Tear down La Placita, keep bikes away from the streetcar and build on what you already have.
Those were just some of the suggestions a national panel offered to local government and business leaders on how to continue growing Tucson’s downtown area.
More than 100 people representing business, government and neighborhood interests crowded a meeting room at the Tucson Convention Center Friday morning to hear an Urban Land Institute advisory panel’s preliminary findings on how to bolster downtown.
ULI is a national group of real estate, development and other business professionals who offer advice on land development issues.
Tucson, Pima County, Rio Nuevo and others kicked in a combined $130,000 for the group’s five-day program to figure out what to do with downtown properties, especially the ones surrounding the TCC and directly west of Interstate 10.
The process entailed a seven-member panel of experts studying Tucson’s economy, history and demographics and coming to town last week to interview around 120 people from a broad cross section of Tucson life.
After the interviews, the panelists sequestered themselves for two days in a Tucson hotel as they hashed out recommendations for improving the city.
Although the group is designed to create an far-reaching vision for the community, elaborate plans aren’t part of ULI’s services.
“We’re not a networking group. We’re not a bragging group,” said panel Chairman John Walsh, president of Texas-based TIG Real Estate Services. “We’re a research organization formed for sharing best practices and those mistakes made and lessons learned.”
That’s just fine with the city.
“We’ve tried the grandiose plans,” said assistant to the city manager Nicole Ewing-Gavin. “We don’t want that. We were looking for things that can be achieved and are affordable.”
That meant world-class arenas and re-creating downtown Tucson in the image of Venice were out, even if some of the folks interviewed asked for such things.
“We saw some dreams,” Walsh said. “But we’re here to set a vision” that’s achievable.
RETAIL AND HOUSING
For starters, the city can cultivate density in the downtown core.
“We enjoy our views of the mountains,” said panelist Michael Berne, president of MJB Consulting in New York. “But if we want to sustain downtown, we need density.”
To accomplish that, the panel suggested building single-family housing units in the historic neighborhoods surrounding downtown to attract the types of folks who can grow the existing businesses and attract new ones.
Berne suggested focusing on bringing in retailers and restaurants that are positioned between national chains and mom-and-pop outfits to appeal to a broader customer base.
In addition, downtown needs more quick-service restaurants to cater to the 27,000 employees who work downtown.
While the talk of building density makes some neighborhood groups cringe, Chris Gans, president of the West University Neighborhood Association, said density could be a positive for a neighborhood if it’s planned correctly and residents are consulted.
“It has to be done wisely. You don’t just plop something down to create density,” Gans said. “It can be well done and, as we’ve seen, it can be poorly done. … For it to be successful, there really needs to be engagement of all the parties involved.”
While the TCC has seen better days, the panelists believe it can be salvaged.
Suggestions included improvements the city and Rio Nuevo are already pursuing, such as seeking private management to run the place and sprucing up the building.
Other suggestions involved demolishing La Placita and Hotel Arizona to open up the TCC plaza for events.
La Placita “was an interesting plan,” said panelist Peter Hasselman, architect from DMG Consulting out of Miami. “But its time has passed.”
Panelists said the city should focus on holding smaller-scale events on a more consistent basis so more people come downtown and spend money.
Other suggestions for the TCC’s surrounding properties ranged from creating expo space to enticing the University of Arizona to relocate some of its departments downtown.
“The most dramatic thing that can happen is to attract the (UA) deeper into the central business district,” said panelist Charles Johnson, president of Chicago-based C.H. Johnson Consulting.
Not everyone was enamored with the plans.
Humberto Lopez, who owns La Placita and Hotel Arizona, laughed at the notion of tearing down his properties to improve the TCC.
He also said the panelists underestimated the TCC’s potential.
“They don’t believe that Tucson is a convention city,” Lopez said. “They talk about it like it’s a community center.”
Lopez scoffed at the idea that the region should concern itself only with attracting small-scale events.
“We’ve got great weather. We’ve got a great history out here. Why can we not be able to host conventions?” he said. “They’d love to come out here.”
He said Tucson could still bring in the large revenue-producing conventions if the right pieces are put in place.
You can’t grow downtown if people can’t get there. So ULI panelists said the city needs to maximize parking and transit use while at the same time making it accessible and safe for pedestrians and bicyclists to traverse city streets.
One of the most important things, the panelists stressed, was the city needed to remove its bike lanes from the streetcar route.
“Bike lanes should not overlap the streetcar tracks,” said panelist Ross Tilghman, director of the Seattle-based Tilghman Group. “The experience elsewhere is simply too grim. ... You’ve got signs downtown sort of ominously warning people about the dangers. So I’d spend more money putting the bike lane paint on other streets than putting up warning signs like that.”
But Tucson resident Richard Mares was wary of the taking the bikes off the streetcar line.
“If you eliminate bicycle and streetcar interaction, how do you replace it?” Mares asked. “If you want a different world, you need to build for the future, not for the current reality, which is ... dominated by cars.”
Not much was offered on what to do with property west of I-10.
Panelists said much it wasn’t commercially viable since it contained old landfills.
But they did offer a few potential uses such as parking, a visitors center and a space reserved for equestrian or rodeo-type events. They also mentioned adding marketplaces for folks to dine and shop.
TAKE YOUR TIME
In the end, panelists urged cooperation and restraint to allow the market to dictate where the money and projects flow.
“This validates what we’ve been doing on the east side of downtown,” said Councilman Steve Kozachik. “And tells us to move slowly with the rest of downtown when the market calls for it. ... We shouldn’t try being what we’re not.”
While some of the suggestions might invite some controversy, Rio Nuevo Chairman Fletcher McCusker said everyone can agree all sides should come together and develop a workable plan for downtown growth.