The There There

After three decades of effort, downtown Tucson is indisputably revitalizing. What that revitalization means for downtown is still being determined.

May 8, 2017

FeaturesIssue 24: May/June 2017

On Friday, July 25, 2014, Tucsonans gathered in the streets. The University of Arizona marching band trumpeted and drummed. Wilma Wildcat danced. Volunteers handed out free water bottles. Politicians spoke of Tucson’s bright future. Hundreds of people gathered and sweated under white canopy tents. The amateur paparazzi thronged, cameras clicking. Just after 9 a.m., as the shining blue Sun Link Modern Streetcar glided slowly through the packed intersection at Fifth and Congress, a cheer erupted across the block.

By sunset, the sidewalks were full of people. No one seemed to be going anywhere in particular—there was a two-hour wait for a table at the recently opened Pizzeria Bianco. The bar at Proper Restaurant was stacked three deep. A queue hovered outside Diablo Burger. So Tucsonans waited in line and gawked at each other, everyone eager for a chance, simply and amazingly, to ride.

By the time the streetcar rolled into downtown, it was two and half years behind schedule. Construction had closed Fourth Avenue and Congress Street for almost a year. Several local businesses had also closed, cash-strapped during construction. Dozens of cyclists had already been snared in its tracks. Ten years in the making, the streetcar had cost a total of $198.8 million.

But perhaps what was so remarkable—so transformative—about the streetcar was its cost. “The prospect of the streetcar changed the thinking of developers and businesses,” says Park Tucson administrator Donovan Durband. “They saw the price tag as a serious commitment.” Funded through a combination of federal and local money, “the idea was that the city was surely going to keep investing in the area to support that initial investment,” he says. Money follows money, and as the streetcar route was negotiated starting in 2006, developers took note. By 2016, the Downtown Tucson Partnership estimated that there has been more than $1.2 billion invested in real estate and infrastructure along the 3.9-mile streetcar route.

After three decades of concerted effort to revitalize Tucson’s downtown, downtown Tucson is indisputably revitalizing. In March of 2017, the Downtown Tucson Partnership reported that a new business opens downtown on average every two weeks. Twenty-nine businesses have opened downtown since the start of 2016. Twenty-eight projects are currently under construction, including the $32-million, 136-room AC Hotel by Marriott. A very precise 678 housing units will be built downtown by the end of 2018, with another 1,067 units scheduled into 2019.

But for all the construction and commotion, downtown Tucson’s revitalization is still tenuous. It is still developing and still, in many ways, uncertain.

Less than two years after the streetcar glided into downtown, on a Saturday in June of 2016, Proper’s owner, Paul Moir, told his employees the restaurant wouldn’t be opening for breakfast the following day. Moir, who owns three restaurants in Flagstaff, cited personal reasons for the closure of the three-year-old restaurant—he wanted to put his energy into projects closer to home. One block west and three months later, Chris Bianco announced the closure of Pizzeria Bianco, which had opened in July of 2014. Bianco—the Phoenix-based, James Beard-award winning chef that the New York Times once dubbed the best pizza maker in America—said he wasn’t able to deliver the experience he wanted to, citing issues with the restaurant’s location and available parking.

Proper and Pizzeria Bianco were only the highest profile restaurants to close in those exuberant years, but there were others. In January of 2015, facing a significant rent increase after 10 years on Congress, The District Tavern closed. In October, Barrio Cuisine quietly closed its doors, unable to pay rent after only a year in business. The following month, Travis Reese and Nicole Flowers announced the closure of their Caribbean-style restaurant, Saint House Island Bistro and Rum Bar, which had opened at 256 E. Congress St. in August of 2013.

“On the backside of the streetcar, there was an irrational exuberance,” says Reese, who has run 47 Scott, a thriving downtown restaurant and bar, since May of 2010. “During the streetcar construction, we were all like, oh, watch out, this is going to be big. There was a huge period of optimism. And then afterward there was a fallout. A realization that, oh, we’re still dealing with the same issues we were before.”

