Privatizing the Old Pueblo


The list is long: the Ronstadt Transit Center, Access Tucson, the El Rio Golf Course, the former downtown Greyhound Bus Station, the former YMCA on 5th St., among others. Taken together, they demonstrate a disturbing pattern of the City of Tucson’s desire to sell or lease public land and institutions to private interests, all in the name of economic development. But the city’s reluctance to provide information on their dealings raises the question of whether they are trying to make deals for the good of the city and its residents, or trying to make deals for the good of property developers and city insiders.

The golf course and Grand Canyon U.

The tale of apparent greed, opportunism, and cover-up that characterized the attempt to sell or lease off the El Rio Golf Course is the single best example of privatizing the Old Pueblo. Here the city took a large public space on the west side—a community which has long desired more park space—and tried to sell it to the for-profit, Phoenix-based, Christian fundamentalist Grand Canyon University (GCU). As though this weren’t bad enough, the city offered the golf course’s full 114 acres to GCU when, by any reasonable estimate, the campus could comfortably have done with 25 – making it a real sweetheart real estate deal for GCU. Worse, the city agreed to “appraise” the worth of the property as though it were a vacant lot (ignoring its trees, manicured grass, underlying infrastructure), thereby ignoring a city ordinance and state law that requires a market value appraisal before any public property is sold.  It was as though GCU said they wanted a large piece of real estate at below market price and the city eagerly complied, which is all too typical of the city’s relationship with developers.

When word got out in the spring of 2013 that these negotiations were in progress, there was a groundswell of community opposition. Petitions, letters to the editor, demonstrations and, in general, a whole community showing its disapproval forced Regina Romero, the City Councilwoman for Ward 1 in which the golf course is located, to withdraw her support for the El Rio/GCU proposal. This effectively killed the project.

But that is not the end of the story. The group that spearheaded the community uprising, the El Rio Coalition II, wanted to find out how it was that the city ever considered making such a deal in the first place. So they filed a Freedom of Information Act request to get the documents pertaining to the city’s negotiations with GCU. The city (no surprise here) refused the request. Attorney Bill Risner of AUDIT-AZ (Americans United for Democracy, Integrity, and Transparency in Elections, Arizona) then took the case to court, and the city was ordered by the court in August of last year to comply with the request. They not only failed to comply, but continued to fight the Coalition’s further attempts in court to secure the release of the documents (making one wonder what it was they were hiding), apparently in the hopes that they could use tax payer money to wear down the Coalition. But the Coalition and Risner persisted until finally, on May 16, 2014, an exasperated Arizona Superior Court judge ordered the city, once and for all, to release the documents by June 4. In his decision the judge stated that the city had engaged in either “false” or completely “inadequate” representation of the documents and had engaged in clear misconduct. Yet on June 4 the city only released some of the information that the court demanded, holding back on the hard copy files, and forcing the plaintiffs to once again file a motion to re-open the case.

The court victory was nonetheless a landmark in the long fight to learn what goes on when the city meets with developers to plan the city’s future. And this, in turn, should help community activists fight future battles in which the city will attempt to put in place a model of economic development that will emphasize private business interests over the interests of the community-at-large.

Greyhound Bus Station in the sticks

But when there is no community uprising the results can be very different. The fate of the former Greyhound bus station that stood next to the Rialto Theater until it was torn down in 2004 is a prime example of this. The city had decided – not unreasonably—that the property on which the bus station stood could contribute to the development of an East downtown residential and retail corridor. So the station was demolished and the bus station moved to “temporary” quarters away from downtown off of I-10 until, or so the city indicated, a new bus station would be built next to the renovated AMTRAK train station. This all sounded reasonable enough, but that was when governmental opaqueness and subterfuge begin to work its magic. For, though a city council resolution approving this plan was passed, it was only a non-binding resolution.

We now know how non-binding that resolution was. Though the lot where the bus station was supposed to be built remains vacant to this day, there is not only no bus station there but there never will be.  In 2010, the city council quietly—and unanimously—passed a resolution that killed the whole idea. And thus, through nice-sounding but non-binding city council resolutions and obvious back room scheming, the city managed to kill off the very logical, not to mention convenient, idea of having a transit hub in downtown Tucson. Apparently the convenience and efficiency of having intercity bus and train services feeding into local city transit in the form of the Ronstadt Center and the modern streetcar does not appeal to the sports bar patrons that the city sees as its core constituency.

