This is a place for discussions of historic preservation in Armory Park, and what benefits and challenges it presents. Local history is another subject addressed here and in web pages. I will publish articles here when it seems helpful; readers are invited to comment. To support the mission of this site, acceptable comments are those that contribute to reasonable historic preservation, better understanding of our history and serve the interests of Armory Park residents. Others may be invited to post here also. Please let me know if you want to do so.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

History for the rich only?

Some things seem never to change. This 1977 article addresses some of the issues we still talk about today, gentrification, affordable housing, preserving historic structures, crime and more. I'll continue after the newspaper article. . .

Armory Park: History for the rich only?
By TOM TURNER The Arizona Daily Star

There was a lot of excitement among liberals when Tucson adopted a historic district zoning ordinance in 1974. Visions of middle-class families flocking back to charming old restored neighborhoods danced in their heads. 

It hasn't worked that way. Nor can it. 

The only way to "revitalize” the city's core, to bring back middle-income families with their hordes of anglo children to keep inner city schools open and ethnically balanced. is to build new middle-income housing like the westside Parade of Homes. 

The crumbled housing beyond saving has to be razed to make room. 

Historic zoning serves a different purpose: To re-create islands of “class" neighborhood that will both show off the city's history and the dedication and ingenuity of a select few who will do the work. 

Armory Park consists of 32 square blocks roughly bounded by Stone Ave., 12th St., 2nd and 3rd avenues and 18th and 19th streets — just south of the downtown business district. It was the city’s first Historic Residential District. 

One of the first buyers in the Armory Park district picked a vintage 1900, three-bedroom home for a very reasonable $26,000. But the buyer put another $22,000 into the house over the next year refinishing woodwork and floors, ripping out add-ons, plumbing and partitions that divided the house into small apartments, shoring up its foundations and rebuilding its roof. He resold it recently for $42,500. The price was high but it was actually a loss to the seller. 

A small three-bedroom adobe is currently for sale in the district for $21,000 — a bargain but unlivable by middle-class standards. The estimate for refitting it to historic district standards is $30,000.A four-bedroom Victorian beauty sold several years ago for a mere $24,000. The buyer spent $26,000 on it. It recently sold for $52,000 — a slight profit. Another three-bed-room refurbished home recently sold for $45,000, $5,000 more than its appraised value. Jane Little, a realtor who works extensively in the district, says that apartment buildings originally built as apartments with 14 and more units are going for $100,000 and up. But, she added, they all need extensive repairs and modernization. 

Before the owner of any building in the district can alter its exterior, plans must be approved by the city's historic commission, the Armory Park Neighborhood Assn.'s 25-member board and the city’s planning advisory committee. 

Before a building in the district can be razed, the owner must allow 180 days for the neighborhood association and others to find him some profitable alternative. 

No new building can be built on the district’s 16 vacant parcels unless its architecture generally conforms to other buildings in the neighborhood. There can be no high-rises. The Armory Park Neighborhood was a good place to begin historic restoration. It was remarkably well-preserved for its age and proximity to downtown. Driving down S. 4th Ave. has always been like going back in time and distance to some small midwestern town. Many of the houses are Victorian red brick with gingerbread trim, mingled with straight-lined and stark vintage Spa-The ornamental, incandescent street lights are the same ones that burned in the 30s and 40s. The primary reason that Armory Park has kept its basic integrity — at least on the outside of its buildings — over the years is because many of its residents of the 1940s did not move away. 

They have grown old in their homes, stubbornly resisting commercialization. Now many of those older people are dying. The time was right for a law to carry out their dedication. 

Ninety-one structures in the district have been entered on the National Historic Register, including Tucson's main public library, Safford School and the Scottish Rite Temple. 

The population of the district is still largely elderly, partly because of the property owners who have stuck by their homes and partly because the neighborhood has attracted the elderly. The city’s new Senior Citizen’s Center is nearby. Public and private apartment projects for the elderly are located just outside the district's boundaries. Some of the larger Victorian homes were long-ago divided into one and two-room apartments, rented to elderly tenants. That is one problem with restoration — displacing those tenants, most of whom cannot afford newer quarters. 

