Pamela Powers, a progressive voice for Arizona
Do you remember the controversy surrounding redevelopment of the Ronstadt Transit Center? Back in 2013-2014, developers were making a play to redevelopment the Ronstadt Transit Center. They had pitched redevelopment of the Ronstadt in the past and failed; the 2013-14 plans revolved around building something on top of the Ronstadt. I mention this ancient history because the Ronstadt redevelopment project– which I mistakenly thought had died a silent death– popped up at a recent Mayor and Council candidate forum as a good idea. Now I realize that demolition of the Ronstadt Transit Center is on the horizon– along with construction of more luxury apartments and yet another “boutique hotel.” Groan. Why are we doing this? Why are we destroying our sense of place and community on Congress Street and 4th Ave. in exchange for big boxy buildings?
Old timers like me remember the original design and intent of the Ronstadt Transit Center as not only a transit hub to bring people in and out of downtown but also a community gathering space. In fact, I often wrote about and photographed downtown when I had my writing, photography and design business in the 1980s and later in the 2000s as a downtown artist. In addition to writing for Dateline Downtown, a weekly downtown newspaper, the Tucson Arts District Partnership was one of my clients. In the 2000s, as Wind Dancer Design, I was a member of Central Arts Gallery, one of the former on Congress Street galleries that were replaced by restaurants and bars.
The low brick walls were designed as benches and gathering spaces around the Ronstadt Center. The rustic brick, custom decorative tiles, and the large decorative brick patio area (with bricks from the Ronstadt Hardware Store, that once stood there) gave the design a sense if place and purpose. Form + function makes for good design. The patio, which had tables at one point, was designed for people to sit while they waited for the bus or had sandwich from one of the restaurants or a food cart set up on the patio.
For some reason a few years ago, the mayor and council decided to “harden the target” and put up all sorts of what I consider to be unnecessary security barriers and other changes to the venue that make it less accessible for the general public and more difficult for people to sit in community with neighbors and tourists. At a community forum in 2013, local residents and downtown advocates theorized that the downtown business owners wanted to make the Ronstadt less inviting and accessible because they wanted to push the riff-raff (AKA, the homeless) out of downtown.
The city also removed the historic, decorative brick patio, which had been used as a performance space during the old Downtown Saturday Night events. The brick came from the Ronstadt hardware story, which used to occupy that land. (DSN was super popular but discontinued during the Mayor Walkup era and re-started later as Second Saturday.)
Why Redevelop the Ronstadt?
The 2013-14 controversy over the redevelopment of the Ronstadt Center occurred when developers lobbied mayor and council to build something– offices, retail, apartments, whatever– on top of the Ronstadt Center. (Attempts to dramatically reduce the footprint of the Ronstadt– thus reducing functionality and usage– and efforts to move the transit center out of down town had failed previously.)
At the time, I vehemently opposed building on top of the Ronstadt because it would make it less visible and less accessible, would destroy the architectural design, and would completely eliminate the open-air community space that was part of the original intent. Also, putting structure above the transit center but allowing buses to operate there brought back childhood images of stinky, dark, noisy enclosed bus terminals.
Let’s celebrate the community and the positive environmental impact of the bus and streetcar– rather than demolishing the Ronstadt and hiding mass transit from view. Look at the featured photo for this article. The Ronstadt is beautiful at night. Should it’s unique design — which adds to Tucson’s sense of place– be replaced by another generic, boxy high-rise, like the other buildings in Rio Nuevo? I think not. The residents of Tucson should fight to keep what’s unique about our city and not allow our streetscapes to be homogenized. Generic expensive hotels and apartments are everywhere. In my travels to Denver, Golden, Seattle and Phoenix, I have seen the same architectural designs for apartment buildings that Tucson has downtown. Nothing new to see. People are drawn to Tucson because of it’s quirky unique qualities and great food, music, art and history.