Ronstadt and the Bus Riders Union

But this was not the end of city’s plans to destroy the idea of a transit hub—and to further privatize our public spaces—as talk then turned to moving the Ronstadt Transit Center itself.  Specious stories ran in the local press declaring that it was a hangout for hoodlums, drug dealers and vagrants, and that it only damaged the business climate downtown. And besides, it was asked, why have a transit center when you could have more retail space? There was serious talk of a land swap with a Texas pension fund in which the fund would get the Ronstadt land but, as the Star recently reported, “that plan collapsed when word leaked about the discussion and transit supporters protested.”

In fact the city, god help us, initially tried to reassure the protestors that they need not worry, that the transit center would only be moved to the vacant lot next to the train station—the same patch of vacant land that the Greyhound bus station was supposedly destined for. But a well-organized opposition (plus, perhaps, a sense of “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me”) in the form of the Tucson Bus Riders Union held demonstrations and packed City Council and Mayor meetings as well as Study sessions so that finally, in February of 2013, the City Council yielded and agreed that it would not move Ronstadt. Of course, this was hardly the end of the battle, as the City Council started to talk about “win-win” scenarios in which there would be a mix of “private and public,” meaning that retail properties would still be developed along the Congress Street section of Ronstadt. So this battle too is not over: as the city starts to draw up plans to redesign Ronstadt, the Bus Riders Union, to assure that this doesn’t turn into a “lose-lose” scenario, has had to continue the fight to keep Ronstadt an effective transit center.

Whither Access… and the commons?

More recently, we have seen another proposed privatizing of a public space, potentially leading to the closing of a long established public institution. In March of this year the city proposed that the budget for Access Tucson [see the separate article for details on this story] would be eliminated in six months time and the building adjacent to the Broadway and 6th Avenue streetcar stop be sold to private interests. As is typical in these scenarios, an uproar followed and the city “relented” to the extent that they restored part of the budget for this year to allow Access Tucson to transition to its “new” economic reality (whatever that will be) and that the city will revisit the issue of selling the building in 12 months time.

And so, once again, the battle is on, and only time will tell whether Access Tucson and its public facilities can be saved against the wishes of the very city that is supposed to protect these institutions. The city, however, is not solely to blame for what is happening on its part of the development turf, as there are clearly greater forces at work than our municipality. For if our city officials are conniving and being opaque with us about their dealings with the developers, they can also plead a certain need to sell off our public assets to the “one percent” to pay for needed social services for which there isn’t adequate tax revenue; to have to sell, in the current business climate, the family jewels for the promise of a few jobs being created (even if they are transient, low wage jobs); and to engage in a desperate metropolitan version of the “race to the bottom” as they and other cities try to court corporations with ever larger tax breaks, waivers of environmental and labor regulations, and offers of prime public land.

It’s also happening in Constantinople

And it’s not just a local or a national phenomenon, but a global one—just as corporations are now a global phenomenon. We only need point to a city in a distant land, Turkey, and a city far larger than our own to make the point. In Istanbul the government authorities tried to turn a city park into a private development scheme that would transform the park into retail space, in the form of a shopping mall, and upscale residences. City residents, upset by the plan, organized a sit-in at the park which the police then brutally evicted. This in turn triggered a general, nation-wide uprising against the government that led to eleven people being killed and some 8,000 injured.

This movement, named “Occupy Gezi” (after the city park in Istanbul), along with the Occupy uprising in the USA in 2011, are large scale manifestations of all the small scale battles being fought against economic models that often do little to benefit the average citizen of the community and much to benefit the already well-off business interests. The lesson of the fate of the Greyhound bus station as opposed to the Ronstadt Center here in Tucson is proof positive of the importance of an active citizenry fighting these plans when they are not in the public interest. Given the overwhelming power of the corporations and influence of their lobbyists (e.g., Koch brothers’ lobbyists playing a key role in getting the Tennessee legislature to pass legislation that could kill off the city of Nashville’s ability to expand its public transit system), we must be prepared for many, many such fights.