Leaders of the restoration movement make It plain that they don’t want a Georgetown, a neighborhood which, once restored, can only be afforded by the very well-to-do. Yet, that seems inevitable. 

Several Armory Park buyers are keeping their structures divided into apartments for as long as there are elderly, low-income tenants to rent them. They are also working to keep the rents low, often at a loss, they say. But that good-heartedness can't go on forever. As the tenants leave, rents will have to go up to meet costs. More and more of the small apartments will disappear as buyers return their purchases to large single-family homes that will then sell in the $50,000-and-up range. 

Also there are the boarding houses at the district’s fringe that had housed derelicts and prostitutes. No matter how much social consciousness the young, successful, well-educated, progressive-thinking new residents bring with them, the derelicts and prostitutes are a threat to their substantial investment. They are being dealt with quietly. The boarding houses are being bought and vacated. 

There is no legal way that the neighborhood association or the city can keep out the speculators who would buy a number of homes at a time, restore them and sell them at huge profits. They can only urge the speculators not to go through with it. 

The association can't stop buyers from converting the old homes into business offices. Many of the homes tie within commercial zoning and their owners need only keep the exteriors historically intact. 

Association members would like to keep the entire neighborhood residential, but some buyers have already found that too expensive. DBD Development Corp, purchased the Brady Court, a cluster of 1930s California-style garden apartments, with intentions to modernize them inside and rent as apartments. 

But the interior work necessary was so extensive — particularly to meet city electrical and plumbing codes — that rental fees necessary to cover those costs were prohibitive. "People just aren’t willing to pay $250 a month here," said DBD President Darryl Dobras. Brady Court will become offices. 

Some zoning on the old homes in the district allows retail use. Mrs. Roland Brammeier, president of the neighborhood association, would like to see that zoning more restricted to residential. "But I'm a purist,” she said. 

So far, some 20 Armory Park buildings have been purchased and restored. Many of the homes have been returned to period d├ęcor inside as well as out, complete with antique furniture, bathtubs with feet and electrified gaslights. That is a far more expensive route. Others have modernized the interiors, restoring only the exteriors to their original architecture. 

Armory Park also carries an undeserved bad image, being part of the "inner-city.” “Inner city” has come to mean high crime rates, squalor and racial strife. Armory Park has none of these problems. Police records show that many far eastside neighborhoods are more dangerous. 

Historic islands like Armory Park hold a lot of potential for center-city revitalization but they are not revitalization in themselves. Nor can they long exist in a vacuum, still surrounded by vacant land, decaying hovels and empty store buildings. 

Historic zones can give new downtown middle-class neighborhoods a kind of stability and charm — by their very presence — that is missing in suburbia. 

Supporting both new middle-class residents and the dedicated historians of Armory Park, moreover, will require a resurrection of the downtown business district as a lively retail trade center. 

Tom Turner writes editorials for the Star. In 1977, people were already commenting on the rapid rise of home prices. The main difference today is that the numbers are ten times larger. The writer was concerned about the rising rental cost; that is still an issue today. It takes money to refurbish a home and even more to restore a historic home. People will only do that if they see a chance to recover their investment or possibly make a profit. Many who hoped to profit have been disappointed.

The author correctly says that historic neighborhood preservation alone can't revitalize the downtown. Fortunately other trends have helped too. The modern streetcar and a current trend for people to live close to work have both been important in revitalizing the downtown.

Of course this has been a mixed blessing. Economic revitalization has made Armory Park a more attractive place to live while also increasing pressures for incompatible development pressing into the neighborhood. The fit of historic preservation with modern amenities and affordable housing is still an issue; we debated the issue in 1977 and still do today.

Note: I figured out how to scan the newspaper images from which makes them easier to read. I hope you find it helpful. Please leave comments with your suggestions for the site or on the content of the articles. This is still a work in progress.

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