Guest Column: Tucson - like Portland, Ore. - is at last becoming a city that works

2013-06-19T00:00:00Z Guest Column: Tucson - like Portland, Ore. - is at last becoming a city that worksPhil Whitmore Special To The Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

My wife, Loraine, and I live both in Tucson and Portland, Ore., which calls itself, "The City That Works." Tucson appears to be successfully moving toward that same goal.

First, the street repaving currently taking place in many parts of the city: The cones go up, the tar goes into the cracks to seal, and the overlay goes on, all in a matter of days. Presto, a smooth, new surface! It is as efficient as any public works project I have ever seen. The mayor, City Council and staff should all be applauded for this.

Second, our neighbors from Portland recently visited us here, and as one of our many "show-off" destinations, we took them downtown. At night. This used to be a big zero. On our visit there, the place was teeming with young people and the streets were alive with a positive vibe not seen in decades. The line to get into the event at the Rialto Theater was blocks long, and all the restaurants and bars were buzzing with positive chatter.

It was not just young people at the hot nightspots; real grown-ups like ourselves had to wait half an hour to get into Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails. Next time we'll make a reservation.

We chatted with a group from Phoenix that was thoroughly impressed: "This is Tucson?" they asked as they looked at all the action. "We don't have anything like this in Phoenix."

Even more interesting was our visit to The Playground, a nightspot as creative and edgy as any you will find in a major metropolitan area. Everything was cool there, although the cover charge to access the roof garden was a bit of a downer. Our Portland neighbors were nonetheless very impressed and remarked, "Phoenix? Heck, there's nothing quite like this in Portland."

It seems that the public-private partnerships that have sometimes hit a snag or two in the past are now delivering.

The coming of the modern streetcar will continue the revitalization effort. Some critics will decry its operating costs and the low percentage of transit trips compared to totals trips (auto, bike, walking and transit). While these are important considerations, they are not the real story of the streetcar's worth.

At long last this streetcar will stitch together the two major activity hubs of the University of Arizona and downtown, something planners have dreamed about for 40 years. This small section of track will introduce those Tucsonans who don't give a rap about transit to the benefits of transit; it will be a gateway to increasing overall transit ridership.

And the streetcar, along with walkable districts filled with fun cafes, good restaurants, unique shops and nearby housing will be an incubator for urban living. This new urbanity need not be incompatible with Tucson's present lifestyle. They can easily coexist and offer lifestyle choices for young and old that were not available here before.

Every city in America competes for the demographic of the 25-34 college-educated age group - the so-called young and restless. The reasoning is that some members of this group will create their own jobs and, with them, jobs for others. Portland attracts eight times the national average of this group. Tucson has lost countless young graduates who move to other cities. With its continued revitalization of downtown and the coming of the streetcar, Tucson will position itself to be a competitor in this market and offer more lifestyle choices for existing and future residents.

If you haven't been downtown for a while, go. And thank all the developers, businesses, government officials and citizens who are making this happen.

I tried not to say this but can't resist: At last, Tucson is on the right track.

Phil Whitmore was in charge of downtown Tucson's revitalization efforts and rehabilitation of west- and south-side neighborhoods in the late 1960s and '70s. He attempted for years to establish a "fixed guideway" transit system to link downtown and the University of Arizona and to surround downtown with thousands of urban-style housing units. He was unsuccessful in those efforts. He moved to Portland, Ore., in 1981 and established Metro Portland's nationally recognized Transit-Oriented Development Program.

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