Neighborhood Watch

Downtown Residents Get A Voice In Downtown Projects.

By Margaret Regan

WHEN STEPHEN PAUL first moved downtown over 20 years ago, to a house in Barrio Historico, south of the Tucson Convention Center, there were all kinds of stores downtown.

"You could buy tires in four places, pliers in eight places, clothing in 20 places," says Paul, a mesquite furniture designer who is co-owner of Arroyo Design and vice president of Barrio Historico Neighborhood Association. "Now it's almost nil."

The present sad state of Tucson's downtown--empty storefronts on Congress, deserted streets at night, retail stores barely getting by--has gotten the worried attention of a whole alphabet soup of city organizations. There's the brand-new Tucson Downtown Alliance (or Business Improvement District) and the decades-old Downtown Advisory Committee, as well as the Downtown Arts and Business Alliance and the Tucson Historical Commission. City Manager Luis Gutierrez last summer put into place a Directors Oversight Team, a group of city department heads who brainstorm about downtown issues.

Currents Yet, until a few weeks ago, not one of the assorted committees, governmental or otherwise, had a full slate of delegates representing the people who actually live downtown, those who might want to buy a tire, say, or pliers. Residents of the neighborhoods ringing the city core, in Pie Allen, in Iron Horse, in Dunbar/Spring, in Barrio Anita, in West University, were rarely consulted in advance about a bureaucrat's strategy for saving their neighborhoods, activists say.

"The city has historically made decisions in a vacuum for downtown," Paul says. "The city hasn't always involved stakeholders. In general, we've had decisions made for us." And too often residents were kept in the dark about impending projects, he adds. Armory Park might learn about a road project on South Sixth Avenue, for instance, while nearby Barrio Historico knew nothing of it.

"The neighborhoods have been left out of the process to a large extent," agrees Jerry Anderson, City Councilman from Ward 3. "The Downtown Advisory Committee is a business group and they tend to rubber-stamp Office of Economic Development projects. But these are the folks living downtown and they ought to be part of the process."

ON AUGUST 24, the City Council concurred, and voted unanimously to create the Downtown Oversight Committee (DOC). The vote is seen as a victory for neighborhoods. A loose coalition of activists who put together the idea and shopped it around among city leaders over the summer. Though the final form of the new DOC has yet to be hammered out, each of the 11 downtown neighborhoods hopes to elect one member to a seat on the new committee, while another 11 seats would go to organizations with an interest in the downtown, the BID, for instance, and the Tucson Arts District Partnership.

"It's a very good symbolic step," says Anne Lawrence, president of the Armory Park Neighborhood Association, and one of those who pushed for the new committee. "This recognizes those who already are investors downtown, not just the new potential investors. (We hope it will be) a body that would have approval or disapproval of any downtown project...a feedback tool for the people who have chosen to live here."

The plan defines the borders of downtown broadly: from Speedway on the North, to 22nd Street on the South, and from Park Avenue on the East to I-10 and the Santa Cruz River on the West. Once the Oversight Committee gets set up, probably in a month or two, promoters of any major project slated to fall within these parameters likely will have to trot their proposals before the new group. And the Oversight Committee, in turn, will report its own views to the City Council, who retain a final yea or nay. The new committee creates a structure that will require communication, backers say, and give neighborhoods and merchant associations a chance to put in their two cents on a project long before the bulldozers start rumbling down the street, and even before engineers come down to the neighborhood to present their diagrams on road changes or new parking garages.

"We're trying to have a voice," says Bette Lockhart, executive director of the Fourth Avenue Merchants Association, which will get a seat on the committee. "This brings all the communities together...This way, I'll know what's going on; to know after the fact causes arguments. This way we can give positive suggestions."

John Updike, a staffer in City Manager Luis Gutierrez's office, says it's his job to figure out how to get the new committee up and running. First on his agenda is taking a look at the Downtown Advisory Committee, to see whether that group should continue as is, or shut down and cede its role to the new DOC. The older advisory committee is chaired by a PICOR real-estate executive, and only two neighborhood representatives hold seats. Just which projects will be in DOC's purview must also be decided, Updike says.

"A rezoning would be a fairly major project: that would fall under it. But a building permit for a new front porch? We don't have the answer yet."

DOC will be a volunteer committee and get no money from the city, Updike says, except for some clerical help and free meeting rooms. All DOC meetings will be open to the public, say Lawrence and Paul.

"It's a very positive step," Paul says. "This is an attempt to involve the stakeholders in decision-making. It will be excellent for communication...I hope it will help get the downtown jump-started...I'm hoping we'll be pro-active and come forth with new ideas. Initially it's set up to be re-active, to make sure changing a street direction or giving a liquor license will not adversely affect our neighborhoods.

"But we're not obstructing progress. We want business. We're not opposed at all to business. We want a viable, sustainable downtown, with activity in the day, on weekends, at night. We want retail. We want a lively mix at all times."

And maybe even a couple of hardware and auto parts stores. TW

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