by David Safier
It's a great idea. Let's get the Santa Cruz River running in the downtown area. Rebuild and maintain the riparian environment, to the extent it can be rebuilt and maintained, anyway. Turn it into a natural attraction for locals and tourists. Bring people to its banks to get a sense of the river and the area as it once was.
Let's bring a little running water to town.
I've bit my lip on this topic for years because, well, I came here from Portland and . . . say no more. Few words fall flatter on the Tucson ear than, "In Portland, we . . ." I feared the rolling eyes, the dismissive grunt. "This is the desert, idiot. Two words. No. Water." But now that the subject has been broached in an article in today's Star, with the blessing of some locals, I'm ready to go public.
Look, we'll soon have functioning light rail here using Portland streetcars and modeled, at least in part, on Portland's light rail system. I'm a big supporter. It looks like it's paying economic and urban dividends even before the first paying passenger hops on board.
I just returned from a visit to Portland, where I rode the MAX from the airport, then back to the airport again, and I took lots of trips on MAX and the lighter-light-rail streetcars while I was there. Years ago, I watched the city being dug up to make way for the tracks. The downtown went through the same agony we've gone through here — torn-up streets (add mud), construction delays and businesses on life support. It was ugly, and it got nasty. Now downtown Portland is hopping (it was dying before), and many of the rail stops around the city have become commercial hubs because businesses know people are going to be walking by when they get on and off the trains. It's really something. It's transformed the city.
And I saw Portland revitalize its waterfront around the same time. Sure, the huge Willamette River was always there running through the center of the city, but the waterfront was a place boats dumped scrap metal in ugly piles to be, I don't know, reprocessed or something. Now it's dotted with hotels and condos and restaurants and walkways and large expanses of grassy parks filled with people and music festivals. I've sat at outside tables on the banks of the Willamette at dusk with a beer and a sandwich, looking over the area and thinking, "If I were traveling anywhere in the world right now, I'd be a happy man sipping and eating and strolling at a spot like this."
Tucson's Santa Cruz won't be Portland's Willamette, of course. But it could bear a resemblance to a creek running through Ashland — yeah, Oregon again, a six hour drive south of Portland. One beautiful stretch of the creek has shops and restaurants crowded together on its banks with patios over the creek bed, looking down onto the water and the vegetation. Very busy. Yet very quiet and very soothing at the same time.
The Star article says it'll take two golf courses worth of water to get the Santa Cruz flowing again in the downtown area. How many golf courses do we have in Tucson, with a diminishing, aging population of golfers? Now, how many bodies of running water do we have that everyone can enjoy?
I wonder how many new homes we would have to not build in the greater Tucson area to keep that stretch of the Santa Cruz filled. A few less new homes in the area. That could actually be a net positive, Santa Cruz or no.
But listen, I'm just a retired high school English teacher from Portland, Oregon. What do I know? Would it add to my credibility if I said I have a Masters of Urban Studies degree? I do. But in the interest of full disclosure I have to add, I earned it at Portland State University.