At Last!

The Rio Nuevo gamble is about to show dividends--but Tucsonans remain skeptical

Three stray dogs slept among the weeds of Tucson's historic birthplace one afternoon last week.

They had the place practically to themselves, and no wonder. Right now, the floodplain where Tucson's earliest residents first eked out a living is a wasteland.

Just west of downtown, south of Congress Street, the sad-sack acreage is nestled in between A Mountain and the bone-dry banks of the Santa Cruz--a river that once ran year-round. Nowadays, there's not even a hint of the well-watered agricultural fields cultivated by successive waves of Native Americans, no trace of the chapel and Convento of the Spaniards' late-18th-century Misión San Agustín.

Instead, beer cans and glass shards are scattered over the remains of a city dump, and the once-fertile land closest to the riverbed is scraped bare. The only noise to be heard on this particular day was the hum of cars whizzing by on Mission Road; the only human to be seen was a lone man shooting hoops in nearby Barrio Sin Nombre.

The dogs snarled at me when I accidentally disturbed their sleep, and I got away in a hurry. But they'll soon have to get used to intruders and commotion. By next spring, construction workers could be preparing the site for the first of the long-envisioned Rio Nuevo cultural projects planned for the river's west bank.

If all goes according to plan, Mission Gardens will be planted precisely on the weedy spot where the sleepy canines were taking their rest.

"I hope Mission Gardens will be ready by the end of 2007," says Marty McCune, the city's historic preservation officer and point person for a mélange of cultural and historic Rio Nuevo projects.

After getting the go-ahead from the City Council and mayor in December or January, a landscape and architectural team will forge ahead with design and break ground in the spring. But the re-created historic gardens will be just the first--and cheapest--of the westside Rio Nuevo projects authorized by the voters seven years ago.

As early as 2009, the gardens are expected to be joined by a re-creation of the lost Mission complex, forming Tucson Origins Park. Architects Burns Wald-Hopkins will fashion replicas of the Convento where the friars lived, the chapel where they worshipped and the granary where they stored foods grown by O'odham workers.

"It will be pretty cool," says McCune.

In the following years, a big-ticket trio of museums will take root north of the reconstructed Mission.

The UA Science Center, now shorn of its controversial Rainbow Bridge, hopes to have a plainer but nevertheless huge building finished by 2010. Located entirely on the west bank, it will be joined by an all-new Arizona Historical Society, possibly also in 2010. Like the Science Center, which intends to give up its old, cramped Flandrau location on campus, the Historical Society intends to move lock, stock and barrel--or in its case, lance, sword and musket--to Rio Nuevo.

Arizona State Museum, the state's leading anthropology institution, aims to move its public exhibitions to a new structure at Rio Nuevo while keeping its research building on campus. It's counting on completing the downtown space by 2012, the centennial of statehood.

The three museums, some of the city's most venerable, will be grouped around a plaza, where they may eventually be joined by the new kid on the museum block, the much-younger Tucson Children's Museum. Collectively, they aim to interpret nothing less than the whole history and culture of Tucson, past, present and future, exhibiting everything from the ancient pottery of Arizona's earliest Native Americans to the latest astronomical findings by the UA's scientists.

"The people of Tucson voted to reclaim their histories," says Hartman Lomawaima, executive director of the Arizona State Museum. Together, the museums will answer such questions as, "What's the significance of that site? Who lived there?" he says. "They can see the changes brought by the railroad, by the telescope. These three institutions will help the public understand that."

Adds Alexis Faust, executive director of the Flandrau Science Center, "We can show the intersection between culture, science and history. Science is not disconnected from art and history and culture. There's chemistry in the glaze on a pot. The new site allows us to be reintegrated."

Mission Gardens, far more modest than the planned museums, will encapsulate all by themselves the long and sometimes tragic history of Tucson. Relying on archaeology conducted almost five years ago by Desert Archaeology and paid for by Rio Nuevo, landscape architects will fashion a walled garden that traces the 4,000-year history of the fertile floodplain through plants.