The El Rio Golf Course opened in 1929 and was the first grass golf course built in the state of Arizona. The Tucson Open was played at El Rio from 1945 through 1962 and many of the legendary PGA greats of that era played there (including Arnold Palmer, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead). The City acquired the golf course in 1968 and West Side residents, who had little park space and often unpaved roads, demanded that a part of the rich green grounds of the golf course be made into city parkland. Though a City Council Democratic slate was elected with West Side backing promising to do just that, they balked upon entering office. Petitions, demonstrations, sit-ins at the country club restaurant and an occupation of the golf course itself followed, leading to multiple arrests. Finally, in 1971, the City made good on its word. A northwestern section of the club was made into a park (later named Joaquin Muerrieta Park) and an eastern section became El Rio Neighborhood Center.

The El Rio Coalition II (ERCII) is a west side organization of community activists allied with other neighborhood organizations and organizations that, as they put it, “have felt the brunt of the City’s effort to accommodate corporations, at the expense of neighborhoods.” Their general statement of purpose reads: “The El Rio Coalition II is committed to continue to fight to protect our 114 acres of culturally and historically significant urban, open green space until the Mayor and Council remove El Rio Golf Course, permanently, from any consideration of its sale lease to any private entity.” They have named themselves “The El Rio Coalition II” in honor of the original movement to integrate the golf course (see “The El Rio Golf Course”).

The City of Tucson, when faced with a Freedom of Information Act request from Cecilia Cruz of the El Rio Coalition II, utilized the 49 lawyers that its $1.27 billion budget allows to delay the release of the requested documents, presumably to wear down the plaintiff and her lawyer Bill Risner. On May 16, Arizona Superior Court Judge Christopher Staring ruled that the City either knew its representation of having “fully responded” to the request “was false, or knew its efforts in response to Ms. Cruz’s request were so inadequate it could not have had any confidence in the accuracy of the representation.” And yet the Judge also ruled to award only 20% of the attorney’s fees (a discouragement to all future efforts by lawyers to help citizens fight the City—and the only point argued at length in the City’s closing argument). That ruling ordered the City to (yet again) fully respond by June 4. Subsequently, while the hard copies have still not been released, the City has finally turned over emails with the words “Project Study” (the internal “working project name” of the deal according to the City’s Notice of Compliance). In other words, it took over a year since Ms. Cruz’s May 12, 2013 information request for the city to search its email using the internal name of the El Rio deal.

Grand Canyon University (GCU), founded in 1949 as a private, non-profit Christian college, was transformed in 2004 into the first, for-profit Christian college in the country (trading on NASDAQ under LOPE). So lucrative was its for-profit potential seen to be, that Brian Mueller—then CEO of the industry leader (the University of Phoenix)—took a significant pay cut to become CEO of the upstart GCU. His gamble that the 300,000 plus shares in stock options that he got from GCU would significantly appreciate has paid off. The shares, which originally traded at $10, are now up to $44 a share. In the course of the golf course controversy, attention was also directed toward the university’s code of sexual conduct, which would have held sway over 114 acres of formerly public land that the city was planning on selling to GCU: “[H]uman sexuality is a gift from the creator God and […] the purposes of this gift […] are to be achieved through heterosexual relationships within marriage. Misuses of God’s gift will be understood to include, but not be limited to, sexual abuse, sexual harassment, sexual assault, incest, adultery, fornication and homosexual acts.”

AUDIT-AZ (Americans United for Democracy, Integrity, and Transparency in Elections, Arizona), is a grassroots organization that first came to prominence when it challenged the lack of verifiability of electronic vote results in the $2 billion Pima County transit bond vote that in 2006 created the RTA. Through repeated court challenges AUDITAZ succeeded in forcing the county to institute measures to improve the verifiability of electronic voting results. Despite these successes, they still feel that there remain issues in the transparency and integrity of vote counting in Pima County.

Ronstadt Transit Center was built to a design by Fentress Architects that has received three awards from the American Institute of Architects, the transit center opened in 1991. Some 30,000 to 40,000 people a day have been passing through it ever since, making it a mainstay of activity in Tucson’s often moribund downtown. The majority of these people do not, however, have a enough financial liquidity to satisfy city planners and so the city has been hatching schemes of late to move or transform the transit center into retail space. It is in a good state of repair, as it was the subject of a federally-funded 2.8 million dollar transit center improvement project that was just completed.

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