Downtown Dream

Local couple proposes Plaza San Agustín.

We can restore life to Tucson's shabby and deserted downtown--by starting with a Mexican-style plaza ringed by first-floor shops below mixed-cost, multi-story housing.

That's the vision of the Committee for Plaza San Agustín, itself a brainstorm of Tucson radiologist Jean-Paul Bierny and his public-artist wife Chris Tanz.

The committee's proposed Plaza San Agustín would be built on what are now crumbling asphalt parking lots directly across South Stone Avenue from Saint Augustine Cathedral, downtown's most impressive landmark, built in 1896.

"We want a plaza where the heart of the city would beat," Bierny says. "There is no such thing in Tucson now, but all over the world cities have plazas in front of their most beautiful facades."

The committee, most of its members from historic downtown neighborhoods, has started its mission to have built a tree- and bench-dotted plaza complete with a bubbling fountain.

Bierny and Tanz hired local architect Bob Vint for $10,000 to begin design work on the plaza and managed, with the help of University of Arizona's Southwest Center, to win a $40,000 Back to Basics grant from the city of Tucson.

The grant continues the work of Vint, who is leading the restoration of San Xavier del Bac Mission and the restoration of the Cheney House in downtown's El Presidio Neighborhood. He gets $15,000 of it.

Another $20,000 goes to Julie Scalise of ESI Inc. in Phoenix for an economic feasibility study and the last $5,000 goes to Tucson consultant Curtis Lueck for a traffic study.

The effort has support of the Catholic Diocese of Tucson, the Tucson Arts District Partnership, the Tucson Scottish Rite, and the downtown neighborhood associations of Barrio Viejo, Armory Park and El Presidio.

Nancy Bissell, a co-founder of the Primavera Foundation, which provides housing, job training and employment for the homeless out of nearby offices, supports the project.

Bierny says he and Tanz are working to gather community support, especially from downtown interests and neighborhoods. "It is important for this project to be in the hands of the community and not be for commercial profit," he says. "It's a community atmosphere we want to promote, not a commercial development ... We make no profit of this whatsoever."

Their vision is one of small shops on the first floor of the buildings to be built around the plaza--cafes, restaurants, bookstores, a small theater and other shops. "All local businesses, no chain stores," Bierny says.

Vint says he is designing structures of three and four stories around the plaza that would include 60 to 75 upstairs housing units for sale, not for rent.

"It's important that the housing be for mixed income buyers," Bierny says. "We don't want just a low-income housing project or luxury residences."

Vint says 20 percent to 30 percent of the units will be for low-income buyers, 20 percent will be for upscale buyers and 50 percent to 60 percent will be for middle-income buyers.

Bierny says the proposal's most difficult stumbling block is the land's ownership--two-thirds of it is property of De La Warr Corp., a company with a downtown skyscraper address that has not responded to the plaza proponents' inquiries.

The other third is in the hands of the historic Scottish Rite Temple, which supports the project, he says.

The committee plans to await the consultants' reports and go to the City Council in late summer or early fall to seek its support. City cooperation, and probably funding, is needed to build parking facilities under the plaza, Bierny says.

Vint says no existing buildings would be torn down for the project, but the crumbling adobe Brichta house on the corner of Stone and Ochoa Street, last used as a garage, would have to be moved.

The growing community activism of Tanz and Bierny can be traced directly to the 1999 fight of El Con Mall neighbors against its ongoing expansion. They live in the El Encanto neighborhood.

"For us, this grows out of the El Con battle," Tanz says. "Communities organizing together for that fight was an inspiration. We see this as a positive alternative--something people can be for instead of against."

Bierny is involved with Tucson Friends of Chamber Music, which is where he learned about the city's Back to Basics grant program.

That chamber music interest also takes him and Tanz often to the nearby Tucson Convention Center's Leo Rich Theater.

"Chris and I thought, 'It's a crime to have bare parking lots across the street from the most beautiful façade in the city,' and that started the idea," Bierny says.

The couple has traveled widely in Mexico, where lush and crowded downtown plazas are at the center of nearly every city and town. In particular, they are fond of the plazas of Patzcúaro, Morélia, Querétaro and Oaxaca.

"We would like to see the same style of covered arcades here," Bierny says. "We seek a plaza that would promote a sense of family, of community. A plaza with shade trees and benches where one can relax, watch people go by, read."

The Committee for Plaza San Agustín is having a public meeting to unveil its plans and seek community ideas for developing them further at 7 p.m. tonight, May 3, in Carrillo Intermediate School, 440 S. Main Ave.