The Sun Link streetcar line is a catalyst for investment in downtown Tucson. Photo via the City of Tucson.
Downtown Tucson, AZ is undergoing a revival, and smart growth strategies are a major factor behind it according to Mayor Jonathan Rothschild.
Rothschild, a native Tucsonan and Charter Member of Smart Growth America’s Local Leaders Council, has experienced firsthand the rapid growth of greater Tucson over the past 50 years. “When I was born, there were 50,000 people in this community. Today there are over one million. We’ve grown at a remarkable rate,” says Rothschild.
Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild
However, as a desert community in the southwest where land on the outskirts was inexpensive and readily available, most of Tucson’s past growth occurred further and further away from the city’s core and historic neighborhoods. Downtown Tucson largely suffered as a result—but smart growth strategies are helping bring investment and residents back in a big way.
Tucson’s signature project is Sun Link, a 3.9 mile streetcar line connecting The University of Arizona, the 4th Avenue Business District, the Congress Avenue Shopping and Entertainment District and the Mercado District.
“It has transformed our community and our downtown, which had lost it’s character both for retail and for the residents,” says Rothschild. “For the first time in 50 years, we’re seeing people and businesses moving back to the downtown core and we really can attribute that to the streetcar.”
Since 2008, nearly 50 new restaurants, cafes and bars have opened or expanded downtown, pouring more than $12.4 million in private investment into the area from those businesses alone, according to Inside Tucson Business. In total, 141 new businesses opened downtown in that time period, with an estimated total of $800 million in private and public investment according to the Downtown Tucson Partnership Economic Analysis.
There are also a host of new housing and mixed-use developments underway downtown, including some 1,300 new units of student housing and a new LEED-Gold certified senior housing development.
The streetcar has so far been successful, but Rothschild is realistic about the obstacles that lie ahead. “There will be some challenges initially regarding it’s operation and maintenance costs, but I am convinced that if we work closely with the University, promote it out to the community and get people to experience the convenience and upgraded way to get around, we’re absolutely going to be successful.”
Rothschild’s support for smart growth strategies go beyond the streetcar. He’s passionate about Tucson’s history and finding ways to balance the city’s unique culture while promoting economic development. Some of his priorities in office include investing in extensive roadway repairs to maintain and upgrade the city’s existing infrastructure and fostering economic ties with Mexico, whose border lies 60 miles south of the city.
“Tucson was originally built around a neighborhood model: residential neighborhoods, neighborhood schools and neighborhood parks,” he says. “Smart growth is about asking ourselves, how do we attract good jobs and develop our economy while the maintaining our culture and traditions. Ultimately, it’s about how we can strengthen and improve our neighborhoods and services.”