Something must be done with Broadway. The main entrance to our downtown from the east is shabby, neglected and ripe for redevelopment. It should be an inviting gateway to our revitalizing city center, an extension of that vitality into the city. How best to accomplish this?

The $74 million RTA plan calls for widening Broadway from Country Club to Euclid, from four lanes to six, with a central median and dual turn lanes to move traffic.

The plan includes 6-foot bike lanes, wide sidewalks and landscaping. The engineering team has done its best to skillfully design what they were asked to: namely, push six lanes of traffic through several of Tucson’s oldest neighborhoods. The fault lies not with the engineers, but with what they were asked do.

The current plan requires the demolition of at least 27 buildings, 18 of which are historically listed or eligible for listing.

An engineer with whom I spoke at the city’s open house on March 29 confided that as many as 50 structures may need to be acquired and demolished.

The problem with this? Residual lots are too narrow to build on. They become landscaped buffers to adjacent neighborhoods, but allow no redevelopment such as housing or businesses that would both add urban vitality and add to the tax rolls.

When I asked why six lanes are needed, when traffic counts on Broadway have decreased in recent years, the answer was, “That’s what the voters mandated in 2006 when they approved the RTA.” Yet the world has changed over the past decade.

The RTA vote was held before the Great Recession and was based on traffic projections from the 1990s. We shouldn’t be forced to follow outdated models, when growing evidence from around the nation shows it’s better to slow traffic down and give people a reason stay in an area, rather than driving through it.

The future will see reduced automobile use, increased cycling and public transit. Broadway at four lanes is perfect for bus rapid transit.

Reasonably there must be a method to amend the RTA plan to reflect changing conditions.

Contemporary urban design theory favors making the street itself a destination, not a thoroughfare, and integrating historic preservation with urban infill and sustainable design.

Recognized best practices of urban design focus activity on the street, preserving existing urban fabric, allowing infill, increased density and urban vitality.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Green Lab study, “Older, Smaller, Better,” documents this.

Some specific suggestions:

• Traffic medians are a suburban idea. Eliminate the median and adopt a central turn lane. Maintain narrowest right-of-way to preserve historic buildings and developable land. Improve urbanity, put businesses and buildings on tax rolls, helping to sustain the city.

  • Bike paths are well-intended but dangerous. Cyclists are killed every year in Tucson on bike paths. Alternatively, identify safe bike routes through residential streets a block or two off Broadway. Far safer and less expensive, this narrows the right-of-way by 12 feet, allowing for landscaped sidewalks.
  • The current plan shows a large open space near downtown, identified as “water harvesting.” It’s well-intended, but this is the kind of site that should be sold for redevelopment with a high-density mixed-use urban building, as is now happening downtown.

If implemented as now conceived, the Broadway widening plan would create yet another lifeless traffic corridor through the heart of Tucson’s central historic neighborhoods.

By reconsidering this plan, by adding an urban-design component, we can achieve a beautified street that encourages further investment and improvements to make Tucson more sustainable, both environmentally and economically.

Robert Vint in an architect in private practive, a native Tucsonan and a member of the adjunct faculty at the University of Arizona School of Architecture, where he teaches the history and theory of urban design. Contact him at bob@vintarchitects.net