After the Rainbow

Proposals to link Rio Nuevo projects move under Interstate 10

The spectral light of the University of Arizona's Rainbow Bridge may have faded, but city officials still believe downtown's Rio Nuevo project can be viably connected across the thundering traffic of Interstate 10.

But instead of soaring over the roadway, that will mean going underneath it.

"The connection options haven't changed, because they weren't about the Rainbow Bridge," says Greg Shelko, Rio Nuevo's director. "The city has partially funded $9 million in improvements for the Clark Street underpass which leads to a bridge across the Santa Cruz River."

The Clark Street route will allow vehicles, pedestrians, bicyclists and even a modern street car to move freely under the highway, Shelko says. Current plans call for expanding the sidewalks on Clark Street, which runs beneath I-10 a few blocks south of Congress Street, to a whopping 70-feet in width. Further south, on 18th Street, a pedestrian-only passageway 120 feet wide will be implemented.

Both these enhancements are part of the long-anticipated I-10 widening project between Prince Road and 29th Street. Two $200 million-plus bids for this construction work were recently opened, the lowest being 13 percent higher than the $177 million budgeted. The Arizona Department of Transportation Board is scheduled to review its options at a meeting on Sept. 15.

When first proposed in 1999, a shuttle system was one method suggested to link the Rio Nuevo improvements on the east side of I-10 to those west of the Santa Cruz River. Also considered, according to the Arizona Daily Star, were "bridges and roads or rail tracks to cross the Santa Cruz River at Clark Street."

Two years later, city officials were discussing specific improvements to Clark Street, including the installation of a trolley line. They also talked about other "penetrations" beneath I-10 which would accommodate pedestrians and vehicles moving between the two major focus areas of Rio Nuevo (See "Road Block," Aug. 16, 2001).

Seven years ago, the primary proposed projects on the east side of the highway were an aquarium, a visitors' center and an IMAX theater. West of I-10 were clustered several cultural attractions, including the re-creation of the historic Convento site as part of the San Augustin mission complex.

Today, Shelko says, a new entertainment arena, along with hotel, housing and commercial developments, are slated for the east side, while to the west will be the Convento, along with new facilities for the Arizona Historical Society and Arizona State Museum.

Over time, the university's science center proposal evolved to span the two sides of Rio Nuevo, and the rainbow bridge was the suggested way of connecting them. For some people, the bridge became a controversial symbol of downtown, but its dramatic architecture was an attempt to attract a large audience to the entire area.

Now that the bridge idea is dead, Shelko says it makes sense to put the science center exclusively on the west side of the interstate: "With the change (dropping the Rainbow Bridge) and to maximize the use of real estate, it appears the center will be a part of the cultural campus on the west side."

What university officials think about this proposal couldn't be determined. They didn't return several phone calls seeking comment.

But the idea of consolidating all of the museums on the west side of Rio Nuevo pleases Mac Hudson, special projects coordinator for the nearby Menlo Park Neighborhood Association. "That way, they can share functions, (like parking)."

As for connecting the two sides of Rio Nuevo, Hudson thinks the street car which will link the UA campus with downtown is imperative. "To me, it can be an amazing icon," he says.

Planning for the light-rail line, funded by the Regional Transportation Authority sales-tax increase approved by voters in May, is now underway. Service to the Rio Nuevo area is expected by 2012.

Not all of Hudson's neighbors agree with him. One, who requested anonymity, criticizes the planned reconstruction of I-10 for the visual and noise impacts it will have on both the neighborhood and Rio Nuevo.

"People will see 18-wheelers from the Convento site," this person says, pointing out the construction work will substantially increase the height of the highway and add lanes. "The freeway needs to be integrated (into its surroundings)."

To accomplish that goal, he proposes putting the highway at grade between St. Mary's Road and 29th Street. To connect Rio Nuevo across the roadway, he suggests having Congress, Clark and 22nd streets go over I-10.

For his part, local activist Dick Basye thinks the highway should be underneath the existing streets in the area. He points to an earlier study which found the idea of depressing I-10 to be cost-effective, disputing the findings of a more recent report which shows this work would be extremely expensive.

Calling Basye's proposal cost-prohibitive, Shelko responds: "We'll have more pleasing ways to connect Rio Nuevo."

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