Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Haven't We been Here Before?

Another day, another *headdesk* moment from the peeps in charge of Tucson's fourth consecutive decade of attempted downtown revitalization.
About 50 people got a close look at a preliminary architectural design for a Downtown convention center hotel Monday night. The architects detailed their plans, including their goal to break ground this fall. Imagine a 25-story, 525-room hotel shaped like a deck of cards — narrow on the east and west and broad on the south and north.

In other words, a slab. The hotel and old convention center new arena on this plot of land er, make it this plot of land ok, really now, this plot of land as far west of actual downtown as you can go before hitting the freeway nebulous additional project to be finalized later are the newest proposed centerpiece of Tucson's snakebit Rio Nuevo project, which was initiated with much fanfare several years ago and has generated tens of millions of dollars from special tax districts and state grants that have since largely been consumed by planning process after planning process, with very little material gains to show for it.

Historical note: downtown Tucson was plenty vitalized back in the day, until the nationwide wave of urban renewal in the '60s hit it and bulldozed its most vital components--you know, houses where people lived and shops where they bought their groceries and dry goods and restaurants and bars and dance halls where they entertained themselves--in favor of a sprawling cement convention center that draws crowds to sporadic concerts and meetings but otherwise has rendered Downtown deader than a doornail after 5 pm most days.

So since then the city fathers have been trying to figure out how to draw people and their dollars back to an area that's been reduced to a couple of streets' worth of shuttered storefronts interspersed with a handful of stalwart and legendary outposts of culture like Hotel Congress, the Rialto, Grill, Chicago Store, Hydra, and Wig-o-Rama. Rio Nuevo handed them a giant pile of cash and opportunity, and they came up with a lot of ideas. Some okay, some... not so much. Since downtown is plopped atop a piece of ground that has seen not only the original townsite but also several incarnations of settlement including a US Army outpost, a Spanish presidio and mission complex, and Native American villages stretching back four thousand years, and since the city saw no problem in the 1950s with demolishing all the remaining surface ruins in the area in favor of a landfill, some historic reconstruction was proposed. You know, rebuild the Convento, replant the mission gardens with the same species of flowers and fruit trees the Spanish priests brought with them, set up a little mercado with stands selling food and crafts. So far so good, right? Then came the next round of ideas.

The aquarium. Ahem. The Sonoran Something Aquarium. Because when you think Tucson, you automatically think water and fish, no? Then came the Rainbow Bridge, which was supposed to be some bizarre suspension bridge over the interstate that was going to hold the University of Arizona Science Center and be an iconic bit of architecture on par with the Eiffel Tower. I shit you not. Part of the justification for this bazillion-dollar, K'Nex-set-on-crack edifice that would look like it dropped out of nowhere in particular to squat over the highway and menace the cars was that nobody liked the Eiffel Tower either when it was first designed, but that didn't stop Paris from becoming a world-class city, conveniently ignoring the fact that Paris had already been a world-class city for a few centuries before the tower was built and sort of absorbed it and brought it along for the ride rather than the other way around.

Both the aquarium and the bridge were abandoned as being too expensive, after quite a bit of money was spent developing the ideas. The bridge was particularly amusing because it started out with a big price tag, and within a few months of the drawings and computer renderings being circulated to the papers, the architect cleared his throat and said it would actually cost maybe two or three times his original estimate. Undaunted, the Rio Nuevo planners continued casting about for that central attraction that would bring people downtown and settled on their perennial favorite idea they just can't shake themselves loose from: The Arena.

We have an arena already, the tired 5,000-seat smelly concrete box that's the centerpiece of the aforementioned Tucson Convention Center, and which hosts U of A club hockey games in the winter and occasional concerts. Downtown revitalization people kick around renovating that arena from time to time, but usually come back to the conclusion that it's not big enough to bother renovating. Because what we need is a big arena! A big 12,000-seat arena, or maybe 20,000 seats if the U of A would just commit to playing a couple of basketball games there, which they have steadfastly refused to do for the past 20 years or however long the city's been trying to convince them to say yes. So Rio Nuevo had to jump on this bandwagon as well, and started with the concept of an arena shaped like a desert tortoise. That promised to cost too much, so they backed it down to a generic arena shape, then it became a generic arena on a parcel of ground a little farther away from downtown than originally hoped after the first land deal fell through, and now this land deal looks like it's souring too, so they're fixing to settle on a parcel even farther away, crammed up against the interstate.

And they continue to completely miss the point. Instead of casting about for the building they can tout as the destination that will draw people downtown--the aquarium, the science center, the arena, the hotel--they need to realize that downtown itself needs to be the destination. A hotel--even a hotel shaped like a deck of cards--does not inspire me to go downtown if I, you know, already live here and have someplace to stay. An arena? With what in it? Another minor-league hockey team that will last a season and then fold (the last one actually folded before its season even began)? An Icecats team that draws about 1,000 fans on good nights, which total maybe 15 nights a year? Even if they get the hockey team (which they won't) or the arena football team (also mentioned as a possibility, possibly by people who didn't notice that the Arena Football League folded earlier this year) and could lure some bigger name acts from the reservation casino's ampitheatre, how does an arena on the very edge of downtown draw people there who don't have tickets, or during days and nights when nothing's booked? Hey, let's go look at the arena! Which does not look like a tortoise! Okay, now what?

Rio Nuevo people, please look north toward Flagstaff. Hell, you can even look at Mesa if all those damn hippies make you nervous. Flagstaff's downtown works because downtown itself is the draw. People don't go there because of an empty arena or a giant hotel they won't stay at or a convention center holding meetings they weren't invited to. They aren't drawn there by an aquarium they'll pay admission fees for once but aren't interested in seeing again for another year, or by a science center they can admire from the outside but can't see inside without a ticket. They go downtown in Flagstaff because of the variety it offers and the easy access to all of it by foot. Heritage Square is an attractive central open space that usually has live music on weekends and some weeknights, and it is surrounded by blocks of cafes, bars, coffee shops, galleries, restaurants, boutiques, bakeries, you name it. It isn't just wannabe hipsters hanging on the sidewalk outside Congress or older folks nervously dodging the homeless guys by Pancho Villa's statue on their way to the Fox Theatre before it closes again. You don't need a specific reason to go there, and even if you have one, you have plenty of options for sticking around afterwards.

My advice to the Rio Nuevo planners? Forget about renovating the King Apartments into the planned mixed residential/retail use and just bulldoze the block they sit on. Build a frickin' square--you know, the one you kind of envision when you see the facades of the Ronstadt Transit Center, right before you realize it's just a giant bus parking lot--and put retail spaces around its edges, leaving it open to Congress Street and Toole Avenue so it can naturally draw foot traffic from (and direct foot traffic to) both Hotel Congress/the Rialto and the historic train depot. A new market/cafe just opened in there, but it's going to be strangled by downtown's current layout where the few thriving businesses are islands unto themselves, separated from each other by big stretches of bleak. Then pray that the Fourth Avenue underpass re-opens on time, and do some serious landscaping to make it a vital artery connecting the Avenue with Downtown in a cohesive whole. And then go back to Jim Counts on your knees and beg him to open his brewery down there someplace that makes sense, say, in that nice new plaza you need to build.

Buildings are just buildings. If you want life, you need to create entire spaces and let little reasons to live take root in them. The buildings that follow will make a lot more sense that way.

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