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Case Studies

South Park Avenue Improvement Project

map of South Park Avenue area

Tucson Department of Transportation

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During 1995 and 1996, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), through its Livable Communities Initiative, awarded the City of Tucson, Arizona, $1.5 million to carry out a series of transportation enhancements along a 1-mile stretch of South Park Avenue. The South Park area, located within Tucson's federally designated Enterprise Zone/Enterprise Community, is a low-income, minority community originally settled by African Americans during the 1940s. It is an area rich in cultural and historical significance because, during its early days, it was one of the few places in Tucson where African Americans could purchase land, build homes, start businesses, and create a community.

FTA's Livable Communities Initiative (LCI) was established, in part, to assist transit-dependent communities with economic recovery. From 1995 through 1999, the Tucson Department of Transportation (TDOT) worked with residents and businesses in the South Park neighborhood to plan and implement a series of improvements that increased transit, pedestrian, and bicycle safety and accessibility; enhanced commercial district aesthetics along South Park Avenue; and reinforced the community's sense of pride in its unique history and culture.

The Participants

  • Federal Transit Administration
  • U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development
  • Tucson Department of Transportation
  • Tucson Urban League
  • South Park Neighborhood Business Association
  • University of Arizona

From an environmental justice standpoint, the South Park Avenue Improvement Project is noteworthy for three principal reasons:

The Livable Communities Initiative

The U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Transit Administration, developed the Livable Communities Initiative (LCI) to strengthen the linkage between transportation services and the communities served. The LCI is an experiment that uses sustainable design concepts such as transit-oriented development, community-sensitive transit services, mixed-use development near transit facilities, safe and secure pedestrian access, and transit-supportive parking management and traffic management techniques. The goal is to increase access to jobs, health care, education, and other social amenities and to stimulate community participation in the decision-making process that leads to these improvements.

Eligible Applicants

Eligible Types of Project Planning Activities

Eligible Capital Activities or Capital Project Enhancements

Available Funds

DOT provided about $50 million for 21 capital projects and an additional $2 million for local planning, technical assistance and best practices materials in FY 1999. Funding is available through the following programs:

Federal Transit Administration

Federal Highway Administration

The Region and Community

Tucson is located in the southeast corner of the State of Arizona. It is the seat for Pima County and home to the University of Arizona and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, the area's two largest employers. Tourism is the region's third largest industry, followed by a growing high-tech industry.

Snapshot of the South Park Community

Location: Southeast of downtown Tucson

Population: 2,400

Racial and ethnic composition:

  • African American - 43 percent
  • Hispanic - 39 percent
  • Native American - 3 percent
  • Other - 15 percent

Median household income: $7,922

Households below poverty line: 34.5%

Transportation concerns: Absence of pedestrian, bicycle, and transit amenities along South Park Avenue, the heart of the local retail business district

Source: 1990 U.S. Census.

Minority groups account for more than one-third of Tucson's population (405,000 in 1990). Hispanics are the largest minority, representing 29 percent of the population. Other minority groups include African Americans (4 percent), American Indians (4 percent), and Asian Americans (2 percent).

The South Park area of Tucson was first settled in the 1940s by African Americans who moved to the city primarily from other southwestern States. Although the majority of Tucson's African-American residents at that time lived in substandard rental housing near the downtown area, many of these new arrivals had previously owned their own homes and were anxious to do the same in Tucson.

Because of segregation, however, African Americans had only limited opportunities to purchase land. The South Park area, at the time an unincorporated area southeast of Tucson, was one of only two locations where African Americans were permitted to buy lots. Families generally built their own homes. With little access to credit, they paid for materials and lived in tents while permanent dwellings were being constructed.

The struggles of these early residents helped foster a strong sense of community as residents pulled together to overcome adversity. By the 1960s, South Park was a well-knit, thriving community, anchored by a number of black-owned businesses along South Park Avenue. During the next several decades, however, South Park fell victim to problems of crime, gangs, and drugs shared by many inner-city communities across the Nation. The neighborhood declined, and by 1980, the incomes of almost 35 percent of South Park households were below the poverty level. The neighborhood's unemployment rate was more than 11 percent, nearly double that of the Tucson metropolitan area.

The racial and ethnic mix of the neighborhood also changed. By 1990, the area's African-American population had fallen from 90 percent during the 1940s to less than 50 percent. The Hispanic population, meanwhile, increased to nearly 40 percent.

