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We'll all grow viejo whistling 'Bridge on the Rio Nuevo'

Is it just me, or is it Rio Nuevo?

I was still wearing halter tops, hip-huggers and Dr. Scholl's sandals when downtown revitalization started. Today my shoes are strictly orthopedic but damn if there still isn't a huge vacant space west of downtown. Children have been conceived, educated, left home and started families of their own, presidents have come and gone, nations have risen and fallen, weathering has changed the faces of great boulders and I still don't get what Rio Nuevo is supposed to be. The original concept of a rebuilt Convento and cultural plaza has kept morphing and growing in its long sleep, only occasionally waking from its fitful slumber to share an uneasy dream or two with the community that pays its keep.

Then torpor returns. The Downtown Development Corporation was formed in 1978. In 1993, the City Council terminated the corporation's contract, paid its debts and took control. In 1999 voters approved plans and funding for Rio Nuevo. And there's still not a brick laid.

Oops, I'm wrong. Tom Doucette and Standard Pacific Homes are putting in some $200,000 houses a stone's throw away from Kroeger Lane, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Tucson. See--something's happening. The rebirth of a vibrant downtown--"vibrant" is a big Rio Nuevo word--is finally underway.

Did we really need to pay out a million or two a year in salaries and consulting fees all this time to cajole developers into building houses and strip malls (excuse me, "mercados")? Or, wait, how about getting a local brewer to move downtown with a huge tax incentive and low, low rent? But then, darn, another snafu. It turns out he'll build his wildly vibrant brewery and restaurant only after he, too, gets to put up some condos and a parking garage.

On the other hand, you can't blame any of the developers, and especially not Jim Counts of Nimbus, who makes a superb pale ale that's gratefully consumed on a daily basis in my household. A brewery and pub downtown is a terrific idea, but Counts knows who he's dealing with, and just like everyone else who comes into the slow, gargantuan orbit of Rio Nuevo, he's trying to see what the city will fall for.

These, after all, are the people who spent more than three years planning a giant aquarium as the central attraction downtown before somebody noticed that the idea was not only not viable but laughable.

But no point in beating that dead fish. They've now moved on to the giant suspension bridge/science museum spanning the Santa Cruz that they're planning to call--ready now?--the Bridge of Knowledge. Hot damn.

And it'll only cost $75 million dollars--or, wait, $100 million, or maybe double that, according to the architect--but some of it won't come from the city but from the UA so it's like it's free. (For comparison, the estimate for Michael Arad's 4.5-acre memorial at Ground Zero is $203 million.) And even if right now the whole thing looks likely to come in at 100 percent over budget, we need not worry, Rio Nuevo director Greg Shelko told the Arizona Daily Star this August, because "a fair amount of money should flow in from private donations." And it could be self-sustaining someday if ticket sales exceed those of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.

You see, the bridge will dwarf every other structure in Tucson, and so it'll be a huge tourist attraction: "Hey, Dad, let's go to Tucson so we can see the bridge that's taller than all the other not very impressive buildings in Tucson! And then we can go to The Gap!"

Well, that answers my questions.

We've been spending a million or two a year on salaries and consulting fees time out of mind and this is what we get. Another rattlesnake bridge to no place in particular, and another creepy underpass where there could be a lighted, safe-feeling pedestrian bridge over the tracks between Fourth Avenue and downtown. And, hey, what about subsidized dollar-a-day parking? You know, stuff that might actually help people get downtown?

But here's an even better idea, floated by my friend and hero Emil Franzi the other week at lunch.

How about we put the whole thing to a vote again? How about we say, OK, would you like to have a science museum and shopping mall on the Santa Cruz, or would you rather spend the money on, say, repealing the garbage fee, or re-opening the trauma center at TMC, or fixing roads? You know, repairing the levees? Something people who live here might actually need?

You know what the outcome would be, so you know it'll never happen. Not in Tucson, or in Tuk-son, either.

Corrections: Here at the Weekly we pride ourselves on accuracy and fairness, but occasionally an error does creep in and we endeavor to correct it. Gene Armstrong has informed me of the following two mistakes in my last column: The movie title he mentioned back in the Star newsroom was Edward Penishands, not Edward Scissorpenis, and "Gimme Shelter" is not only the greatest Stones song of all time, but the greatest rock song of all time. We deeply regret any confusion these errors may have caused.

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