In 1999, the Legislature allowed and voters approved a tax-increment financing district known as Rio Nuevo.
The idea was to revitalize downtown Tucson by allowing use of sales-tax revenue to finance construction of public improvements within designated boundaries.
After spending millions of dollars to study the feasibility of a Sonoran Sea Aquarium, a Rainbow Bridge across Interstate 10 and using scarce desert water to create a riparian riverwalk out of the Santa Cruz River bed, we have very little to show for our efforts.
While the planned renovation of historic buildings and the development of cultural projects and museums are politically safe, it is unlikely these projects will, by themselves, attract new residents and investment to Rio Nuevo.
If we really want to revitalize downtown, we need to make it a place where people want to live.
This requires an investment in infrastructure and the creation of public/private partnerships.
Start with transportation infrastructure. The RTA trolley connecting Rio Nuevo with University Medical Center is a step in the right direction, but it is not enough.
Where light rail lines have been built, private development has followed, and tax revenues have increased (think Portland, Ore., and San Diego).
Light rail also gives the city a unique opportunity to direct growth and increase densities without corresponding increases in automobile traffic.
However, to make light rail acceptable to taxpayers, we need a funding mechanism that allows those who benefit from the system to pay for it. A downtown improvement district is one option.
Second, increased residential density is a good thing. The Rio Nuevo Master Plan states that development “out of scale for Tucson” or that creates “traffic impacts” on neighborhoods is not desirable.
This is code-speak for “not in my neighborhood,” a common complaint at City Council meetings.
However, increased downtown residential density encourages commercial development and entertainment venues, makes public transportation work, and allows growth without sprawl.
Many prefer the convenience and variety of living in a downtown urban environment to the suburbs.
We should give incentives (such as fee waivers, an accelerated rezoning track and parking variances) to developers for taking risks necessary to develop high- and mid-rise condominium projects.
The land-use code also should be modified to encourage, rather than discourage, mixed use (commercial/residential) projects.
Next, build a Downtown Arena. We missed a golden opportunity to build Tucson Electric Park downtown. Let’s not make that mistake twice.
A downtown arena would attract world-class entertainment, provide a venue for professional sports teams and large conventions, and give residents a reason to move downtown.
The city should either build the arena or enter a partnership with an investor willing to take the risk.
Finally, create incentives for downtown hotels and grocery stores.
Large conventions have bypassed Tucson because of a lack of convention-quality hotel rooms.
Public-private partnerships (such as parking garages and plazas) are a win-win for developers and the city.
Similarly, incentives (in the form of fee waivers and infrastructure assistance) should be given to a developer willing to bring a grocery store (or Trader Joe’s) downtown.
City planners know what needs to be done to revitalize downtown. The question is whether we have the political will to do it.
Ted Hinderaker is a Tucson lawyer with Hinderaker & Rauh.