West Side clamors for Cushing Street Bridge

July 15, 2011

In just about one year’s time, the new Cushing Street Bridge will be for West Side residents; it will be for frontage road gem show proprietors and their customers; it will be for the string of new ventures Gadsden Companies is lining up just west of the bridge; it will be for the vastness of undeveloped land that will eventually produce a “new” Downtown matching the acreage of today’s “old” Downtown core.

The groundbreaking ceremony on July 14 brought more than 200 people to a tent pitched on hard dirt a few feet of the future bridge’s western landing. Repeat: More than 200. Plenty were Menlo Park Neighborhood residents, plenty were sitting politicians at the city, county, even legislative levels. Some were past politicos (Dan Eckstrom). Even former City Manager Luis Gutierrez showed up.

“Mr. Gutierrez,” said Gene Einfrank, president of the Menlo Park Neighborhood Association, “Menlo Park is starting a petition drive to name the bridge in Luis Gutierrez’s honor.”

Einfrank lives just a few hundred yards west of the future bridge in one of the 25 homes at Mercado District of Menlo Park.

“You will see many new residences. It will be a mixed use area with business, shops and entertainment,” Einfrank said in describing what the Cushing Street Bridge will serve. “You will have people who live, work and play in this area. It’s very positive, very exciting, very hopeful. This area has been depressed forever and ignored by government in terms of development and public amenities.”

Gadsden Companies keeps building more Mercado District homes and in December opened the neighboring Mercado San Agustin, and in about a year hopes to start construction on a 145-room hotel and an 183-room mixed-housing complex above 35,000-square-feet of street-level retail. Recently, Senior Housing Group already started construction of a 143-unit low-income senior housing project along Congress Street at the northeast edge of Gadsden’s Mission District development.

Gadsden’s Jerry Dixon also pointed at the FBI building under construction north of Congress Street to punctuate all the West Side development.

“It is happening,” he said to counter the naysayers.

Dixon is in a curious position. He started Mercado District five years ago with the firm belief that the city’s Tucson Origins four-museum complex would follow due south of his luxury homes. When Origins got shelved three years ago, Dixon understandably was not pleased with the plot twist.

These days, Dixon is cheerier. After all, the bridge construction that starts next week should deliver the streetcar into his Mercado and Mission Districts in a couple years. But Dixon is equally optimistic of the city-owned 40-acre Origins land, much of it huge pits where tons of garbage were extracted.

“That’s a work in progress. If they get the funding – and they will, we will get Tucson Origins Heritage Park,” Dixon said. “I used to be angry. I now consider it a work in progress.”

Belia Morelos showed up at the ground breaking from her Panorama Estates home for the last 45 years.

“This is going to be great after waiting for so long,” Morelos said. “This is going to be really neat. If I’m going to 22nd Street, it will be much easier.”

The bridge will be built just north and west of the Riverpark Inn, one of the larger gem show exhibitors along the frontage road.

“It shows a commitment to Downtown gem shows,” said Maurice Destouet, Riverpark Inn’s senior vice president. “The bridge is great because it will connect us with additional parking.”

Right now, the bridge site is a no-man’s land, except for Santa Cruz River Linear Park users, who are now being detoured at the bridge site. Otherwise, nothing rests near the future bridge’s west ramp, and the east ramp is the back side of hotels and a clinic.

But the West Side land will not remain undeveloped forever.

“This investment is not a connection to nowhere,” City Council member Regina Romero insisted. “It’s a connection to people, to neighborhoods.”

Bridge construction marks the opening phase of building the 3.9-mile streetcar route from University Medical Center to Avenida del Convento that splits Gadsden’s Mercado and Mission districts.

by Teya Vitu