This is the city that brought the world the Rainbow Bridge.
Or, more to the point, we brought the world the idea of a Rainbow Bridge — an “iconic” structure crossing Interstate 10 downtown that was to be part of the broader Rio Nuevo project.
Despite years of excitement, planning and spending, it didn’t happen.
So, no wonder the excitement over the redevelopment of the Ronstadt Transit Center downtown has been muted. In another city or another time, with fewer downtown disappointments under the bridge, so to speak — the news this week that the City Council picked an ambitious redevelopment plan for the transit center would have been met with elation.
Instead, Tucson is, at best, hopeful.
“We’ve chosen a team that has provided a very nice-looking concept,” Mayor Jonathan Rothschild told me Wednesday, after the council had picked a proposal by Peach Properties. “I think the project can be done.”
The mayor made no promises except that city officials would sit down with Peach’s president, Ron Schwabe, and his team to “drill down” into the financial details of the deal, then negotiate a development agreement complete with benchmarks the developers must accomplish.
“We’re going to set timelines, we’re going to set termination schedules,” Rothschild said.
So, we’re protecting ourselves against disappointment and, more important, financial losses. That’s the wise thing to do, and something we didn’t do in previous instances. The Bourn Cos. project on East Congress Street is the best-known example — it’s still an empty lot a decade after the company got the property from the city, though Bourn is making some progress now.
“I don’t blame people for being worried,” architect Phil Swaim, who is part of the Peach team, told me. “Not because of our project, but because of the track record.”
The good news is, if it gets built, this is an awesome project that would transform the center of downtown. As designed now, it includes a nine-story hotel tower at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Congress. It would be a Moxy, which is a new Marriott hotel line aimed at millennials, Swaim said. The downtown development team of Scott Stiteler and Rudy Dabdoub, who are already building an AC Marriott nearby, are leading the hotel piece of the project.
Then there’s a plaza to the north of the hotel, then a seven-story building, another plaza, and another seven-story building, as well as a warehouse-style arts building and parking lot. Finally, tantalizingly and terrifyingly, a long pedestrian bridge would run from the current Ronstadt property over Toole Avenue, over the railroad tracks and over the new extension of Barraza-Aviation Parkway.
Yes, it includes a bridge, but without rainbows.
To the east of these buildings, between them and the Martin Luther King building, would be the new Ronstadt Transit Mall, accessible from the adjacent street or the two plazas.
It’s ambitious, but Swaim tells me it’s not too complicated to finance.
“Really, the pro-formas that Ron Schwabe has put together are based on standard debt-equity financing,” he said.
And Rothschild noted that it’s really a series of separate projects brought together in one grand design. It wouldn’t be surprising if one element or another of the project were reduced in scale or dropped altogether as the project proceeds.
Art Wadlund, who developed the office/residential project at 1 E. Broadway and has another project in the works diagonally across the intersection at 1 W. Broadway, told me financing is available for downtown projects.
“There are lenders who would love to lend, assuming they would do construction loans,” he said. In residential development, he said, “It’s easier to get money for downtown Tucson than it is for suburban apartment property.”
But the projects still need help such as city tax incentives, he said, to make them work financially.
The alternative to the Peach-led plan was a more conservative design made by The Alexander Co. of Madison, Wis. It was a simpler plan with fewer pieces. It was attractive. It was the safer-seeming bet.
But this is downtown Tucson — we’re going for the big win. Despite the past, and as long as we’re building protections into the deal, it’s hard for me not to be happy about that.
Karl Rove in town
Some Tucsonans were intrigued to see a sign at the Arizona Inn Tuesday night pointing to a meeting with Karl Rove.
It turns out, yes, the famous Republican insider was here, meeting with a group of about 20 donors. Of course, the group included Tucson auto-dealer and GOP mega-donor Jim Click.
My source on this is top secret. Actually, his name is Bruce Ash — you may have heard of him. He’s a Republican National Committeeman from here.
“It really was just a review for some party donors, of the status of where he saw the 2016 elections, vis a vis the House of Representatives, the Senate. Not much on the presidency because it’s so fluid right now,” Ash told me. “He talked a little about a book he has written that comes out next week. Most people would probably think it was boring.”
The PhoenixMart raid
The massive PhoenixMart project near Casa Grande has always been a bit of a mystery to many who have followed it. That’s because it’s so hard to understand and explain what it is.
The basic idea was a 1.5 million-square-foot international trade center where vendors would lease locations to sell their products to other businesses. It was a Chinese-funded project that hasn’t ever quite added up for me.
So it was not much of a shock Thursday to learn from the Phoenix Business Journal that FBI agents raided PhoenixMart’s offices yesterday morning. The Business Journal cited sources saying agents were investigating possible securities and investor fraud.
It would be disappointing if that were the case, but no great surprise.