To many, a city is only as strong as its downtown. For years, there were plenty of attractions around all the time, both for residents and visitors, but Tucson lacked a central place to congregate. With the revitalization of the downtown area, that has begun to change.
“The change has been dramatic,” said Michael Keith, CEO for the Downtown Tucson Partnership. “Downtown has transformed from boarded-up buildings to a vibrant urban core with a palpable feeling of excitement. We’ve seen over 200 new businesses open, everything from two restaurants with James Beard Award-winning chefs to a new grocery store where residents can pick up a regular gallon of milk on their way home. Downtown is buzzing with energy and is poised to continue to grow.”
According to the Downtown Tucson Partnership, 240 businesses have opened downtown since 2008, 28 alone in 2015, bringing in $439 million in private investment. There are no signs that the growth is slowing down.
The size and scope of the new projects is the biggest change people are seeing in the area. A 147-room AC Marriott Hotel, with retail shopping on the ground floor, is already under construction and should be completed next year. Nor-Generations is developing the land at Cushing Street near I-10 and will be constructing a $100 million project described as a “24-hour live-work-play urban environment” with a Hyatt Place hotel, an apartment complex and visual arts center, housing three museums and a theater. There could also be an exhibition hall on land adjacent to the project. There also plans for other multi-use buildings in the area, bring more living and working spaces to the downtown area.
“The biggest change we’re seeing is the transition from smaller projects like a new restaurant or shop to larger, multi-million dollar build-outs and new mixed use developments,” said Keith. “We’re going to see more and more of these large-scale projects in the next few years.”
A number of factors have led to the revitalization of
downtown. One of the biggest is Tucson joining a trend seen all over the country of people, mostly Millenials and Gen Xers, moving into the urban centers of communities. In many ways it is both a desire to be near the action and a reaction to having grown up in the cookie cutter suburban areas with their box stores and corporate restaurants and stores.
“Today’s young adults tend to favor urban living over sprawling suburban properties that include long commutes to work,” said Mike Varney, the president and CEO of the Tucson Metro Chamber of Commerce.
Varney calls this the “new urban vibe” that includes locally owned, unique restaurants and stores, apartment living and the desire to live very close to work and play. Varney said the trend is for younger people to give up their cars, whether they look for bike friendly areas, participate in car sharing programs, utilize car services like Uber or take advantage of public transit like the modern streetcar.
“The people who live downtown want a sense of community, density and walkability,” added Keith. “A place where they can experience live music, enjoy a great meal, have drinks with friends or pick up groceries, all without ever having to get in their car or sit in traffic.”
The influx of young residents has led to more and more businesses coming into the area.
“All great cities are generally owned by their downtown,” said Varney. “They possess a great urban core. Most cities’ youth are drawn downtown. It is important to have a vibrant downtown area.”
While places to eat and drink are very important, so is entertainment. More and more entertainment venues have either come into the area or been refurbished. Once Club Congress and the Rialto were somewhat alone in the area, and they lacked many amenities top acts desired, but today they have been spruced up and joined by a refurbished Tucson Convention Center and Fox Theater, as well as smaller venues, galleries and theaters.
In the 1970s and ’80s, Tucson used to attract a number of top music acts. It was part of the West Coast circuit along with bigger cities like Los Angeles, San Diego and Phoenix, but that started to change in the late ’80s and continued for decades, but the tide is starting to turn. The Rialto has become a desired destination for independent music acts, while changes to the TCC are seeing more and more promoters wanting to utilize the arena, when once it was virtually blackballed. The Fox Theater has gone from a rental venue to a venue that is producing its own shows.
Several things led to the increased desire to live downtown. Both Varney and Keith mentioned that 2nd Saturdays, free events take place throughout downtown the second Saturday of every month, helped bring more people to the area and that led to many of them wanting to stay. They were not alone in their praise of the event.
“We believed that music would be the first attraction,” said Fletcher McCusker, founder and CEO at Sinfonía and chairman of the Rio Nuevo Board. “That if you have a really good band, often, you have really good music, people will step over a broken sidewalk or walk past a boarded-up building.”
Today those sidewalks are repaired and the boarded-up buildings are now thriving businesses.
Varney attributes the “new vibe” to 2nd Saturdays giving the area an attraction, but the modern street car has also injected new life into the area. While many wondered about the viability of the streetcar, most area businesses thought it would be a key addition to the area. The restaurateurs and entrepreneurs saw locations next to the streetcar as “waterfront property.”
“As soon as the streetcar started moving, you saw some really active development,” said McCusker.
The streetcar has also helped integrate downtown and the University of Arizona area, especially areas in between which have seen a number of up-scale student housing developments go up in recent years. Those students have been just as drawn to downtown as the young professionals in the area.
Arguably the biggest boom to the area has been the Rio Nuevo Tax Incentive Financing District, especially the new board that was brought in when the state legislature took it over in 2009. Prior to that, it was a study in miscommunication, mismanagement and a flawed master plan that focused on big, monolithic tourism attractions like a science center, an aquarium and an IMAX theatre. There were talks of a government-funded arena or baseball stadium and while the lack of a downtown baseball stadium may have cost Tucson minor league baseball, it has probably sparked other development.
The key has been to model Tucson’s downtown after areas like downtown Portland, Austin and the Gaslamp District in San Diego, where private developers and entrepreneurship has led the way, not government funded projects.
“What has happened behind that is total private-sector investment,” said McCusker. “What that led us to believe at Rio Nuevo is that our role today is to partner with those private developers. We no longer scheme some grandiose government development like an arena or baseball field, or something like that. We’re partnering with private developers who want to build hotels, exhibition halls, retail space and apartments.”
Downtown Tucson is back, but there is still a long way to go. The new building projects will bring more visitors and residents to the area. There will be even more restaurants and even more events coming to the TCC, Rialto and Fox Theater. There will be a grocery store and there is even a low power FM Radio station operating in the downtown.
“Downtown has come a long way, that’s for sure,” said Varney. “It still has a ways to go with all of the exciting new projects to come.”