Streetcar Sparks Renaissance – Development Booms Along Four-Mile Route

By David B. Pittman –

It could be called a streetcar named prosperity.

Even before it carried a single passenger, the newly constructed Sun Link streetcar had sparked an explosion of investment in Tucson’s downtown and along its four-mile rail line.

Now that Tucson’s Modern Streetcar is fully operational, developers, commercial real estate experts, city officials, transportation planners, downtown promoters and business owners are predicting the economic development renaissance in the city’s urban core will pick up steam.

Downtown Tucson Partnership estimates that combined public and private investment in the downtown/Sun Link corridor is more than $900 million. The organization estimates when investments from other commercial districts along the streetcar line are included, that investment jumps to $1.5 billion.

Considered one of the largest and most complex construction initiatives in Tucson’s history, the project features 23 stops connecting downtown Tucson to the University of Arizona, the Arizona Health Sciences Center, the University Main Gate Square Business District, the 4th Avenue Business District and the Mercado District west of Interstate 10.

The overall cost of the $197 million streetcar system includes project oversight, construction of the rail line, a maintenance and storage facility and eight new streetcars, each of which can carry about 150 people. The City of Tucson and the Regional Transportation Authority, or RTA, co-managed the project.

“We are seeing investment all along the streetcar line,” Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild said during the July 25 ceremony at Fifth Avenue and Congress Street celebrating the streetcar opening. “The change is incredible downtown and it’s continuing, with both a grocery store and a hotel in the works. And I know from the folks who come to my office every week that this is only the beginning.

“This development in our city center benefits our city as whole. First, downtown is for everyone, not just the folks who live and work here. Workers with in-demand job skills want to live in cities with a vibrant downtown. Many young people want to live downtown. Increasingly, people want to live in cities with multi-modal transportation options. And employers want to be where their workers want to live.”

Steve Christy, immediate past chairman of the RTA and current chair of the Arizona Transportation Board, said there is no question the streetcar was the driver of downtown Tucson’s recent economic resurgence.

“I’ve talked to a number of developers, private capital people and entrepreneurs, and they have said to me time and time again that they wouldn’t have given one cent to invest in downtown Tucson – until they heard the modern streetcar was coming,” Christy said. “Then, all of a sudden, they jumped in.”

The streetcar’s launch in late July was a joyous celebration in which some 60,000 passengers made every streetcar standing room only during a three-day weekend of free rides that played out against a backdrop of ribbon cuttings, open houses, meal specials and late-night festivities.

Michael Keith, president and CEO of Downtown Tucson Partnership, was ecstatic about the success of the streetcar opening. “It was huge. It was packed with VIPs, merchants and residents. It was a rolling party, a standing-room rocking celebration all weekend.”

Even a week after the launch, when riders were required to pay, ridership was exceeding all estimates and expectations. About 3,600 passengers per day were jumping aboard the streetcar, ridership levels expected when the University of Arizona is at full enrollment, not the dog days of summer.

Cash is not accepted on the streetcar, but it can be used at machines at streetcar stops to buy a $4 one-day pass. In addition, you can buy SunGO passes online or at regular SunTran merchants. Discount fares are available for low-income residents, seniors and disabled passengers.

In one of his last acts as Tucson’s city manager, Richard Miranda praised downtown businesses for being cooperative and understanding during the nearly two years of streetcar construction. Miranda’s retirement from the city became effective Aug. 1.

“I want to thank the business owners and the merchants along the streetcar line – your sacrifice from an economic standpoint was unprecedented,” Miranda said. “All of us who were involved in this project want to thank you for sticking with us throughout this project. It was a hardship and we understood it would be, but it was worth it because this project is already launching an economic turnaround.”

Buzz Isaacson is among the top commercial real estate brokers in Southern Arizona, but when it comes to downtown Tucson, he is unquestionably number one. Isaacson said the promise of the streetcar not only drew developers and business owners to locate along the streetcar route, but also was a major factor in attracting the capital investment needed to fund downtown’s revitalization.