"It will re-create to some extent the Mission Gardens that the Spanish had here from 1771 to 1821," says Mary Muszynski, landscape architect with SAGE Landscape. "We're doing 1810, when it was at its peak."

That means Spanish-style orchards, full of apple, fig and mulberry trees, and gardens bursting with cabbage, black-eyed peas, lentils, grapes and such herbs as coriander and mustard. Adobe walls, mimicking those constructed by Native Americans under the direction of Spanish friars, will enclose the four-acre site.

The thick, green orchard "will provide a different atmosphere than the full sun of the desert," Muszynski promises.

Though the Spanish colonial mission period is its primary focus, the gardens will also pay homage to two millennia of Native American farms cultivated here. A portion will be planted in weeds that archaic Indians nudged into food plants around 3500 B.C. Another section will honor the maize, squash, beans and cotton grown by the "first farmers," who tilled this soil from about 2100 B.C. to 500 A.D., and later by the Hohokam, who farmed here from 500 to 1450 A.D., and by the Tohono O'odham after 1450.

The landscape architects will also interpret the "American era, after the Gadsden Purchase" of 1854, Muszynski says, with potatoes, strawberries and cabbage. Other veggie plots will recall the Chinese gardeners who hawked their greens on Tucson's streets in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The living exhibit is meant to demonstrate how earlier peoples--unlike today's--nurtured the land, husbanding water from the river through canals and acequias.

"People used to use this land sustainably," Muszynski says, but the land began to deteriorate in the late 19th century, when Anglo settlers diverted and dammed the river and sucked up its waters.

In the 1940s, a brickyard was erected on the floodplain, putting an end to its centuries-long sweep of agricultural abundance. In the 1950s, the city bulldozed the remains of the Convento, obliterating it so effectively that the archaeologists working here five years ago could find no trace of it.

Then Tucson literally trashed its birthplace. Next to the fragile riparian habitat of the Santa Cruz, the city created a dump.

"This is the birthplace of Tucson, and we're trying to tell the story at the location where it unfolded," says Albert Elias, director of urban planning and design for the city. "Aspects of the story are not pleasant. We were not good stewards of the land. We took the Convento, knocked it down and put a landfill next to the river. How dumb was that?"

In 1999, the citizens went to the polls and voted to re-create--and undo--some of this sorrowful history.

Before Rio Nuevo, the city had considered and rejected a potpourri of schemes for the trashed tract. A highway bypass around Mission Road would have cut across the historic land, destroying its archaeological treasures forever. That plan was thwarted by stealth community activists who set up a shrine by night and declared it sacred ground.

The city next pondered a Southwest theme park, a new liberal arts campus for the UA, a baseball stadium and a shopping center. All these ideas came and went, but the idea of a historical re-creation stuck.

With the Rio Nuevo ballot, Tucsonans agreed to rebuild the Mission San Agustín, especially its late, lamented Convento, whose leveling had become a cause célèbre for preservationists. Voters also agreed to pay part of the costs of a museum complex to the north, as well as a Sonoran Sea Aquarium, since nixed. The new complex would also have a cultural plaza for community gatherings, and even the degraded riverbanks were to be rehabilitated.

Rio Nuevo was also to fund assorted cultural projects downtown and reconstruction of a piece of the Presidio, the old Spanish fort that once lay in what's now the city's heart.

Part of the idea was that the infusion of so much cash for cultural treasures would jumpstart private development. Conversely, "You don't do intelligent downtown revitalization without taking into account art and culture," says Nina Trasoff, the City Council member who now chairs the Rio Nuevo subcommittee on arts, culture and history.

Much of the money for the high-minded cultural schemes is to come from tax-increment financing. Better known by its acronym, TIF, it's a clever scheme endorsed by the Legislature that allows Tucson to skim off a portion of state sales taxes that would otherwise be shipped up the road to Phoenix.

The caveat for the museums is that they have to balance out their TIF handouts with heavy-duty fundraising of their own. But the TIF pot of gold is expected to pay all the costs of the Mission project. Pending late-arriving data from ConsultEcon, a Massachusetts consulting firm that was still crunching numbers last week, McCune expects costs to run around $25 million for the Tucson Origins Park and its infrastructure. The museums could come calling to City Council by February, looking for pledges of TIF money.

