City officials are discussing swapping the Ronstadt Transit Center and up to two other downtown properties to the owners of a scenic 284-parcel in the Painted Hills area to block development there.
For months, the city has been negotiating with the Dallas Police and Fire Employee Pension Fund on a deal that would eventually have the city ceding the Painted Hills property to Pima County in exchange for $3.6 million.
Bus riders and local activists fear monied interests could take away a vital transit hub many poor and working-class people rely on.
City and county officials confirmed the transit center is included in the discussions, but said the talks are preliminary.
"It is a property that is being looked at," said Mayor Jonathan Rothschild. "But nothing is confirmed."
Rothschild said that although the pension fund wants to develop the property, its plans would not jeopardize the entire transit center, only the south side along Congress Street.
"We are not looking at the entire property by any means," he said. "What's been made clear to me from our transit people is that we can take part of that frontage and preserve the functionality of the transit center and leave (it) in its basic location."
New development would result in the transit center being shifted slightly north, taking up some land on Pennington Street, according to Nicole Ewing-Gavin, an assistant to City Manager Richard Miranda.
Ewing-Gavin said there are still many properties on the table, and issues such as what to do about parking in that area still need to be resolved before final decisions are made.
She said options could be presented to the City Council in November.
The county has wanted the Painted Hills property since 1997, when it was made part of that year's open-space bond program. But the county was outbid in 2006 when the Dallas pension fund bought the property for $27 million.
County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said the Painted Hills property would become a part of Tucson Mountain Park and preserved as is with passive trails.
The county would then try to buy additional land to link Painted Hills to the rest of Tucson Mountain Park.
Not everyone's on board
Activist Brian Flagg of the Tucson Bus Riders Union organized a rally at the Ronstadt Center Monday to protest the plans.
"We feel the city has oftentimes not been transparent in their dealings," Flagg said. "The Ronstadt Center is really important to bus riders. It's the hub that gets them to jobs, to home, to clinic visits, everything. It's a lifeline."
He said the only acceptable changes to the transit center are improvements to make it easier on the people who use it.
Councilwoman Regina Romero said she would never support removing the Ronstadt Center from downtown. She said the city was forced into negotiations by legal fights with the pension fund and threats from the Legislature to change the law to force the city to provide water to Painted Hills to enable its development.
"That's the only reason we're negotiating," Romero said.
She said city land shouldn't be the only downtown land on the table.
"If the Dallas pension fund is interested in downtown land, the county also has downtown land," she said. "We shouldn't just be looking at the Ronstadt Center. We should be considering all of the county and city land as well."
County Supervisor Richard Elías said he wants to see Painted Hills preserved, but he added that Flagg makes good sense about the bus terminal downtown.
"We need to be talking about how to improve Ronstadt, not how to get rid of it," Elías said.
Barbie Urias, a spokeswoman for the Tucson Bus Riders Union, fears the settlement could mean the city gets rid of the center, which she said is something downtown developers have wanted.
Councilwoman Karin Uhlich said she wants no backroom deals on the transit center.
"This is an important place in Tucson, and I promise you if there are negotiations affecting it, those will happen in full light of day," Uhlich said.
Gary Coleman, a daily bus rider, said it would be wrong for the city to sell Ronstadt because it's a main access point to downtown.
"People come downtown, take the bus, socialize, and it's a good thing," he said.
"The Ronstadt Center is really important to bus riders. It's the hub that gets them to jobs, to home, to clinic visits, everything. It's a lifeline."