What one cannot do is be free from cars, trucks, SUVs, buses, motorcycles, motor scooters or any other fossil-fueled mode of transportation I may have failed to mention. This stretch of road is Tucson giving the finger to urban planning while embracing the world's oil cartels.
On one of my infrequent and reluctant buying expeditions, I went to Best Buy in search of a new phone. Directly across the parking lot is World Market, and since I also needed drinking glasses, I decided to trudge across the asphalt in the dwindling hope that I might find something both beautiful and functional. (I've been looking for about a year--but that's another story.)
Nada at WM, but since Pier 1 is sort of next door, I thought it would be worth a visit. I could get in my car, exit one parking lot and attempt to merge with the stream of vehicles going west on Broadway, only to enter a second lot within walking distance of the first one. Dumb idea.
But in order to get to Pier 1 and avoid driving, I found myself traipsing behind Jared's on a winding strip that leads to a no-man's-land connecting the two lots. After making my way down an ugly, faux pebble-encrusted rise, I arrived at my destination cursing every individual who ever thought the internal combustion engine was a sign of progress.
Then I started pondering alternatives. What if this annoying stretch of road and traffic and ugly buildings were reinvented? Imagine the possibilities.
The entire area would be designed around pedestrians, not parking lots. Vehicles between Swan and Wilmot would be prohibited. Where each of those streets intersected Broadway, there would be multi-story parking garages with as many levels as possible underground. And yes, people would have to pay for the privilege of driving and parking, though merchants could elect to stamp their tickets.
The monstrosity of Park Place (forever known as Park Maul in my mind) would be replaced with separate shops only accessible from the outdoors. The architectural details of the two blocks would reject straight lines in favor of curves; covered, arched passageways in the Moorish-influenced, Mexican Colonial style would link stores, restaurants, children's play areas, cafes, sitting areas. These passageways could be more than the routes between destinations; they could serve as art galleries and provide ample space for murals and street art.
In addition, the covered walkways could lead to several mini-oases, xeriscaped islands of color inviting people to stop, inhale and relax. Eating establishments could provide outdoor dining bordering these areas.
Parents with strollers, the handicapped, the elderly and the simply lazy could be accommodated by moving sidewalks similar to what you find in the interior of large airports, but moving at a much slower pace. Limited access roads running along the outside perimeter of the stores would enable persons with large or bulky purchases to load their vehicles.
And though it may sound like an unrealistic fantasy: Why not adjust the hours of operation seasonally? Summers, the entire operation would shut down between noon and 4 p.m. (Hey, it works in parts of Europe, and neither tourism nor economies seem to be suffering.) Besides saving enormous amounts of energy--since that's the hottest time of day--it would provide people with an excuse for one of my favorite things, the time-honored siesta.
It's not like other cities haven't done similar things. But I don't know of any metropolitan area that has converted a shopping zone on the scale of the Wilmot-Swan corridor into a pedestrian-friendly area.
I understand none of this is likely to happen. But the truth is, there is no reason why--given enough energy, passion and will--it couldn't. (Money can always be raised, one way or another.) Unfortunately, the powers that be are busily entangled in the mess that may, or may not be, Rio Nuevo that may, or may not, provide Tucson with a revitalized downtown (pardon me while I yawn) and free-flowing tourist dollars.
Shopping venues, much as it pains me to admit it, draw people. Lots of people. And an architecturally unique one such as, let's call it La Alhambra de Tucson (and why not?), would be a major draw. The good news? Vehicles would be left on the perimeters while land at the eastern end of the central city could be devoted not to asphalt, but to people.