A Not-So Modest Proposal

An investigation reveals magnate Michael "The Skipper" Midas' stunning vision for downtown Tucson

Michael Midas is gripping the spokes of an enormous ship's wheel, turning it to the left and right. But Midas, with his trademark captain's hat atop his head, isn't guiding a boat through choppy seas. Instead, he's surveying most of downtown as he gazes out the window of his penthouse office on the 19th floor of the legendary Pennington Building.

"It's been a long storm," he says, "but I'm steering us to calm seas."

Better known to world at large as "The Skipper," Midas is a larger-than-life figure whose biography seems almost as mythical as his royal namesake. After winning three consecutive America's Cup titles, he became one of the most powerful developers in the country--the brains behind some of the largest shopping malls in America. Two years ago, his company, Midas Touch, began quietly buying downtown properties. He now owns nearly half of the privately owned land in downtown proper.

Documents recently obtained by the Tucson Weekly show that Midas may have good reason to see blue skies. The reports, a mix of interoffice memos, architectural renderings and confidential e-mails, suggest that city officials have started working closely with Midas to completely re-imagine Tucson's struggling downtown.

But today, The Skipper sidesteps questions about those plans.

"There's a lot on the horizon, but we're not ready to unveil all of it," he says with a smile. "We have plenty of bold ideas, but there's no reason to believe everything you might read."

The documents, leaked from within City Hall, suggest that big changes loom on the horizon for downtown. City officials, concerned over the slow pace of the Rio Nuevo, have been discussing ways to "jump start" the redevelopment process.

Like Midas, city officials aren't commenting on the proposal. Assistant City Manager Kenna Tell says she can neither confirm nor deny the legitimacy of the documents, citing government-client privilege under a new public-records law passed by the Arizona Legislature two years ago. But she adds that if they are authentic, the Weekly should not be in possession of them.

"Why don't you do yourself a favor and give us all those copies?" she says. "Otherwise, you'll be hearing from our attorneys."

Judging from the number of times Tell's name appears in the documents, it's clear she's at the center of the planning effort. Tell--who, until last year, was an employee of Midas Touch--has been aggressively lobbying city officials to "quit jerking around with a bunch of dumb locals and bring in somebody who knows what they're doing," according to a high-placed source inside City Hall.

Enter Midas, the flamboyant developer credited with the concepts behind some of the largest and most successful shopping malls--or "consumer experiences," in the company's parlance--in the nation: Boston's Revolutionary Square, Jersey City's Garden Grove and Milwaukee's famed Cheddartown.

For Tucson, it appears Midas Touch wants to take its work to the next level. Preliminary negotiations suggest Midas is proposing that city officials create a new Shopping and Entertainment District--or SHED--that would essentially take over most of the government functions in the downtown area.

The SHED, headed by a private board of property owners, would have an unprecedented array of powers over planning, zoning, law enforcement and taxation. A preliminary contract calls for the SHED to essentially use powers of condemnation to acquire whatever downtown property is not on the market, with city taxpayers matching private contributions from Midas.

The city would acquire title to the property and lease it back to Midas for $1 a year, saving the company millions of dollars in property taxes.

"While this may seem like a significant loss of revenue, it will primarily affect Pima County and the Tucson Unified School District, while the city will benefit by collecting sales taxes and having a revitalized downtown," explains one confidential memo. "Without this minor subsidy, it's unlikely any reputable company would be interested in investing in downtown Tucson."

In addition to the property tax break, Midas Touch would also pocket half the sales tax collected within the boundaries of the SHED, estimated at roughly $400 million during the next decade.

In return, Midas would build a vast outdoor mall that would include a sports arena, retail stores, restaurants and even canals. Among the proposals:

· Acquiring an arena football team. Since private investors in such a speculative venture may prove hard to find, planners propose that taxpayers cover the cost of acquiring a franchise and fielding the Tucson Cougars. (A private company would be paid to manage the team.) The team's 20,000-seat arena--which would also be available for concerts, monster-truck rallies and other events--would be built on the east end of downtown after the Rialto Theater block is demolished.

To provide parking for the arena, a parking garage is proposed for the east entrance of downtown where Hotel Congress now stands.

"Although the hotel is marginally successful, we feel it often brings the wrong element into downtown," reads one report. "We suggest demolishing the hotel and building a five-story parking facility in its place."

