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Exuberance Abounds

Downtown Tucson Partnership head Michael Keith giddily insists that the future is quite bright

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As he leads a walking tour of downtown's east end, Michael Keith certainly doesn't keep his opinions to himself.

His optimism and exuberance for the area extends even to his T-shirt. It proclaims of the nearby Ice House, a rare successful downtown residential project: "Living in Tucson Just Got Cooler."

Keith, CEO of the Downtown Tucson Partnership, the privately operated program which provides services to the area—with public financing—explains at the tour's beginning: "Our downtown is small. It's a postage stamp compared to Portland's, so every decision is exaggerated in importance to make this a hip environment."

Standing at the corner of Congress Street and Fifth Avenue next to the converted Martin Luther King building, which now contains apartments above commercial space, Keith talks about the need for mixed uses in other projects.

"I think it could succeed despite the general market," Keith says of new housing downtown, despite a series of failures, "because of a micro-market. There's a huge interest in downtown now, and a lot of people are talking about moving downtown 'only if.' ... Opportunities exist downtown for a lot of niche housing—but that's based on my developer's instinct only."

Before being named the interim head of the partnership two months ago, Keith developed several downtown residential projects. He's long believed in the feasibility of residential success in downtown Tucson. (See "Residential Revolution," March 23, 2006.)

Keith confirms that he is interested in staying on as the CEO of the partnership past September, when his interim period is slated to end.

Just to the west of the former MLK building, Keith turns south down Arizona Avenue, which most people would describe as a cluttered, ugly alleyway.

"With street pavers and landscaping," Keith suggests, "and the utilities removed, this could become a pedestrian/bicycle corridor to Toole Avenue (a few blocks to the north). But what do you do with the trash containers? Can the Dumpsters become artwork? People would be able to get away from traffic, to a safe corridor which was quiet. It could have a jazz club and art galleries, plus little restaurants, and be an aesthetic experience."

On the south side of Broadway Boulevard, a few men employed by Coffee Builders, Inc. are working—on a holiday morning—to rehabilitate the rear portion of the Julian-Drew building, which dates from the early 20th century. It's being converted into "The Carriage House," with retail space on Arizona Avenue backed by eight residential rental units. Plans call for the conversion to be completed by October.

"We're preserving the historic features," proudly proclaims Chris Coffee, referring to elements like stained, open-truss ceilings and polished concrete floors. "It will be a bit of a showcase piece."

Keith heads toward Sixth Avenue, stopping next to the almost-100-year old Odd Fellows Hall. Terry Etherton's gallery has been located upstairs there for two decades, and within a few months, the ground floor will be home to Janos Wilder's new restaurant.

On the nearby northwest corner of Broadway and Sixth is a vacant lot owned by Pima County. If—and when—it is put on the market, Keith has high hopes.

"That's an excellent opportunity for mixed-use development, which could have street-side retail," Keith says.

On the south side of Broadway is the vacant lot where Tucson Electric Power will soon be erecting its new headquarters.

"There will be retail on Sixth Avenue," Keith exclaims about the TEP building as he simultaneously compliments the company for accommodating those uses. "That will create activity on both sides of the street. ... So this intersection will go from nothing to a vibrant corner."

Walking one block to the north, Keith stops at Congress Street and Sixth Avenue to point out what could potentially happen.

"You can't underestimate the impact of the street car," he declares of the planned project's route along Congress. "It will absolutely make a difference to bankers (who may lend money for downtown projects). The street car changes the land-use concept along its route. Housing projects are implemented; small retailers spring up; and larger retailers start looking. We can set a table at which everybody goes to dine."

At the corner of Congress and Sixth, Keith points out successes of the city of Tucson's façade-improvement program. However, that subsidy—along with rent abatements to tenants in municipally owned buildings, infrastructure improvements paid for with Rio Nuevo revitalization funds, and other expensive financial incentives handed out by the city—leads to a discussion of whether downtown will ever wean itself from government support.

"It will happen within five years," Keith predicts, "if the macro-economy improves. If not, assistance may have to be provided longer.

"It's an interesting thing," Keith continues. "Downtown is staying on its own legs outside the macro-economics (of the downturn). ... There's been a steady stream of investment in the last two years ... and people are only coming here because there are things here for them. ... Things are changing."

As we approach the tour's starting point, Keith begins to reel off projects proposed for the west end of downtown—before deciding a tour of those will have to happen on another day.

"Downtown has begun to significantly reinvent itself in the worst economic condition since the Depression," Keith observes. "That has to say something."

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