The numbers are all still in flux, but TIF expenditures for the whole cultural complex could top $200 million. Added to the private fundraising the museums will have to undertake, the value of the whole westside project could hit $400 million--in 2006 dollars.

"I'm concerned for the cost side of the equation," Elias admits. "Every day, the costs go up. All public-works projects suffer from the same dilemma"--in which the cost of materials and labor rises every day that the project is not built.

One saving grace is that Tucson leaders this spring managed to squeeze another 12 years of TIF funding out of the state Legislature. Under the original agreement, Tucson was to keep a portion of sales taxes from a designated part of town for a total of 10 years. The clock started ticking in 2003, so the extra 12 years extend the life of the TIF agreement from 2013 all the way up to 2025.

"The original estimate was that TIF would generate $124 million," Elias says. "Now, with the 12-year extension approval, it's estimated to generate $600 to $800 million."

But that windfall won't all go to the museums. It will be up to the City Council and mayor, Elias says, to decide just how much of the TIF money to fork over to the museums--and how much the museums will have to find on their own.

"The challenge is that we have a finite budget," Trasoff says. "We'll have to make difficult decisions about what we can afford to allot."

The museums' estimated costs are staggering. The UA Science Center was originally to be a $100 million project, but when renowned architect Rafael Viñoly was hired, he conjured up an imaginative arch that would have dangled the museum from a giant suspension bridge from the east side of the river to the west--and ballooned costs up to $350 million.

New UA President Robert Shelton nixed the bridge, but the more modestly conceived museum, at 150,000 square feet, still carries a price tag of about $175 million. The city had already promised the museum $20 million in TIF funds, and the Arizona Board of Regents committed $56 million, but it's unclear where those agreements stand now that the project has changed so dramatically.

Arizona State Museum's price tag hovers around $62 million for an estimated 80,000 square foot building. The Arizona Historical Society will likely pay at least $70 million for its projected 130,000 square feet.

All the museum leaders acknowledge that it might be difficult to have three beloved local museums competing for millions of private dollars at the same time. They may try to do some joint fundraising and look for foundation money beyond the city limits. But they're convinced they can pull it off.

"We think it will go well," says Bill Ponder, chief administrative officer of the Arizona Historical Society. "We have community support for what we do."

Lomawaima, director of the State Museum, seconds the motion. "I think the city and Tucson folks care about us," he says confidently. "We're very viable."

Still, he adds, "Rio Nuevo will be our biggest-ticket item so far."

Ever since the voters brought Rio Nuevo to theoretical life seven years ago, they've complained about the glacial pace of its progress. At a recent party, I asked a group of citizens what they thought of the museum plans--and was greeted by chorus of naysaying. One schoolteacher's response was typical.

"If it ever happens, it might be a good idea," she said.

But city staffers say they've been working right along to turn the voters' huge wish list into bricks and mortar. On the east side of the river, the Fox and Rialto theaters are rehabbed and up and running, and a replica of the Spanish Presidio wall is under construction. And in the intervening years, staff has weathered three separate city managers, a changing roster of City Council members and Rio Nuevo leaders, and unending community meetings.

"The community stakeholders care deeply about this project," Elias says. They have tremendous engagement with it--this is their story."

Part of the city's task has been to reassure a populace still haunted by the draconian redevelopment projects of the 1960s that Rio Nuevo is not their father's urban renewal. Rio Nuevo leaders swear that not a single home will be leveled.

"We're going to protect Barrio Sin Nombre and Menlo Park," pledges José Ibarra, the council member representing those westside neighborhoods. "We'll stand up for housing there."

Much of the site-prep work has been largely invisible, McCune says, and patches of private property on the site, including one occupied by a bus barn, had to be acquired. The archaeological work might have been long and slow, but it turned up some spectacular finds. With evidence of ancient canals and pithouses, archaeologists dramatically pushed back the known dates for human occupation of the Santa Cruz riverbanks. (See "Convento or 'Invento'?" June 27, 2002).

