Downtown Tucson will soon have one less empty building now that a social services agency received the green light to build an affordable housing complex on the site of a dilapidated, though historic, motor lodge.
The State Historic Preservation Office said Compass Affordable Housing may demolish most of the former Downtown Motor Hotel as part of its plans to turn it into affordable housing for low-income veterans and others who want to live and work in the burgeoning downtown core.
Armory Park residents opposed the plan, saying it would rob the neighborhood of a historic property designed by famed Tucson architect Josias Joesler.
But the project’s architect said during an April meeting that up to 70 percent of the building’s material had already been replaced over the years, leaving only a fraction of the original 1941 structure in place.
The property, at 383 S. Stone Ave., has suffered fire damage, roof leaks and years of neglect, and has sat empty on downtown’s south edge for years.
“It’s a health and safety hazard,” said Compass CEO Maryann Beerling, who fell through the second floor and injured herself while touring the property.
Compass wanted the property to offer low-income veterans, working-class people and artists an opportunity to participate in a resurgent downtown, she said.
“We think they should be able to enjoy the amenities of living and working in downtown,” Beerling said. “It’s good to have housing, not just for students, but for low-income wage earners as well.”
Beerling wouldn’t say how much Compass paid for the motel, but an affidavit filed at the Recorder’s Office shows the price was $685,000.
Compass’ plans call for tearing down everything except the two front buildings and the motor lodge’s sign, and then erecting a four-story, 42-unit complex that will include a library, an art gallery, a computer room and a community center.
Beerling said the design will be on par or exceed what has recently been developed downtown. She said it will complement Stone Avenue’s re-emergence as a gateway to downtown and blend in with the surrounding neighborhoods.
Armory Park residents, however, aren’t enamored of the plan.
“We’re not opposed to affordable housing. We have no problem with that,” said John Burr, the Armory Park Neighborhood Association’s development chairman. “We just can’t condone tearing down a historic property. If they want to build on one of the vacant lots, we’d be fine with that.”
Others said a piece of Tucson’s history is lost every time a historical building is torn down.
“Part of the charm of the Old Pueblo is the remaining historic buildings,” said Jack McLain, Armory Park Neighborhood Association vice president. “They are visually interesting. They have a consistency that you don’t see in Phoenix or other cities. And to cynically destroy one of those elements for the profit motive isn’t seeing the big picture.”
While Armory Park is a historical district, the Downtown Motor Hotel isn’t recognized by the city as a historic property.
That’s because when the mayor and City Council approved historic zones in 1976, they gerrymandered the map and excluded properties where the owners objected to the designation, said Jonathan Mabry, the city’s historic preservation officer.
The Downtown Motor Hotel was one of those properties.
However, it is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
While a national designation doesn’t prohibit an owner from demolishing all or a part of a property, it does require State Historic Preservation Office approval if someone is seeking federal dollars as part of their plan to substantially change a historic property, Mabry said.
Compass is considering federal Housing and Urban Development grants for gap financing, Mabry said.
The state’s preservation office reviewed Compass’ project, and approved it last week with the provision Compass drafts a detailed drawing of the existing building as a permanent record of what it was prior to the proposed construction, Mabry said.
Burr said neighbors are concerned the ruling sets a dangerous precedent and could result in further loss of historic buildings.
Despite the ruling, most Tucson historic properties are safe, Mabry said.
Although the federal historic register offers little protection, Mabry said local codes are stringent.
A city historically zoned property can only be demolished if it poses an imminent health risk or is deemed economically unviable.
Even then it must pass through multiple committee hearings, a public hearing and a mayor and City Council vote before any demolition occurs, Mabry said.
Mabry said it’s a rare process that hasn’t occurred at any time in the six years he has been with the city.
Compass will continue to work with the neighbors as the project moves ahead, Beerling said.