The Mercado District west of Tucson’s downtown is finally flourishing and the village everyone hoped for is taking shape. By Gillian Drummond. Cover photo courtesy of Tom Wuelpern.
When Tucson’s long-awaited streetcar launches late in July, the last stop will be a little west of downtown, at a district known as the Mercado.
But while it might be on the edge of the streetcar map, it’s far from an outpost for the city. If anything, the Mercado district, just off West Congress Street, is becoming one of Tucson’s most significant hubs. In the last year, the retail space known as Mercado San Agustin has flourished, luring MAST, Transit Cycles, celebrated bartender Ciaran Wiese and top chef Ryan Clark. Agustín Kitchen, where Ciaran and Ryan both work (Ryan is a partner) is now firmly on Tucson’s gastronomic map.
But the buzz isn’t just around the retail. A short walk away from the market, a village is being created. It’s one of row houses, some single family homes, concrete arches and plazas that look like they’ve been airlifted and dropped from Italy or Mexico or Greece.
Tom Wuelpern, whose company PureBuild has erected 18 homes in the area and is constructing a half dozen more, says he is meeting with prospective buyers almost weekly. When the project was at its lowest ebb, he was lucky to have one such meeting a year.
Fellow builder Paolo DeLorenzo says: “I don’t even think I got that.” He built three houses and then, when the economy tanked, he stopped. In 2010 he bought two more lots, and another four in 2012. Now he, like Tom, is getting one or two emails or phone calls a week. Paolo, owner of Innovative Living, says he can date the uptick in interest to the laying of the first streetcar tracks.
Tom and Paolo are two of the original gang of six builders who were in on the project at or close to its birth in 2006, when the Mercado district, part of the Menlo Park neighborhood, was being hailed as an anchor in Tucson’s downtown revitalization plans. After years of stop-start development and construction, hopes raised and dashed, a deep recession and a long, lingering question mark over whether that revitalization would ever happen, Tom and Paolo are finally seeing the fruits of both their labor and their patience.
Tom admits that were it not for his other work – custom builds and a specialty in rammed earth construction – he may have walked. Others did, namely builder James Gray, who turned to working in northwest Tucson, and Michael Keith, whose career took a different path (he is now chief executive officer of the Downtown Tucson Partnership). The other two builders involved were Barry Coleman and Dante Archangeli.
Tom credits developer Jerry Dixon, a partner in Rio Development Company and The Gadsden Company, with the fact that the Mercado district is still here. “There were moments when I felt, ‘Is this going to stagnate?'” says Tom, who runs PureBuild with co-owner Jeff Scheffman. “We were riding it out, waiting for the business to come back. But it was Jerry Dixon who continued to forge forward with the Mercado because he believed in the project, that’s what ultimately carried it through.” Paolo agrees: “Jerry has been completely optimistic and motivational in difficult times.”
Jerry Dixon remembers well the day in August 8th, 2008 when his company closed on the property deal for the 14-acre site. A few weeks later, Lehman Brothers ceased to exist. “We were perfectly timed to get our noses punched,” he says. Construction stopped, money dried up. “I remember calling one bank and they said ‘My God, we wouldn’t even lend money to Warren Buffet right now’.”
Still, Jerry and his family (son Justin Dixon, daughter Kira Dixon-Weinstein and son-in-law Adam Weinstein all work with him) waited it out, and kept believing in their project. They also proved it, by moving in. Justin lived in the first home built there (he now lives in California), and Adam and Kira and her sister Ashlyn Dumais now also live there.
Paolo bought there too, despite the fact that he says he could practically see the tumbleweed crossing the streets outside his house. Meanwhile his business fixing up and flipping houses (he owns properties across the city and in South Tucson) kept him going while things at the Mercado were, in his words, “dire”.
The builders, developers and planner involved in the Mercado all have something important in common, says Tom: they have each done a lot of traveling, through Mexico, Spain, Greece and more. Some of them lived in Europe. Paolo is from the tiny mountain village of Lorenzago di Cadore, 75 miles north of Venice. Planner and architect Stefanos Polyzoides, based in Pasadena, is from Greece.
They brought that worldliness to creating a community that is opposite to suburban America, one where the car is ditched in favor of a walk, where row, or terraced, houses encourage neighborly interaction, and where residents meet – in plazas, around the communal mailbox, and in the Mercado San Agustin market.
The land they built on is some of the oldest in Tucson. When they started digging, they discovered the roofs of 3000-year-old houses, and canals that ran even deeper. That set the stage for winding streets that follow the old canal route.
PureBuild has built on 18 of the 90 lots at the Mercado, and favors a look that combines Mexican colonial with southern European: row houses, with wrought iron balconies and heavy wooden doors. After all, says Tom: “If history was different this would probably be part of Mexico.”
Paolo’s aesthetic is centuries away from Tom’s – a modern European look that’s heavily influenced by his Danish wife, Anne Ranek, who has had a hand in some of his interiors. “In Denmark it’s built into their DNA. They have design incorporated into their life,” he says. Paolo favors grey concrete floors, walls of glass, oak floors and white walls, while his exteriors blend Mediterranean with the southwest.
The homes at the Mercado – all masonry construction – are being built to last, says Paolo. “I want to build homes that people will want to live in for 100 years.” And while it means you won’t see any frame and stucco, it also means the properties don’t come cheap. One of Tom’s homes is currently on the market for $579,000.
But to the skeptics who label Mercado as another upscale gated community – just without the gate – the developers and builders say no, that the point was always to attract not just the high spenders, but people of all income levels and life stages. There are already low-income apartments nearby, and low-income senior housing development Sentinel Plaza sits on one of The Gadsden Company’s original parcels of land. Jerry Dixon plans 160 more low-income units, named West End Station, for completion next year, and the mid-priced Monier Brick Yard apartments soon after.
Also in 2015 he plans an upscale apartment building, Downtown Abbey, adjacent to the Mercado. And just this week Jerry dried the ink on a deal, under Mission District Partners LLC, to develop another 14 acres just east of the Mercado San Agustin for upscale retail and a hotel.
The tide has changed economically, says Jerry, but the building of the streetcar “is a game changer of magnificent proportions”.
For the Mercado’s newest residents, Jim and Chris Dauber, the streetcar stop sealed the deal for them buying there. These transplants from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania moved in to one of Paolo’s two-story homes just two weeks ago. The retired couple are walkers, cyclists and lovers of city life and University events. “We go up to the University and riding a streetcar is a lot nicer a prospect than driving a car,” says Jim.
The community hasn’t just grown, says Paolo, it’s grown tight. And now “my kids wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.” He and Tom want to milk that community spirit. Together they have plans for a cantina with beer garden on one of the Mercado’s ‘walking streets’. Also in the planning are a wine store, a Bed and Breakfast, and a restaurant.
Says Tom: “People are craving that interaction and human connection. I think people like to see people.”
* Find the Mercado Tucson and Mercado San Agustin at South Avenida Convento at Congress Street, west of Interstate 10.