Today, Reese says downtown Tucson is in its teenage phase. “We’ve seen good restaurants close, which makes you ask a lot of questions,” he says. “What does Tucson want? Have we been overly ambitious with rents? I think the hardest thing is wondering how much we’ve overextended ourselves as a restaurant community. Maybe we’re not the food city that we think we are?”

As the city unsprawls itself—recognizing, like a bodybuilder, the importance of a strong core—the future of downtown Tucson is still being defined. Two of the most commonly cited concerns about downtown redevelopment are gentrification and homogenization. People worry that Tucson will become Austin—flooded with tech money and transient workers, unaffordable to the artists and small business owners who made it such a vibrant place to begin with. Or people worry that Tucson will become Tempe, taken over by chain retail and generic restaurants, sterile and placeless.

“You want to have a downtown that’s for everybody: families, young and old, not just white people, not just wealthy people,” says Durband. The extent to which that vision is realized will determine much of how Tucson is defined over the next decade, particularly as the city wrestles with its recent designation as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy. “When I moved here, Tucson had all these great attributes: weather, mountains, desert. But it didn’t have a great urban experience,” says Durband. “It was like Gertrude Stein’s comment: ‘There’s no there there.’”

Downtowns revitalize in predictable ways, writes Christopher Leinberger, a fellow with the Brookings Institution. Every downtown is different—that is, of course, the point—but successful revitalizations follow similar patterns.

First, there’s a vision—there is consensus that downtown matters. That vision becomes a strategic plan. Public entities partner with private developers. Zoning and building codes are updated to reflect new priorities like walkability and density. Property owners agree to pay extra taxes to fund a downtown management team, and a few catalytic developers take on projects with high market risk and refurbish old buildings or start new construction. Restaurants open. Entertainment venues open. People feel safe walking between the two. A rental housing market develops, followed by a for-sale housing market. Smaller-scale retail shops—like pharmacies and markets—open, catering to locals and pedestrians. Finally, companies bring their offices back downtown.

Ron and Patricia Schwabe own Peach Properties and specialize in refurbishing and renovating historic properties, like Penca Restaurant on Scott and Broadway.

This pattern is useful to understanding Tucson’s development, says Donovan Durband. Durband started working downtown in 1999 after completing a master’s degree in urban planning from the University of Arizona. In the late 1990s, “there was rampant panhandling; people were openly selling drugs on the street,” says Durband. There were office buildings, a healthy lunch crowd, and a few core restaurants—notably, Café Poca Cosa and El Charro—but Hotel Congress was basically the only nighttime destination. “Nobody was coming downtown,” says Shana Oseran, who took over Hotel Congress with her husband, Richard, in 1985. “The perception was, it’s scary, it’s a dirty place, there’s no place to park.”

In 2000, Durband took over Tucson’s fledgling business improvement district, now known as the Downtown Tucson Partnership. In a geographically defined business improvement district, property owners agree to self-assess their properties and pay additional taxes to fund services for the whole district. At first, DTP’s $600,000 budget focused on core services like security and sanitation—marketing downtown as a clean and safe place, and employing the staff to make sure it actually was.

Durband rallied people around the idea of building an entertainment district along Congress Street to bring people back downtown. With funding from the Rio Nuevo Multipurpose Facilities District, The Fox Theatre and The Rialto Theatre were restored and the five-block spread between these two anchors became the nexus for this emerging entertainment district. By 2005, there was enough interest in downtown that a group of developers and business owners calling themselves the Downtown Stakeholders started meeting weekly; within a year, 40 people were showing up regularly to build a vision for downtown.

In 2006, this group helped lobby the Arizona Legislature to extend the term of Rio Nuevo, the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) District approved by Tucson voters in 1999. A TIF is a form of public subsidy for redevelopment projects; in the case of Rio Nuevo, state sales tax revenues are diverted to fund development projects within the district, with the idea that those projects would eventually siphon increased sales tax back to the state.

