Returning the Emphasis on Schools to Urban Trust Lands

The times they are a-changin’ in southeast Tucson, where the metropolitan area’s largest remaining expanse of undeveloped open space was just approved for development by the Arizona State Land Department. It’s all for the good of the schools — …

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The times they are a-changin’ in southeast Tucson, where the metropolitan area’s largest remaining expanse of undeveloped open space was just approved for development by the Arizona State Land Department. It’s all for the good of the schools — or is it?

All states entering the Union since 1803 have received land grants for support of public schools. In Arizona, a total of about 10.2 million acres was granted when Arizona became a territory and then a state. The Arizona State Land Department is responsible for managing the land — including the sale and lease of these trust lands. Today, the Land Department manages about 9.28 million acres, comprising 13% of land ownership in the state.

According to the Land Department, “State trust lands are often misunderstood in terms of both their character and their management. They are not public lands, but are instead the subject of a public trust created to support the education of our children.” Earning money for public schools is the Land Department’s primary mission, and in that respect it excels: In its first 90 years, nearly $1 billion has been amassed in a permanent fund for schools. That fund is expected to grow to over $2 billion in the next ten years, primarily due to the real estate market and the increasingly urban locations of trust lands.

Location and a flaring market have conspired to make 12,000 acres of land along Tucson’s southeastern corridor available. Even at a development rate that spans the next 40 years, “several Tucson officials say the project will be one of the biggest in Tucson’s history, creating a ‘second city’ with residential and commercial development along with open space,” according to the Arizona Daily Star. One would hope, given the source of the land, that schools are included in the mix, as well.

Of course they will be. But the question of how schools are incorporated, and how the area is master planned, makes all the difference. The initial announcement that Westcor, a “giant Phoenix mall developer,” will create the master plan is disconcerting. It’s not that malls aren’t lovely, in spite of their automobile-oriented, spend-till-you-drop focus. But the widespread failure of shopping-malls-as-suburban-centers is well documented, and those interested in that approach needn’t apply here.

Rather, how about a model based on pedestrian orientation: a model of urban, school-centered neighborhoods? There is a man who holds such a vision, if he can get a piece of the Westcor pie. His name is Rich Michal, an architect and civil engineer who built one of the Southwest’s most energy-efficient homes in the southeast Tucson community of Civano. Michal’s idea is to create neighborhood-serving schools that are not only located in the neighborhood’s center but also become the heart of the community. The schools provide educational space for children and multipurpose and recreational space for the broader community. With a ratio of 300 homes per school, they would all be within walking distance, on tree-lined streets laid out in a variable grid pattern that aligns itself with the topography of the land. The concept itself is not new, but the implementation may be. Think of a New Urbanist neighborhood that, at its core, has a school and civic gathering area instead of a retail center.

If state trust lands must be developed to maximize income for the construction and support of schools — “for the future of Arizona’s children” — why not ensure that what’s built likewise maximizes the role of schools in their communities? It is not enough to sell or lease trust land to the highest bidder; that’s the easy part. The important and difficult work comes in determining how the land is designed and what is built. Taking this holistic perspective, the Land Department and developers would have the opportunity to create schools and communities that truly succeed.

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Tags: public schools

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