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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Underpass unites Tucson

Rita Lichamer/ Arizona Daily WildcatRita Lichamer/ Arizona Daily Wildcat
Rita Lichamer/ Arizona Daily WildcatRita Lichamer/ Arizona Daily Wildcat

The new Fourth Avenue underpass is open, though not totally finished, and despite criticism of the structure’s aesthetic appeal, it has succeeded in uniting two neighborhoods.

Students are traveling downtown with greater ease, while downtowners are arriving at the UA less sweaty and with fewer pedal pumps. Business owners on both sides are already feeling the economic benefits, while artists and community leaders are thinking of new ways to use the link to unite downtown, Fourth Avenue and Main Gate Square.

Thousands of people flooded the wide pedestrian paths of the new Fourth Avenue underpass on Thursday, Aug. 20, to see the ribbon cutting ceremony hosted by Mayor Bob Walkup. 

The mayor thanked the organizations and people who struggled through the more than two-year construction process but admitted the battle wasn’t over.

Then, with the mayor at the controls, the electric trolley connecting the two construction-bludgeoned neighborhoods started rolling.

Hundreds of cameras flashed as the trolley burst through the blue ribbon, destroying the last barrier between downtown and Fourth Avenue. Then the trolley stalled and rolled backwards a few yards.

After two more jerky starts and about a minute of awkwardness and doubt, the trolley emerged in downtown.

It was a moment of jubilation: the crowd cheered as prominent business leaders, city council members and UA President Robert Shelton waved from the trolley as it finally arrived downtown. 

But whether the underpass opening was a total success still remains in doubt for some. The concrete and steel blandness of the $46 million structure brought criticism from people at the ceremony, though most were careful to mention that functionally it’s great.

Benjamin Poletta, a mathematics graduate student, lives on the north side of the underpass and often rides his bike to the bars and restaurants downtown. 

While handing out information on healthcare reform along the western pedestrian path, just hours after the ceremony, Poletta said he likes the new underpass because it will make his ride downtown much easier, but has mixed feelings about the look of the long-awaited structure. 

“”I like it, it’s beautiful, it’s huge,”” he said. “”I guess … Yeah, no, it’s nice.””

Poletta added, “”I guess I’m not really sure that they needed to shut it down so long, that it was worth it.  I’m not saying it wasn’t worth it, I just don’t know what the new features are that made it worthwhile.”” 

“”I think it’s ridiculous,”” he concluded, as the trolley honked in the background, finishing its one-block loop around the Rialto Theatre downtown. “”It’s just not worth the amount of time that it was closed for.””

David Aguirre, a longtime Tucson gallery operator and arts advocate, isn’t looking back on the lost time with regret ­— he’s thinking ahead.  The trolley extends downtown all the way to Main Gate, he says, and it’s his job to capture that market.

He prefers to talk about the function of the underpass and the opportunities it creates for downtown, and, for an artist, he didn’t have much to say about the aesthetics.

“”It’s really clean right now,”” he said. “”It’s got that kind of minimalist look.”” 

Amber Plantz saw it differently.  The anthropology senior thought it “”doesn’t look very Tucson-like.””

The ride is fun, she said, and structurally, the underpass is awesome — but she called the look bland and said it’s, “”missing that graffiti, kind of dingy, kick-ass Tucson feel”” which she hopes will come with time.

Graffiti and kick-ass Tucson feel aren’t the only things missing from the underpass.

The Tucson Portrait Project, made from roughly 6,000 photographs of Tucsonans taken at different places, times and public events (including the Fourth Avenue Street Fair), had only one of four planned panels displayed. And even that panel wasn’t actually complete. Many of the faces on the square tiles were marked with red dots, meaning they would be replaced.

Project designer Gary Patch says the holdup came from the tile printer, who was having a hard time printing in a consistent sepia tone.  The other three panels, he said, would probably be up in September.

Landscaping on several plots around the underpass was still ongoing, adding to the unfinished, bare-bones look of the long-awaited project, and the courtyard fountain doesn’t yet have any water.

The trolley, which is operated by volunteers at Old Pueblo Trolley, only runs on weekends. The modern streetcar, which will run seven days a week, isn’t scheduled to be completed until 2011.

Harold Garland doesn’t mind the unfinished details. He travels from his home in Armory Park and work at Hotel Congress, to his internship at UA at least four days per week and is happy to have the underpass open, with bike lanes, to make his trip safe and easy. 

“”More bike lanes are great,”” he said. “”It gives you that extra couple feet of safety when you’re riding with traffic.  It makes all the difference in the world if I’m going to ride my bike down the major street.””

He used to ride down Broadway Boulevard to get to UA, and avoided the Sixth Avenue underpass, which has no bike lanes, at all costs. 

Another biker, Dustin Chaber, described riding through the Sixth Avenue underpass, the major connecting thoroughfare from the university area to downtown while the Fourth Avenue underpass was closed, as “”dark and hazardous”” and “”crowded and often filled with excrement.””  He too, will be riding the Fourth Avenue underpass from now on.

With nostalgia in his voice, Aguirre mentioned the old underpass — a historic structure built in 1916 — but added, “”In sort of an ironic twist, it helps more people access the historic buildings on Congress Street.””

Aguirre said he sees the underpass as not only a safe way to travel between the two neighborhoods, but as a missing link and an opportunity to extend downtown all the way to Main Gate.

He said he sees an untapped market for Tooley’s Café on Congress Street, which he manages along with Dinnerware Artspace and other galleries. He sees a chance to bring back Downtown Saturday Nights, an arts and entertainment block party, and bring new faces to the galleries on Congress Street. And he sees the future of both neighborhoods improved because events can stretch along the entire trolley route.

“”We feel like the summer is over,”” he said. “”Like, ‘oh my God, we made it.’ We made the marathon through the summer — it’s over.  (With) the underpass opening, we made it to the finish line and to a new beginning.””

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