Steller: Decision time on developing key streetcar site

2014-08-09T19:30:00Z 2014-08-09T22:22:37Z Steller: Decision time on developing key streetcar siteTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
August 09, 2014 7:30 pm  • 

When I rode the streetcar for the first time Friday, the logic of the route struck me as clear — except for one key stretch.

It makes sense as you travel between the densely built UA, North Fourth Avenue and downtown. But then, from the federal courthouse on West Congress Street heading south then west of I-10, the streetcar passes through a stretch of undeveloped or half-built land before arriving at the Mercado San Agustín.

A visitor would have to wonder if something important is planned for that area, because otherwise that streetcar stretch makes no sense.

Well, something pretty important could be coming to part of the empty area — the “arena site,” an 8½-acre strip of land along the east side of Interstate 10 where the Greyhound station sits now. At a 9 a.m. Tuesday meeting, the Rio Nuevo board will hear presentations from two groups hoping to get the right to develop that property: one led by Allan Norville’s Nor-Generations LLC, the other by Ron Schwabe’s Peach Properties.

Both proposals include a hotel, housing, retail space and lots of parking — “mixed use,” as people love to say. Each group’s plan has its merits, but if I were on the board, perhaps the biggest factor I’d consider would be a record of getting things done. Downtown Tucson has had far too many pie-in-the-sky proposals that crashed, and too much dependence on single developers who couldn’t fulfill their promises.

That factor favors Schwabe and Peach Properties over Norville’s group.

My view of Norville is colored by having covered the 1997 trials in which the federal government sued him to seize the piece of his downtown property where the federal court now stands, at West Congress Street and South Granada Avenue. The trial was necessary because Norville contested the amount the government was willing to pay as part of an eminent-domain action.

It took two trials and an appeal to the 9th Circuit, but eventually Norville got about what the government had been willing to pay before the trials, $2.7 million. To this then-young reporter, Norville’s side, arguing for a $14.6 million payday, came off as intransigent.

Norville still owns the property just south of the courthouse, which is adjacent to the arena site. For two decades, his company has put up increasingly elaborate temporary structures on its property for annual gem-show expositions. For almost as long, he has also been talking about building a permanent exhibition space there. Still hasn’t happened.

Now he has made a 120,000-square-foot exhibition hall on the property he owns part of a broader arena-site proposal, arguing that just one developer, not another like Peach Properties, should build on the arena site and his adjacent property.

“We believe that to develop this civic core in piecemeal fashion, looking only to one project at a time, is not in the best interests of the citizens of Tucson,” the proposal says. “What is important about this plan is that it does not merely allocate space for all these uses, but it ensures that entire site, including land owned by Nor-generations LLC (Nor-Gen) will be developed in a way that creates the maximum synergy between the various parts.”

Among the bigger elements of the proposed “synergy”: a large “Visual Arts Center” at the corner of Congress and the Frontage Road to include a gem and mineral museum, photography museum, art museum, theater and lecture hall. To Tucson newcomers, that may sound great, but to those of us who’ve been around a while it smacks of the Rainbow Bridge, Sonoran Sea Aquarium and other dashed dreams of the past.

The Schwabe plan puts its hotel at the corner of West Congress and the Frontage Road and puts a much greater emphasis on residential development farther south. It also attempts to integrate its pedestrian paths into Norville’s proposed exhibition-hall project on his property to the east so both projects would work together.

I can’t guarantee the Peach Properties’ plan is superior, but it does look good. And I can say for sure that Schwabe is among the handful of downtown developers who have distinguished themselves, from Norville and others, by getting projects done.

Among Peach Properties’ projects has been the redevelopment of a former federal-court annex building and adjacent historic structures at 44 E. Broadway, the conversion of the Armory Park Apartments into The Herbert condominiums, and the redevelopment of the Martin Luther King Jr. Apartments at 1 N. Fifth Avenue.

“Our whole thing has been neighborhoods, putting the glue in to make the neighborhood work,” Schwabe told me Friday.

Norville declined to talk about his proposal for the arena site but did not like it when I suggested that he hasn’t got projects done during his decades downtown.

“We’ve built, every single year, a 120,000-square-foot building. We use every square inch of that property for the gem show,” he said of the land he owns next to the courthouse.

Norville’s argument that it would be better for one company to develop both his property and the arena site runs aground when you look west across the freeway. In 2008, the city awarded the Gadsden Co. the right to develop 14 acres at the west end of the streetcar’s route. The empty lots you travel through before arriving at the western end of the streetcar route is the acreage that Gadsden has not had the wherewithal to finish since the recession hit.

The city has repeatedly extended deadlines for the planned Gadsden housing development there, and eventually it may well be finished. But in retrospect, choosing more than one developer for different parts of that west-side spread could have reduced the risk of what’s occurred: having a completed streetcar line that travels through emptiness.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@tucson.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

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