The City of Tucson has been in the process of a redevelopment of the Ronstadt Transit Center – the downtown hub for the city bus system — since the fall of 2013. They conducted a series of stakeholder meetings in early 2014, put out a Request for Qualifications and have now received preliminary proposals from two developers, a local group and a Wisconsin developer.
Bus Friends Forever (BFF), an organization I belong to, hopes that the city will find a development proposal that produces more revenue for the bus system and also makes downtown more attractive. However, we also believe the joint development project to be somewhat of a solution in search of a problem. Fairly arbitrarily, the city decided to push together three very different parcels of land (see below) and call for a development plan that would change or integrate all three. The BFF position is that two of the three parcels are actually working well. The third parcel, the Toole lot, is not currently utilized at its best and highest use, but it’s unclear if this project will optimize its development.
Whatever the ultimate outcome, this process may take as long as five years to build out. It is our opinion that there could be improvements made immediately that would improve the three parcels for both transit users and the downtown environment. These are easy, low cost solutions that could be started tomorrow. The following is a brief recap of the current situation, then the actual proposals by parcel. Finally, I have included a few unresolved questions from the stakeholder meetings.
History and current status
The Ronstadt Transit Center was designed in the late 1980’s and opened in 1991, so it is now nearly 24 years old. There may be as much as $6 million invested in the site, from both federal and city funds. The city just completed a very extensive remodel of it, including east area rebuilding, fencing and other improvements.
Ronstadt is thriving as a transit center. It serves thousands of bus riders every day, bringing people to their downtown activities and also serving as a transfer point for jobs, schools, and businesses. Sun Tran, the city’s bus system, is the number one economic development tool of the city. Ronstadt works very well from an operational point of view. Buses enter from both Congress and 6th Street. There are an adequate number of bus bays now, and the seating for customers is also sufficient. But any decrease in the size of the current center would cause hardship to both Sun Tran and the bus riders. And with projected increases in transit expected as Tucson continues to grow, there may be need for more room.
The streetcar operation has impacted Ronstadt. The westbound track lies across the street from Ronstadt, so the UA and 4th Avenue riders get off and walk across Congress to enter Ronstadt, to make connections south, north and west. Bus riders coming into Ronstadt that want to use the streetcar for the UA/4th Avenue have to walk south one block to catch the eastbound streetcar. And streetcar users from the westside walk one block north to enter Ronstadt.
Ronstadt is clean, safe and provides the only semi-public space on the east side of downtown. There are currently signs and ordinances that tell people that Ronstadt is only for bus riders. The center has great signage, comfortable benches and cooling towers. In the winter, the southern sun is able to penetrate into the center. The Ronstadt has public bathrooms which is a real amenity in a downtown setting. It is often difficult for tourists and others to find public restrooms. There are janitors working at Ronstadt during the day to ensure that the site stays clean. There is a central kiosk that is currently serving as a storage area. There is no regular employee in the kiosk at this time.
The Ronstadt arcades are beautiful. The clay murals are some of the finest public art in Tucson.
The City of Tucson has been somewhat apologetic about Ronstadt ever since its inception. Every few years it commissions another study, the newest one, the Poster report, is now about the fifth. There is always an underlying tension with some parts of the community that something needs to be done about Ronstadt. It would be more helpful for mayor and council to embrace the Ronstadt Transit Center and acknowledge what a great job it is doing, in terms of its mission, which is to move bus riders in and out of the city core.
Madden Triangle parcel
The Madden Triangle has 50 parking spaces. The Madden Company, under a lease agreement with the city, controls the parking. During the work week, the parcel provides parking for Madden employees and visitors. In the evening and on weekends, the lot is a short term parking lot, with a $5 fee. Madden pays a very low rate for the use of the parking spaces and collects and keeps the revenue from the short term parking.
The city could change the arrangement with Madden. Madden could continue the regular work day lease for the 50 parking spots. But in evenings and weekends, the lot would become free short term parking, perhaps 2 hour time slots, and become a parking lot for streetcar tourists and also encourage people to come downtown to eat and shop. People using the parking lot would come to the Ronstadt kiosk to sign in.
The Toole parcel is currently run by Park Tucson, the company that manages public parking. There are an unknown number of parking spaces on this large site. The Toole lot is a good location for a bicycle parking area, perhaps accommodating as many as 20 bikes. Currently, bikes are parked on sidewalks, locked to parking meters, poles and trees. It would de-clutter Congress to have a clean, safe parking space for much of the eastern downtown biking population.
One possible use for the Toole parcel would be to serve as the Greyhound bus station. The station is currently located on the west side of downtown, near Broadway and I-10. However, the current site is now slated for redevelopment under Rio Nuevo management. The City of Tucson is required to find Greyhound a new site, under the terms of the agreement that originally re-located the old Greyhound bus station from next door to the Rialto theatre. It makes some sense to use the Toole parcel, at least for maybe a 5 year term. This would provide true access to Greyhound for both bus and streetcar patrons. It would also be simple to develop, since the Greyhound station is a modular building that could be moved the 6 or so blocks. This usage would be a big improvement over the current vacant lot, but it would also buy the city time, maybe 5 years, to allow for further downtown development. By then, some of the other large vacant parcels in the downtown area may have developed, making the Toole parcel more valuable.