Back in 2013-14, the reason giving for a building up on top of the bus terminal was that the Congress Street real estate was “way too valuable not to develop.” At the time, there were lots of miscellaneous empty lots in downtown Tucson– many of which were owned by the city or county. In my writing, I advocated for developing the empty lots first– before taking a space that was designed to be an environmentally friendly space for people to gather and ride the bus. One unique characteristic that makes the Ronstadt very appealing to developers is that the land is government-owned. The City of Tucson owns the Ronstadt and the land under it. No property tax is collected on government-owned land (or the structures on the land). The private corporations that plan to demolish the Ronstadt and build the luxury apartments, boutique hotel and enclosed bus bays will not pay property tax. This project is similar to the Honors College that was built on University of Arizona land in the Feldman Neighborhood and the brand new, gigantic gleaming glass State Farm Insurance headquarters on the Tempe Town Lake. These private developments don’t pay property tax because they are built on government owned land. Who loses? Public education because it is funded by property tax. What do the City of Tucson, the University of Arizona, Arizona State University, the developers and the equity partners get out of these deals? Ask them. My impression is these deals are customized.
Well… both the City of Phoenix and the City of Seattle have downtown open-air transit centers that also have seating and places for people to congregate. Phoenix’s bus and light rail transit center at the corner of Van Buren and Central Ave. in the heart of downtown is beautiful, with cool sculptures and seating.
Seattle’s light rail transit center in the International Zone/Chinatown is on the bus line and very close to the Amtrak station, and the cruise ship docks. What great planning. On a recent trip to Seattle, we took the Amtrak from Edmonds, Washington to Seattle, wandered around Seattle and had lunch, and took the light rail to the SeaTak Airport. Why don’t we do this? As a tourist, this was so convenient.
The success of– and mere existence of– open-air transit centers in Phoenix and Seattle blows away the argument that the Ronstadt land is “way too valuable not to develop,” in my opinion. It’s 2019. In the past six years, developers have built high-rise office buildings, maxi-dorms, and hotels all over downtown’s Rio Nuevo tax increment financing district. Since the Ronstadt Transit Center redevelopment hadn’t happened, I assumed the idea was dead. Now, I see that the Mayor and Council have been chugging forward on plans to redevelop the Ronstadt– despite the wide public disapproval in 2013-14.
We have beautiful weather, and tourists come here for it. Residents and visitors to Tucson deserve to have an outside space where they can gather and not have to buy something or be told to move along.
The City of Tucson should preserve the Ronstadt Transit Center as a space for the people, as it was originally intended. Rip out the ugly fences, take down the “keep out” signs, bring back the seating, the food, and the dancing, and give the people a space to gather in community. The developers have enough of downtown.
I realize that stopping the redevelopment of the Ronstadt Transit Center at this juncture is a Quixotic request, but, seriously, friends, why are we doing this? Why are we using government-owned land for luxury housing, yet another hotel, and retail on top of the bus station? We must look at the needs of the city and think of our sense of place. Let’s not destroy Tucson’s uniqueness in the name of economic development.
A city with a 25% poverty rate doesn’t need more expensive penthouse apartments or boutique hotels.
Do you want this on Congress Street…
Check out some of my writing on this topic from 2013-14 (There’s a lot more if you search “ronstadt” or “downtown” on Tucson-Progressive.com.)
Ronstadt Transit Center: City, Developers Ponder Proverbial Political Football (video) This blog post includes a video of a public meeting at the Rialto about downtown development.
Ronstadt Transit Center: Community Space or Capitalist Dream? This blog post includes several links about the Ronstadt re-development proposals.
The mainstream media coverage of the Ronstadt Transit Center redevelopment project was light. Here are blog posts with four different viewpoints (taken from documents written by these groups.)
Downtown for Everyone, Part 1: What Business Wants
Downtown for Everyone, Part 2: What Downtown Neighborhoods Want
Downtown for Everyone, Part 3: What Bus Riders Want
Downtown for Everyone, Part 4: What Tucson Citizens Want
Last but not lease… an oldie but goodie, originally published in 2009…
A Trip Down Memory Lane: What is our shared vision for downtown Tucson?
More about the Ronstadt redevelopment plans from other sources…
Bus Fuss : Council candidates talk about the future of the Ronstadt Transit Center Tucson Weekly, 2013
CITY DEAL: Ronstadt Transit Center may be swapped for Painted Hills parcel (Arizona Daily Star, 2012)
Ronstadt Transit Center Joint Development (from the City of Tucson website)
The Ronstadt (from the Downtown Tucson Partnership website).