Recent public comments have mischaracterized Tucson's 1960s urban renewal program as directed, bad decisions made 40 and 50 years ago, an impediment to downtown redevelopment, a mistake by which Tucson lost 300 to 400 historic houses and the cause of the demise of downtown.
Such comments, many of which may have become accepted as "conventional wisdom," do not square with the facts. So let's set the record straight.
Years before Tucson's downtown urban renewal project was first proposed in the '50s, the area (much of downtown and the community center area) had become blighted. Many people and businesses had left. The Old Pueblo District, Tucson's first 392-acre urban renewal project, was proposed in the late 1950s but not submitted to a public vote.
Tucson Citizen columnist Don Schellie wrote: "If Tucson has a skid row, then this is it. Meyer Street and the network of alleys and avenues that surrounds it - Sabino, Convent, Ochoa, McCormick, Franklin. Skid row, Tucson, Arizona, USA."
In September 1964, the Tucson City Council wanted a new plan. They recognized that the south Meyer Street area had become, by the 1950s, a "blighted and deteriorated" slum area; changing economic patterns had forced residents and businesses to seek new locations in growing areas of the community (El Con Mall, the first enclosed shopping mall in Tucson, planned in the late 1950s, opened in 1960); absentee slumlords neglected building maintenance; many buildings stood vacant; and private enterprise was not going to be able to undertake downtown revitalization.
This effort resulted in the Pueblo Center Project, covering 80 acres of the initial 392-acre plan.
On March 1, 1966, a referendum on this federally financed project was approved by a 3-2 vote of the people. The Pueblo Center Redevelopment Project provided for:
• The Tucson Art Center, incorporating several restored historic buildings.
• Sites for the county's present administration, courts, health buildings and federal building.
• The 610-space El Presidio parking garage.
• Pedestrian overpasses.
• La Placita.
• A 300-room hotel.
• The Convention Center, Music Hall, 500-seat (Leo Rich) theater and exhibit hall.
• Sites for a central fire station and police station.
This scaled-down project, initiated in 1964, targeted the heart of the blighted and deteriorated slum area, which involved 118 individual householders, 142 families and 105 businesses. It was a prudent civil decision and the result of, and in response to, the well-documented deteriorating conditions in the area - clearly not their cause.
From the 1970s on, with some notable exceptions (La Entrada projects, the east end of downtown and planning for the new modern streetcar line), the city has been unsuccessful in stimulating meaningful downtown residential redevelopment. The controversial Rio Nuevo project boundaries excluded much of downtown and primarily focused on the Convention Center area and the area west of Interstate 10.
The Pueblo Center Urban Renewal project, in fact, stabilized downtown by providing needed infrastructure and sites for public and other buildings, and strategic private development.
The central element lacking in the 1960s redevelopment project was provision for a downtown housing component, ostensibly to be provided by the private sector. Its absence remains today as the principal barrier to robust downtown development.
Still, without the stimulus provided by urban renewal decades ago, the present downtown would have deteriorated even more - exponentially.
Tucson needs a vibrant downtown. Unfortunately, not nearly enough has been done in recent decades to make this happen. Redevelopment in the east end of downtown and a modern streetcar line can serve as an impetus for a new and rejuvenated future downtown, for which urban renewal provided the foundation.
E-mail S. L. Schorr at SSchorr@LRLaw.com