Supporters of the Ronstadt Transit Center can breathe a bit easier.
For months, city officials were negotiating a deal to cede the Ronstadt Center and up to two other downtown properties to the owners of a scenic 284-parcel in the Painted Hills as a way to block development there. The city would have then sold the Painted Hills parcel to Pima County for $3.6 million.
When word leaked about the discussions, bus riders and their advocates staged a rally to protest what they feared may have been a backroom deal to hand off a vital transit hub for commuters to monied interests.
Last Tuesday, the mayor and council allayed those fears when they directed the city staff to create a "development vision" for the transit center that will maintain it as a transit hub while allowing for some mixed-use development. Once the plans are complete, the city will put the project out to competitive bid.
The move essentially separates the Ronstadt Center from the discussions with the Dallas Police and Fire Employee Pension Fund, which owns the Painted Hills property, said Councilwoman Karin Uhlich, who drafted the motion.
"They may well be one of the interested respondents," Uhlich said. "But there are two parallel conversations going on in the community now" - one with the pension fund and the other on what to do with the Ronstadt Center.
She said the conversation on the transit center had been fruitless for too long.
Now's the time to redirect the discussion to include how to attract development that will make downtown more vibrant without compromising transit.
"Tucson's been stuck over a decade in this polarized dynamic ... with some folks saying we don't touch (Ronstadt) and others saying we do away with it completely," Uhlich said. "So it really is exciting to think how pedestrian and transit and other modes of transportation can come together in the downtown to create this mix of people and activities that make so many (other) downtowns great."
Councilman Steve Kozachik said the city was never just going to hand over the transit center and give carte blanche to the Dallas pension fund.
"The firefighters had hoped that we would just give it to them and let them build on it, but that's not the way it's going to work," Kozachik said. "They can compete for it. ... But we weren't inclined to just turn it over. That would be absurd."
County tried to buy it
Pima County has had its eye on the Painted Hills property since 1997, when it was included in that year's open-space bond program. The county tried to buy it in 2006 but was outbid when the Dallas pension fund bought the property for $27 million.
The county was a party to the negotiations, but now it appears to be in the dark regarding the city's recent move, according to County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry.
"We haven't heard much of anything," Huckelberry said. "We're still prepared to cooperate with the city to ensure the Painted Hills is conserved. But somebody's got to tell us what they like."
If the county ever acquires the property, it would combine with part of Tucson Mountain Park and remain undeveloped.
The county would then attempt to buy additional land to connect Painted Hills to the rest of Tucson Mountain Park.
"It really is exciting to think how pedestrian and transit and other modes of transportation can come together in the downtown to create this mix of people and activities that make so many (other) downtowns great."
Councilwoman Karin Uhlich
Contact reporter Darren DaRonco at 573-4243 or firstname.lastname@example.org.