After decades of challenges to downtown revitalization followed by an especially trying economic recession, much of Tucson’s stalled investment dollars are once again moving towards project implementation. A series of concurrent and nearly adjacent projects are in progress or will enter the planning and design stages this summer. Two are massive infrastructure investments—the $76 million Downtown Links roadway and the $200 million Modern Streetcar. Once known as “the last mile,” the Links is intended to be a connector road, moving traffic from Barrazza-Aviation Parkway southeast of downtown to I-10 on the west. The construction of a new, limited-access roadway through downtown—even a low-speed, four-lane version—is, as you can imagine, still somewhat controversial. The current scope and alignment of the Links, though, represents decades of compromise, public sector outreach, and voter approval and includes many positive improvements in traffic and water management, safety, bicycle mobility, and landscaping. Still, it needs work. The Links crosses over the new streetcar line, which connects the University of Arizona to downtown as well as to historic neighborhoods and infill development opportunities on the west side of I-10. Urban overlay districts and master planning efforts surrounding both projects are independently in process, as is a reconsideration of the Ronstadt Transit Center, the bus terminal also in the center of downtown. All are sliced through by Union Pacific railroad, which operates over 50 trains a day through downtown Tucson. All impact an eclectic, yet somewhat struggling, warehouse arts district.
Much of our efforts at the Sustainable Cities Design Academy (SCDA) focused on how to turn these transportation investments, from roads and rail, to larger opportunities for urban reinvention. Our team, made up of long-time Tucsonans and a very recent transplant (me), sought insight from SCDA participants in identifying key design opportunities, collectively imagining possibilities, and reinforcing the newest and best sustainable urban design models. What we discovered was that our strong existing initiatives could be supported, enhanced, and unified by focusing on four primary areas: leadership, identity, knitting rather than dividing, and O2 (organization and outreach).
How did we get there? SCDA strategically pairs the project teams who bring the problems to DC with resource teams rich with relevant expertise. Often the pairings (and sometimes even the problems) are less than obvious; the feat, though, is the reveal of the problems beneath the problems that occur over the multi-day event. Our team brought specific questions about relocating Ronstadt Transit Center and about land use along the new Downtown Links roadway, as well as broad questions about economic development, identity, and coordination. Though these inherently remained on the table, we realized achieving success in these areas requires potentially restructuring the way we receive community input and connecting the most influential people in the city to work on its most critical problems. Though not overtly urban design questions, they are planning questions and point to larger barriers blocking the path to the city we’re seeking. Incorporating these ideas will not only transform the Warehouse Arts District and the area surrounding the Links and the Streetcar, but also future projects in the city.
Though more straight-forward projects might succeed with a client, a designer, a developer, and ample funding, complicated, large-scale projects inevitably need a project champion or champions to lead cross-agency, sometimes controversial, projects to fruition. Tucson currently lacks such a figure leading a collective vision for the Downtown Links, Streetcar, and Warehouse Arts District. Though planning efforts exist, they tend to be siloed by project or political ward, contained through scope-of-work boundaries, limited by political influence or funding, or relegated to goals of efficiency or affordability rather than vision. We feel three coordinated efforts can help the WARD (more on that term later) move forward: a Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Leadership Committee made up of well-respected, influential members from the arts, community, government, and business; clear, shared goals from the top and support of city staff and department heads (training, funding, accolades) in prioritizing them; and reconsideration of community advisory committees (or CACs) so they are clear about their scope and informed about their impacts.
Though Tucson is known as a funky, bike-friendly community with an active music scene, it lacks a strong, readily recognizable identity. Its nickname—the Old Pueblo—conjures its relationship to history, but fails to project a vision for its future. The Links and Streetcar are literally reshaping the center of our downtown, and that reshaping should capitalize on the combined historic character, latent eccentricities, and emerging innovation that could coalesce into something stronger, more visible and more marketable. An acronym emerged from our work at SCDA that brings together all of the vectors and vitality of the area—WARD: Warehouse Arts & Rail District. This captures both the arts component of the area and the historic and new rail that define so much of the area’s personality. In addition, it unites an area that is technically divided into multiple political wards, helping reduce the power of that invisible line. This consolidated identity should be expressed visually and materially, capitalizing on views and access from the new Links and the numerous Streetcar stops within walking distance. It should capture the existing historic sense of the district as well as add a vision rich with innovation and committed to sustainability.
