Local Transition

There are a few more rental signs than usual along Fourth Avenue as businesses shuffle or move on

The space where How Sweet It Was once stood is, like a few too many spaces lately on Fourth Avenue, is empty and quiet. An orange and black for rent sign blares its message brightly from the window.

A few doors down, Café Passé still serves up coffee to their regulars, but the tiny room to the east of coffeehouse hangout lies vacant and silent. Once the home of Wooden Tooth Records, the square backroom no longer blares tunes from old vinyl, as the little-startup-that-could has moved to a spot off Seventh Street.

There are more examples up and down the destination street, known for its locally owned businesses that cater to what often makes Tucson unique, of a Fourth Avenue in flux. Between University Boulevard and the downtown underpass, for rent signs seem a common sight.

Connie Lauth has owned her little plot of Fourth Avenue since the '90s, where How Sweet it Was once stood. Her tenure on Fourth, like other fellow landlords, began long before, and well, things have changed.

"It's all more dressed up than in the old days when it was really very young," she says. "We were all in our 20s I'd say, the business owners. We were just young hippie kids with a dream."

Lauth started her living in the '70s designing clothes, and opened up the first incarnation of How Sweet it Was in 1974. The business has since switched hands and, recently, moved to a smaller place. While stalwart characters like Che's continue to remain features on Fourth, others have shifted and readjusted. Or, as with the Hopyard Deli, disappeared altogether.

Sabine Blaese, the former owner of Café Passé doesn't want to be a pessimist but believes there is a transition happening that, at times, doesn't look promising.

"Just that stretch between Seventh and Sixth streets, there are how many empty storefronts right now?" she says of the vacancies along Fourth near Passé.

Blaese recently sold Passé to local owners who, she says, plan to keep the "spirit" of Passé alive. She was just shy of seeing the coffee shop's 10th birthday under her ownership.

"In 10 years it's amazing what happened," she said. "The avenue underwent almost a complete transformation. That's not an exaggeration."

Blaese and Lauth both remember Fourth Avenue in its grungier days. According to Blaese, Epic was pretty much the only place for a cup of coffee, and the grubby nature of the street, combined with a prevalence of transients and panhandlers made Fourth a less desirable locale than it is today.

"It was pretty bad, and I think that's what kept a lot of people away from Fourth Avenue," she says. "It was a lot less foot traffic, a lot less visitors, a lot less locals that came down. There wasn't really a whole lot to do."

Lauth, too, said the storefronts have seen more love and TLC throughout the years. She takes personal credit for the trees.

"I really, really advocated hard when I was on the board of directors back in the late '70s," she says. "A friend of mine actually did the planting back then."

A few decades after the trees, the modern streetcar was the newest thing to arrive in 2014, a development many believed would bring about negative changes to business life. Most of the trouble came in the construction, however, and less after the ribbon cutting.

"The construction period for that put a lot of us down here out of business," Lauth says. "I had deep enough pockets and long enough history at that point to survive it, but ... my sales were off 80 percent."

In terms of rising rent prices, Blaese says that the streetcar didn't end up justifying increased price tags, at least for Passé, but development downtown definitely saturated the market.

"I mean, everybody's slice of the pie got a lot smaller. Which is absolutely normal, you know if you have that much more of a choice," she says. "You suddenly have 10 pizza joints instead of two and five places to go get coffee."

Blaese maintained that the merchants have adapted pretty well, upping their game and keeping things interesting. She said that ups and downs come in waves, something her long-time neighbors can corroborate. She hasn't been around long enough to see the process extensively, but she didn't seem too worried.

"God knows what's going to happen next, what area they're going to develop. But in the long term, I don't think Fourth Avenue is going to have a problem."

But while revitalization of Fourth has brought positive energy to the street in recent years, the rise in competition is evident, too.

"Obviously we want the city center to succeed because, you know the old adage about the rising tide lifts all boats," says Fred Ronstadt, executive director of the Fourth Avenue Merchants Association. "But we are engaged in serious competition with our sister districts."

Ronstadt says that, in the fight for customers, each district in this area has a different way of doing business, but everyone feels they have "the best thing to offer the community." The Fourth Avenue Merchant's Association is currently in the middle of a rebranding process for the street. As part of these efforts, FAMA is looking at Fourth's core values, embracing diversity for example.

"You sort of have this sense that [it's] new and shiny on Congress Street versus tried and true on Fourth Avenue," Ronstadt says. The ultimate goal lies not in complete change, but rather in "trying to remind people in the community that if they want the true, authentic Tucson experience that it resides on Fourth Avenue."

FAMA has been working with Eller College of Management and the city of Tucson in efforts to reimagine the streetscape and redevelopment, keeping the authenticity and feel of Fourth while making it more attractive to new local business. Ronstadt says that while all districts in the city center are interdependent and want each other to succeed, Fourth Avenue remains an authentic, Tucson-original amidst the shiny new storefronts a little further south.

But on a deeper community level, Ronstadt says Fourth Avenue is the meeting place of choice for locals to congregate over important issues. In times of both divisions and unity, like in the wake of Orlando or in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, locals look to Fourth as a "sounding board" for ideas, activism and celebration.

"The beat of the heart of our city is Fourth Avenue. We talk about the city center being the heart of Tucson, well the beat of the heart is right here in Fourth Avenue," Ronstadt says.

"So when things happen people gather on Fourth Avenue. We continue to be relevant in the lives of the community and I think it's demonstrated in organic ways like that."

For now, and for some, Fourth's transition period remains slow and steady against the whiplash of development just south of the underpass.

The precariously ancient neon of Caruso's spaghetti-eating chef continues to flash with the setting sun. The sweet smell of a greasy Brooklyn slice will always make the often-wobbly migration down from the Hut worth it. And the PBRs still flow strong, at least for the foreseeable future, from the cramped, sticky, crowded, and art-filled Che's, Wenches and Lindy's that locals and visitors frequent often.

Blaese, feeling blessed from her tenure with Passé, is glad she can finally come to Fourth as a customer for a change, and has high hopes it will stay a bastion of local. Her, and everyone else.

"I mean it just screams Tucson," she says. "And everybody wants Tucson to stay kinda weird."