Look back 20 back years ago, and the primary impression of downtown Tucson is an image of boarded-up buildings and homelessness.
Today is a much different story.
Downtown has turned into a place of purpose for people to work, live and enjoy themselves. It’s a destination for entertainment and once again an active part of the city, proving revitalization is possible for any community.
“Downtown used to be a very active place where everyone would come for shopping way back when,” said Jonathan Rothschild, mayor of Tucson. “If a downtown core is strong, it will pump out economic strength into the region, which is why downtown is so important. I’m glad it’s doing well again.”
For the last 45 years, downtown Tucson was in a major decline. Tucson Mall and other projects coaxed development away from downtown, which gradually pulled away commercial business and other interests.
“Throughout the ’90s and early 2000s was when downtown reached its lowest point,” said Jim Mazzocco, Tucson city administrator. “There were a few odds-and-ends retail stores that would come and go, and that was it.”
Some developers tried to build back a strong downtown about 15 to 20 years ago, but projects came up short. In the weakened economy of 2008, all development stopped.
According to the Downtown Tucson Partnership, 240 businesses have opened up since 2008, with 28 alone in 2015. New restaurants and brewpubs continue to come to downtown, in hopes of reaping the benefits from the revival.
“Once the first group of developers were successful, more developers came in,” Rothschild said. “When people see success, they are attracted to it.”
The SunLink Streetcar, which opened in summer 2014, is one of the most pivotal projects in helping revitalize downtown. About $200 million of private investment arrived due to streetcar development, the city said. Another estimated $1 billion-worth of investment is on the streetcar line, according to Jim Mazzocco.
“The streetcar brings a lot of value to real estate in downtown,” said Art Wadlund, a longtime Tucson developer. “My partner and I are very invested in downtown as of right now.”
Changing the image of downtown also encouraged new business.
“A community or city needs to gauge the image of their downtown in the eyes of residents and visitors,” said Dr. Michael Burayidi, chairman of the Department of Urban Planning at Ball State University. “If it is filled with crime, drugs, or homelessness, it needs major change. You can’t attract businesses and people to downtown unless you have a positive image.”
The revival of downtown Tucson unleashed new economic growth into the city and attracted more and more commercial business, officials said. The change is so drastic it proves Tucson can be a model for revitalization for other struggling cities such as Detroit and Oakland, Burayidi believes.
“If you have a quality place rich with heritage where people live, visit, and come for entertainment, you can create a healthy downtown,” Burayidi said. “From that, the city will gain attention from other communities that want to imitate what you do.”
Rothschild is pleased with how his city has met its challenges.
“Tucson was late to the game, but now we have other city officials and city planners flying in to see what we have done,” Rothschild said. “People are interested in seeing how we revived our downtown.”
Hunter Kerr is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.