Between 1999 and 2009, Rio Nuevo spent nearly $230 million with very little to show for the trouble. “It was quite controversial,” says Fletcher McCusker, who took over leadership of the Rio Nuevo board in 2012. To put it politely, the first iteration of Rio Nuevo was a boondoggle, one that “completely screwed up downtown’s natural growth and retarded the natural process of development,” says Ron Schwabe, co-owner of Peach Properties.

Fletcher McCusker is the chairman of the Rio Nuevo Board and the CEO of Sinfonía HealthCare Corp., located at One East Toole. He’s also part of a desert rock band called SQWRL.

But in 2006, with the promise of downtown beginning to materialize, the state agreed to extend TIF financing for another 15 years. In early 2010, the Arizona Legislature restructured Rio Nuevo and appointed a new board, ending a decade of mismanagement. That same year, supported by $63 million in federal funding, the Sun Link Modern Streetcar project became a reality. In 2011, the University of Arizona announced that it would sponsor student housing downtown—“the Modern Streetcar serves almost as a campus extension into the downtown area,” said the then-UA president Robert Shelton.

“When I heard that, I was like, hallelujah,’” says developer Scott Stiteler. He saw the UA as finally recognizing that its success as an institution depended in part on a successful downtown. Indeed, the promise of the streetcar was that it would connect previously distant districts—distant, at least, in the minds of Tucsonans—into something like an urban core.

Born in Phoenix and based in the Bay Area, Stiteler was attracted to Tucson in the 1990s because of “the urban grit, the history of these old buildings, the broken sidewalks, cool alleys,” he says. He started acquiring property downtown, eventually taking over most of Congress between Fourth and Sixth Avenues. He partnered with Ron and Patricia Schwabe’s Peach Properties to renovate what had been the Martin Luther King Public Housing facility, completing 96 market-rate and affordable apartments called One North Fifth in 2008.

Patricia Schwabe helped lease the first retail businesses in front of the apartment complex, eventually signing Sparkroot Coffee and Yoga Oasis. “The first weekend that Yoga Oasis opened, there were all these people walking with yoga mats downtown!” she says. “That was for me a revelation more than anything else—we have really done something. People feel safe, people feel happy being downtown. The place is changing and breathing a different air.”

In October of 2010, Janos Wilder—who had been named the top chef in the Southwest in 2000 by the James Beard Foundation—opened Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails on Sixth Avenue and Broadway. “That was a big deal,” says 47 Scott’s Reese. “It gave us credibility, where people would come down here and explore.” In February of 2011, Stiteler opened The Hub on Congress between Fifth and Sixth Avenues and started serving cold beer, comfort food, and homemade ice cream. Stiteler remembers walking along Congress that first year, seeing a mother and child sitting outside “eating mac and cheese and there’s ice cream dripping everywhere and it’s a beautiful day. That didn’t exist before. If you don’t have that, you won’t have a downtown.”

Ron Schwabe says that restaurants have been catalytic for changing Tucsonans’ perception of downtown. “But downtown can’t survive on just restaurants,” he says.

Kathleen Eriksen, the CEO of the Downtown Tucson Partnership, lives above the streetcar line downtown. “I’ll go out on my patio and the streetcar comes by and it’s like ding ding ding—streetcar going east,” she says, mimicking the electronic intonation. “It’s like being in a city,” she says, delighted.

She’s not the only one. The fact that people have started to move downtown—and are willing to pay for the privilege—is significant. Corky Poster, an architect and planner with Poster Frost Mirto, says that, until recently, the going rate for a decent place to live in Tucson was about $1.10 a square foot, no matter what part of town you were in. “Tucsonans are typically not locationally sensitive in their housing rent payments,” he says. But as new construction downtown required developers to charge more, “the big question was, was anyone in Tucson willing to pay more for a cooler location?” he says. That was the gamble developers Art Wadlund and Rob Caylor took with the One East Broadway apartment building, which opened at Broadway and Stone in 2013 charging $1.60 a square foot. They reached full occupancy within months. “They took a risk, and they nailed it,” says Poster.

