Jonathan Mabry has lived in Tucson, Arizona, for the last 35 years. The Southwestern city of about 526,000 people has sunny weather for two-thirds of the year and gives residents a sweeping view of the mountains, he said. But for many years, that came at a cost.
Mabry, the city’s historic preservation officer from 2007 to 2017, saw urban sprawl take over the city in the first 20 years he lived in Tucson. In the last 10 years, however, that trend has slowed down, and the focus has shifted to the revitalization of the city’s downtown rather than the expansion of its suburban areas.
Tucson used to be a casualty of those midcentury trends of downtown abandonment and blight. Vacant storefronts and shabby buildings lined Congress Street, the hub for most of the city’s downtown activity. There were only a few restaurants and bars, and those buildings in active use consisted predominately of offices.
“At 5 o’clock when all the office workers went home, our downtown became a ghost town,” Mabry said.
The real transformation of downtown Tucson began with the development of a modern streetcar, the Sun Link, in 2014. The 3 1/2 mile route connects the downtown area to the University of Arizona, a crucial element of Tucson’s urban fabric, Mabry said.
The Sun Link sparked a movement to redevelop downtown buildings and helped bridge the physical divide created by Interstate 10 in the 1960s, which split the city in half.
What used to be a ghost town come the end of the workday has now turned into a bustling entertainment hub for Tucson residents. Restored historic theaters bookend Congress Street, and the downtown has become an epicenter for Tucson’s food scene. Mabry said there are more than 60 restaurants downtown, two-thirds of which are locally owned. In 2015 it was designated as the first U.S. “Creative City of Gastronomy” by UNESCO.
Downtown Tucson’s revitalization is part of a larger movement the National Trust for Historic Preservation defines as “reurbanism.” Proponents of reurbanism advocate for the redevelopment of old buildings not only to create a more economically and environmentally sustainable city, but to establish a strong sense of community for its residents.
“If you visit a city where all of the buildings are built within a short frame of time fairly recently, you don’t get the sense that the community has deep roots,” Mabry said.
Cities like Los Angeles and Phoenix have embraced reurbanism in the form of adaptive reuse programs, initiatives that make it easier for the developers or business owners to repurpose old spaces.
Mabry was an integral figure in getting the information that convinced Tucson to adopt an adaptive reuse program of their own.