A hundred years ago, the residential area south of Congress Street with its narrow streets, Sonoran rowhouse adobe buildings and life lived around an interior courtyard was home for a high percentage of Tucson's population of 8,000. But by 1960, local officials were calling the area a "slum" and pushing for its entire destruction.
The city of Tucson's original 1961 urban renewal plan proposed demolishing almost all of the buildings in a 416-acre area bounded by Stone Avenue, Congress Street, I-10 and 22nd Street. More than 1,200 structures were to be bulldozed and 5,000 people relocated to make way for new residential, commercial and civic improvements.
Mayor Don Hummel labeled the barrio a neighborhood of "dirt, disease and delinquency," said it had to be removed to make room for downtown expansion and complained the area didn't begin to pay its own way. The theme that the barrio cost the municipal government more in expenses than it generated in tax revenues was a major rationale for tearing it all down.
But opposition to the plan, in large part from fiscal conservatives who were opposed to the use of federal money to benefit private property owners, resulted in it being killed by the City Council in 1962. Two years later, however, a much smaller project was proposed, and it was this plan that eventually resulted in the demolition of 80 acres of historic buildings and the uprooting of about 1,200 people. The personal scars of that project, done to make room for the Tucson Convention Center, downtown governmental buildings and other surrounding structures, are still fresh with some barrio residents.
While these projects were under development, the 200-unit Connie Chambers public housing complex was being built in 1967 near 22nd Street and 10th Avenue. Next to it, additional public housing at the La Reforma site already existed.
Beginning in the 1970s, middle-income Anglo families began trickling back into the barrio north of 22nd Street, attracted by its unique blend of Mexican-style design, diverse population and proximity to downtown. With them they brought higher land values, a desire to control the architectural future of the area through zoning regulations and demands for more attention from the city government. These changes inevitably resulted in conflicts with the Mexican-American families who had lived in the barrio for generations.
"The Santa Rosa Community Development Plan was envisioned as a tool for addressing the different philosophies, viewpoints and projects under way within the neighborhood." -- 1994 Communication from then-City Manager Michael Brown
TO TRY AND RESOLVE disagreements, the city government commissioned preparation of a "Comprehensive Community Development Plan for the Greater Santa Rosa Area." Much of this plan was focused on the gentrification that was occurring in the barrio north of 18th Street and the potential for additional new development throughout the entire neighborhood.
The plan contained recommended goals in 12 areas, including neighborhood participation, housing and historic and cultural preservation. It proposed a property tax subsidy program to protect lower-income households from rising land values, urged construction of more affordable housing in the neighborhood and suggested giving "priority to historic families either displaced by urban renewal or attempting to return or seeking a way to stay."
Before the City Council adopted the plan in October 1994, Mayor George Miller characterized the population of the area as having a median income of around $10,000 a year with over 50 percent of the people living below the poverty line and only about half of them having earned a high school diploma. He said the message he was hearing from residents was "to allow them to stay in their neighborhoods. ..."
As a first step to implement the plan's recommendations, the City Council voted to assist the Tucson Unified School District in constructing a new elementary school. Utilizing the long abandoned La Reforma housing site, a new Drachman School was built to replace the almost 50-year-old structure located a few blocks to the north.
Today that new school is in place and is surrounded by a neighborhood undergoing immense change. To the west of it, the Posadas Sentinel government-funded housing development is being constructed where the Connie Chambers project once stood. On vacant lots nearby, both publicly subsidized and privately financed market-rate new houses are being built while historic adobe homes throughout the barrio continue to be rehabilitated.
A springtime walk through the Santa Rosa neighborhood south of 18th Street reveals the contrasts: chickens running around one yard, new houses being built in a variety of Oaxacan-style colors, vacant lots dispersed among existing homes, a Virgin of Guadalupe painting next to a front door and graffiti covering the "Coming Soon" sign in front of the Posadas Sentinel development.
