Reimagining Tucson through New Trolly Service

Downtown Tucson’s renaissance is gussying up ‘the Old Pueblo’.

Tucson—affectionately known as “the Old Pueblo” to countless generations of Arizonans—is turning over a new leaf. A groundswell of revitalization sparked, in part, by the debut of a novel new trolley service is helping to transform the once-fading city core, bringing a burst of new businesses and life to Tucson’s historic downtown.

New retail shops, cafés, breweries, galleries and nightspots are popping up; street vendors and food trucks are jockeying for space in the old barrios and neighborhoods; and great new eateries—like the Hub Restaurant & Creamery, Maynard’s Market & Kitchen, the Cup Café at the Hotel Congress and a new Pizzeria Bianco—are helping attract locals and visitors alike to the city’s long-languishing central corridor.

Already several years in the making, the revitalization of the city’s downtown isn’t happening overnight or a moment too soon. According to a study conducted and published in 2010 by the Downtown Tucson Partnership, Tucson’s central corridor had been in a significant decline for more than 40 years. The study advised that it could take an entire generation to create the kind of bustling downtown environment that would attract people back into heart of the city.

Trolley a boon

Many community leaders believe that the advent of the new Sun Link Tucson Streetcar line this year was a watershed moment for the city center’s flowering renaissance. The fixed guide-way electric rail system project was launched in 2010, when the city was awarded a $63 million Transportation and Infrastructure Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant from the Federal Transit Administration. Christened this past July, the trolley line has eight ADA-compliant vehicles in service at 19 stopping points along a nearly 4-mile route, stretching from the Mercado district, proceeding downtown and through the Fourth Avenue business district and ending at the University of Arizona (UofA).

According to Michael Graham, public information officer with the City of Tucson Transportation Administration, Sun Link’s ridership has significantly exceeded projections.

“We’ve been happily surprised,” Graham says. “We originally projected average daily ridership of around 3,600 and, at present, our numbers are averaging at roughly 4,100.”

Tucson mayor Jonathan Rothschild feels strongly that the streetcar project was a boon to the downtown revival.

“The streetcar, along with several other incentive programs the city has created, have transformed…a downtown area that had been nearly abandoned, turning it into a vibrant, fun, active place,” Rothschild says. “Music, theater, restaurants, retail, and modern office space and living space in a safe environment now bring as many as 25,000 people into our downtown on an active night.”

Behind the plan

David Lyons, regional president of National Bank of Arizona (NB | AZ), agrees with Mayor Rothschild’s assessment of the trolley line’s impact on the newly resurgent downtown. NB | AZ has been intimately involved in financing and promoting the downtown’s revival, financially partnering with several of the new business owners to help bring their plans and livelihoods to fruition. Many of the projects are, by design, directly on the streetcar line.

“Going from the UofA toward downtown, there’s a grocery store and restaurant called Time Market and also Delectables Café, which is on Fourth Avenue,” Lyons explains. “Once you get into the downtown, we have a long-standing relationship with the Hotel Congress…and with the Rialto Theatre, which is part of the Rialto Theatre Block. The owners have put in three restaurants there.”

Peter Wilke, who was among the first retail business entrepreneurs to envision a revitalized downtown, opened Time Market on University Drive in 1995. He has since been an active participant in the revival of the city core, opening three additional businesses in the same district.

“I’ve always been committed to the downtown area,” he says. “It had been in either a decline or some kind of weird stagnation and, at the time, there was no one else [investing in the downtown]…so I figured that if we could do something like this and other people would follow, then it would be better for downtown and for everyone else as well.”

Restore vs. rebuild

The Rialto Theatre, and the Hotel Congress are prime examples of how some Tucson entrepreneurs are wisely putting their money behind historic renovations rather than building from the ground up.

Constructed in 1920, the Rialto was, for many decades, an entertainment hub for Tucson residents, from the era of silent films through the advent of talkies and, for a time, Spanish language films into the present, where it’s now being used as a concert venue for live entertainment. Its history, architecture and charm were certainly worthy of salvaging, civic leaders believe.

With an equally long history of serving travelers and the city’s citizens, the Hotel Congress has undergone a significant transformation through the years. In 2005, its Club Congress was remodeled and in 2009, the hotel was awarded the Tucson/Pima Historical Commission certificate. The hotel and its entertainment and service venues continue to be upgraded and draw an ever-larger crowd today.

The new Reilly Craft Pizza on Pennington Street is another NB | AZ-financed project that’s reinventing real estate previously used for another purpose. Built in the early 1900s as a mortuary and operated as a funeral home for decades, the building’s owners have successfully retained much of its original architecture, melding it with a fresh, contemporary look. Reilly boasts an al fresco beer garden and interior restaurant, along with two upstairs apartments.

From Lyons’ observation, all the new businesses are doing well.

“They’re attracting a lot of new local business clientele to the downtown city core, as well as drawing visitors from Phoenix and as far away as Flagstaff,” he says. “The majority of the people opening up these new shops are local business owners or people from elsewhere in the state who might just have a small restaurant or other retail operation and are seeking to expand or grow their business.

“All in all, it’s a great win for Tucson,” he says.  

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