If there’s one thing my pal Kansas City Star business writer Kevin Collison could easily be convicted of it’s downtown boosterism. Think irrational exuberance with an exclamation point.
Never mind, for example, that experts have painstakenly documented how downtown ballparks are tourism killers, open only a scant portion of the year for minimal hours, while at the same time lining block after block with mind numbing expanses of pedestrian traffic killing walls of steel and concrete.
Kevin’s also a bit of a light rail / streetcar advocate, long as Clay Chastain‘s fingerprints are not on the plans.
However, Collison was out of his element earlier this week when he attempted to pyramid a random in-law visit to my old stomping grounds in Tucson into a believable argument that that city’s streetcar plan somehow validates Kansas City’s.
Two entirely different situations.
Unlike Kevin, I actually know Tucson pretty well.
Not inside and out anymore, but well enough to recognize that the streetcar plan there is an entirely different animal than the one here. Instead of running from Crown Center to the River Market downtown – a highly questionable route – Tucson’s streetcar line is a grand slam home run from start to finish.
To begin with, Collison missed out on the fact that Tucson’s 3.9 mile streetcar route isn’t entirely brand new like Kansas City’s – it’s basically a retread.
For two decades, until two years ago, streetcars ran from just outside the main gate of the University of Arizona west to Fourth Avenue – Tucson’s ultra hip entertainment and shopping district – and on to a revitalized downtown.
Tucson’s new streetcars will run that same basic route – albeit expanded – while featuring state of the art “modern streetcars” that waft thru a newly redone downtown that already has attracted 40 new bars and restaurants with 60 more expected in the next year, according to streetcar spokesman Josh Weaver.
Tucson’s new Sun Link system will now venture into the heart of the U of A campus – instead of just outside its front gate like before – and that’s huge. It will pass by a well established, hip shopping and dining area just outside the campus entrance before making a very short hop to the even more established shops, restaurants, salons and boutiques that line Fourth Avenue.
And let me tell you, KC has nothing like Fourth Avenue.
It’s basically a mashup of the best of Westport and 39th Street, only better.
Meanwhile, a far more inviting downtown Tucson – which is much smaller and more compact than downtown KC – rounds out the run. A downtown that also includes a pair of new student housing developments that will be home to 1,500 students and a new University of Arizona downtown campus annex.
Get the picture?
Tucson already had a classic streetcar line – with 33,000 riders annually – and now it’s retracing much of the old route and improving it by starting out in the heart of the campus and passing through the three hippest, and most popular parts of the city. It’s a no brainer, which is why voters green lighted it.
By comparison, Crown Center is a glorified ghost town and going from there to the River Market is hardly a dream come true for most visitors and Kansas Citians. Who knows? In time, maybe that will change. So it’s better than nothing and KC needs to start somewhere apparently, but…
Long as I’m picking on Kevin, let me clear up another point.
That’s his characterization of Tucson as a “desert community better known for retirees.”
Maybe if you grew up in Omaha and your knowledge of the area is mostly based on visiting aging in-laws.
However in real life, Tucson is a vibrant Sun Belt city – a college town – with more than its fair share of people of all ages. Trust me there won’t be long lines of retirees riding those new streetcars from campus to 4th Avenue when the line opens next year.
A check of Tucson’s 2010 age demographics pegs the 65 and older population at approximately 11 percent. Compared to 54 percent for age 34 and younger.
Which leaves – what? – 35 percent for middle agers.
“So how did Tucson succeed in building a streetcar almost twice as long and sooner than the one here?” Collison asks rhetorically, before providing his far oversimplified and incorrect answer, “persistence.”
They did it by starting out with a streetcar route already in place and up and running, tapping into a student population 40,000 strong and running it a very short distance to three of the most popular tourist and student shopping and party places in the city.
Crown Center to River Market?
Not even close.