Steller logo for mobile

Tim Steller, columnist at the Arizona Daily Star.

Squint as hard as you want at the Downtown Motor Lodge, and it’s still tough to see what’s redeemable there.

It’s a Josias Joesler-designed building — his only motel — but that’s hard to detect.

What’s most evident at 383 S. Stone Ave. is the need for renewal of the blighted property. As it turns out, an out-of-town developer and an in-town nonprofit are combining forces to carry out that renewal and turn the site into low-income housing.

In different circumstances, that would be cause for unconditional celebration. This being Tucson — and a historic neighborhood to boot — it’s a lot more complicated than that.

There are those who still hope to save the motor lodge, a remnant of the time before Interstate 10, when motels lined the road from East Benson Highway, up Stone Avenue and North Oracle Road to West Miracle Mile. And there are those who just don’t want a four-story apartment block that is out of scale with the neighborhood.

There are also who think there are plenty of poor people already in that area south of downtown, using the area’s social services. I get the vague sense that some people don’t want any more of the poor in the historic districts south of downtown that have become exceptionally pricey over the years. Of course, few would be willing to cop to that point of view.

The first group — the strict preservationists — are characterized by people like Jody Gibbs, an architect who is on the Barrio Historico Advisory Board and finds it hard to believe that people like me would part with the work of Joesler, Tucson’s most famous architect.

“When you have the work of a person who is considered a master, you keep it,” Gibbs told me.

You wouldn’t throw away a Picasso just because it’s not his best work, he explained.

But there’s not a whole lot of the original building left. And what remains most significant about the building — its front office and its sign — will be restored under the current plans.

Also, it’s not as if the Tucson’s motor lodges are nearly extinct. Some have never closed, and several have been preserved and reopened or converted into new uses. Just a block south, the Downtown Clifton recently reopened as a sort of retro motel. On Miracle Mile, the Ghost Ranch Lodge was converted into affordable housing for seniors.

So if the best parts are preserved, it’s hard for me to get worked up about most of the dilapidated place being torn down.

Where the neighborhood residents and preservationists do have a point is with the scale of the proposed building. Initially planned to be a four-story apartment building filling almost the entire long property, the developers responded to complaints by making some changes.

They agreed to the preservation measures, set the building back a bit, removed some balconies, added some color and have stepped the upper stories back further from the street. Those changes help, but they don’t do much to alter the fact that the building will loom over neighborhoods made up mostly of one- and two-story houses.

“It looks like they’re trying to put too much building on that site,” local architect and historian Bob Vint told me.

But Maryann Beerling, CEO of Compass Affordable Housing, said the project needs all four stories and 44 units.

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

“It’s just not a feasible project going any smaller than it is.”

Last-minute efforts have been made to change the plans. The Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation suggested turning the existing structure into 19 affordable housing units, using the same federal funding mechanism the current developers are using.

But the city hired an expert, David Wohl, who analyzed the proposal and found the idea unrealistic.

What would have been realistic is to buy the property years ago and renovate it — the obvious solution in retrospect. Phil Lipman, a partner in the Downtown Clifton, and Ron Schwabe of Peach Properties both told me they checked out the possibility of buying, but the then-owner wasn’t interested. The current owners paid an extra $150,000 to $200,000 when they bought it last year for $685,000.

So we’re likely stuck with a massive apartment block. If I were with the city or any stakeholder group, I would pull every lever I could to see if the design could be pushed down into three stories. That would be a big improvement.

If the design can’t be changed, though, a little bit of solace can be taken from the fact that this building will likely seem less out-of-scale in the future. The block it’s on may not change much, but vacant lots and surface parking just a block north will be developed in coming years.

Holualoa Cos. owns and is planning to develop two large parking lots on South Stone, across from St. Augustine Cathedral and Carrillo’s Tucson Mortuary, just a block and a half north of the Downtown Motor Lodge. However tall they are, those projects will fill in the empty landscape at the southern entrance to downtown and make the Downtown Motor Lodge site stick out less.

It may not be much consolation for those who love the low rooflines of Barrio Historico and Armory Park. Next time, maybe somebody could anticipate the sale of a historic property and make a winning bid for it.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@tucson.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

Columnist

Tim Steller is the Star’s metro columnist. A 20-plus year veteran of reporting and editing, he digs into issues and stories that matter in the Tucson area, reports the results and tells you his opinion on it all.