· Replacing most of the western end of downtown--including City Hall, the county complex, the Tucson Convention Center, the Tucson Museum of Art and neighborhoods such as El Presidio and Barrio Viejo--with a vast honeycomb of high-density condominiums. (The only structure spared would be the La Placita retail and office space, which planners say has "unlimited, untapped potential.")

"Simply put, no retail enterprise will succeed without customers," according to one memo. "This 'Barrio Gringo' will combine the spirit of Tucson's historic row houses with inexpensive 21st-century building materials."

· Building a new City Hall, featuring state-of-the-art council chambers, complete with deluxe accomodations for city officials and wireless Internet access so council members can use laptops to browse MILF sites during call-to-the-audience segments. The billion-dollar office plaza would also feature new offices for the mayor and city manager on the top floor. As the timeline currently stands, the new City Hall would be one the last projects completed. While construction is underway, tentative plans call for the council to meet at the Catalina Foothills High School cafeteria.

"While technically outside the city limits, the new meeting place would put the council closer to many of the influential members of the community," explains one memo.

The county would be encouraged to build new offices outside the city limits.

"Given that county officials continue to refuse to spend transportation dollars within the city limits, we believe they should be relocated to an unincorporated area of the county, such as Three Points," according to an e-mail from Tell.

· Demolishing the warehouse district along the Union Pacific Railroad Tracks and replacing it with a warehouse-themed food court mixing fast-food outlets with national chains.

"While the warehouses themselves are simply too deteriorated for rehab, we can create a similar environment which would be an ideal location for many national operations, such as South of the Border, Chili's or Macaroni Grill," says one marketing report.

· Developing a network of canals, filled with CAP water, throughout the downtown.

"We feel the word 'desert' has too many negative connotations," according to a planning document. "This new water feature would create an oasis to counteract Tucson's hot-and-dry image."

· Transforming the Temple of Music and Art into office space for Midas Touch. Under the proposal, the Temple's exterior would be preserved, but the interior would be gutted and rehabbed into the Tucson headquarters for Midas.

"While the exterior of the building is lovely, using it for theatre performances hardly seems like the highest and best use for the building," says one e-mail from Midas Touch officials. "With some minor modification, it could become the ideal HQ for Midas Tucson."

Midas officials are in preliminary talks with the Home and Garden Television network to develop a new reality series tentatively titled Downtown Turnaround that will follow the revitalization process. The series creators envision using different celebrity designers each week on a different project.

"In addition to providing an additional revenue stream, this urban-based makeover program would offer tremendous public-relations opportunities," predicts Tell in a memo. "We could even have Councilwoman Carol West oversee the design standards on each program."

Social services agencies are slated to be relocated to El Con Mall.

"Although the mall has made efforts at revitalizing El Con in recent years, they have been largely unsuccessful," notes one memo. "We envision the consumer-failure tipping point will come within five years, particularly once new stores begin opening downtown. This is a proactive step that will remove many undesirables from the downtown area while still ensuring they have access to food programs, drug counseling and the like."

It's 10 a.m., and Realtor Paco Suedo is settling in for his daily coffee break at El Descanso. In a corner Chinese market-turned-crack house on the northern edge of Barrio Viejo, El Descanso is a struggling neighborhood café offering no-lard tortillas, soy chorizo and boutique caffeine beverages.

Suedo takes his usual window seat, cradling in his hands an oversized mug decorated with the Virgin of Guadalupe levitating over a bed of coffee beans.

"This is the only place in town where you can get a caramel macchiato por la raza," he smiles.

Suedo doesn't have much else to smile about these days.

"This Midas Touch outfit is trying to destroy all our barrio traditions and culture," he says. "It's just like back in the '60s, when the city tore down something like 80 acres of beautiful old adobe Sonoran row houses. You know what I could sell just one of those places for now? Minimum, $300,000. A pile of 1880s mud for 300 grand. They say this is a land of opportunity, but the city bulldozed that opportunity away.

"My family and me moved down here into what was left, 15 years ago. We were like pioneers, taking back the neighborhood, getting historic-district zoning standards in place so people can't come in here and put up these crappy new white mailboxes with howling-coyote flags. And now Midas wants to steal it from us. Midas wants to tear down our adobe and replace it with stucco. Hell, if you want stucco, move to the Foothills."

