It doesn’t take much imagination to see the culture clashes a renewed downtown Tucson is bringing about.
A 500-bed student housing complex, The Cadence, is opening down the block from $25-a-plate restaurants, which are across the street from the Ronstadt bus terminal.
Now pour alcohol onto this combustible mixture.
When I walk through the renewed downtown, as much as I enjoy it, I see it floating upward on a steadily deepening pool of alcohol. Bars and restaurants on four blocks of East Congress Street downtown now boast 17 liquor licenses, and those on adjacent blocks have another nine, state records show.
By comparison, businesses on Mill Avenue in Tempe’s entertainment district have 28 liquor licenses. Not that Mill Avenue is a comparison downtown Tucson business owners want to make, considering its reputation for rowdy Arizona State University students fighting and making trouble.
But these are similarities we need to confront and learn from. Students are poised to become a key population segment downtown, and with the streetcar to start running between the University of Arizona and downtown within a year, the city center will increasingly be a major gathering point for both students who just came of drinking age and middle-age-and-up adults enjoying a sophisticated night out.
We may need to learn from places like Mill Avenue and downtown Scottsdale in order to avoid big setbacks in downtown development.
The signs are already there that disorderliness could break out from young drinkers downtown.
“Stuff goes on late at night, and there should be more police out,” said Amy Pike, owner of a shop at 21 E. Congress called A Perfect Pantry. “My windows are all scratched up from those guys. You get the trash that they strew around. It’s a nuisance.”
And that’s before the opening of World of Beer. Honestly, nothing symbolizes booze flowing downtown like this place, which has leased a spot on the ground floor of The Cadence.
Also, baby boomers increasingly coming downtown present new challenges.
“As people get older, they get more vulnerable,” she said.
About six months ago, Margo Susco’s longtime store, Hydra, had a window broken late at night. Susco says there are potential problems in the different “factions” that may come together, especially after drinking. Nevertheless, she’s convinced that police and downtown merchants are dealing with the problem.
Tucson police Capt. James Webb oversees downtown, and he said the department is trying a variety of strategies to keep trouble at a minimum downtown. More officers have been working downtown and on North Fourth Avenue late on weekend nights, some of them foot and bicycle patrols that can mix more easily with the crowds.
The department also closed westbound East Congress Street at Sixth Avenue in order to prevent cruisers from driving past certain clubs at closing time. And they’ve worked out a plan with Downtown Tucson Partnership staff, who move back from the clubs as the nights go on, letting police be the primary responders.
Over pints of Alaskan Amber, I watched the USA vs. Mexico soccer game at Playground Tucson, 278 E. Congress St., last week. Playground has become a soccer bar, where fans gather to watch big games, cheering and chanting, and it was crowded Tuesday night but orderly enough. I was impressed with the watch bar staffers kept on the crowd and the doors.
Still, it takes more than security officers and police work to create an atmosphere that discourages drunken chaos. Believe it or not, Mill Avenue has found a few solutions. Nancy Hormann, executive director of the Mill Avenue District group, said downtown Tempe stakeholders went through an 18-month “hospitality zone assessment” beginning two years ago.
Some of the outcomes surprised me. Yes, Tempe police are present and coordinated with nightclubs in the late nights when young revelers tend to get crazy. But there are also details such as a new “amplified sound ordinance” that prohibits street musicians from amplifying their instruments and voices after 10 p.m.
The idea is to lessen the agitation of late-night revelers while at the same time preserving a bit of quiet for the growing number of area residents. A more peaceful atmosphere leads to more peaceful behavior, Hormann said.
“When it’s messy and it’s dirty, it gives people free rein to not care,” she told me Thursday. “The nicer things are, the less fighting there is.”
They even power-wash the sidewalks in downtown Tempe.
“You really act in the same way as your environment,” she said.
Scottsdale has also been confronting the issues that come with heavy congregations of young drinkers. Some are as simple as frequent late-night littering: beer bottles, hamburger wrappers and the like. Scottsdale passed a littering ordinance specific to downtown, which makes punishments for a violation there much more severe than elsewhere in the city: a $150 city fine, plus state surcharges that add up to more than $300.
“We’re trying to cut into young people’s drinking money,” said the mayor’s chief of staff, J.P. Twist. The idea is that word will spread once a few of these tickets are issued.
In the midst of the city’s cleanup efforts downtown, on Jan. 27, a bouncer at a downtown Scottsdale club, Tyrice Thompson, was stabbed to death after kicking a group out of the club.
At the city’s request, downtown Scottsdale bar owners have formed an organization that pays for private trash cleanups every weekend morning and sets aside a reserve fund. That money can pay for damages such as broken windows caused by drunken nightclub patrons.
Of course, Tucson does have its organization keeping tabs on the area’s condition and development, the Downtown Tucson Partnership. Its president, Michael Keith, doesn’t agree with my vision of our downtown as afloat on a sea of alcohol.
Keith pointed out there are only a handful of nightclubs downtown, compared with a much larger number of restaurants that serve alcohol.
“You go out to eat with the idea that you’re going to have a glass of wine or beer,” he said.
He also noted that most of the investment downtown is not going into restaurants and bars, but into ventures such as housing and offices. And he warned against taking the spontaneity out of the area.
“You have to be careful about socially engineering downtown,” he said.
It’s true and a good point — one of key characteristics of any decent downtown is that you may run into the unexpected. But it’s a fine line between having a spontaneous downtown and having a downtown where you are regularly confronted by obnoxious drunks.
That’s a fine line I think downtown Tucson should aim to draw. Pike, of A Perfect Pantry, puts it this way:
“There’s room for everybody, but there’s no room for people who don’t behave themselves. Behave yourself and you’re welcome.”