Downtown Tucson has come a long way from the days of hosting jurors and government employees by day, and slim entertainment pickings by night. But adding more housing and jobs and filling empty buildings still are on the to-do list.
Much of redevelopment so far can be attributed to the streetcar, said several people involved in, or familiar with, downtown redevelopment efforts. They analyzed the progress so far, and said there’s more work to be done.
The streetcar helped Tucson’s downtown revitalization pick up steam and gain national attention, said Jan Cervelli, the dean of the University of Arizona College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture.
Three things have driven downtown’s success, she said: investment in the streetcar to drive public and private investment; increased demand from those in the millennial and baby boom generations for an urban, downtown lifestyle; collaboration among leadership in Tucson's public and private sectors.
"We always have to remember that many of these types of endeavors take 20-plus, 30 years, and we usually want to see results really quickly," Cervelli said. "But we're beginning to see a lot of the pieces that were put into place from administrations from the past, from business investment in the past."
She noted that progress slowed during the recession last decade.
The College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture is one of several University of Arizona academic units now using space downtown. That has contributed to the redevelopment concepts, said Buzz Isaacson, a first vice president with the commercial real estate firm CBRE.
“With the streetcar connecting the U of A to downtown, I think we can expect a lot more growth from the university, and that’s a big boost for downtown,” Isaacson said.
Students, faculty and administrators from the architecture college have been working on design review committees, and Cervelli as chairwoman of the Downtown Tucson Partnership, helped redesign the Tucson Planning Department. She also is on the Urban Land Institute implementation committee.
"I like to look at urban redevelopment as occurring in phases and stages, and they're somewhat predictable" she said. First, artists move to urban, downtown areas, and students quickly follow. That prompts a surge of restaurants and entertainment district development as seen in Tucson, Cervelli said.
In Tucson, the streetcar is drawing businesses to relocate from elsewhere in the metro area.
“A big leader downtown has been food and entertainment. People are attracted to that with the streetcar,” Isaacson said. “The community is in the process of rediscovering downtown.”
"We're beginning to see housing, which is usually the next phase," Cervelli said. In Tucson, that was prompted by a wave of student housing developments on the east end of downtown, and other housing is beginning to thrive, she said.
"The next phase that we'll begin to see is downtown becoming a real residential area, so more of that market rate housing," she said. That appeals to young professionals who report in surveys they would like to live in areas where they don't need a car every day.
"With that will come more retail as the services and the demand for those services will grow with that residential component," Cervelli said.
All of that is driven by jobs, Isaacson said.
“So as we fill those spaces up, they’ll support more residential growth, more restaurants,” he said.
Downtown is already “a great place right now,” Isaacson said, but “jobs are missing.”
Defining a successful downtown
Cervelli: "I do believe it's that residential component and many of the groups, and the Urban Land Institute discussion have centered around how do we incentivize that housing?"
There are 3.3 million square feet of under-developed land, and many vacant properties, Cervelli said.
"We're only about a third of the way through of the capacity for growth and development and the economic benefits that occur from that in downtown," Cervelli said.
Plus, downtown office space is sitting at 30 percent vacancy, Isaacson said.
Selling the story
The key definition of downtown success is that it becomes competitive with other destination cities, such as Austin, Denver and other big cities that attract conventions, said Dan Gibson, director of corporate communications for Visit Tucson, the region’s tourism promotion agency.
“We try to give people an idea that this is a city where there are things to do, it’s a fun place to be, rather than just a great place to meet,” he said.
From a tourism perspective, downtown Tucson is missing a hotel, Gibson said.
“If you want to activate the Tucson Convention Center, and you want to have conventions and large scale events in the Tucson Convention Center … you do have to have rooms in that immediate downtown area,” he said. “They just aren’t there.”
That component will start to be satisfied when a boutique hotel planned for Broadway and Fifth Avenue opens.
“We can’t offer that urban lifestyle experience that’s really appealing to millennials," Gibson said. "The boutique hotel will help in that to some extent, but the more rooms you put downtown the more likely we are to book them,” he said.