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Nation's eyes are on Tucson's downtown development
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Nation's eyes are on Tucson's downtown development

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In case you have not noticed, downtown Tucson is on the rebound. This is consistent with national trends that I have been researching for several years.

For various reasons, Tucson is poised to become America’s downtown rebound poster child of the next generation.

First, my research, which focuses in part on America’s Sunbelt downtowns in metropolitan areas between 1 and 5 million people, indicates that roughly 1 percent of a metropolitan area’s residents want to live downtown. Of course, 99 percent do not. With a metropolitan area of 1 million people, downtown Tucson should be home to 10,000 people, but the current figure is about 3,000. So there is room to grow just to meet current demand.

Yet, second, with smart public-private partnership investments, this figure can be 2 percent. Not large in the scheme of things, but that is still 20,000 residents. This rises to 30,000 people by mid-century when metropolitan Tucson reaches 1.5 million residents.

Those investments include public leveraging of private resources in shops, restaurants, other businesses and housing. Rio Nuevo, Tucson’s downtown redevelopment authority, understands this. With $25 million to invest in infrastructure and related improvements, it plans to leverage $200 million or more in private investment over the next few years.

Third, Tucson was very smart in launching its modern streetcar. It is already exceeding ridership projections and is becoming the darling of the nation. The streetcar strategically connects Banner — University Medical Center, the University of Arizona and downtown along its nearly 4-mile route. Tens of thousands of medical center, university and other workers can now include downtown as a residential option. Many hundreds, if not thousands, of them will become downtown residents in the next few years.

Fourth, there are, of course, tens of thousands of students whose residential options now include downtown. Far from being low-income, most of these students have family and personal means allowing them to become significant contributors to the downtown economy.

Fifth, Tucson has been very smart in preserving its historical linkages, especially through renovating old buildings and assuring new ones fit in. People like living in “real” places, and downtown Tucson is already one.

What are the kinds of people who want to live downtown? My research indicates they are affluent singles of all ages, young professionals, families without children and empty-nesters. In effect, downtown is in the “sweet spot” for our changing demographics.

Between now and 2040, nearly half of the growth in households will be singles as younger people defer partnering and baby boomers lose their partners. At the same time, more than 80 percent of household growth will be those without children because they have already raised their children, have yet to raise children or may never raise children.

Downtown residents also tend to earn more money than the region as a whole, which means they spend more money downtown. Importantly, about 90 percent of downtown residents live there permanently, assuring a vibrant community of people committed to making downtown safe, clean and prosperous.

Moreover, these downtown residents are not investment dummies. Across the nation, downtown residential investments outperform similar investments elsewhere in the metropolitan area.

Notably, of downtown residents who work, about a third work downtown and another third work from their downtown residences. In other words, about two-thirds of these downtown residents do not need cars for commuting. The result is that average car ownership for downtown households is about half the national average.

There is also the potential for substantial new development in areas within walking distance or a streetcar-ride from downtown. Generally, for every downtown resident, another two want to live in neighborhoods nearby but not in the hustle-and-bustle of downtown itself. By mid-century, I estimate that about 60,000 people will want to live near downtown, compared to the 30,000 who live there now.

Put differently, the demand for downtown and nearby living will increase by more than 50,000 people to mid-century. This is equivalent to 10 percent of the metropolitan area’s growth. Unlike sprawling new projects, development in Tucson’s core does not need new land, new roads or many other new facilities. Core development will also generate many times more public revenues per acre over sprawling development. (That will be another commentary.)

I know from my travels that downtowns across America are watching downtown Tucson for the lessons it is already offering them.

Arthur C. Nelson is associate dean for research and discovery in the College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture at the University of Arizona.

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