It was, Poster says, a bellwether for other developers, signaling that the market had fundamentally changed downtown—that there was money to be made in renting to people who wanted to live near downtown’s restaurants and entertainment venues.

Corky Poster is an architect, planner, and principal at Poster Frost Mirto, which specializes in historic preservation and a ordable housing. The firm is rehabilitating the old Marist College at Ochoa and Church as part of larger 83-unit housing development for lower income seniors.

Poster says Tucson has thus far been protected by its poverty—there simply hasn’t been enough money to rapidly and irreversibly gentrify downtown. But he has also been one of the most vocal proponents for affordable housing projects. “A lot of us have worked hard to advocate for permanent affordable housing as a hedge against the inevitable economic change,” he says. That economic change is basic supply and demand—as the real estate market does what markets do, housing will become prohibitively expensive for all except the wealthiest renters and buyers, no matter their connection to downtown. Without affordable housing options, downtown becomes a monoculture, says Poster. “If you’re going to try to create a mixed income, mixed ethnic community, the only way to do that is to provide permanent affordable choices for folks,” he says.

“There are some restaurant and bar owners who say, we don’t need more affordable housing; we need people who buy $10 cocktails,” says Poster. “Actually, the market is going to take care of your $10 cocktails. If we don’t protect affordable housing, then it’s going to be gone.” And as goes affordable housing, so goes affordable anything—services, food, transportation. Poster says that he worries about the attitude that, in order to support high-end businesses, downtown must gentrify. “I think it’s the opposite strategy. In order to avoid gentrifying downtown, we need a wide range of service and prices,” he says.

Not everyone sees it that way. Running a restaurant or bar entails high risk and low profit and many business owners are worried about just getting enough people through the door to keep those doors open. And they say downtown needs more market-rate housing—more homes for residents who can afford to eat out—and more parking.

“I had always thought, bad restaurants need good locations and good restaurants can go anywhere,” says Pizzeria Bianco’s Chris Bianco. “I think with our experience in our location, I didn’t feel like I could deliver an experience I wanted to. It’s like, there’s an old saying: That place is too busy, no one goes there anymore.”

Travis Reese opened 47 Scott on Scott Ave. between Congress and Pennington in May of 2010.

Bianco says that although he tries to walk or bike or rideshare, “There are a ton of people that still drive and park. Until the world changes, we need to make economic decisions based on those realities.”

Parking is a perception problem—if you show up somewhere and you don’t have a place to put your car, then you are not really there. And that is stressful—particularly for Tucsonans who are accustomed to free parking steps from where they want to be. That perception needs to change, says Durband. When you park downtown “you are occupying real estate that has an opportunity cost. Paying for parking in downtown Tucson is the price you pay to be able to enjoy a walkable urban experience,” he says.

Local business owners tend to fixate on parking, assuming that the only way their customers will reach them is in a car. But according to studies compiled by The Atlantic’s CityLab, while pedestrians and cyclists tend to spend less per shopping trip than drivers, they visit more frequently, resulting in a greater total economic impact over time.

“If there was one issue about this project that I would call doing it on faith, it was the fact that there was no parking,” says Paul Cisek, a co-owner of Johnny Gibson’s Downtown Market. “We rolled the dice. We said we feel like demographics are moving toward carless people.”

Cisek and his wife, Christi, were having dinner one night in 2014 with Ron and Kelly Abbott—the couple who bought Rincon Market from the Ciseks in 2008—when the subject of a downtown grocery came up. That night, they visited the 6,000-square-foot building on Sixth near Congress that had been the Beowulf Alley Theatre and decided to do it. “There had been no grocery store down here for 40 or 45 years,” Cisek says. “We had nothing to point to besides failures. It was a little tense, if you will.”

