Historic Design

A proposed downtown subdivision will feature echoes of the land's archaeologically significant past

For almost 2,500 years, people dug canals along the Santa Cruz River to transport water to nearby farm fields. Now, in a nod to the past, the historic path of some of those canals will carry pedestrian and automobile traffic.

Last year, as part of the city of Tucson's downtown Rio Nuevo effort, the Rio Development Company proposed installing a subdivision with mixed uses along west Congress Street. After being selected by the city to develop the vacant, litter-strewn, 13-acre parcel in conjunction with four local builders, the company held a design charette to seek input on the project's layout.

One of those who attended the meeting was Jonathan Mabry of Desert Archeology, whose firm had previously looked at the site. Mabry informed the Rio Development Company that the site had archaeological significance, and that his company had discovered a migratory pit-house settlement dating back to 2100 B.C., along with 4,000-year-old pottery, indicating that the area is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the United States. They also uncovered evidence of corn being grown thousands of years ago as well as irrigation canals.

"We found lots of canals," Mabry says, "and in the area (of the proposed subdivision) 10 canals ranging from 2,500-years-old to the 19th century. They represent Tucson's agrarian history, when the Santa Cruz was a green oasis until a little over 100 years ago."

After sharing the information with Rio Development Company officials, Mabry indicated it would be neat to somehow honor that history by physically marking the alignment of at least some of the canals. The site planners at the charette, he says, lit up, as they became more excited about the possibilities.

The result is a subdivision plan for the Menlo Park neighborhood project which is not typical of modern-day Tucson. With narrow, bending streets, wide sidewalks and seven small plazas, the design for the "Mercado District" is pedestrian-oriented, reflecting local urban planning from pre-railroad days, not the automobile era.

"The planners took constraints and made them opportunities," says Justin Dixon of Rio Development. "A big part of the plan was influenced by archeology. It made it about Tucson, and the plan turned out really great."

Says planner Stefanos Polyzoides of the site: "It would have been easy to throw a grid over the whole thing, but there was something there before we were."

Polyzoides summarizes the project this way: "It balances out the history of the place while addressing the neglect of the last 50 years."

Some of the streets and walkways will follow the routes of earlier irrigation canals, and the site plan uses landscaping and signage to reflect the area's past. It additionally spotlights the Convento building, which will be reconstructed nearby as part of the "Tucson Origins" project. The only straight north-south street in the subdivision, Avenida Del Convento, will provide a visual site line from Congress Street south through the property to the new "historic" structure.

Along this same street will be ground floor retail shops, with dozens of apartments and condominiums above. Dixon hopes the businesses will be neighborhood- or locally based, and expects the housing units to sell for $100,000 and more.

Interest in the 102-lot, single-family residential portion of the development, Dixon says, has been phenomenal. In fact, it has been so great from current Menlo Park residents, people affiliated with the University of Arizona and others, that Dixon is a little worried about the level of anticipation, since the first homes won't be occupied until August 2005 at the earliest.

Current foothills resident and local historian Ken Scoville is one of those hoping to buy a home in the Mercado District.

"I've always wanted to live someplace with that much history," he says. "The developer and home builders actually gave it some thought. That's groundbreaking in Tucson!"

The project's single family homes, which Dixon indicates will look like those in Tucson's barrio, vary widely in size and price. A handful of 600- to 800-square-foot bungalows might go as low as $80,000, but most of the units will be priced between $150,000 and $500,000.

While those figures upset at least one participant at last week's Menlo Park Neighborhood Association monthly meeting, the board did unanimously support rezoning for the development.

In an interview prior to the meeting, Lillian Lopez-Grant from the neighborhood said she was pleased with the plan for the Mercado District, adding that she didn't care about the incorporation of the canal system into its design. Of more importance to her was the development of new housing and cleaning up the site.

"Menlo Park is inundated with Section 8 (government-sponsored) housing that looks like crap," she told those at the neighborhood meeting. Saying she wanted her adult children to live in Menlo Park, Lopez-Grant predicted the homes in the Mercado District would be sold before being built.

"There's probably never been this much thought put into a 13-acre site," Dixon says, "but because people were brought into the process, the project is better off for it. Giving ourselves a back seat (in designing the plan) has really paid off."