Another possible plan for the lot is to use the rear twenty feet — all the way along the northern edge — as an urban camping site. A high chain link fence already separates the parcel from the railroad property. With a minimum of grading, landscaping and fencing, this strip area could become tent sites for approximately 40 to 60 urban campers. Urban campers could register and pay a $1 per night fee to camp, using the employee at the Ronstadt kiosk. One or two portable toilets could be located in the northwest corner of the parcel. This site would provide an alternative to the current arrangement of urban campers sleeping in the downtown park at Broadway and Stone.
Ronstadt Transit Center parcel
Ronstadt could be developed to engender more human friendly activities, with very little cost and no dislocation to current and future bus riders. The way that Ronstadt was designed, there is about a five foot interior sidewalk area that would be very welcoming to small scale vendors. In fact, this activity already happens on the 2nd Saturday downtown each month. There are jewelers, artists, and other vendors that set up shop on the Congress street side of Ronstadt. There is still plenty of sidewalk space for pedestrians. This could be done on both Congress and 6th Street. The City of Tucson could chalk mark locations on both streets and start charging a nominal fee for usage, say $5 per day. The money could be handled by the person working the kiosk at Ronstadt. It would be first come, first served. Other cities do this very successfully. For example, in Santa Fe, the Native American vendors line up each morning to sign up for a lottery to get a similar sized space in front of the Palace of Governors. This type of activity is also very tourist-friendly. Tucson needs more tourist activities downtown. There is very little retail. While we are seeing a resurgence of high end restaurants, the retail is still very weak. Beyond Chicago Music Store, Wigorama, a couple of galleries, there has not been any significant retail downtown in many years. The street vendors will bring people to the area, especially in the tourist months of October through April. There is physical space for probably at least 25 spaces, while still allowing for some open bench seating on the fence wall.
Another low-cost, low-impact multi-use development would be to allow maybe two food trucks to come inside Ronstadt and set up on the western side. This area is currently a buffer zone between the core of Ronstadt and the sidewalks on Congress and 6th. There are several large mesquite trees and palm trees for landscaping, and the ground is covered with a people unfriendly large gravel. The only change needed would be to change the gravel to a pea gravel, which is more foot-friendly. The open space in the southwest corner of Ronstadt has rolled curbs, allowing easy access by food trucks. The space in the middle open space does have a hard curb, but could easily be accessed using portable ramps. Again, the city could open this up to various food trucks, and see how it works. At the same time, put up picnic tables inside these gravel areas and encourage people to eat, but also discourage long-term hanging out at the tables. This could be done easily. The city could charge the food trucks more, maybe $20 per day for this right. Food trucks could cater to both bus riders and other downtown users. It would again engender more human activity on the site, make it more interesting.
To recap the kiosk activity, the person inside the kiosk could handle the vendor payments and site selection on the perimeter of the site, the parking lot management of the Madden Triangle and the urban camper registration at the Toole lot. This person could also become a Visitors Bureau type reference person, with brochures and other material for downtown tourists. Hopefully, there would be enough revenue generated by the vendor program and the urban campers to pay for this position. Perhaps the Downtown Tucson Partnership could handle the staffing.
The streetcar track could be moved to the north side of Congress, to allow for easy access into Ronstadt.
Downtown Tucson is evolving. With stores like the Johnny Gibson market, start-up centers like Gangplank and the Makers House, City High School, downtown entrepreneurs are finding their niche. There are still large vacant lots, in particular, the large lot on Broadway and 4th Avenue, that would be good to develop. There are also street level parking lots that could be redeveloped to a higher, better use. And there are still substantial vacancies in store fronts throughout downtown. Downtown residential activity is on the upswing, with the completion of the student complex at the Cadence and One East Broadway. A small grocery store is underway a half block from the Ronstadt, and a hotel is slated for Broadway and 5th Avenue.
Unresolved questions from the stakeholders meetings
How much revenue does the city earn now from the triangle and Toole lots?
What is the revenue target from a future development?
What is the appraised value of the two parking parcels?
What is the extent of the environmental contamination at Toole? The Phase I report in the Poster report covers the Ronstadt parcel, but it is unclear about the other two parcels. The Poster report does say that it cost $600,000 in environmental costs to develop the MLK site next door. Who will bear this potential cost on this project?
The city has cleared the Ronstadt parcel for cultural resources. It has a $36,000 bid to study the Madden triangle. What is the cost to study the Toole parcel? What could the financial cost be to preserve or move cultural resources located on the two northern parcels?
How much would it cost to develop the infrastructure, including utilities, at all three parcels?
If Ronstadt is altered from the current configuration, what will the City’s obligation be, if any, to the federal government for sunken costs?
How much would it cost to run the streetcar line on the north side of Congress?
What is the time value of bus riders? That is, if changes are proposed to Ronstadt, for example, closing the Congress Street entrance, how do we value the time lost to the riders? And if a large construction project is proposed, how do we value the aggravation to current and future riders?
What should be a minimum revenue target from any re-development? Given the Sun Tran budget of approximately $60 million per year, would a net revenue of 1%, or $600,000 per year be acceptable? How much of this revenue will be spent on enhancing of the transit center, in terms of cleaner bathrooms, more security and other amenities for bus riders?
How much staff time has the city already spent on this project? The city’s Office of Integrated Planning, Procurement and City Attorney all are working on this project. Is there a cost center for salaries and other expenses? How much will the city spend on the RFP going forward, in terms of additional staff time, possible cash awards to the proposers and 3rd party review costs?
Is it important to have a visual connection between the streetcar line and Ronstadt? Would commercial development on the Congress Street frontage impede this connection?
How will a possible development agreement be enforced? How long a timeline would the city given the developer to follow through? How will the issue of ground lease be resolved?