Community Has Ideas for The Core – the Streetcar Route

March 16, 2012

By Teya Vitu

If you build a streetcar, they will come. That has been demonstrated across the country with the 21st century streetcar.

The streetcar in Denver brought 7.8 million square feet of commercial development from 2004 to 2009. The Charlotte streetcar added 9.8 million square feet.

But what will come in Tucson?

Downtown, 4th Avenue, Main Gate Square and the University of Arizona don’t want to wait to find out or leave it to random forces.

They called for a community conversation on March 15 to explore opportunities along the streetcar route, freshly branded as The Core.

Some 170 Tucsonans sat down at 16 round tables at the Marriott Tucson University Park to brainstorm on how to make the most of the 3.9-mile streetcar route.

This community conversation was designed to get started on building a community vision for the streetcar route, or The Core, even before construction starts in late April.

“The essential part is early planning,” said Jan Cervelli, dean of UA’s College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture.

Cervelli recited the Denver and Charlotte statistics in her opening remarks and reported that Pittsburgh experienced a 32 percent increase in residential housing along its streetcar route and a 120 percent increase in commercial space.

“Businesses are getting this,” Cervelli said. “When you look at transit like this, it’s a whole new ball game.”

Starting now, Tucson streetcar corridor will be known as The Core, identified by a logo that encases the words in a set of tightly drawn circles. The Core brand was developed by Caliber Communications, which unveiled it at the start of the community conversation.

The Core is the united logo for the Downtown Tucson Partnership, 4th Avenue Merchants Association, Main Gate Square, the University of Arizona and the Metropolitan Tucson Convention & Visitors. They brought on Trend Report publisher Lucinda Smedley to stage the community conversation and she recruited Caliber to brand The Core.

But a brand is nothing without substance, and that’s where the 170 participants came in.

Following brief opening remarks, each table engaged in roundtable conversation for one hour to determine its group’s top three desires for The Core.

The most commonly repeated themes from the 16 tables were a grocery store, multimodal transit, and retaining community character, which was punctuated with  “the one thing we don’t want to become is Scottsdale” and “We don’t want to lose the character we already have.”

The first mention of a grocery store brought the most notable applause, and the other notable applause came for “pay for parking and get a free streetcar pass.”

Right now, proposed student housing is getting all the talk in The Core, whether debating The District under construction on 6th Street or awaiting student housing towers within steps of the Rialto Theatre.

“One particular population that is very important in Tucson and increasingly so is the elderly,” Cervelli said.

One project serving that population is the 143-unit New Armory Apartments for low-income seniors now under construction on West Congress Street.

Many tables stressed improving the mixture of housing in The Core with mentions of students, single families, empty nesters, elderly and “regular folks.”

Mixed-use development – having housing and commercial in the same building – and increased density came up a few times with a recommendation to make sure to “convince people that density is OK.”

Some tables recognized the most crucial elements in bringing any of these desires to fruition: winning leadership support from the City Council; solid communication among all the stakeholders in The Core; and winning community buy-in with information campaigns all over the city to foster an attitude change for Downtown.

The community conversation was a one-time event, but Smedley realized the animated participation would likely turn this into an ongoing series of large-scale gatherings to shape the future of The Core.

“What’s next?” she repeated several times toward the close of the Conversation.

Some participants said the thoughts gathered at this session should be delivered to the City Council. Also, one participant seemed to speak for many when she asked:  “How can we be advocates of the corridor?”

Notes from all the table conversations were written down and they will all be processed and the analysis will be e-mailed to the participants.

“The goal is to create expert groups of people engaged around these themes,” Smedley said in an interview as people cleared out of the ballroom. She envisions these expert groups as the community conversation’s delegates to the City Council.