Artists, too, are shocked by the SHED plan.

"The idea of demolishing these historic warehouses is absolutely appalling," says painter Ted Mandible, buttressing a sagging wall in his Warehouse District studio. "Although it would be nice to eat at Macaroni Grill without driving halfway across town."

Other artists are even less equivocal in their disgust.

"We've worked 20 long, hard years to get the Arts District just to the point where it's floating belly-up in the water," complains sculptor Barbara Gyrus. "Now they're trying to take it all away from us."

Gyrus is particularly incensed by a rumor that City Councilwoman Kathleen Dunbar will be assigned responsibility for approving public-art projects. Gyrus and Dunbar nearly came to blows at a public meeting last fall to determine what to do with Gyrus' controversial public-art project called "Effluvium." Gyrus described the work as "an homage to the Central Arizona Project, in the style of Damien Hirst." Nearby homeowners objected to some of its imagery, including a steer dredged from the CAP canal and suspended in formaldehyde.

Dunbar prevailed, and "Effluvium" was disassembled and placed in storage until a new site could be found. Now, Gyrus predicts, Dunbar will use her new authority to strip SHED of anything remotely resembling art.

"They're talking about high-density condos," says Gyrus. "So where are they going to have room for art? In the lobby of some multiplex showing Dawn of the Dead on 50 screens? Leave it to Dunbar, and maybe they'll commission Thomas Kinkade to paint some glowing fairy cottage where you look through the window and see dogs playing poker.

"This is an attack on art, it's an attack on the human spirit, and it's an attack on me, personally," Gyrus charges.

While Assistant City Manager Tell refuses to comment on the purported SHED master plan, she does let slip one telling remark: "The TCC, with all that space taken up by the music hall and the Leo Rich Theater, just isn't relevant anymore. The only way we're going to make anything work today is through creative public-private partnerships."

Indeed, the Tucson Weekly has obtained a city request for proposals--a request that does not appear to have been advertised through the usual channels. It calls on schools, churches and private theaters to bid on hosting the conventions and other big events currently held in the soon-to-be-demolished TCC until the new arena is built.

Although most of the likely bidders refused to comment on the RFP, one unlikely player did come forward: the Empress Adult Book & Video Store and Theater.

In an unusual move, the Empress has submitted a joint proposal with its nearby rival, the Bunny Ranch, to host the annual Jehovah's Witness assembly. So says Bambi Turner, the Empress' newly appointed special-projects director.

"That would bring a new, like, spiritual component to our work," says Turner, "and it's a way for us all to come together. As a community. Not just us and the Bunny Ranch, but us and the Miramonte Neighborhood Association," which has chronically objected to the adult businesses on its outskirts.

A successful bid would also help the Empress escape city pressure to sell out to what Turner calls "some big-box drugstore chain like Eckerd or Walgreens." ("They're not really that big," Turner confides over her third screwdriver down the street at the Bashful Bandit, "but all you have to do is say the words 'big box,' and the people in the neighborhood association pee their pants.")

Asked about plans for an arena, Barrio Gringo and a canal network, Midas lets loose a hearty laugh.

"That's a pretty audacious plan," The Skipper says. "I'd go as far as to say that only an utter fool could believe something like this could be underway."

But some perennial city critics are already decrying the details of the plan as a mammoth giveaway.

"Once again, the city is taking all the risk and leaving the reward to the private sector," says Mark Barkalot, a well-known crusader against sprawl, SUVs and telephone service. "And, as usual, the brain-dead, yellow-bellied, spineless potted plants on the City Council are rolling over to serve their capitalist masters."

City Council members seem to be in the dark about the proposal. In fact, one e-mail purportedly from Tell to Midas advises him to avoid discussing the project with elected officials before the plan is a done deal.

"They will simply meddle with the project as they do everything else," Tells writes in the memo. "It would be in our best interests to keep them out of the loop for as long as possible, until we're ready to present them with a really sharp power-point presentation of the finished project."

Barkalot isn't surprised to hear that elected officials are being kept out of the loop.

"They're too craven to do anything about it even if they did know," he says. "The more I hear about it, the more unbelievable it becomes. It almost sounds like some kind of demented April Fool's hoax."

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