The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.
When I voted for the Rio Nuevo Downtown Redevelopment and Revitalization District back in 1999, I thought that what they had meant by downtown was, well, a downtown in the way people generally meant it up to that time: a place where a homeless shelter or a fleabag hotel might exist alongside a luxury hotel, a funky, all-night café alongside a fancy restaurant, and a pawnshop next to an upscale department store.
But this doesn’t seem to be the downtown that we’re getting. Instead, as Tim Steller has been pointing out in some recent columns, the homeless are increasingly being forced out of downtown (“Downtown plaza improvements come with cost to Tucson’s homeless,” Jan. 21, 2018) and, due to the tax incentives being offered to upscale businesses, soon there might not be any places downtown “that don’t cater to moneyed people” (“Downscale spots in downtown Tucson in danger of disappearing,” Jan. 13, 2019).
Worse, it all seems part and parcel of what Rio Nuevo board Chair Fletcher McCusker called, in a discussion with Steller and Bill Buckmaster, the “maxing out” of downtown’s geography, in which the Rio Nuevo board will be “in the incentive business” until the downtown is wholly made up of mid-scale-and-up establishments. In this scenario, anyone looking for something less than a five dollar cup of coffee would have to go to an area adjacent to downtown to get it.
But if this is what Rio Nuevo is about, then I feel as though I was sold a false bill of goods when I voted for it. Indeed, the Rio Nuevo proposal that voters approved was mostly about developing and improving museums and cultural centers in the downtown, with only 2.5% of the money to be dedicated to the “construction of mixed-use residential/commercial developments” that now seem to be Rio Nuevo’s pride and joy. I certainly didn’t vote for what I, at least, would call the “redevelop the downtown into a mid- and upscale restaurant, bar and residential district, with student housing thrown in for good measure” zone, which seems to be the present-day reality of Rio Nuevo.
I suppose, if pressed, our local leaders would argue that they are simply following the new and improved model of “downtown redevelopment” that some number of cities across the country are following. Downtown San Diego was at the forefront of this, having already been largely gentrified 15 years ago (and McCusker himself stated to Steller that “downtown proper is going to become San Diego … you can see it heading in that direction”), but in my travels I have also seen this “class cleansing” operating in places as varied as Chicago’s Loop and Flagstaff’s downtown. They all, for example, exhibit a telltale sign of this class-cleansing in that each one of them has moved their Greyhound bus station out of their downtown (Greyhound often catering to lower-income passengers).
Or, as I will insist, out of their former downtowns, as real downtowns are the heart and soul of a vibrant, living city, where the various groups that make up the city come into contact with one another and try to deal with one another. They should not be places where public money is used to create class-defined preserves that effectively exclude the majority of the city’s inhabitants; and they certainly shouldn’t be, as our downtown and others across the country are becoming, symptomatic of the increasing social and economic division in our country between the rich and the poor.