Paul and Christi Cisek partnered with Ron and Kelly Abbott to open Johnny Gibson’s Downtown Market in the former Beowulf Alley Theatre.

Johnny Gibson’s Downtown Market opened in July of 2015; over the next year, the market morphed as its owners tried to figure out what downtown needed. “What we thought the store was going to provide in terms of stock, goods, services, and what it finally ended up providing, based on who was walking through the door—it shifted,” says Cisek. In part, that shift emerged as the owners realized a core clientele would be downtown’s transient population. “We have a very nice homeless population. They’re local. We watch out for each other,” says Cisek. “I think people see the value in our interaction with homeless or less economically advantaged people. We’re providing food that they can afford, that’s a bit better quality than, say, Circle K, which is what the other option was.” He says that in the beginning of each month, 12 to 13 percent of their sales come from EBT cards, “which is not insignificant. So we moved some of our offerings to meet people who didn’t have a lot of money.”

But as downtown’s demographics change, he says, the market will respond and stock different foods. And that inevitable shift, from instant ramen and Eegee’s to artisan bread and olives, represents a microcosm of a change unfolding throughout downtown.

On a warm evening in March, I’m jogging behind the Tucson Fire Department headquarters and I notice lettering scrawled on the edge of the I-10 interstate: WHOSE CITY IS IT? it reads. DEVELOPERS OUT!

If downtowns revitalize in predictable ways, then so does the resistance to revitalization. The question of who Tucson belongs to—who is downtown for?—is an essential question and also essentially unanswerable.

What is downtown Tucson? First and fundamentally, it is a physical place. “Think of a city and what comes to mind?” wrote Jane Jacobs in her seminal book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. “Its streets.” One way to define downtown is according to the boundaries of the business improvement district, which extends roughly—jaggedly—from Franklin to 14th and Granada to Toole. But downtown is a layered place, defined as much by the buildings visible today as the ones that aren’t. Unlike many cities in the West, including Phoenix, downtown Tucson is hundreds of years old, with histories built and rebuilt. People who have worked downtown for decades are fluent in this kind of layered language, seeing simultaneously what was—the Greyhound bus station—and what is—The Cadence Tucson.

The very premise of revitalization assumes that something vital has been lost and must be re-found and rebuilt. In Tucson, for many years, that loss had an office. In 1958, the City of Tucson opened its urban renewal office, which housed the Pueblo Center Redevelopment Project—a project that would eventually bulldoze a historic neighborhood and displace a thriving and interconnected urban community. “The racialized nature of the Pueblo Center Redevelopment Project, which targeted the most densely populated nonwhite area in the city, is unmistakable,” writes Lydia Otero in La Calle: Spatial Conflicts and Urban Renewal and a Southwest City. Today, the Tucson Convention Center and its monoculture of parking lots serve as a tangible reminder of “a persistent campaign to whiten by removing Mexican American residents, history, and architecture from the coveted downtown landscape,” she writes.

Scott Stiteler is the developer behind the AC Hotel by Marriott on Broadway and Fifth Avenue —the first hotel built downtown since 1972. Developed with partners Rudy Dabdoub and Paul Chellgren, the eight-story, 136-room hotel will contain four floors of parking.

So, whose city is it? Have we recovered our losses? Heeded the history of those displaced?

I moved to Tucson in 2011, and even I am occasionally awestruck by how quickly the geography of downtown has changed. The accumulation of small changes only coheres into something visible now and again, when, looking up from my private dramas, I catch glimpses of a public city that didn’t used to be here. I am on South Fourth Avenue at the crosswalk at Broadway and I look up to see the blue streetcar silhouetted by the gleaming white of The Cadence building. In the same intersection, there are walkers—a gaggle of middle-aged women, striding across Fourth, purposeful and purple in their Meet Me at Maynard’s T-shirts. Another day, I’m sitting on the patio at Johnny Gibson’s Downtown Market eating a sandwich, ensconced in this red brick courtyard between Congress and Broadway. An early group of drinkers settles on a picnic table outside Independent Distillery. A hum of power saw cuts through the warm air, the scaffolding of the AC Hotel climbing the urban horizon like a promise.

