The grass is about to get much greener (and more abundant) on the north side of East Sixth Street.
At 221 E. 6th Street, Suite 105, to be exact.
A vote of 4-2 by the City of Tucson’s Board of Adjustment affirmed an appeal by associates of Downtown Dispensary that will allow the business to build out to 6,578 square feet of space to expand operations.
“It almost feels surreal,” said co-owner Moe Asnani after the vote. “It kind of gives me faith in the inner mechanics of government again. These board members came to an independent conclusion based on evidence.”
The proposed expansion, made possible by a Tucson City Council decision that allows for the footprint of dispensaries to be up to 10,000 square feet, had been nixed by the city’s zoning administrator on the grounds that the dispensary, which opened in August 2013, was across the street from a school: Santa Theresa Tile Works.
That was news to Asnani, who noted he wouldn’t have been able to open the dispensary in the first place if that were the case.
“It’s not a school,” he said in an interview before the BOA meeting. “It’s just not. It’s a studio, it’s a tile shop.”
Elisa Hamblin, the zoning administrator for the city, disagreed.
In her official final zoning determination in March this year denying the expansion request, Hamblin said that, although “Santa Theresa Tile Works has been legally permitted as an ‘Art Studio,’” that fact “does not preclude it as a location for the study or instruction of art.”
In fact, since city zoning code doesn’t specifically define what a “K-12 public, private, or charter school” is, but does define what “educational uses” are and that includes "art," then the tile shop is operating in an educational capacity.
And Santa Theresa Tile Works had originally been granted a Certification of Occupancy under the business designation of “Art Studio” back in 1998.
Since Imago Dei used the tile shop as it’s “arts campus,” it should therefore be a school, Hamblin concluded.
During Wednesday’s hearing, Jesse Callahan, council for Downtown Dispensary, pushed back against Hamblin’s ruling.
He questioned how Hamblin even came to know classes were being run out of the studio.
Callahan presented emails from Michael Crawford — co-owner of the Prime Leaf dispensaries and former Tucson City Council member — to Hamblin indicating that Downtown Dispensary was planning to expand, and that she should be aware of Santa Theresa’s agreement to run classes for Imago Dei.
“Imago Dei Middle School owns and operates Santa Theresa Tile Works, Crawford writes in his first email to Hamblin, dated April 7, 2021. “In addition to operating the business, Imago Dei has been teaching classes to middle schoolers at that location for years and is still doing so.”
Crawford noted that according to state law, any expansion of a dispensary, even one already established, would be illegal with an educational facility so close, and closed the email saying: “Karma is alive and well.”
During Wednesday's meeting, Hamblin denied being influenced by Crawford in arriving at her decision to deny Downtown Dispensary the expansion and said she came to her decisions independently.
For his part, Crawford confirmed that he Asnani have an acrimonious history, and that his notifying the zoning commission of the studio’s work with Imago Dei had everything to do with that history.
Plus, he recently bought the building that Santa Theresa Tile Works is located in (440 N. Sixth Ave.).
“I’ll tell you right now, I never would have notified the city, that there was this school, where students were being taught in that location, if he hadn't done what he did to us,” Crawford said in an interview before the BOA ruling.
Crawford was referring to an incident in 2019 where he alleges that Asnani and his attorney, Callahan, tried to back an effort to block Prime Leaf from opening their location on Park Avenue, since there is a residence with a Buddhist meditation center within the prohibited distance for marijuana dispensaries.
The effort ultimately failed, but Asnani and Crawford still have on-going litigation.
Callahan also pointed out that on a recent lease between Crawford and the studio, the permitted use of the facility was for “operation of arts business and related services and for no other purposes.”
On top of that, the studio shares a building with The Royal Room, a local bar that opened in 2018.
Callahan pointed out that, unless the city had made a mistake, a bar shouldn’t be allowed to open within 300 feet of an educational establishment. Had the city failed to properly vet the establishment?
Hamblin retorted that, while she was not with the city during the time those licenses were issued, the issue at hand of expansion of a marijuana facility would still be prohibited.
Once Callahan and Hamblin concluded their presentations, the chair of the BOA, Michael Marks, opened the meeting up to calls from the audience. While Crawford spoke out against granting the appeal, the majority of speakers spoke out in favor, with some being employees of Downtown Dispensary or its sister dispensary, D2.
Most talked about how centrally located the dispensary is, or how it’s had a positive effect on their personal and professional lives.
Right before the vote, Sabastian Barajas, an employee at Downtown, stated the obvious.
“Just looking out right now, there’s no middle school children, there’s no ‘SLOW DOWN: SCHOOL’ signs, and it’s just rough to think that in our operation here, we can’t expand because of that. We have been here for a while now, so why stop us now?”
Now that the dispensary is clear to expand, Asnani said it will be great to finally be able to fill in the building that has sat nearly half empty for almost a decade.
"We will be doubling the size of the dispensary," he said. "And the retail/sale space. And, we will also be adding temperature controlled product storage."