Chugging Ahead

The Tucson City Council Seizes The Lead In The Race To Save The Downtown Train Depot.

By Margaret Regan

WHEN TUCSON'S first-ever train chugged into town on March 20, 1880, it arrived ahead of schedule, so early that hardly anyone was on hand to greet it. The town patriarchs hastened to correct the embarrassing lapse, hurrying over to the new tracks at the far northeast corner of town to deliver flowery speeches about the benefits of Progress.

The Pima County Sheriff, though, one Bill Oury, dissented from the general optimism. He cautioned the assembled boosters that the new world wrought by the rails would mean the end of the old pioneer way of life.

"Our last request," he said, "is that you kindly avoid trampling in the dust the few remaining monuments of the first American settlements in Arizona."

Currents His words exerted almost no influence on a city about to be transformed by the rails. Not only did Tucson's architecture change dramatically from adobe to the brick and wood brought in by the train, the new technology made the city the most important shipping center in the Territory.

But history has its ironies. Commercial container trains still regularly toot their way through town, but within 100 years the heyday of the great passenger trains had come and gone. And Tucson's train depot, built in 1907 after a fire destroyed the wooden original, has been reduced to a badly rundown eyesore. The peeling depot is home nowadays to a tiny Amtrak passenger station carved out of the once-grand waiting room in the 20,000 square-foot building. Union Pacific still uses an outbuilding as a communications center.

Oury might not have liked the trains, but as a pioneer preservationist he might have liked the vote the city took early this week. Trying to save a piece of Tucson's great railroading past--and to help revitalize the downtown--the Tucson City Council voted unanimously Monday night to buy the aged depot outright from Union Pacific. City staff were to have the city's bid of $1.66 million at Union Pacific headquarters in Omaha by Friday.

"Tonight this is a historic opportunity for the entire community," Arthur Keating, head of the nonprofit Depot Gateway Vision, told the council. "Lots of individuals and organizations over the years have had concerns about the depot and its fate in the community."

John Updike, a staffer in the city manager's office who's been handling the transaction, said it could take 60 to 90 days to close the deal, assuming Union Pacific accepts the bid. A good chunk of the cash--about a million dollars--comes courtesy of federal transportation funds, since the city envisions the rehabbed depot as a center for train, bus, trolley, bicycle, pedestrian and possibly light-rail traffic. ("Intermodal" is the going jargon word for a mixed transportation center.) The seller would clean up the diesel oil contamination that is believed to mar the four-acre site at the corner of Toole and Fourth Avenue. The city--or the party it selects to develop the depot--would pick up the estimated $1 million tab for rehabbing the building and bringing it up to code.

At this point, Updike told the council, he believes the city is the only potential buyer.

"What's really coming together here," enthused Councilman Steve Leal, "is the ability to acquire a significant building. The community will own it."

THE HAPPY UNANIMITY at vote time gave no hint of the conflicts that have hovered over the depot the last several years. Up until last week, Keating's organization was also hoping to buy the property. At the council meeting, Keating said his group now supports the city's bid but complained that his group had not been given a "realistic time frame to raise the money" to buy it themselves. He added that he still hopes the nonprofit can work with the city to develop an action plan.

At an interview two weeks ago, Keating said he first started giving a lot of thought to the depot in the late '80s, when he owned and operated the Arts District Bookstore in the Hotel Congress across Toole from the depot. (The refurbished hotel was once upon a time primarily a railroad hotel.) He became alarmed when he learned that the DLUCS parkway plan (the successor to the nixed Aviation Highway downtown mile) would have chopped off one outbuilding and come dangerously close to the historic main structure, isolating it in a sea of car traffic.

"Nobody was thinking about the depot in the city," Keating recalled, so he and other concerned citizens alerted city officials to the danger. "They were horrified," Keating said, and ordered changes in the DLUCS plan, which has yet to be either funded or built. Heartened by their success, the "independent grass-roots community design group" came up with a lavish plan for the depot. It would be restored to much of its previous architectural glory, with the unfortunate World War II-era stucco being stripped off to reveal the Spanish Colonial ornamentation on the Toole facade. Besides serving as a transportation center, the new depot could also feature a museum, offices, shops, even an outdoor performance space. The old locomotive engine now at Himmel Park could be put on display. Toole would be closed in the block between the depot and the Hotel Congress, allowing for a public plaza, fountain and desert landscaping.

The Depot Gateway Vision group took their plan--model, drawings, written description and all--to the City Council in November 1995, and won a ringing 7-0 endorsement.

It's at this point that the tale chugs down a couple different tracks. Keating said he took the city's approval to mean that his group should proceed with planning. But they found themselves left out of the loop, he said, stymied by city staff who didn't seem to understand the volunteers' innovative ideas about public-private partnerships. Their idea was the nonprofit "would buy the building for the community" through donations. Every schoolchild in Tucson could become a "stakeholder" by donating a dollar or two.

"It would be a non-bureaucratic way of...making it a community project, instead of a project for city staff," Keating said.

Others maintain that the nonprofit cooled its heels for too long, leaving the city little choice but to act in its stead. Leal, who warmly praised Keating's vision at the council meeting Monday, pointed out several weeks ago that, "The nonprofit knows it has wanted it to buy it for some time...The time to start thinking about raising the money was a long time ago. They haven't. It's left the city by default of acting so as not to lose the opportunity for the community."

And by this winter there was no time for further delay. Cash-hungry Union Pacific was ready to sell, and set a deadline of February 13 for the delivery of bids. The most important issue in the minds of city staff and council was to get possession of the building now and argue later about such niceties as public-private partnerships and creative financing. After all, Councilman Fred Ronstadt pointed out in an interview, "Union Pacific went and demolished the coal tower," another Tucson landmark, several weeks ago.

Now that the city has voted to buy up the property, council members see plenty of opportunity for reconciliation between the city and the nonprofit. Council ordered staff not to put out any general requests for bids from developers until it has debated its own vision for the depot. Depot Gateway Vision, which has already begun raising money, could well end up as the council's choice of developer. Councilman José Ibarra, for one, said last week that the group had made a "solid proposal" and that the subsequent bad blood between city and nonprofit "puts a bad taste in my mouth. A partnership is the way to go, especially during a time of dwindling dollars."

So is it a happy ending?

"It's a happy beginning," Updike said. "Now the work begins."

Cranky old Oury might even approve. TW

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