Thursday, May 29, 2014

Hillary Davis, Inside Tucson Business, May 23, 2014

Steve Betts is largely a Phoenix developer, but he is familiar with Tucson. While downtown Tucson hasn’t gotten much attention over the last few years, he said, he thinks it’s due.

“I happen to believe in that hockey analogy of, you skate to where the puck is going, not to where the puck is,” he said.

Betts was one of several speakers offering summaries and reactions to a report issued last fall by the Urban Land Institute, which laid out ideas for how to develop Tucson’s burgeoning business, residential and cultural district - especially the Tucson Convention Center and the lands to its west. Broadly, experts for the Washington D.C.-based urban planning think tank said Tucson needs to take an incremental, locally based approach to modest projects, and to have strong, transparent regional cooperation as it moves along with its downtown revitalization.

ULI visiting panelist John Walsh acknowledged that the study was meant to be meaningful at the 30,000-foot level, and that the more detailed proposals were only suggestions that probably wouldn’t happen. For example, the idea to put an equestrian center, similar to West World in Scottsdale, on the west end. Some of the ideas, however, are already being put into action, such as remodeling and private management for the TCC.

Among other proposals, the initial report suggests bringing more people to the area with even more multi-family housing, increased attractions, more retail and dining options for middle incomes, tearing down the La Placita office park and repurposing the space for visual and performing arts schools from the University of Arizona, and demolishing the shuttered Hotel Arizona and using the space for a community and cultural plaza. It also suggested an advisory committee to work with the governments. A consortium comprised of the City of Tucson, Pima County, Rio Nuevo, Pima Association of Governments, Visit Tucson, TEP and Holualoa Real Estate paid for the $100,000 study, which was unveiled in November.

Tucson got disproportionally hit by the economic downtown – “Y’all got a left hook and an uppercut at the same time,” said Walsh, president and CEO of Dallas-based real estate holding company TIG. But downtown has a positive momentum right now that creates an atmosphere of confidence, he said.

The TCC needs to be rebranded as a civic center, with more community uses than just conventions. Although the center draws meetings, it doesn’t get that many.

“You’re not Las Vegas. You’re not New York City. You’re not Phoenix,” Walsh said.

“It is what it is.”

Betts, who was involved in the redevelopment of downtown Tempe, said there’s a similar opportunity here.

Betts revisited a longstanding idea to repurpose the Hotel Arizona into a Doubletree and build a neighboring Embassy Suites. He also suggested apartments for sophisticated seniors, an idea that drew interest from the audience gathered at TEP’s downtown headquarters.

Downtown landowner and developer Allan Norville said the city should still think big.

He said the western half of downtown should be for arts and culture, lodging and conventions. The east side, already mostly revitalized, is for the young professionals and bars, he said.

Norville – whose large, vacant lot just west of the TCC hosts a large tent during the winter gem show season and that could be the site of a smaller convention center, according to the ULI study’s authors, said the area needs more hotels.

“That would be terrific,” he said. “That would be sensational for our gem show.”

Jan Cervelli, dean of the College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture at the UA, said the university needs to grow but has little room to do so on its main campus. Following the modern streetcar route is logical, but the UA lacks state funding needed for capital and is dependent on partnerships, she said.

Cervelli said the remaining areas of opportunity are larger – bigger land parcels, land owned by public entities – making for more complex projects.

“I’m not going to say it’s going to be harder,” she said. “It’s going to take a lot more cooperation and a different set of rules, and thus the beauty of having the ULI stakeholders group.”