Conscience and construction

Freshmen camped in study rooms across campus are a common sight during the first week of every fall semester. Enrollment at the UA is growing faster than new student housing can be built, leaving a perennial shortage of dorm rooms and a perennial flock of freshmen without homes.

Three new residence halls are in the works to help ease that shortage. Last Friday, the Arizona Board of Regents approved a $178 million dorm construction project, which will make room for 1,188 students by the time it's completed in 2011.

Unfortunately, unless the UA can compromise with a pair of elderly Tucsonans, they'll leave another two people without a home.

One of the residence halls is slated for construction on the northeast corner of East Sixth Street and North Euclid Avenue - currently a swath of student parking behind Coronado and Arizona-Sonora residence halls. Using those lots for student housing is essential to make room for more students. But there are more than student cars parked in that stretch of asphalt: Midway along the south side of the lot is the home of William and Barbara Kennedy.

Students walking along East Sixth Street will notice the Kennedy's home: The small, whitewashed brick building looks out of place surrounded by patches of asphalt. William Kennedy, the 78-year-old man who lives in the home with his wife Barbara, was born in the house, built by his father in 1919.

In 1996, when the UA was in the process of constructing the lots, the university bought the home - along with two others on either side - for $380,000. They planned to evict the Kennedys and bulldoze the home, but before they finalized the deal, the UA offered the Kennedys a ""life estate"" on the property - a legal move giving the UA title to the land, but William Kennedy (his wife wasn't included in the estate) the right to live in the home until his death. Now that new construction is being planned, the UA is offering the couple $100,000 to move out early.

That's not enough, William Kennedy said. At last week's meeting of the regents, he implored the university to offer a little more to buy them out of house and home. ""The amount offered by the UA is not enough to purchase a home of comparable value. The university is taking more than it's willing to give in compensation,"" he said. Instead, the Kennedys want about $244,000 - enough to live comfortably until they die, as promised in the original agreement.

Hanging over negotiations is the threat of eminent domain action by the university. If necessary, the UA could go to court to force the Kennedys out of their home with an eminent domain case - the legal practice of seizing private property for public good. Although it's meant to be used only in extraordinary circumstances, a 2005 Supreme Court case, Kelo v. City of New London, significantly relaxed restrictions on taking private property by government force. Since then, the nasty powers of eminent domain have been abused by state and local governments across the nation.

The UA maybe unlikely to take the case to court - but the fact that they wield the massive power of seizure by fiat makes negotiating with the Kennedys an unfair fight. Worse is the price of that fight - the extra $144,000 asked for by the Kennedys is eight-hundredths of one percent of the $178 million budget for the construction project.

Further, some of those construction costs could be recouped. At last week's regents meeting, the construction measure passed with a lone dissenting vote from Regent Anne Mariucci - the representative in charge of overseeing the construction project. Mariucci said that the dorms could be constructed for less than half the current cost by a third-party contractor. ""We are building a Ritz Carlton and charging Motel 6 prices. This isn't the best use of $180 million,"" Mariucci said at the meeting.

She's right. Saving money on the construction project, and using a portion of those savings to give fair compensation to the Kennedy family, is a decision that would be good for taxpayers, for the Kennedys, and for students - especially as the UA heads toward dire fiscal straits. Thanks to the regent's rubber-stamp, however, the expensive project will continue.

An agreement with the Kennedys - whether a fair compromise or unfair legal action - must be reached by September. Conscience came into play in 1996, when the UA was faced with evicting the Kennedys and offered them a life estate. We hope they'll have the decency to do the right thing again.


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