"We have a whole slew of advisory teams," McCune says. "We've been doing a lot of planning. We did a lot of archaeology. We're constructing a road. And we've been doing environmental remediation for seven years."

Even now, an environmental "cooking" operation is pumping methane out of the old landfill; the white pipes are visible behind chain-link fences near the river. The place where the Convento will be rebuilt is clean now, but even so, the remediated soil will have to be trucked away to a landfill.

"Let's face it: This is a tough site," McCune says. "It would have been developed years ago if it were not so difficult."

Critics also sometimes accuse developers of hijacking Rio Nuevo by pushing their commercial schemes at the expense of the cultural projects. The private housing component of the westside site--a New Urbanist community that will number up to 80 condos and 100 houses, some costing as much as $600,000--is already under construction, long before any of the museums have so much as broken ground.

TIF money cannot be used for the private projects, but Rio Nuevo officials are actively involved with developers attracted by the huge pots of public money poised to be up-ended downtown. On Nov. 2, at the most recent meeting of the arts, culture and history subcommittee chaired by Trasoff, Rio Nuevo director Greg Shelko described a downtown seized by condo-mania.

He tallied up a long list of private housing developments envisioned in downtown proper, including The Post on Congress, Depot Plaza, Presidio Terrace, the rehab of 44 E. Broadway Blvd. and the conversion of the Santa Rita into boutique hotel rooms and--what else?--condos.

Shelko, who came from Milwaukee 2 1/2 years ago to head up Rio Nuevo for the city, makes no bones about pushing for commercial development.

"These are private projects," he told the subcommittee. "We should generate private-sector activity as a principal goal. We're on a good path."

Shelko argues that public and private development are two sides of the same revitalization coin. With the westside complex, he said, "We're trying to a create a cultural attraction unlike any other. It has the potential to bring a quarter-million people downtown. ... A critical mass is developing. If we can focus on housing and attractions, retail will follow."

Even the westside cultural plaza will have its commercial component. The museums expect to have their own restaurants and gift shops, and the 15 acres at the north end of the track, just below Congress Street, will go out to bid for commercial enterprises. Fronting on a plaza stocked with museums and--they hope--visitors, the desolate land has become valuable.

"We're hoping for retail, maybe some offices, some residences, maybe an open-air market," says Elias. Other possibilities are a boutique hotel and restaurants.

Adds Trasoff, "It's not just, 'How do we get businesses downtown?' We have to have people living there."

What if they built a museum complex and nobody came?

Not likely, McCune says.

"Museum people say this is something that's not available anywhere else, a complex with this kind of breadth and cultural vision," she says. "It takes in history, science, culture and archaeology." Coupled with an outdoor Sonoran Desert park to be constructed south of the Mission complex, "it will be a destination and a community gathering place."

Still, New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff recently panned a similar scheme in Denver, articulating the common urbanist view that small-scale initiatives do more good than mega-projects.

"The new (Denver) plaza is a well-worn formula: museums, shops and a loftlife apartment complex ... that are intended to manufacture an instantly vibrant street life," he wrote. Civic leaders, he added dryly, "promise that it will help revitalize downtown Denver."

But Rio Nuevo's links to downtown ensure that both the east and west banks will be energized, Elias says. The trolley will link the museum complex to downtown and the university. Pedestrian bridges at Cushing Street and Mission Lane are expected to lure strollers west. Though hampered in early years by the widening of Interstate 10, also scheduled to begin this spring, the plaza will eventually be readily accessible to visitors from the freeway.

Connected to the "entertainment district" downtown, anchored by the rehabbed Rialto and Fox theatres, "the city will come alive from the Snake Bridge to A Mountain," Elias predicts.

And museum officials, armed with their ConsultEcon studies, say they're confident they can draw huge new crowds. The Arizona State Museum, now visited by 21,000 anthropology-loving souls a year, salivates over the thought of a projected 155,000 to 195,000 visitors flocking to its new location. The Arizona Historical Society anticipates some 177,000 a year. And the UA Science Center has extravagant hopes of as many as half a million.

