Posted by: facetothewind | October 30, 2008

Tucson's failed urban renewal or How Rio Nuevo has become The Great Pumpkin

Congress Street in downtown Tucson, Arizona…the little town that could…but didn’t. You want to love this place. The climate is fantastic, the sun cheers your soul. It’s easy-going and mellow, and it has a potentially charming old downtown. Potentially. I’m downtown every weekend hoping that maybe something new will have sprung up out of the rubble. Alas, I’d sooner hope that a unicorn will burst forth from a cloud and take me on a magic ride to Candyland. Each week it seems there’s another boarded up window, another “For Lease” sign and some more traffic re-routing.

Tucson’s downtown has gone from dumpy to downright disgusting. Its heyday came to an end when the City bulldozed 80 acres of beautiful old adobe buildings to put in a soulless convention center and hotel and office complex. Walmart and the big boxes finished it off and the once hopping downtown was left to decay in silence.

Now there is a whole new generation of people who want to support a downtown, who cycle and walk to local restaurants instead of the bland-o-rama buffet at the Olive Garden. We’re even willing to pay more for items and feed a meter in order to shop and eat downtown. But the City’s urban developers have not kept up with the times. After decades of chatter about urban renewal, Tucson’s rise from the ashes has been stalled out. All we got was a massive, noisy central bus station and renovated train depot with unleased restaurant space. Oh, don’t forget the trolley tracks with no trolley.

There is a smattering of tattoo shops, a few art galleries that are valiantly trying to revive the downtown in spite of the City’s gross mishandling of its renewal. If it weren’t for David Agguire (Dinnerware art gallery) and Suzana Davila (Poca Cosa), we might as well just bull doze the downtown and put it out of its misery…turn it into something nice like a patch of bare desert or a massive kitty litter box.

This concept of Rio Nuevo has become The Great Pumpkin. We sit waiting and hoping and dreaming. But I’ve now been waiting 8 years. If you visit the Rio Nuevo website, you’d think that downtown Tucson was some rocking great city instead of the crap fest that is. You’d think from watching their videos on line that you were watching some Southwest version of Miami Vice with shiny, happy people in convertibles driving around in a state of urban euphoria when the reality is a preponderance of derelict buildings and crack addicts to greet you on your visit to downtown to Tucson. They end their video saying, “Downtown. It’s happening.” Downtown somewhere else.

And what’s with this driving around wasting gas in a sports car nonsense? It’s the car culture that destroyed downtown. The cyclists, pedestrians and greenies who live nearby who will revive it – so let’s get the marketing position right, okay? Come on City Council – you’re embarrassing us! They rejuvenated downtown Albuquerque, so why can’t we do it similarly? Until then, could we at least be real and show the real downtown Tucson?

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