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City officials work to address concerns about the streetcar's effects on the Fourth Avenue Street Fair

Concerns about negative impacts on the Fourth Avenue Street Fair caused by implementation of the modern streetcar system seem to be fading—just as this year's winter Street Fair kicks off on Friday, Dec. 10.

"We're working on the issues (with the city of Tucson)," says John Sedwick, executive director of the Fourth Avenue Merchants Association (FAMA). "It's all positive right now."

When the Street Fair was inaugurated in the early '70s, the Arizona Daily Star stated of the event: "Fourth Avenue merchants, in a modest attempt to show off shops and spirit, have designed a day-long 'festival of harmony.'"

Almost 40 years later, the three-day, twice-a-year fair includes almost 450 booth spaces and attracts hundreds of thousands of people. "The mission of the 4th Avenue (Street Fair is) to provide a community arts event, free to the public, with the highest quality visual and musical arts," declares FAMA.

A few months ago, the community event appeared to be in serious jeopardy. In September, FAMA was notified that plans for implementing the three streetcar-passenger stops along Fourth Avenue were going to include a design that would have significant impacts on the Street Fair.

Because raised island stops were slated for the center of the street, FAMA believed more than 50 booth spaces might need to be sacrificed. Sedwick estimates the lost annual revenue to his organization because of this and other streetcar issues could have ranged between $50,000 and $80,000.

A few years ago, the original concept for the passenger stops along Fourth Avenue was to locate them on the side of the street. This was done at FAMA's request and agreed to by the city's Department of Transportation (TDOT).

But in 2008, Jean Gorman, Mayor Bob Walkup's representative to the Tucson-Pima County Bicycle Advisory Committee, objected to this idea. She cited a potential risk to bicyclists, because the streetcar tracks would only be about one foot from the curbing at the new stops. Instead, Gorman requested "a bicycle-friendly solution to this very serious safety concern."

At first, the Transportation Department defended its position on the location of the stops, but eventually changed its mind. "As a result of Gorman's comments," remembers TDOT director Jim Glock, "we recognized the side stops made it difficult for bikes."

The plans were then altered to install the stops in the center of Fourth Avenue at three locations: between Fourth and Fifth streets, between Sixth and Seventh streets, and near Ninth Street. The standard plans for streetcar stops along the four-mile route call for a slightly elevated platform 45 feet long and 18 feet wide to be installed in the center of the street. This waiting area would have wheelchair accessibility from a gently sloping 44-foot ramp.

Construction of three stops like this on Fourth Avenue obviously would negatively impact the location of Street Fair booths, since the booths are situated in the center of the street. Thus, alarm bells went off along Fourth Avenue a few months ago.

According to Glock, his department appreciates the importance of the Street Fair to the community. "Our conversations with FAMA are ongoing, and we're still trying to address their concerns. ... Our goal is not to have any booth spaces lost," Glock says.

To accomplish that objective, Glock says the two northern stops on Fourth Avenue will either be able to be folded up or moved in some other fashion. To help accomplish that, the handicap ramp to these stops will only be 20 feet in length.

Because of technical and other reasons, the southernmost stop on Fourth Avenue, at Ninth Street, will feature the standard design. Despite that, Glock believes it should have a minimal impact on the Street Fair. He points out this area is used during the Street Fair in large part by nonprofit organizations. He anticipates they would be able to place some of their booth tent poles right on the streetcar stop.

"Originally," Glock adds of the streetcar plans for Fourth Avenue, "there were some issues that the stops weren't going to be Street Fair-friendly." He believes those issues are being addressed and hopes to have a revised proposal to show FAMA early next year.

Other changes have also been made by the city to earlier plans. These include installing a downtown turnaround along the track route to allow the streetcar to continue in partial operation even during the Street Fair. In addition, the city has agreed to do what it can to minimize the impact of streetcar construction on Fourth Avenue when the work begins after next spring's Street Fair, slated for the first weekend in April.

Gorman says she still has bicycle-safety concerns relating to the streetcar line. While the Bicycle Advisory Committee she serves on is looking at these issues, Gorman remains worried.

On the other hand, as a result of the commitments made by the city, FAMA has indicated its tentative satisfaction with the outcome of the streetcar design. As it reservedly stated in a recent newsletter: "A number of issues have been dealt with that would have critically impacted the Avenue."

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