Brick by Brick

Building new unsubsidized housing downtown is slow going.

Local leaders talk about the need for more housing downtown, but few non-subsidized homes are actually getting built. So is the vision of a vibrant, urbane city center in Tucson just another desert dream?

Over the past several decades, since the city's urban renewal program removed hundreds of homes from the area, not much housing has been added in the city's core. In the last 10 years about the only new residential units built have been the Doucette Company's small project on Ashbury Lane.

Even today, with politicians and planners pointing out the urgent need to add housing stock in the central city, little is happening. Outside of the barrio, (See "Battle of the Barrio," May 23) where almost 200 government-subsidized housing units have been constructed recently to replace an equal number of demolished homes, not much is going on.

One exception, though, is John Wesley Miller's Armory Park del Sol development. First proposed over three years ago and quickly supported by neighborhood residents, Miller saw this 99-unit single-family infill project on South Third Avenue as a way to link the character of the historic Armory Park area with the latest in energy conservation technology. He hoped to sell the 800- to 1,400-square-foot homes built on small lots for between $80,000 and $150,000 and complete the project by the end of 2002.

Now, however, fewer than a dozen of the homes are actually completed and Miller has learned some tough lessons. "We made our share of mistakes," he freely admits, "but the city's development review process is slow. It took one year longer than it should have, which is worth a lot of money."

To correct that situation, Miller thinks, "We need a city staffer to shepherd proposals through the process instead of having this fight-fight-fight attitude. That would cut the development review process by one-half."

In addition, Miller also points out, "The city promised us fee waivers for the project, but only gave us two because they ran out of money. The result was an extra $1,200 to $2,000 per house."

Thus, the homes in Armory Park del Sol are listed between $200,000 and $300,000. Even with the higher prices Miller says, "We're selling one home per week now, and finally hitting our stride. The market is strong and traffic is good. Our present goal is to complete the project by the end of 2004."

After his downtown experience, Miller concludes, "I told myself three times I would never do it again. But I'm encouraged now because of the help I've received from [City Councilmembers] Fred Ronstadt and Steve Leal and others. I'll look at another downtown project, but if a new [development review] process isn't in place, I won't do it."

Another developer cautious about the downtown housing market is Diamond Ventures. In a written statement, Linda Welter Cohen, spokesperson for the company, says, "Existing rules and regulations and lack of available land make it economically difficult to build in the downtown core area."

"In addition," Cohen continues, "in the recent past, neighborhood associations have been opposed to any new housing in the downtown area. They have created obstacles at the planning and zoning and plan review process, which ends up costing the homebuilder extra money and, ultimately, increases the cost of the home. All of these factors combine," Cohen writes, "to make it very difficult to bring any new housing into the downtown core area."

Tom Doucette, president of the homebuilding company that bears his name, also has hesitations about getting involved downtown. As he points out, "Most people want an affordable single-family residence on a large lot which is close to schools."

Doucette thinks those who venture into the downtown housing market now are sticking their necks out because of the risks involved. This is especially true, he says, since without some form of government assistance new homes in the area will usually be priced in excess of $200,000.

Despite that, he remains interested in downtown and believes over the next three to five years more single-family homes on small lots will be built around the edges of the area. But that, he believes, is the easy part. "When a critical mass is reached [with this type of housing] and with new commercial development," he says, "then someone will break the mold with a three- or four-story design." But, he wonders, "What will this type of urban housing do and who will buy it? That story has not been written yet."

Trying to write it now are supporters of the proposed Plaza San Agustín project on south Stone Avenue (See "Downtown Dream," May 3, 2001). It is conceived as a 62-unit townhouse development with units ranging in size from 1,000 to 1,800 square feet selling for between $160,000 and $220,000. The three-story housing complex would be built over 20,000 square feet of commercial and office space as well as an underground parking garage.

Architect Bob Vint thinks the time for this project is now. He believes the complex would sell out rapidly, if it gets off the ground. But, he admits, it will need city government assistance to make it happen.

Vint says City Hall could help by building a Rio Nuevo district parking garage nearby, assuming ownership of the large civic plaza which is the centerpiece of the proposed development, and by paying for street improvements needed to link the complex with St. Augustine Cathedral across the street. Without this help, though, he doubts the project is feasible.

Negotiations about the city's role are continuing, and Vint remains optimistic that a final resolution will lead to a viable project. He thinks it is critical decision for the community. "The key to downtown," he says, "is people living there. Without that, it's a government ghetto."

Then he adds, "We ripped out downtown's heart with urban renewal, and now are trying to recover some of it. I think we can do it if the political will is there to make it happen."