In downtown Tucson, where is the there? What makes us feel like we are here? And why does it matter that we do?

Studies show that connection to place matters and most of us do not feel connected to places like Target or WalMart. According to a three-year, 26-city study conducted by Gallup and the Knight Foundation, people who are connected to their communities are more likely to vote, volunteer, give charitably, and pay taxes. Connection to place was the single leading indicator for a community’s prosperity—that is, researchers found “a significant correlation between community attachment and economic growth.”

Park Tucson administrator Donovan Durband says Tucsonans need to change their perception of parking. “Paying for parking in downtown Tucson is the price you pay to be able to enjoy a walkable urban experience,” he says. The Centro Garage was built in 2011.

A downtown helps create that connection. Downtown is the place where we see each other on the streets. It is also the place where we remember our history.

According to a survey by Jonathan Mabry, the City of Tucson’s historic preservation officer, 95 percent of restaurants in downtown Tucson are locally owned; of the more than 50 new restaurants that opened downtown since 2008, all but four occupy buildings constructed before 1965. “When we preserve our historic buildings and adapt them for new uses so they stay relevant, it creates this visual continuity with the past,” says Mabry. “A community has a past, and you can see it, represented in these older buildings.”

A study of Tucson by the Preservation Green Lab of the National Trust for Historic Preservation found that Tucson’s older, smaller buildings and mixed-vintage blocks—like those in downtown Tucson—contributed to the city’s economic vitality and growth. Districts with older, smaller buildings are more walkable and are, on average, a full degree cooler than areas with mostly new buildings. There are more minority- and women-owned businesses in these districts, and more jobs per square foot of commercial space. And districts with older, smaller buildings are more resilient and adaptable to change—according to sales tax records analyzed between 2009 and 2013, these districts, including downtown, recovered faster from the recession.

A busy evening at Obon Sushi, located at 350 E. Congress St.

And downtown’s older buildings lend themselves to continuous use. “They’re kind of like a loose fit,” says Mabry. A well-built brick building can be basically anything. A McDonald’s, on the other hand, is never not a McDonald’s and McDonald’s is everywhere.

“What’s interesting to me in terms of what Tucson has become is this unique connection to the desert, to Native American and Hispanic foods,” says McCusker. “An Applebee’s would totally fuck that up. But you can’t stop them. There’s no way any of us can stop them.”

Rio Nuevo has transformed itself under McCusker’s leadership. Rather than develop and push monolithic projects, the seven-member board reacts to project proposals and supports those that have the potential to increase sales tax revenue in the TIF district. “We tell developers: We’d like to be your last stop. So when you have your idea, you have your financing, your bank, you have your tenants, and you need a little money, that’s when you should come to Rio Nuevo,” says McCusker. This approach of partnering rather than pushing has enabled the board to leverage Rio Nuevo’s remaining funds—the TIF collects about $1 million a month—to greater effect: On average, for every dollar Rio Nuevo invests, the private sector invests $10. Between now and 2025, when the TIF district is set to expire, McCusker says Rio Nuevo will have between $50 and $60 million to invest downtown.

McCusker intends for that money to go primarily to local developers and businesses. “We can choose not to fund those big chains—they don’t need our money. They don’t need us to help them,” he says.

Legally, the City of Tucson can’t tell property owners what kinds of businesses they can lease to, says Durband. Accordingly, “The community places a huge amount of trust in developers to bring in independent local businesses as tenants,” he says.

A mural at R Bar, located at 350 E. Congress in the Herbert Alley, depicts a scene of downtown Tucson. Mural by Gary Patch and Darren Clark.

