Seeing people walk and run the trail at Randolph Center in midtown Tucson has always given me a bittersweet feeling.
On the one hand, it’s wonderful that so many people go there to enjoy themselves and stay healthy.
On the other hand, what a disappointing place to run, walk and bike.
The three-mile loop, with its paved trail, has a chain-link fence on one side for almost its entire length, and four-to-six lanes of heavy traffic on the other side for two of the three miles. Is this really the best Tucson can do?
That’s why it intrigued me when I heard of a new effort, led in part by 33-year-old Tucsonan Daniel Brockert, to expand Reid Park. His vision is of a “great iconic city park” that is a signature feature of Tucson, like Central Park to New York or Golden Gate Park to San Francisco.
Great so far, right?
The problem is, Brockert and his fellow campaigners would create this park by removing the two golf courses there, Randolph and Dell Urich. These are the two most-used and best-loved courses among the five belonging to the city of Tucson.
They also make a little bit of money. The new operator of the city courses, OB Sports, projects that those two courses will make a profit of about $835,000 in the 2014-2015 fiscal year.
The way Brockert sees it, golfers who use those two courses would go to the other three city courses, making them more financially viable.
“To me, the idea of closing the courses that lose money lacks vision,” he said. “We should be thinking about creating great parks, and then whatever you do about golf courses should be subordinate.”
The generations of golfers who have used those courses will have none of this idea, of course. Affordable, nice golf courses in the middle of the city are a unique feature for Tucson and help buoy businesses like the Doubletree Hotel across South Alvernon Way.
People like Carl McLaughlin, whom I met outside the driving range along Alvernon Friday, would make a formidable political force lined up against the “Expand Reid Park” campaign.
“Leave this golf course where it is,” said McLaughlin, who has worked at city courses such as El Rio.
City council member Steve Kozachik, in whose ward the courses and Reid Park sit, also viewed the idea as a nonstarter.
“It doesn’t come close to reflecting the greater good of the community,” Kozachik said. “Those two assets (the golf courses) are community assets that are serving constituents in this community — not just residents but visitors.”
“If you go to the west side of Reid Park, you can run around green pastures to your heart’s content,” he said. “The west side of Reid Park is what these guys are describing.”
So, politically speaking, Brockert’s idea faces tough prospects for now.
But I think objections such as Kozachik’s reflect thinking that is stuck in the status quo and in Tucson’s past as a major golf destination. Take a look at a satellite image of Reid Park and the two courses and you’ll see what I think are skewed priorities: Twice as much land dedicated to golf as to the general recreation that we all enjoy at Reid. Each course occupies about a quarter of a square mile, as does Reid Park.
Perhaps a compromise idea, over the long term, would be to transform the southernmost golf course, Dell Urich, into parkland connected to Reid Park to the west. Then Tucson’s walkers and runners could take a different three-mile trail, going around this Central Park of Tucson on a trail that doesn’t hug the busy streets so closely and has no chain-link fence on its inside. The northern golf course, Randolph, could remain.
“A compromise would be better than the status quo,” Brockert said. “But I think Tucson deserves a great iconic city park.”
Brockert grew up in Tucson in the neighborhoods south of the park and East 22nd Street. He came up with the idea after moving back here from seven years abroad in places like Turkey, Venezuela, China and Mexico. He loved Mexico City’s famous Chapultepec Park and was inspired by an outdoor workout gym in a city park in Turkey.
But what really got him and fellow Expand-Reid-Park leader Jeffrey Holsen excited was the story of the High Line in Manhattan. This 1½ mile raised railroad track had been abandoned and was destined to be torn down until a few neighborhood residents saw how wild plants had taken over the railroad bed, sparking an idea. Through years of campaigning, cajoling and even lawsuits, they eventually convinced the city to turn it into a raised park.
It’s been wildly successful, spurring development around the High Line. Brockert and Holsen think a vibrant new central park in Tucson could similarly spur development nearby. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re right.
“A golf course with a fence around it that keeps people out is not going to increase property values,” Brockert said.
Of course, Tucson has toyed with a similar idea in the controversy surrounding El Rio last year. Neighborhood residents, who have discussed turning El Rio golf course into a park, felt deceived when the city began negotiating with Grand Canyon University for the college to build a campus there. So far the status quo has prevailed on East Speedway.
There are other complications. The city just signed a management contract with OB Sports to run the city’s five courses, and early signs are that the company is doing a good job. But that contract can be terminated, and it only runs through 2018 anyway.
A vision such as the one Brockert and Holsen are promoting might well take that long to become reality. Entrenched interests will fight it. The costs will seem insurmountable. Naysayers will say nay.
But this is the kind of idea Tucsonans should consider — and pursue in some form — if this desert city is to become the great urban place many of us want it to be.