Rush Job?

As Fourth Avenue underpass work gets underway, some aspects of the project still await final approval

The groundbreaking has been held, and the historic Fourth Avenue underpass is now barricaded, awaiting demolition and replacement.

But final approvals needed to proceed with the construction project are still pending, and some are criticizing the design of the new subway.

"It looks like Anywhere, USA," said Demion Clinco, a member of the Tucson-Pima County Historical Commission, at the group's June meeting. "We're turning into Glendale, Calif., and losing the authenticity of Tucson."

Project consultant Jerry Cannon informed the commission that he tried to be respectful of the current 1916 underpass while designing the new underpass, but "other pressures" in the community "wanted to make it more modern-looking."

The result, Cannon reported, was that when he took the proposal to a March meeting of the Fourth Avenue Merchants Association (FAMA), they concluded: "The design looks like a standard freeway overpass." Based on that opinion, Cannon made some modifications to the design.

The Historic Commission wasn't given the same opportunity as FAMA to comment on the new subway plans. By the time they saw them on June 13, it was too late to change anything.

"I'm very upset about this," said commission chair Teresita Majewski. "Jim Glock (director of Tucson's Department of Transportation) assures me it won't happen again."

In an interview after the meeting, Clinco--who was appointed to the commission by Mayor Bob Walkup--said he was concerned Tucson may be losing its unique character.

"There are no design guidelines for the city in general," Clinco said, "and downtown is a hodgepodge of buildings. ... The underpass is an example of our loss of history. The city says we can't save everything, but we only have a limited amount to save. We're into bone now. ... We're losing our sense of place, and there's not much left of Tucson."

The new underpass will be about twice the width of its predecessor and will accommodate automobile, bicycle, trolley and pedestrian traffic. It will cost an estimated $23 million to construct while also providing development potential near its southern entrance off Toole Avenue.

The current schedule calls for Toole and surrounding streets to be closed until the end of the year to permit utilities to be relocated. Once the streets reopen, work on the new subway will continue until early 2009. But when, exactly, that construction can begin remains up in the air.

In a telephone interview, Cannon said he was working to complete a final submission to the Union Pacific Railroad Company for their required approval. "That takes four weeks," Cannon said of the company's review process, "so by sometime in August, we should be OK."

Another review may--or may not--be needed from the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO). Their role depends on who is paying for the new underpass, and the answer to that question depends on who in City Hall is asked.

Project manager Brooks Keenan said several months ago that the Arizona Department of Transportation was supplying the money, a conclusion supported by the paper trail showing the source of funds. If that's the case, SHPO should definitely review the proposal.

But deputy SHPO director Bill Collins wrote in an e-mail message last week that an unnamed Tucson city staff person "stated that the project was locally funded." Under that scenario, Collins said, "(the project) is not strictly subject to the legal processes specified in state or federal law."

Andrew Singelakis, the city's assistant transportation director, said he didn't think SHPO involvement was required. But Cannon told the Historic Commission he was preparing material for the SHPO that would physically document the current underpass before its demolition. In addition, he said the report would "have to prove there are no other options" to the existing proposal.

Collins stated in a telephone call that if his office ever receives the information, "would look primarily at why it's not feasible to keep what's historic. We'd see if it can be kept."

The city's justification for the demolition/reconstruction project might be of interest to some Historic Commission members. They believe there are other viable alternatives, including rehabilitating the existing underpass and building a trolley-only tunnel next to it (See "The Pace of Progress," Currents, Feb. 22).

Whatever the legal requirements are, according to Collins, the SHPO has never received any official correspondence about the current proposal.

The failure to provide the Historic Commission with an opportunity to comment on the design and the lack of communication with SHPO both give the appearance of a rush toward construction.

When asked why the implementation of the project seems so hurried, Singelakis responded: "It's the centerpiece of our downtown transportation projects. We want to get the (Toole Avenue) improvements done this summer so we won't affect the businesses in the area later."

Clinco takes a different perspective. Even though in 2006, a majority of its members approved the replacement proposal in concept form, Clinco told an apparently sympathetic Historic Commission last month: "I'm sad to see this project. I love the underpass, and it's really beautiful."

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