Ben Lepley: Using local talent builds economy, enhances Tucson’s vernacular

2014-03-02T00:00:00Z Ben Lepley: Using local talent builds economy, enhances Tucson’s vernacularBy Ben Lepley Special to the Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Conservative think tanks like The Goldwater Institute may be permanently altering who builds our city landmarks and large projects.

The institute is suing the city of Tucson over its local bid preference ordinance on behalf of three Tucson men.

Under the ordinance, the city can award contracts to local companies even if their asking price is higher than an out-of-town competitor. It is intended to protect our local firms like architects, engineers and developers, among others. The Goldwater Institute wants to eliminate the preference ordinance and make it easier for out-of-state firms to take local projects, thus directly draining our city of jobs, talent and revenue.

There’s a price to pay in aesthetics as well. Out-of-state firms design shopping malls that look just like ones in New Jersey, all-glass office parks that look like those in suburban Toledo, and an endless sea of cookie cutter homes like the ones in Orange County and Fort Lauderdale. These out-of-state architecture and development firms not only drain our local economy by taking their profits directly out of our city and state, but turn our city into just another anonymous suburban truck-stop along Interstate 10.

Our unique Sonoran Desert setting and our local architecture are big parts of what makes Tucson so special. In 1927 architect Josias T. Joesler settled in Tucson and with local developer John Murphey built some of our most precious landmarks. An outstanding example is their collaboration on St. Philip’s in the Hills Episcopal Church, which helps create a unique Tucson vernacular. Decades later, the new Joesler Village across from St. Philip’s was designed carefully and in the same style, resulting in an area that is more distinctive and local.

A modern partnership of local architect and developer can be seen in the Ice House lofts downtown by local architect Rob Paulus. Another very vernacular yet modern project would be the University of Arizona’s new Poetry Center with its large shaded outdoor spaces. It was designed by Tucson architect Les Wallach in a way that reflects the same shaded public space as the Old Main building.

I take the assault of out-of-state firms very personally, as it has effected my career and life path directly. In 2001, as a Canyon Del Oro High School student, I got my start in architecture at a small local firm in central Tucson. We had one large and local casino project and a number of mid- and small-sized projects. After five years at architecture school and two years abroad, I came back to Tucson. The city had grown a lot, but none of the local firms were hiring. In fact many had folded or shrunk in size.

After three more years working in China doing skyscrapers, I came back to an even worse scene. Downtown development is roaring, but the architecture is a mixed bag. For example, one of the largest projects in the downtown revival is by Portland architects Ankrom Moisan, which is responsible for the large white and anonymous looking project at the corner of Congress and Fourth Avenue.

Our local talent seems stuck doing restaurants and remodels for local small businesses while being sidelined by out-of-state money. It seems to me that out-of-state developers are hiring out-of-state architects to develop fast-and-cheap, anonymous architecture to turn a quick buck on Tucson.

I want to thank the city of Tucson and city attorney Mike Rankin for standing up for local Tucson businesses and our local economy. Help your local architects, engineers and developers take Tucson back, by supporting  Rankin in this lawsuit.

The Tucson law that is under fire is fair, open and clear, as quoted in Feb. 8 Arizona Daily Star article, “Tucson sued over preference for local, not lowest, bidders”:

“Tucson businesses get an extra 5 percent, Arizona firms outside the Tucson metro area get a 3 percent preference over national competitors. National franchises that have local owners receive 1.5 percent.”

The current project size that this law effects is $50,000 to $1 million, but should boosted to $10 million to boost our locals with those biggest projects that impact our city the most.

Ben Lepley, a Tucson native, holds a professional degree from the Southern California Institute of Architecture. He is a residential designer here. Contact him at ben@tectonicus.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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