Project Chronology 1982-1989
Kino Boulevard constructed on the eastern boundary of the South Park community.

Tucson Urban League receives CDBG funds to partner with University of Arizona to create the South Park Area Community Development Plan.

South Park Area Community Development Plan published by the Tucson Urban League.

TDOT receives $1 million from FTA's Livable Communities Initiative for improvements to South Park neighborhood.

August-December 1996
Monthly town hall meetings held at Quincie Douglas Center to obtain public input on design and implementation of the project.

August 1996
TDOT receives additional $500,000 from FTA's Livable Communities Initiative.

October 1997
South Park Community Art Center opens to provide community members with instruction in the creation of mosaic art pieces for the project.

July 1998
Construction begins on South Park Avenue.

September 1999
Project completed.

What Happened

The South Park Avenue Improvement Project resulted from a decade-long planning process. In 1989, the Tucson Urban League received HUD Community Development Block Grant funds to help prepare a Community Development Plan for the South Park area of Tucson. Working in partnership with the University of Arizona College of Architecture, which donated its services, the Urban League conducted 9 months of intense public meetings to identify key issues and opportunities. The process culminated in January 1991 with the release of the South Park Area Community Development Plan [Plan].

The town hall meetings were a success because community residents could see the evolution of their input on design mock-ups each month.

_ Too-Ree-Nee Keiser
Lead Public Artist
South Park Avenue Improvement Center

Context-Sensitive Design

Context-sensitive design is a way to integrate highways and communities. This concept encourages designers to balance the transportation goals of mobility and safety with community values by enhancing and preserving a community's cultural and natural resources, while not establishing any new geometric standards or criteria. Context-sensitive design is supported by provisions in the ISTEA, NHS Act, and TEA-21, which emphasize the importance of good transportation design that is sensitive to the human-made and natural settings.

Successful context-sensitive design requires involvement of an interdisciplinary team in which the community plays an active role throughout planning and implementation. With early and continuous collaboration, the team may identify valuable features for incorporation into plans and projects.

The U.S. DOT fully supports the concept of context-sensitive design as an important part of the effort to provide sustainable transportation service to the public. In recent years, U.S. DOT has actively promoted context-sensitive design in training materials, publications, conferences, and workshops.

photo of three children doint art work

Creating the art to complement the South Park development was a hands-on project.

One area of concern targeted by the Plan was the commercial district along South Park Avenue from 18th Street to 36th Street. Businesses along this corridor had been struggling recently, in part because of the construction of Kino Boulevard during the 1980s, a north-south arterial route for traffic between downtown Tucson and Tucson International Airport. This arterial diverted significant traffic volumes from South Park Avenue to Kino Boulevard, causing South Park Avenue commercial establishments to lose business.

In 1995, TDOT identified the FTA's Livable Communities Initiative as a potential funding source for improvements along South Park Avenue. TDOT ultimately submitted a proposal to FTA that incorporated concerns and recommendations recognized by the Community Development Plan and by the recently established South Park Neighborhood Business Association. The proposal included canopied bus stops, landscaping, and pedestrian and bicycle facilities.

FTA awarded the City of Tucson a $1 million grant for streetscape improvements to enhance pedestrian access to transit and local businesses along South Park Avenue. Project elements included:

During 1996 and 1997, TDOT held a series of town hall meetings to gain public input on the project's design. Although TDOT went to considerable lengths to publicize the first of these sessions, attendance was poor. Moreover, the few participants were skeptical about the city's plans and its commitment to meaningful public involvement on the project.

After this disappointing start, TDOT resolved to become more aggressive in its outreach efforts. Neighborhood "walkabouts" were held to show the community that "the project and people working on it were real and accessible," as one TDOT representative put it. Throughout the hot Tucson summer, project staff members walked through neighborhood streets and parks, introducing themselves to residents in a personal, informal context. In addition, TDOT also conducted in-home interviews with several respected elders in the South Park community.

Within months, participation at the town hall forums increased to more than 40 individuals. The increased turnout resulted, in part, from TDOT's increased solicitation efforts as well as the format of the meetings themselves. Residents were invited to "view and vote" on design mock-ups of bus shelter placements, crosswalks and other pedestrian facilities, and public art components of the project. Residents were provided five "ballots" each and given the opportunity to affix their votes next to their preferred designs. After each meeting the project team tallied the "votes" for each design. The effect was a continually evolving project design that reflected ongoing community input.