North of 18th Street in Barrio Viejo, the atmosphere is more subdued, less rushed. While some new housing is being built, the quiet narrow streets of the area are mostly lined by adobe rowhouses. An afternoon scene includes the pathetic shell that remains of the old Drachman School, a group of middle-aged people sitting in the shade listening to Mexican music on a radio, a small girl waving at a passing stranger and a game of baseball being played on the grounds of Carillo, the neighborhood's other public elementary school.
Almost all of this area was slated for demolition by the city in the 1960s. The barrio mostly survived that threat, but is now facing the prospect of rapid gentrification and potential loss of many of its longtime families that have helped to provide its identity in the past.
"The City only got HOPE VI money to displace more people. The goal [of the Santa Rosa plan] was to improve the lives of families here, but the City moved them so how did they benefit?" -- Pedro Gonzales, president of the Barrio Viejo Neighborhood Association
Several years ago the City of Tucson was awarded $14.6 million in federal HOPE VI grant money that it intended to use to demolish the Connie Chambers housing project and replace it with both publicly and privately financed new residential units. At the same time, it planned to leverage the money to generate another $46 million worth of improvements, both in the barrio and throughout the community.
Karen Thoreson, who once headed the city's Community Services Department and is now an assistant city manager, lists five reasons for obtaining the federal funds:
1. Opportunities to improve housing for Connie Chambers residents;
2. Improvement of public facilities including the development of child-care, learning and recreational centers in the neighborhood;
3. Infrastructure improvements along south 10th Avenue;
4. Economic development efforts, including an $18,500 market feasibility study for possible new businesses along south Sixth Avenue; and
5. Achieving the overall goal "that people would be better off, safer and feel better about where they live but retain the unique character [of the barrio]."
To replace the 200-unit Connie Chambers complex, the city has finished or is building 60 units of public housing and 60 subsidized rental units at Posadas Sentinel. In addition, the city plans to purchase 140 homes scattered throughout the community at a price of $11.5 million. It is also assisting with the development of 62 apartment units for the elderly at the former Drachman School site while other agencies are constructing 60 more homes in the neighborhood.
Critics argue that a community needing tens of thousands of affordable housing units by its own admission shouldn't have torn down the Connie Chambers complex, but instead rehabilitated it and added additional subsidized housing. Thoreson is adamant in her reply. "We did exactly the right thing," she says. "Connie Chambers was disrespectful of people and the neighborhood. It should have been torn down."
Pedro Gonzales, however, believes the city intended to displace the residents of Connie Chambers in order to boost its greater downtown development plans. "They think newcomers will revitalize downtown," he says.
Barrio property owner and long-time city critic Jody Gibbs agrees. "The difference between urban renewal in the '60s and now," he says, "is then they lied to themselves and the poor about moving back in. Now they just say, 'Get the poor people out.' "
According to figures supplied by the city, only 18 families from Connie Chambers have remained in the neighborhood, and another nine might come back. One of those who has stayed is Arnold Moreno, who moved into the complex as a child shortly after it opened and is now raising his own family in a new unit at Posadas Sentinel.
Citing his and his wife's lifelong attachment to the barrio, Moreno stresses, "This is our neighborhood." He says he preferred his old apartment in Connie Chambers to his new home. "The rooms were bigger," he points out, "and you can only fit one bed in these bedrooms." He says that despite having a four-bedroom house for his wife and five children, his 3-year old son has to share his parents' bedroom and one daughter sleeps on a couch in the living room. "Everything is cramped" in the new place, Moreno laments.
Despite those criticisms of the new development, longtime barrio resident and infill property developer David Carter thinks things are moving in the right direction. "HOPE VI and the related projects have been incredibly helpful for everybody," he says. "There is a genuine mixed use now, its not concentrated and stigmatized housing like the American-Stalinesque style Connie Chambers project was. Is that better for everyone? Yes," then he adds his opinion of the program's critics. "Those who moan the most are artsy-fartsy folks who haven't been down here long at all."
In addition to the publicly financed Posadas Sentinel, the city is building several new homes in the neighborhood. The private sector is also constructing new houses and rehabilitating existing structures at an increasing rate.
