Market Watch

Plans for the train depot's lobby have some historic preservationists crying foul

Yet another dispute--over retaining the flavor of Tucson's historic past versus accommodating modern commercial needs--is brewing downtown. This time, the battleground is the lobby of the train station on Toole Avenue.

Originally opened in 1907 and remodeled in 1941, the depot was acquired a decade ago by the city of Tucson. City Hall eventually prepared a plan to utilize the station as the cornerstone of an intermodal transportation center.

After spending millions of mostly federal dollars, the rehabilitated depot was restored to its 1941 appearance and reopened in March 2004.

"The mayor and council were at the grand opening," remembers Howard Greenseth, a member of the task force which helped oversee the project. "They said the depot was a downtown jewel."

The public focal point of the building is the lobby, which re-creates the feel of a bygone era. Not only does it contain wooden benches, but it also includes a replica of the long ticket counter which once served those traveling by train.

The refurbished lobby has hosted a few special functions, including a high school prom. In the past year, the space has also been used for about 10 other events, which have attracted approximately 1,700 people.

In addition, walking tours of downtown and the depot--some of which I lead--pass through the lobby on a regular basis.

"The lobby is the only public space not leased in the depot," my friend Greenseth notes about the building, which is otherwise fully rented. Thus, upkeep on the lobby adds to the depot's operating deficit, which totaled $85,500 during the last six months of 2007.

Also adding to that deficit are rent waivers granted in 2005 by the city to the Central Bistro, which was located adjacent to the lobby. The restaurant closed last July.

Three months later, Richard Oseran, the owner of the Hotel Congress across the street from the depot, proposed replacing the restaurant with a market. Not only would the business fill a void downtown, but it could also potentially generate some extra sales-tax revenue for City Hall.

Enthusiastically endorsed by the City Council, the elected officials granted Oseran rent waivers for 40 months--valued at $280,000--instead of the municipal government paying for needed building improvements.

But the layout that was later developed for the market occupies much more space than the restaurant did. It includes a large outdoor area featuring a pizza oven near the railroad tracks, and converts the lobby into retail space for takeout food items, flowers and baked goods.

Oseran says many people downtown are excited about the market proposal. "It's important to create something new on the east end of downtown," he says.

Oseran adds that what he is proposing isn't unique to Tucson. "All over the country," he observes, "train stations are being converted (to commercial uses)."

The market's architect, Bob Vint, hopes the $500,000 project will open this summer. He recommended that the lobby benches be relocated and that the ticket counter be put in storage. "We intend to touch the space as lightly as possible," he says.

"The city spent money fixing up the lobby," Vint adds, "but it has no function. They've hired a security guard to keep the room from being occupied by the homeless.

"This project," Vint insists, "will give life to the space. ... There'll be activity 365 days a year."

However, Greenseth says he's opposed to the market incorporating the lobby. Stating that he has no objections to the remainder of the proposal, Greenseth believes using the lobby for new events would also generate revenue for City Hall.

"The lobby is a showcase for visitors and an important thing in Tucson history," Greenseth says. "The market going into the lobby is a bad idea."

Vint has prepared concept plans for the market, but Oseran and the city have not yet discussed how much rent he will pay for the lobby or outdoor space, nor has it been determined whether he will receive another rent waiver for that additional space.

Oseran states: "Markets don't make money, but downtown really needs this." As for a rent waiver, he suggests, "The risk needs to be shared by the landlord."

Ward 6 Councilwoman Nina Trasoff says she doesn't know if she would endorse an additional rent waiver.

"I'd have to know if it's in the best interest of the community," Trasoff says. "It's a completely new ballgame."

Some time ago, Vint won unanimous support for the market concept from the Plans Review Subcommittee of the Tucson-Pima County Historical Commission. But that was before Greenseth, or almost anyone else, knew about the lobby proposal.

To allow everyone interested to hear Vint's presentation, he will make it again at the next commission meeting. In the meantime, Greenseth is lining up opponents.

Historical Commission Chair Terry Majewski, who also leads the Plans Review Subcommittee, hopes things can be worked out.

"Commercial viability is not incompatible with historic preservation," she says. "It's a struggle which always requires conversation, compromise and tradeoffs."

Based on that, Majewski concludes: "We need to work together as a team. ... We need to keep everyone involved."

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