“Financial institutions have had good success investing where cities have made long-time commitments and investments in their downtown areas,” Isaacson said. “Streetcars have a record of success in creating economic development in many cities. Government investment in the streetcar has made private projects in downtown Tucson more financeable.”

Isaacson predicted that the “lasting legacy” of the streetcar will be its role in leading the UA, a largely landlocked institution, into expanding downtown.

“Five years from now the UA will have a greatly expanded presence downtown,” Isaacson said. “The streetcar is a big deal because it connects downtown and the university.”

In comments made during the July 25 streetcar opening, UA President Ann Weaver Hart made it clear that she backs the streetcar system and wants it to flourish.

“Great cities need great universities, but great universities need great cities to be a part of,” Hart said. “Our students care about the communities in which they live. And they want to be part of the city in which they live. We are very excited to partner with the Regional Transportation Authority and the City of Tucson in helping to make the university and the city even more interdependent and mutually successful going into the future.

“We are going to help our students, faculty and staff with half the cost of their streetcar passes to encourage them to buy passes and use the streetcar.”

The university already has a footprint downtown with programs related to its College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, Drachman Institute, Social and Behavioral Sciences, College of Law, and Institute for Civil Discourse already in place there. And the streetcar was responsible for bringing the Plaza Centro/Cadence Project, which has major connections to UA, to a site formerly occupied by the Greyhound Bus Depot next to the Fourth Avenue underpass.

Plaza Centro, which consists of nearly 20,000 square feet of stores, restaurants and bars, and The Cadence, a 456-bed student housing complex affiliated with the UA, has transformed the eastern gateway to downtown into a vibrant, stylish urban setting. The project – developed by Tucsonan Jim Campbell and Capstone Development Corp., a leading developer of student housing facilities based in Alabama – is the first private sector, ground-up development in downtown Tucson in 30 years.

Plaza Centro and The Cadence are on the streetcar line. Campbell said without the streetcar, his project would never have been built.

Downtown Tucson Partnership reports that 194 new businesses opened downtown since 2008 and that 158 of those are still open. Keith said the partnership interviewed business representatives from every one of those new businesses.

“To a person they said they came down here because they wanted to be part of a redevelopment effort,” he said. “They thought it was time for downtown Tucson to join the revitalized ranks of all the other major cities in the West. Most of them said they didn’t come down here for the money. Some even went so far as to say they probably could have made more money in other parts of town, but they liked the vibe that was happening down here and wanted to be a part of it.

“But, to a person, they all said the final part of their decision was based on the fact that the streetcar was coming and on their belief that future economic development would accompany it.”

Hundreds of companies were part of constructing the streetcar system – thousands, if suppliers are counted.

According to the RTA, about 1,200 direct construction jobs were created during construction of the streetcar system. Downtown Tucson Partnership reports about 3,500 new and relocated jobs coming downtown since 2008.

The hard-bid streetcar project was successfully constructed by Old Pueblo Trackworks, a joint-venture partnership between Granite Construction, a Tucson firm, and RailWorks Track Systems, a Minnesota company.

Granite Construction performed all the civil work, including removals, relocation of numerous underground utilities, grading, forming and casting the track slab, pavements, curb and flatwork. RailWorks supplied and installed 3.85 miles of embedded double-track. A RailWorks’ subsidiary, L.K. Comstock National Transit, installed six traction-power substations and procured, installed and tested overhead lines, signals and low-voltage feeder cables for the substations.

“This is an exciting time for Tucson residents,” said Todd Keller, VP and Arizona region manager of Granite Construction. “The streetcar connects more than 100,000 people living and working within a half-mile of the route.”

GLHN Architects & Engineers, a Tucson company, designed the streetcar maintenance and storage facility. D.L. Withers Construction, which has offices in Phoenix and Tucson, built the facility.

Tucson’s eight modern streetcars, which were among the first streetcar vehicles built in the U.S. in six decades, were manufactured by Oregon Iron Works.

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