According to architect Corky Poster, who authored the Santa Rosa plan and designed the Posadas Sentinel project, this change was bound to occur eventually. "The market will gentrify the neighborhood lot by lot," he says. "The HOPE VI project preserves places for lower-income households. When the economy does what it does, the program will preserve diversity."
The city's Thoreson concurs. "The area is so unique historically, architecturally and culturally that something was going to happen no matter what. HOPE VI helped protect affordable housing. The neighborhood will remain diverse which will keep it special and not homogeneous."
Pedro Gonzales remains scornful of the city's intentions, calling the federal program DOPE VI. "It's just one program after another trying to get money in the name of poor people," he says.
Jody Gibbs adds, "HOPE VI was just [government officials] chasing a money source. They think building buildings creates jobs plus the bureaucrats can say, 'Look what I did.' They are just pushing the poverty further south and they tore down perfectly serviceable housing when they demolished Connie Chambers."
The influx of new residents and housing units has escalated land values, rental rates and home prices in the area. Gibbs reports his property taxes on two vacant lots rose by 50 and 67 percent in the last year. While rental rates vary considerably, some two-bedroom units now go for $650 to $750 or more a month. A price in the $200,000 to $300,000 range for a new unit or a rehabilitated adobe home is not unusual.
To offset the impact of these rising prices, the city adopted a tax assistance program for lower-income residential property owners. Intended to pay the amount of property tax increase greater than the citywide average, the program was put in place almost five years ago. In that time, however, it has only been used by nine households and cost the city a total of $736.
"The city is causing more gentrification," the neighborhood association's Gonzales says, "making it hard for families here. We need some cap [on property taxes] for the elderly and long-time families. But the city hasn't done outreach on the property tax program, and rents are going up big time and forcing people out."
Architect Poster agrees that the tax abatement program hasn't been handled properly. "The program should stay in place and a better advertising effort used," he says. "Then it should be revisited after the impacts of the advertising program." But instead of following that advice, the city intends to let the program lapse in a few months.
That is only one issue over which there is disagreement in the barrio. Another concerns the amount of public participation in the decision-making process.
Sitting in a 10th-floor City Hall office overlooking downtown, Thoreson insists there was community involvement from the beginning on the various projects now being implemented in the area. But Gonzales disagrees. "At times we've been vocal [in our criticism] with the city, but they don't want input. They want to tell us what is best for us. They want us to have less power."
"The center of the city should have lots of people. This isn't suburbia. More people living down here will be the ground floor for [future] retail development." --David Carter, longtime barrio resident and developer
While controversy swirls around the city's current efforts in the barrio, future plans have been outlined for even more changes. These include a possible small retail center, senior housing at the old Drachman School site and much more housing along both the western and northern boundaries of the neighborhood.
Two years ago the city entered into a long-term lease for property near the intersection of I-10 and 22nd Street with the intention of developing a 13-acre shopping center site. Thoreson says negotiations with a local firm are now underway and she envisions a grocery store with three or four other shops and a restaurant pad as part of the commercial complex.
The assistant city manager hopes to conclude the discussions by July and says the city's role might include spending HOPE VI money to pay for drainage improvements and possibly writing down the cost of the land. But, she insists, the city will not provide operating support to the development, instead hoping to have it generate profits for the Greater Santa Rosa Neighborhood Fund.
That fund, which has $236,000 in an endowment account and spent over $19,000 on neighborhood improvements last year, is overseen by a seven-member board of directors. Two are city of Tucson employees, one works for Pima County, another for the CODAC behavioral health agency and three live in the area, although one of those seats is now vacant.
Supporters of the retail development proposal think it will further improve the barrio. A resident of the area for 14 years, Robert Lanning says, "I'm in favor of the grocery store. At first I didn't think it was realistic, but if the city can make it happen, it will be good for the neighborhood."
But opponents point out several potential problems, especially if people walk to the site. "The location will put the elderly in danger," says Pedro Gonzales. "We spoke against the idea, but the city just disregards us."
