More Facade Improvements Will Add to Downtown Renaissance

January 24, 2012

By Teya Vitu


New and old buildings have worked hand in hand for the amazing Downtown renaissance the past three years.

Imago Dei Middle School used its facade improvement grant to give bright color to its 6th Avenue building.

The 1910s and 1920s architecture lays the foundation for the popular Downtown, and the Façade Improvement Program has helped bring a half dozen historic structures back to their glory.

Look around Downtown and you’ll see bright marquees at The Screening Room and Beowulf Alley Theatre; vibrant color at Imago Dei Middle School; “Mars and Beyond” at the Rialto Exhibition Center; a warmer façade at The Drawing Studio; and window improvements for Reilly Craft Pizza, expected to open in spring.

The third round of the Façade Improvement Program opened January 23 with a total of $245,000 available for as many as four projects. An applicant can get up to $105,000, subject to a 50 percent match from the applicant.

“This will allow us to do two major and one smaller façade improvement,” said Michael Keith, chief executive of the Downtown Tucson Partnership, which administers the program. “First you have property owners matching 50 percent. Then what happens is property owners invest additional money. We have gotten a 5-to-1 return on investment. It’s been colossal.”

Providence Service Corp. moved its corporate headquarters Downtown after Peach Properties used a Façade Improvement grant to restore the 1910s façade at 64 East Broadway. Providence then went on to buy the neighboring four-story 44 East Broadway and also partially fund the second and third rounds of the Façade Improvement Program.

The third round is funded with a $90,000 grant from the Tohono O’odham Nation, $80,000 of dedicated preservation funding from the City remaining from the first round, $15,000 remaining from the second round, and a new $60,000 infusion from Providence and other private sector donors.

“We have taken the time to meet with property owners to explain the program,” Keith said.

Pre-1960 structures are eligible within the Façade Improvement Program Area, which includes all of Downtown east of Church Avenue from Sixth Street to one block south of Broadway and including the Toole Avenue warehouses. This essentially includes the entire Downtown commercial core, expanding the program area beyond the Congress, Pennington and Broadway corridors.

Façade Improvement applications will be accepted until 1 p.m. on March 5. A selection committee will evaluate the applications and announce the finalists on March 12. The finalists will then have until April 23 to produce finalized design plans. The awardees will be announced April 30.

“We want to create an authentic, historic Downtown,” Keith said. “We have

The Drawing Studio added warm colors with its facade improvement grant.

something special here. The way the town was built at the turn of the last century was different than other places. We have an intact inventory that’s hard to find anywhere.”

This new round of façade improvement grants will allow property and business owners to remove stucco or other coverings added in later decades to obscure the original facades. The projects might involve window improvements or returning openings to their original positions.

“What you’re doing is returning buildings to their original historic character,” Keith said. “What an powerful tool this has been for economic development.”

The Façade Improvement Program has been nothing but a stunning surprise success story since it was launched jointly by the City and Downtown Tucson Partnership in May 2008. The Partnership was amazed to get 20 applicants for the first round of four grants because awardees were expected to match the grants dollar for dollar.

For all the hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money funneled into Downtown revitalization, perhaps the biggest bang has come from the roughly $400,000 in City money invested into the Façade Improvement Program. These were dormant funds from a 1982 Downtown revolving loan fund to improve buildings.

Nobody had an inkling for what these façade improvements would trigger other than replacing ugly mid-20th century building facades with their authentic early 20th century looks.

Above all, the Façade Improvement Program directly led Fletcher McCusker to move his Providence Service Corp. headquarters Downtown. Peach Properties barely finished the façade work at 64 East Broadway when McCusker showed up to lease the building.

McCusker did not realize at the time that he would become the primary cheerleader for Downtown’s resurgence.

Right after moving Providence’s offices, McCusker launched the 2nd Saturdays events that bring more than 10,000 people Downtown each month. He talked the Sonoran Institute, Buffalo Exchange and Imago Dei Middle School to come Downtown. McCusker now is chairman of the Fox Tucson Theatre Foundation, and he is the force behind the Tucson’s Centennial Festival to celebrate 100 years of Arizona statehood.

McCusker also made possible the second and third rounds of the Façade Improvement Program, which mostly depleted its one-time funding in the first round.

McCusker said the private sector needed to step up to continue the program and he was the first to add $20,000 for a second round with a nonprofit adding another $10,000. Then he and other private sector sources combined for $60,000 for the third round.

The owners of the Rialto Building went into the Façade Improvement Program in 2009 with vague ideas to fill the building with a restaurant or lounge. Instead, co-owner Don Martin unexpectedly found himself in the exhibition business when Premiere Exhibitions approached him to stage “Bodies…The Exhibition” in 2010.

Premiere followed “Bodies” with “Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition,” but Martin had no post-Titanic plans for the Rialto Exhibition Center. Literally overnight in February 2010, he went into the exhibition business himself with Rialto Art & Antiquities, which staged “Tutankhamun: Wonderful Things from the Pharoah’s Tomb.” After that, he founded a separate Science Downtown nonprofit to allow a direct relationship with the University of Arizona to stage the current “Mars and Beyond” exhibition.

All that came as a result of the Façade Improvement Program.

Once The Screening Room marquee was turned on in fall 2009, the theater instantly became a favored Club Crawl venue and many events and parties now seek to use the theater.

“I could think of no greater impact we can have on the authenticity and vibrancy of Downtown than continuing the success of the façade program,” Keith said.

Applications can be picked up at the Downtown Tucson Partnership office, 110 East Pennington Street, Suite 150 (on the ground floor of the Pennington Street Garage) or by visiting the Downtown Tucson Partnership’s website.