An Urban Plan is Taking Shape for the Streetcar Route

January 31, 2013

by Teya Vitu

Build a streetcar and they shall come. That’s the story anywhere a new streetcar line is built, including right now in Tucson.

But what should come?

This is what Broadway and Herbert Avenue could look like with urban development. Image by FORSarchitecture+design.

This is what Broadway and Herbert Avenue could look like with urban development. Image by FORSarchitecture+design.

A basic answer should be in place by October, just before Modern Streetcar service is expected to start in November on the 3.9-mile route from University of Arizona Medical Center to the Menlo Park Neighborhood.

That answer will be based largely on public input from some 650 people during a five-day listening process by urban planners from Jan. 14-19.

It will likely include recommendations to convert various parking lots and alleys into dynamic dining and shopping scenes; embrace multi-story, multi-use buildings that follow the urban standard of commercial at street level and offices and residential above; and doing all of the above with a constant and reverent eye on the various phases of Tucson’s history through which the streetcar will travel.

All of that will be incorporated into a Tucson Modern Streetcar Land Use and Development Implementation Plan. That will lay a template for what sort of development we can expect on 4th Avenue, Congress Street and Broadway, Granada Avenue and on the West Side between Mercado San Agustin and the Sentinel Plaza senior housing complex.

The City Manager’s Office is collaborating with private sector urban planners in Tucson and Portland as well as a variety of city departments and the Pima Association of Governments and Regional Transportation Authority.

“What we are doing today requires a lot of courage, setting the foundation and platform for what our community would look like in coming years,” City Manager Richard Miranda said at the Rialto Theater as the findings of the week-long public input sessions were presented to the public.

More than 100 people showed up at the Rialto Theatre for the streetcare land-use charrette.

More than 100 people showed up at the Rialto Theatre for the streetcare land-use charrette.

The Poster Frost Mirto architecture and urban planning firm and The Planning Center – both with their offices Downtown – are leading the planning efforts, which got started three months ago with fellow team members PSOMAS of Tucson and Portland-based Urbsworks and Shiels Oeletz Johnson.

“What we heard is our community is supportive of high-intensity development along the streetcar route,” Corky Poster said and then paused. “As long as it’s done right.”

The project team shared initial thoughts of how they hope to “get it right.” Over the next eight months, the team will flesh out a land-use and development plan.

The planning involves a zone extending one-quarter mile from the streetcar tracks in both directions. Drawn out on a map, the zone looks like a caterpillar to Poster. The route conveniently splits into historic and social character areas that act as guideposts for the team.

As it happens, a west-to-east journey on the streetcar will carry a passengers chronologically through a 4,000-year journey.

Each character area has a distinct flavor and place in Tucson’s history.

Origin/Heritage Gateway is the western terminus of the streetcar on the West Side alongside the Mercado San Agustin. Archaeologists have determined that this spot has been continually inhabited by humans for over 4,000 years, making it one of the oldest continually inhabited places in North America. The Gadsden Companies has already master planned a Mercado District and Mission District with a series of single-family, apartment, shopping, dining and office options.

Barrio/Downtown Cultural-Convention District represents the 19th century with the Barrio Viejo Neighborhood due south and bitter memories of the barrio that was demolished to make way for the Tucson Convention Center. The vast sea of TCC surface parking lots are ripe candidates for four- and five-story housing along Granada Avenue.

The planning area is one-quarter mile each side of the streetcar route.

The planning area is one-quarter mile each side of the streetcar route.

“There is tremendous opportunity for intensified development here,” said Tim Johnson, a principal at The Planning Center. “Vacant and underutilized parcels can be infilled with high-quality, high-density mixed-use development.”

Two former surface parking lots are already getting urbanized right now: The One East Broadway six-story apartment-office-commercial structure under construction at Broadway and Stone Avenue and the Cadence student housing complex neighboring the Rialto Theatre.

The team mentioned two specific spots for future urban activity with a concentration of eateries and shopping: the Arizona Avenue alley between Congress Street and Broadway that is already getting attention from developer Scott Stiteler and his design team FORSarchitecture+design, whose office is steps away from Arizona Avenue; and Broadway at Herbert Avenue, which has an empty lot on one side and a non-retail structure on the other.

These projects and conceptions are all in the character areas defined as Placita/Central Business District and Railroad/Downtown Entertainment District, both representing turn of the 20th century Tucson. Since 1880 and continuing today, the railroad clearly defines the eastern boundary of Downtown. History is mostly intact here with the Historic Depot, Steinfeld Warehouse and MacArthur Building all dating from 1907 and the Hotel Congress and Rialto Block dating from the 1910s.

Avenue/4th Avenue emerged after 1916, when the 4th Avenue underpass opened Tucson for its first suburbanization. In the past 40 years, the Avenue has thrived an eclectic and pedestrian friendly shopping, dining and UA basketball cheering hot spot. One idea is to put Dairy Queen on the ground floor of a modern two or three story building with offices or residential above and, Johnson said, “do it in such a manner that fits with the existing character of 4th Avenue.”

“Fourth Avenue can be thriving even more than it is now,” said Linda Morales, a principal at The Planning Center.

Neighborhood/University Boulevard area would remain historic residential, but Johnson said it “could drastically improve with streetscape improvements.”

University/Main Gate is already a mature model of what planners want to achieve along the entire streetcar route. The land-use plan does not involve the University of Arizona. The streetcar’s eastern destination is designated as Science/Eastern Terminus and brings the 4,000-year journey into the 21st century.

The goal is to create a district of urban choices while protecting neighborhood and historic resources.

“We want to make sure it’s the type of development we want, where we want it,” Mayor Jonathan Rothschild. “The question is how do we achieve the proper density.”

Poster described today’s transit system as an amoeba, bus routes just scattered about but no sense of a structure. The streetcar, however, is a linear magnet that connects two of Tucson’s Top 3 employment centers: Downtown and the University of Arizona.

“Things are going to change dramatically in the next five, six, seven years,” Poster said. “When you add a streetcar, all of a sudden you have a backbone.”

Portland, Oregon, is the poster child for modern urban development built around a streetcar and light rail system. Often, Portland is looked to first when cities around the country want to revive an urban setting.

Marcy McIlnelly, founder and principal at Urbsworks, an urban design firm, spent a week in Tucson consumed with the streetcar land-use plan process. What’s her thought of how Tucson’s doing?

“The people are really passionate about this place. It’s clear they value the place, the people, the culture,” McIlnelly said. “One of the most important things to get an urban environment is getting a handle on parking. And parking in the future. You are managing parking well.”

Parking will present new realities for Tucsonans.

“There won’t be much free parking along the streetcar route in the future,“ McInelly said.

People can monitor and comment on the progress of the streetcar land-use plan here.

“This is the beginning, not the end. These are images and concepts that are the starting point for conversations.”