Jody Gibbs adds that a similar project in Phoenix ran into financial difficulties and says of the idea, "The grocery store will help to gentrify people out of there." Plus, he believes the store will quickly go broke.
Predicting the shopping center will create financial difficulties for himself and four other small shop owners, is Gilles Desjardins, owner of Jerry's Lee Ho Market on Meyer Street. While his store has been closed as a market for some time, Desjardins has hopes of reopening it. He recently discussed the proposed shopping center while waiting to serve a capacity crowd of 39 customers a fondue dinner of exotic meats, seafood and vegetables in his building which dates back over a century.
"By doing that," Desjardins says, the city "will put four local markets on the chopping block because they can't compete with chain stores. The small operators [in this area] couldn't survive."
Another project facing neighborhood opposition and moving along slowly is the proposal to utilize the former Drachman School site for a 62-unit federally funded residential care facility. Originally the project had a December 2001 deadline to have building plans approved, but a time extension was granted and they were only OK'd by the city recently.
Jody Gibbs, the original architect on the project, has been battling it for over 18 months, arguing it is not the senior housing project people were promised. In addition, he believes the city of Tucson, which now has well over $1 million in the project according to his calculations, must have the construction work bid publicly, something the city claims it is exempt from doing because the majority of money is coming from the federal government. Gibbs has filed a lawsuit in the case and intends to take the city to court over these two issues.
From his nearby vantage point of the old school site, market owner Desjardins observes, "The city has got a mess there. The plans have people packed in like sardines," he says of the proposed housing project.
In her calculations of the impact of HOPE VI on the downtown neighborhood, Karen Thoreson concludes that even with the demolition of the 200-unit Connie Chambers complex, the city will have netted an additional 180 units of affordable housing citywide by the end of the program. Plus, those figures don't include the city's long-term plans for even more housing in the barrio.
North of the proposed 22nd Street shopping center site, the city has acquired an 8-acre parcel from the Union Pacific Railroad Co. Next to it is 12 acres on which Tucson Water's Plant Number One is located. Thoreson says the water facility could be relocated if another site could be found, and that the combined 20 acres could be used for housing. But, she says, "I consider that Phase II of the Santa Rosa plan. Housing [on these sites] would be the primary goal, but what kind, who for and who would build it are totally in the future."
Also in the future are plans to construct even more housing along the northern edge of the barrio as part of the Rio Nuevo downtown improvement project. Current drawings of that proposal show small clusters of residential development just south of the Convention Center.
CAN THE SOCIAL AND cultural history of the barrio withstand this large influx of new people? Art Munoz, president of the Santa Rosa neighborhood association, isn't sure. "A lot of new housing will affect the neighborhood," he says, "but how is up to the individual. But [the process] won't stop until everything is filled up."
David Carter believes, "It is absolutely critical to establish a strong, vital urban core as an alternative to sprawl. The city doing infill housing for households of modest means, most people think that is tremendous. They want the area to remain diversified in every way and the city is contributing to that. What the city is doing will categorically help maintain the diversity of the barrio."
But Jody Gibbs argues that the city's intention is simply to push poor people out. "If you move poor people out," he says, "the [demographic] statistics will look a lot better."
Whatever their true intentions, the city has set a course for the barrio which will change it dramatically in the future. Karen Thoreson believes the work that has been done at Posadas Sentinel and throughout the neighborhood is all for the good. "The one most important thing," she says, "is that people are better off. They're safer, better housed, have job training available and maybe have a job. People say to me, 'Thank you. You've made a big difference in our life.'"
But Pedro Gonzales sees it from another perspective. "The city only got the HOPE VI money to displace more people. They said their goal was to improve the lives of families here [in the barrio], but they moved them [from Connie Chambers] so how did they benefit?"
A defiant Gonzales concludes, "The barrio will never disappear. It has gone through a lot of changes, even urban renewal, but it's the families that made the barrio no matter how many times the city [tried to move them]. They can't get rid of us."