Tucson's Menlo Park Breathes New Life

Take the streetcar to the end of the line and discover where the city of Tucson, Arizona began.

Published in the 2014-2015 Tucson GuestBook

Take the streetcar to the end of the line and discover where the city of Tucson began. The historic neighborhood is one of pleasing contradictions, an "upscale barrio" and a century-old time capsule with a contemporary urban vibe. 

For more than 4,000 years, people have built homes and harvested crops in Tucson. Early pit houses, then Spanish settlements, and now modern-day luxury living attest to its continual occupation. The Menlo Park Historic District, a west-side neighborhood at the base of “A” Mountain (Sentinel Peak) adjoining with bustling downtown, is known to be the foundation of Tucson’s deep roots.

American Indians constructed rudimentary shelters here while raising corn, and Spaniards built a mission and convent for their first arrivals. The earliest surviving residence is dated 1877, in a neighborhood that took on its contemporary characteristics in the early 1900s. Ensuing changes representing geographic and historic values have marked the area as a key transitional location in Tucson’s history.

Menlo Park has now evolved into an upscale Mexican barrio filled with some 2,000 homes in a variety of architectural options ranging among colonial revival, bungalow, post-war ranch, prairie-style, and modern. Definite markers of Mexican influence can be found in façade surfaces, homes and shops—cultural uniqueness that adds color and cohesion to the historic settlement.

Builders are once again active, bumping elbows to erect new row houses and single-family homes on lots that sat idle during a recessionary economy, visited only by tumbleweeds blowing across empty streets. 

“The fuse has been lit and the rocket ship is taking off,” says developer Jerry Dixon. “Housing and retail are keys to the future.”

A resurgence of downtown Tucson construction is tied to the completion of a $197 million, modern Sun Link Streetcar line. The streetcar ends at the retail space known as Mercado San Agustin, the city’s first and only public market, and the Menlo Park District has taken on new life as a west-side anchor to the downtown revitalization.

Tucson Streetcar

Mercado San Agustin is an increasingly popular, open-air courtyard market, with sets of double doors leading to shops, boutiques and eateries. The older architecture is reminiscent of the neighborhood’s Spanish roots, and the casual ambiance welcomes visitors through the main gates. Agustin Kitchen is the Mercado’s anchor restaurant, offering contemporary farm-to-table plates and innovative cocktails; Blu A Wine and Cheese Stop passes along knowledge and insight about the artisan cheeses, meats and local wines it carries; MAST boutique specializes in urban and whimsical handmade art; and a coffee shop, bakery and other food- and art-centric local businesses round out the spaces.

The Mercado’s courtyard is host to frequently held public markets with local purveyors selling everything from bread, honey and produce to bath soaps. And on any given weekend night, live music is performed. Located east of the Luis G. Gutierrez Bridge, San Mercado Agustin and Menlo Park present a tucked-in neighborhood feel, while only a stone’s throw away from city action. 

San Agustin Live Music

“Give the city of Tucson credit for their foresight,” says developer Jerry Dixon. “They doubled the size of downtown by taking the 65 acres on the east side of the Santa Cruz River and building the Gutierrez Bridge to link up 65 more acres on the west side.”

The importance of the east side-west side link can’t be overemphasized. In the old days, rainy-season floodwaters would cut off the two populations. Historian Roy Drachman, who lived adjacent to the Menlo Park neighborhood, wrote in his book “From Cowtown to Desert Metropolis”: “Flooding in 1915 stopped the flow of food and supplies until a huge clothesline transportation system could be built along both banks and used until the water subsided.”  

Historical Preservation 

Situated on fewer than three square miles, the historic neighborhood invites a leisurely stroll by visitors. There’s plenty to see here as the old mixes with the new. “Keep your eyes peeled for homes with colorful shrines in their front yard and don’t miss two special houses,” says city of Tucson historic preservation officer Jonathan Mabry. “The Copper Bell Bed and Breakfast at 25 N. Westmoreland Ave. is built out of salt stones dug from nearby ‘A’ Mountain, and the 1917 William Bray House at 203 N. Grande Ave. is one of the few prairie-style buildings in Tucson influenced by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright.”

1917 William Bray House

Gene Einfrank, president of the Menlo Park Neighborhood Association, includes Sentinel Peak among his must-see sights, offering a great vantage point of the area, and Mission Gardens, which he calls “the jewel in the necklace of historic sites surrounding downtown.”

“Visitors will discover a community both old and new, a community ready to really flower in terms of development, and a textbook example of ‘new urbanism’—pedestrian-friendly, transit-oriented, mixed use,” he says. “The potential is here for vast change in the next decade, and that has a certain appeal as long as the historical piece of it isn’t lost in the process.”

Lifetime Menlo Park resident Lillian Lopez-Grant has lived the history, moving into a Spanish colonial home purchased for $5,500 in 1945. “A decade ago, Hispanics made up three-quarters of our population, but I welcome the arrival of a new generation …. Everybody knows everybody in Menlo Park—living here gives you a sense of roots.” 

History in the Making

Roots of a different kind are being planted in Mission Garden, a walled re-creation of fertile fields that once grew near Mission San Agustin on the Santa Cruz River. Roger Pfeuffer is one of the Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace volunteers, helping to grow native plants and an orchard of fruit trees that are descendents of trees brought here centuries ago by missionaries. Eventually, Tucson Origins Heritage Park will evolve as an authentic, historically accurate, living, agricultural museum—“One of a kind in the entire country,” says Pfeuffer. 

Mission Garden

Local developer Dixon says his group also plans a hotel and an additional 2,500 square feet of new retail across the street from Mercado San Agustin, effectively doubling the size of the retail outlets. With carefully preserved historical roots, Menlo Park is blending with the up-and-coming Tucsonan cultural vibe of farm fresh and local. The characteristically charming neighborhood at the last streetcar stop has quickly transformed into a must-visit area.