors and students on a daily basis, Wright said.

    The space could be constructed within three to five years, Wright said.

    When the complete vision is realized, the park would also include a multi-story hotel and conference facility and a housing development. A technical-oriented high school will also be integrated into the project, Wright said.

    “”We need a place where these types of companies, whether they be startups or existing businesses that want to be close to university-level research, will have a place to do business,”” Wright said.

    The bioscience park would be a quick fix for UA researchers who have to market ideas through cities that already have existing biotech infrastructures, like San Diego or Baltimore, said Raphael Gruener, physiology professor at the UA College of Medicine.

    “”This would be a living village for graduates and visiting researchers to integrate, to work and play,”” said Gruener, who also serves as director of technology initiatives for the Office of Economic Development.

    “”Right here in town, our ideas would go from the bench to the bedside,”” said Gruener.

    Big box barrier

    Despite the benefits, the plan hinges on several issues that have tangled in a yarn of political fallout, newspaper editorials and citizen ire.

    One is a developer’s requirement for the proposed Bioscience Park plan to include a “”big-box”” retail store, despite an existing city ordinance, which regulates placement of Wal-Mart-type shops.

    Such a large store would anchor the biopark’s commercial segment, offering groceries and other services to researchers and residents living nearby.

    However, the ordinance – in effect since 1999 – nixes retail outlets that derive more than 10 percent of their profits from groceries.

    Ward 5 Councilman Steve Leal, said his office has offered to make numerous changes to the zoning regulation, believing the people of his community “”shouldn’t be left holding the bag.””

    “”At this point we need creativity and not muscle,”” said Leal.

    Leal says that while the UA’s vision for the park is conceptually fine, he is still waiting to see finalized plans from Eastbourne.

    “”You wouldn’t build a house designed by an architect who hands you a crayon drawing,”” said Leal. “”It’s hard to have a substantive discussion with only a color picture.””

    The East 36th Street and South Kino Parkway area hasn’t had a grocery store in 15 years, said Cindy Ayala, vice president of Pueblo Gardens Neighborhood Association, which represents 715 properties in the area.

    “”We need a place we can go to get not only groceries, but prescriptions and eyeglasses,”” said Ayala. “”Not another Target or Lowe’s.””

    Ayala and other residents fear that if the City Council doesn’t resolve the retail flap with developers, the promise of a high-tech future will be swapped with storage facilities, warehouses, freeway-related businesses and low-income tract developments.

    “”If a truck stop is going to be our legacy, that’s really pathetic,”” said Ayala, who believes such a facility would increase illegal activity in her neighborhood. “”If [the council] thinks drugs are flowing freely now, they’ll be worse.””

    Many uses are possible for the land should the biotech park deal go sour, said Eric Davis, president of Retail West Property, development partner for the site’s owner, Eastbourne Investments.

    Although the possibility that the area may become truck stop has been “”blown up,”” the area is zoned by the city for light-industrial business with a freeway and on-ramps nearby, Davis said.

    The influx of 1,200 children living in the houses that would accompany the bioscience park also is a cause for concern for Leal.

    He said that while the approximately 400 high-school students can be bussed throughout Tucson, kindergarten-through-eighth-grade students would need a new school – and the funds to build it.

    “”If 800 kids were dropped into the area’s existing schools, the educational quality is going down,”” said Leal. “”They are trifling with the lives of poor people here.””

    Double bogey

    The UA must also obtain an additional 65 acres of land from KB Homes at the South Kino site in order to build the biotech park.

    The UA is offering 120 acres at the UA Science and Technology Park near Interstate 10 and South Kolb Road, where KB Homes would construct new homes, in exchange for the land at South Kino Parkway and East 36th Avenue.

    The land swap is contingent on a Tucson City Council annexation of 573 acres of Science and Tech Park land into Tucson city limits.

    However, the council is balking on that action because of potential groundwater irrigation of a UA golf course that would compliment a hotel and future research facilities at the eastside location.

    “”We’re trying to generate revenues from land that we own, to support the research park activity,”” Wright said.

    “”It’s never been the intention of the university to use groundwater on the golf course,”” he added.

    The possibility of using potable water was raised when the UA learned that the nearest reclaimed water lines were located nearly five miles away.

    Up to seven years could pass before those lines were extended, with potential costs climbing into the millions, according to Tucson Water officials.

    Instead, the university hopes to develop a “”desert course,”” combining wildlife corridors and on-site reclaimed water, “”as a model of how a golf course can be environmentally responsible,”” said Wright.

    There would be enough reclaimed water for incremental development of the course through the Science and Technology Park’s own water treatment facilities, which are currently underutilized, Wright said.

    Emphasis is also being placed on the riparian habitat of the site, said Tania Metz, a planning graduate student and intern for the Sonoran Institute, an environmental advisory group.

    “”We’re starting by assessing what species are there, so that we can maintain them through and after the development,”” said Metz.

    Economy rising

    Initial funding for the Bioscience Park would come from groups of biotech investors, as well as private donors through the UA. Further capital would come through long-term leasing from companies occupying park space, said Wright.

    The park would be owned by both the UA and the Arizona Board of Regents, and operated by the UA as a research facility, according to Wright.

    Although an August 1 deadline for a preliminary agreement between the UA and the city has come and gone, representatives from all sides are optimistic that a deal can be salvaged.

    “”We want to make a great contribution to Tucson,”” Davis said.

    “”But time is the enemy in a situation like this,”” said Davis, citing the costs of sitting on the undeveloped lot, which was purchased last year from Sinclair Oil Company for $24 million.

    Some argue that for the UA, the collapse of the bioscience park would represent a painful continuation of the status quo – at a time when the university needs to cement its role among 21st century research.

    “”There is the potential to become a magnet for outside companies,”” said Gruener.

    Already lacking wet lab space for the development of new pharmaceuticals, Tucson would miss a chance to rank among cities like Boston and Seattle in an industry, which guarantees to profit from leading advances in areas such as human genome research, said Gruener.

    “”It’s a real opportunity to incubate ideas into products that can be commercialized,”” said Gruener.

    Should opposing sides meet favorably and ink the deal, the economic benefits would be marked in an area that has long been characterized by underemployment.

    The Bioscience Park is projected to bring 900 jobs to the area, initially among the construction and service industries, and later into skilled trades that would aid the park’s mission, according to Eastbourne.

    “”I think the big boys should sit down and figure out what they’ll do next,”” said Ayala. “”They should put them all in a room and let them fight it out until they figure out something.””

    A study was undertaken in recent years that pegged the average Tucson income at $14 an hour, said Ayala. She is adamant that most in her neighborhood don’t come close to that.

    “”We have been down in the bottom of the barrel for many years, we have been swept aside,”” said Ayala. “”It’s time for us to rise and shine.””

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