KNIT RATHER THAN DIVIDE
Rather than seeing the Links, Streetcar, and Ronstadt Transit Center each as separate transportation initiatives, we have to consider them as coincident opportunities for multi-modal thinking, more sustainable urban planning, and higher quality urban design. Relating transportation, land use, density, and design allows us to consider the experiences of people rather than just the flow of traffic. One additional way to do this is to reframe the Links as a multi-modal line with car traffic as just one component of this southeast/northwest connector. Providing space for bus rapid transit now broadens the usability of the roadway. Emphasizing bike and pedestrian uses as priorities of this route fits with the needs and values of the surrounding communities.
Linking also has to happen by physically stitching together the areas north and south of the railroad more effectively. Several at-grade crossings will be remediated or removed in the next phase of the Links. Of the three original underpasses to downtown—4th Avenue, 6th Avenue, and Stone Avenue—only one has been rebuilt to allow ample space for bikes and cars and a higher quality pedestrian experience. The 6th and Stone Avenues’ underpasses are of historic value, but are currently in poor physical condition and seem unwelcoming and unsafe to pedestrians and cyclists. We came to the conclusion that now is the time to reconsider the entire range of north-south links—renovating or redesigning one or both of the older underpasses; developing short-term solutions through lighting, art, and paint (thanks to our Greensboro Project Team colleagues); and adding a pedestrian/bike bridge that is a destination for train watching and provides spectacular views of the city and surrounding mountains. This bridge should be a product of inventive, innovative design, marking the identity of the WARD through green infrastructure and great public architecture.
ORGANIZATION & OUTREACH
Overlapping somewhat with the first two conclusions, it was worth noting again that fixing the general lack of coordination among large scale projects must be a top priority. Through vision and leadership, the results could be better and the processes and costs to get there more efficient. Without a city planning department focused on urban visioning and with no urban design staff at the city, property developers have little help in proposing and implementing the kinds of projects we want them to pursue. Our zoning and permitting processes should be streamlined and our design and planning processes clarified. Incentives for development must be tied to quality and appropriateness of development—those projects that lead us closer to achieving our urban planning and design goals.
We must also think more strategically and logically about our outreach efforts. Local corporations and cultural institutions must be encouraged to partner with the city and be part of the city’s design vision. Additionally, community input must be incorporated into a larger, more coordinated vision of the city. Combining community groups (neighborhood associations) with their adjacent business districts means residential and commercial interests have to work symbiotically. The relationship between the city and the University of Arizona should continue to grow. Tucson could benefit as an urban design test lab for the ground-breaking work emerging from the University of Arizona, particularly in environmental research and alternative energy.
My research at UCLA focused on transforming basic infrastructure into public, design-driven amenities. As an organizer for UCLA’s cityLAB open design competition, WPA 2.0: Working Public Architecture, we asked what the next generation of infrastructure might be like. The answer, simply, was that it would be far more complicated than the last generation where efficiency and speed were kings, and that cross-agency collaboration would be necessary to create the multi-functional, productive networks our cities need to move into the next generation.
Tucson is in a moment of infrastructural optimism, investing (proportionally) a large amount of financial and spatial resources to reconsidering its downtown through transportation. It suffers not from too many cooks in the kitchen, but from the lack of a Gordon Ramsey (to use a reality TV reference that will likely infuriate government officials and new downtown restaurateurs alike). As a new resident (now almost a year in), I hesitate to make my own conclusions, but my speculations are solidly supported by what emerged from our time at SCDA. We are a city that takes our community members’ thoughts very seriously. We seek feedback, but don’t necessarily provide the appropriate guidance or training to make that feedback as useful and productive as possible. That plethora of input, combined with numerous other visioning exercises, means we have many, many grand ideas, but not a concise and achievable set of clear, organized spatial objectives. These spatial objectives should emerge from and reify our social, economic, and environmental ones; if not, they undercut them.
As found at SCDA, we also need the leadership and mandate to prioritize those objectives through our processes, incentives, and investments. Then, those objectives need champions, and those champions need broad support from influential and unified members of the community, from business leaders, and from those in the arts and arts organizations. We also need strong cross-agency collaboration. A streetcar is a green line of economic investment as much as a mode of transportation and, in our case, a connection to history. A bus transit center is a stand for social equity and visibility as much as a space for accessibility. A renovated, pedestrian and bike friendly underpass is a commitment to a walkable city, a respect for history as a living urban component, and a signal that the city believes that coming to downtown is a positive, worthy experience. The SCDA experience helped clarify those relationships for our team and gave us the expert support to help move them forward.
Article original published on the American Architecture Foundation Website.