"It brings everybody's numbers up to be located together," says Beth Grindell, associate director of ASM. But the numbers are in flux, and the rosy estimates could drop when ConsultEcon comes in with new visitor numbers for a museum plaza stripped of the attention-getting Rainbow Bridge.

The Science Center's Faust says she's happy to settle on terra firma with the other museums, but she confesses, "I'm kind of sad" about the loss of the Rainbow Bridge. "It would have brought something unique to the community."

Still, the new plain-wrapper science building will have plenty of whiz-bang new attractions. A high-tech Unispherium will take visitors on virtual trips inside the human body as well as into outer space, replacing the old campus planetarium. A tropical butterfly vivarium, an IMAX theater, interactive physics exhibits and a host of other attractions all intend to enlighten visitors at the same time that they entertain. Perhaps best of all, a new observatory will be open 24/7, and the hope is that families from nearby Menlo Park and Barrio Sin Nombre will amble over after dinner.

Over at the new Arizona State Museum, Lomawaima says three spacious galleries and classrooms for school kids will offer shows and programs that are just not possible in the current limited space. One gallery will "interpret the archaeology of the region," he says. "The second will be a version of Paths of Life," the museum's permanent multimedia exhibition about Arizona's Native Americans. The third will showcase traveling exhibitions and local histories. "We're going to be good neighbors."

The Arizona Historical Society will install its well-used library, archives and photo collections in the new place, and continue with permanent and changing exhibitions on Arizona and the West.

All three leaders of the UA-area museums offer the same reasons for their big--and expensive--moves. The university's increasingly cramped campus is forcing their migration to the wide-open spaces on the west bank, they say. Visitors now have trouble finding the museums--and finding a place to park when they get there.

"Absolutely, we will be more accessible down there," says Ponder, of AHS. "We're landlocked here."

Once upon a time, before the university crept closer and the Marriott Hotel loomed so large, the Historical Society sponsored lively street parties like the Waila Festival on Second Street. No longer. But the cultural plaza downtown will be a perfect venue for such "exterior programs," Ponder says.

Likewise, Flandrau's astronomy focus is being blocked, literally, by tall buildings. The UA is going up, and with new structures like the Optics Building, the old observatory is "losing its horizons," Faust says.

And all three museums are cramped for collections and exhibition space. Right now, Flandrau has room to show only 10 percent of its sparkling mineral collections, which Faust calls "one of the best in the world."

Lomawaima's museum has huge collections of Native American pottery and basketry, and historic Navajo rugs that were exhibited to spectacular effect two years ago, along with, more surprisingly, art from West Africa and the classical Mediterranean world. Temporary storage sites have had to be rented for the museum's vast repository of archaeological materials collected from state and federal lands.

"We're full," he says.

And over at the Arizona Historical Society, "We're squeezed for space," echoes Ponder.

The museums and their staffs will no doubt luxuriate in their roomy new surroundings, but there are downsides to losing the UA as a neighbor. UA students can now pop over to, say, the AHS library for an hour or two of research between classes. The museums annually attract thousands of schoolchildren, some of whom get their first glimpse of university life along with their lessons in Arizona history and science.

"We lose; we gain," Faust acknowledges. "Bringing young people onto a college campus does break down barriers. But downtown, we'll still be an entrée into the university. Philosophically, I believe we need to bring the university to the people."

At the moment, the museums are in the future. McCune has more immediate things on her mind, like the planning for the problematic re-creation of the historical buildings of the Mission.

McCune is well aware that strict preservationists find it unconscionable to construct faux historical buildings.

"Re-creation is always controversial," she says. "It's also the most expensive way to interpret a site. The Convento will be an exhibit, not the real thing."

Scores of historic photos of the Convento will guide its reconstruction, but the chapel, almost entirely undocumented, will follow the model of a Sonoran mission church of the same vintage, at Oquitoa.

"We're trying to be as faithful as we know how to provide an authentic experience," she says. "We'll be honest. We'll say, 'This is not the real thing. The real thing is at San Xavier and Tumacacori.'"

And, adds Elias, the reconstructed mission complex "was a key element of the ballot. For a lot of people, that's what Rio Nuevo is."