One of the most creative aspects of the South Park Avenue Improvement Project was to use public art to enhance the streetscape along South Park Avenue. TDOT hired a public artist to oversee this project task, which featured community participation to create mosaics and totems. In October 1997, classes began at a new community art center opened along South Park Avenue to instruct area residents in mosaic tile work.

Community members visited the art center during the day to decorate trash container shells and to work on the mosaic tiles and totems and other art components of the project.

Much of the project's artwork was intended to draw attention to the South Park area's history and identity as a community. For example, a number of new bus shelters featured colorful figures at each corner, their upraised arms "holding up" structure roofs. This design was intended to symbolize the South Park neighborhood's strong community spirit and legacy of helping others during difficult times.

In August 1997, citing the tremendous public involvement in town hall meetings and the community's design recommendations, the FTA granted an additional $500,000 to the South Park Avenue Improvement Project. This grant was matched by $100,000 from the City of Tucson. By the time the project was completed in September 1999, the improvements included:

photo of a bus shelter

Symbols of community spirit, colorful figures hold up the roofs of new bus shelters.

photo of a totem

Totems designed and created by the South Park Community are an integral part of the new streetscape.

Effective Environmental Justice Practices

The South Park Avenue Improvement Project enhanced the livability of a low-income, minority neighborhood and helped breathe new life into a distressed commercial district. The project illustrates several key practices useful for integrating environmental justice principles into transportation project planning, design, and construction.

Public Art Components of the South Park Avenue Improvement Project

Challenges Ahead

The South Park Avenue Improvement Project represents a noteworthy example of incorporating the letter and spirit of Title VI and environmental justice into the transportation decision-making process. The improvements have given a significant boost to the South Park neighborhood, yet the area faces a number of key challenges. The community's long-term prospects depend on a sustainable program of investments and partnerships. Some of the challenges confronting the partners in this project include:

photo of an historic plaque

Public art elements included historic plaques intended to instill community pride.

Benefits of Environmental Justice in Decision Making

For the Neighborhood:

For the Agencies:

Lessons Learned

Some of the most important lessons of the South Park Avenue Improvement Project include:

This project would not have been the
success that it was without the public art component. The artist's daily interaction
with the community was invaluable.

Keith Walzak
Project Manager, Tucson DOT


Greater South Park Plan, Planning Department, City of Tucson; Resolution No. 12699, May 29, 1984.

Harry H. Lawson, The History of African-Americans in Tucson: An Afrocentric Perspective / Harry Lawson; Tucson, AZ: Lawson's Psychological Services, (Includes bibliographical references (p. 195-199) and index. v. 1. 1860 to 1960), c 1996.

Major Streets & Routes Plan, Planning Department City of Tucson, Resolution No. 15988, Ordinance No. 7816, May 11, 1992.

South Park Area Community Development Plan, prepared for the Tucson Urban League by the University of Arizona College of Architecture (Drachman Institute and Architecture Laboratory) & College of Agriculture (Cooperative Extension - CLRD), January 1991.

South Park Avenue Improvement Project: This is your neighborhood! These are your improvements! So get involved!, City of Tucson Department of Transportation public information packet, 1997.

South Park Improvement Project Capital Assistance Grant Application for FY 1994-1995: #AZ-03-0025, City of Tucson proposal to the Federal Transit Administration, March 1995.

South Park Neighborhood Exhibit, series of interviews conducted by the Arizona Historical Society, Tucson Chapter; 1995-1996.

Visit From FTA Director Marks Completion of South Park Improvements, City of Tucson Department of Transportation press release, September 10, 1999.


Ray Clark
Urban League of Tucson
2305 South Park Avenue
Tucson, AZ 85713
(520) 791-9522

Too-Ree-Nee Keiser
Lead Public Artist, South Park Avenue
Improvement Project
Tucson-Pima Arts Council
240 N. Stone Ave.
Tucson, AZ 85701
(520) 624-0595

Andrew McGovern
Manager, South Park Project
City of Tucson, Department of Transportation Field
201 North Stone Avenue
Tucson, AZ 85701
(520) 791-5100

Photo Credits

All photos courtesy of Tucson Pima Arts Council/ T-Pac, except photo of children, which is courtesy of Ursula Gurau.

Updated: 8/30/2011
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