Bus Fuss

Council candidates talk about the future of the Ronstadt Transit Center

As downtown Tucson's revitalization continues apace, one key public parcel is being eyed for a major makeover.

The Ronstadt Transit Center sits on some valuable real estate along Congress Street. City officials have long talked about redevelopment possibilities: Moving the bus station out of the heart of downtown; readjusting it in the current location so that stores and restaurants could be built along Congress Street and Sixth Avenue; or even putting a high-rise apartment complex above the plaza.

But those ideas have been all talk because downtown redevelopment had, until recent years, moved at a glacial pace.

Now the Tucson City Council wants to hear what developers might have in mind for Ronstadt Transit Center. At a meeting last month, the council voted 5-2 to reach out to developers early next year, after Sun Tran completes a new study on how to best improve the region's bus system and the Federal Transit Administration releases new rules about redevelopment opportunities.

Councilman Steve Kozachik, who faces no opposition in his reelection bid, voted against the plan because he wants to see the process move along more quickly, while Councilman Paul Cunningham opposed the proposal because he believes that council members will put so many restrictions on any proposal that no developer will be interested in working with the city.

"I don't know what developer is going to want to do this with all the stipulations," Cunningham said. "I don't see it bearing any fruit."

There's resistance to any kind of development of the property coming the Tucson Bus Riders Union. Brian Flagg, an advocate for the homeless, wants to see nicer bathrooms and kiosks staffed by helpful Sun Tran employees who will help bus riders navigate the system rather than shops and cafes.

Flagg vowed to battle any developer who comes to Tucson with any thoughts of building on the site.

"We can't wait to see these developers come to Tucson and they'll get to see the bus riders up close and personal and it will be a glorious thing," said Flagg. "The bus riders are going to be angry. We're going to have hundreds and hundreds of them. And the developers can see what they're up against."

But Michael Keith, executive director of the Tucson Downtown Alliance, said that multi-modal, multi-use developments are hot in downtowns across the nation.

"Picture, if you will, housing above retail with open plazas and spaces, and bikes parked along the edges, and transit, and shared cars and a bike-share program on the same site, in a way that works together beautifully," Keith said.

So what do this year's crop of City Council candidates want to see happen with the transit center?

City Councilwoman Karin Uhlich said she is waiting to see what kind of proposals come in.

Uhlich has been impressed by models in other cities that include an open-space plaza that serves transit, bikes and other modes of transportation with "some degree of modest commercial or residential development."

"Some kind of commercial activity there could really make it more welcoming and safer and more activated," said Uhlich, a Democrat seeking her third term in north-central Ward 3.

But she was skeptical that building a multi-story apartment complex would pencil out for a developer.

Uhlich's Republican opponent, Ben Buehler-Garcia, said that using the parcel for the transit center "is not the highest and best use of that property," particularly with the modern streetcar set to start up next year. He suggested that the bus station should be moved to the north to allow commercial development along Congress Street.

"A plan that would allow for some retail and commercial property along that block is a good idea," said Buehler-Garcia, who added that he was intrigued by the idea of building an apartment or condo building above the transit center.

Buehler-Garcia would have voted alongside Kozachik to move the process forward more quickly.

"The more we wait, the longer it takes to bring in a revenue-generator," Buehler-Garcia said.

Ward 5 Councilman Richard Fimbres didn't get back to the Weekly about his vision for the Ronstadt Transit Center, but he did send an email saying he'd voted in favor of the proposal to reach out to developers last month "so that a discussion by our community and consideration by the Mayor and Council about the future of the Ronstadt Center could take place."

Republican Mike Polak, who hopes to unseat Fimbres, says he thinks a few shops along Congress might be a good idea, but he doesn't want to move the bus stop.

"We spent a lot of money building it, so we don't need to be moving it," said Polak, who says a few shops would make sense. "But if you overpopulate it, it doesn't serve its purpose anymore."