Pamela Powers Hannley, a progressive voice for Arizona
Anyone who has lived in Tucson long enough knows that the vitality of downtown has ebbed and flowed with the winds of politics and the fortunes of capitalism.
Thanks to infrastructure investments, tax breaks, land deals, and the promise of
Rio Nuevo college students with Daddy’s credit cards, downtown is again on the upswing– with swanky bars, over-priced restaurants, micro-breweries, maxi-dorms, and a modern street car to deliver college students to the main gate of the university.
With the smell of money in the air, capitalists are ready to play “let’s make a deal” with Tucson’s Mayor and Council. One city property that developers have been trying to score for years is the Ronstadt Transit Center, on Congress. Once surrounded by seedy bars, funky diners, and shoe-string art galleries, the Ronstadt Center is now in the thick of downtown’s rebirth as Mill Ave South.
Anyone who was around in 2009-2010 when developers lobbied for a land swap deal that would include ~40% of the Ronstadt Center for commercial development should pay attention to what’s happening now.
At the February 5 meeting of Mayor and Council, Councilwoman Karin Uhlich moved that the city contact Corky Poster of Poster Frost Mirto to “begin a public planning process that will create a development vision and set of goals for the Ronstadt Transit Center (RTC) site, incorporating input from the recent Streetcar Charrette, the Downtown Tucson Partnership, the transit working group, the Bus Riders Union, adjacent property owners, surrounding neighborhood associations and the general public… Using the development vision and goals along with the information gathered in the stipulated staff analysis above, she further moved that the City Manager return to the Mayor and Council within 60-90 days with a draft Request for Qualifications (RFQ) seeking a qualified development team to plan, design, construct and own/lease/manage some components of an integrated mixed use development/transit center.” [Emphasis added.]
Taking advantage of the 60-90 day public comment period, approximately 250 people filled the Rialto Theater on April 2, for the Bus Riders’ Union public discussion about the future of the Ronstadt Transit Center.
After a few short speeches and a brief history of why the Ronstadt was built on Congress Street in the early 1990s, audience members were given the floor. From toilet paper and restroom doors that close and lock to sustainable downtown living to adding kid-friendly/people-friendly community space to the Ronstadt, about 20 citizens offered suggestions to improve the space. Not one person spoke in support of the idea of mixed use commercial development that would include retail or more maxi-dorms.
Instead, people spoke about the importance of the Ronstadt Center to their lives, the importance of community spaces to the health of our city, and the importance of an accessible public bus system to downtown. (Watch a compilation of comments here.)
“We have to look at this from the aspect of what is best for the city–not what is best for developers,” local attorney Bill Risner said. Risner and others cautioned attendees about the motives of developers who want to change the Ronstadt into a mixed use facility. He said they are looking at the Ronstadt as a “prime piece of real estate”– not as a resource for the community.
“We don’t need a stores, not retail. We don’t need a shopping mall above the Ronstadt,” said one bus rider. “We need public spaces for all of us [like playgrounds, band shells, gathering places]. Places where we all feel safe… [We need] things that bring us together and not tear us apart.”
The idea that the Ronstadt Center should be developed as a community space– not a commercial space– came up multiple times.
“Make it beautiful.”
“Make it a space we can be proud of.”
“Act like this is a benefit and treat it that way.”
Another common theme was that downtown businesses don’t like the looks of the poor people who ride the bus and frequent the transit center. One speaker speculated that businessmen, developers, and even the Mayor and Council would rather push the “poor, the addicted, and the mentally ill”– along with the transit center– out of downtown and out of sight, rather than dealing with the problems that created their predicaments.
In their remarks following public comment, Uhlich and Councilwoman Regina Romero both alluded to their struggles to keep the Ronstadt Transit Center downtown. Although the current proposal calls for mixed use development plans for the Ronstadt, past development proposals have called for moving the transit center out of downtown.
If the standing room only Rialto crowd, the public comments, and the 4-inch stack of comment cards are any indication of public interest, the Mayor and Council need to tread lightly on the idea of commercial development on Ronstadt Transit Center site. The city has not had a good track record on negotiating with developers in the past. Remember the downtown hotel fiacso a few years ago? Former Mayor Bob Walkup and the City Council were ready to put millions of dollars into development of a downtown convention hotel– until the people rose up and said, “No way!”
I believe that the current Mayor and Council should heed the words of former City Councilwoman Molly McKasson when she cautioned against the city putting “all of its eggs in the development basket.”
A few years ago when developers closed the gallery row in the 200 block of Congress Street to make way for more bars and restaurants, I wrote this story– What Is Our Shared Vision for Downtown?
My question still stands: What is our shared vision for downtown? Do we want 4th Ave and Congress Street to be Mill Ave South– with college bars and maxi-dorms– or do we want a vibrant community core for all of us?