So far, Tucson has been lucky. “Our developers are homegrown, and not only have a sense of what the right thing to do is but are also pretty modest in their money and therefore make small decisions,” says Poster. He points to Ron and Patricia Schwabe’s approach: “They keep buying stuff, but they keep improving it. Incrementally, not with a giant amount of capital,” he says. “If you don’t have a lot of money, it’s hard to make a big mistake. The last time we had a lot of money in Tucson, we built the convention center.”

He says that, in the same way that One East Broadway was a bellwether for the housing market, the next critical development to watch for downtown is the first chain retail. “When will a national chain be willing to come to downtown without a standard suburban parking solution?” he asks. The question is not if, but when.

“It’s a pretty big stride we’re about to take,” says Stiteler. Today, the projects are bigger and the stakes higher. “We are definitely scaling up,” he says. And as Tucson scales up, other developers will become interested. Other businesses will want in.

I tell him my concern—that slowly but surely, Tucson’s independent businesses will lose out to chains, and the quality that captured me six years ago—the there that is here—will disappear. “It’s a tough question to answer,” says Stiteler. “It depends on the developers we attract.” But, he says, “Tucson is so fiercely loyal to locals.”

“I think it’s important that we keep our local flavor—that’s one of the biggest selling points of downtown,” says Kathleen Eriksen. “But if a larger chain were to come in and want to open up on an anchor corner, that would provide a lot of stability for downtown. And it would send the message to entrepreneurs, more local businesses, that—hey, this is a safe place to open up. The AC Marriott? It gives you credibility.”

Kathleen Eriksen is the CEO of the Downtown Tucson Partnership.

So does an employer like Caterpillar, says Stiteler. In May of 2016, Caterpillar Inc.—the world’s leading manufacturer of construction and mining equipment—announced it would locate its regional headquarters in downtown Tucson, aided by $52 million in support from Rio Nuevo. “Without that, none of our dreams are realized for downtown having this stable growth and opportunity—if you don’t have employers who are willing to commit to your community, specifically to your downtown,” he says.

Although some Caterpillar employees are temporarily working in a building on Congress, the company’s headquarters will eventually occupy a 200,000-square-foot complex in the Mercado district on the west side of downtown—thus fulfilling the original promise of the streetcar to expand downtown’s reach. “The biggest challenge we face is everything west of the freeway,” says McCusker. “It’s the moon.” He anticipates that the Caterpillar headquarters—and its 600 employees—will start to change that. Already the Mercado San Agustín has broken ground on the MSA Annex, which will feature more than a dozen local stores and restaurants housed in modified shipping containers. And many of the housing units projected for downtown will be located on the west side.

Some neighborhood residents have expressed concern. “Rio Nuevo was intended to be of cultural significance to the west side. The Convento, the Mission Garden,” Barrio Kroeger Lane resident Josefina Cárdenas told the Tucson Weekly. “What historical, traditional, cultural component does a company like Caterpillar have to offer us?”

The question remains: Who is downtown for? What is the correct balance between the multiplicity required to avoid monoculture and the economic development needed to support a city?

Patricia Schwabe recalls advice Chris Bianco once gave her about finding tenants: “When somebody is telling you, ‘Oh, I want to open a restaurant and the food is going to be kind of Asian or kind of Italian. That ‘kind of’ is a bad beginning,” she says. “We want people that have a stubborn and clear vision for what they want to do.”

“We had this idea to do, kind of this rum Tiki Caribbean food sort of thing,” says 47 Scott’s Reese about the concept behind Saint House Island Bistro and Rum Bar. They were initially going to use half the space at 256 E. Congress; as the project morphed, they took on more and more space. Their plans became more and more ambitious. “The project got away from us,” says Reese. “We spent more on furniture than we wanted. Then the price point of the food had to be higher. It didn’t feel like a Tiki bar. It didn’t make you feel like you were in the Caribbean. We just missed the mark.”

Reese adds: “You don’t want to overbuild. That’s a huge lesson for us. Be good and busy and small.”

The advice might well apply to downtown Tucson, too.

Megan Kimble is the editor of Edible Baja Arizona and the author of Unprocessed: My City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Real Food.







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