Drachman Diary

A chronicle of what may be the last days of a beloved building.

FEBRUARY 15, 2001, 7 p.m.

After a raucous City Council meeting last week at which demolition of the old Drachman School was delayed for 30 days, the crowd of almost 100 that gathered this evening was somber. Tucson City Manager James Keene opened by saying the delay would cost an additional $50,000 to $100,000, a statement a source later called "baloney." Keene didn't mention that facilitator Gabriel Loyola, who would lead these sessions, would be paid $1,000 a day for his services.

Encouraged by Loyola, mostly Hispanic speakers outlined in both English and Spanish their visions for the project. Some middle-aged barrio residents spoke of the need to take care of their grandmothers and grandfathers by supporting the senior citizen housing proposal that would replace the school. "I'm against demolishing the school," one of these people said, "but the reality is there."

Others thought the school could be saved and used as a recreation or cultural center, with the senior housing built elsewhere. As one speaker said, "We need to care for our elderly, but not at the expense of our history. I don't see why we can't have both."

Alejendro Becerra of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) gave an impassioned plea for the residents of the barrio to accept the senior housing complex, indicating that the $4 million project could be lost if they didn't. But another speaker summarized what the majority of those attending seemed to feel when she said, "It would be very sad to lose your culture for $4 million."

FEBRUARY 21, 7 p.m.

Accusation and acrimony dominated tonight's meeting. The presence of three police officers at the back of the room may have been only symbolic, but it sent a message.

Facilitator Loyola tried to quickly present answers to the 16 questions about the proposed senior citizen housing project raised at the last meeting. But the answers only raised more questions from many of the 70 people in attendance.

The list of board members of the group controlling the proposed housing project named some people supposedly affiliated with the Barrio Historico Neighborhood Association, even though that group doesn't endorse the proposal at the Drachman site. Advocates for preserving the school insinuated that the Catholic Community Services and Pio Decimo Center representatives on the board hand-picked people from the neighborhood who would back the school's demolition.

Someone suggested narrowing 18th Street and/or Seventh Avenue next to the school to provide more room, and project architect Richard Fe Tom said, "Shrinking the streets is a great idea." The discussion next turned to the neighborhood association's commitment of $10,000 to the project; there was confusion about what happened to the money that was raised before the present group decided to oppose demolishing the school.

Then, looking directly at the Pio Decimo and Catholic Community Service supporters of the housing project, neighborhood association president Pedro Gonzales, a 40-year member of St. Augustine Cathedral, exclaimed in frustration, "If the [Catholic] diocese wants a war, they'll get a war from me. A lot of money is at stake and we don't want the demolition of Drachman. Everyone who is involved with this proposal is a newcomer to the neighborhood." Longtime barrio resident Bill Balak shot back, "I object. That's bullshit!" as he moved toward Gonzales, but the situation quickly calmed down.

The possibility of moving the senior citizen project away from the Drachman School site apparently died when an official stated that the move could only be done within 12 months of the project award, a period that expired in December.

A spokeswoman for HUD's Multifamily Housing office in Washington, D.C., however, has since contradicted that claim. She told the Weekly that the site might be moved with a waiver. "Sometimes problems, like environmental issues, are found with sites after the funding award," she said. "Waivers aren't automatic, and the new site must be reviewed, but changing sites does happen occasionally after the 12-month period."

Future management of the housing project, assigned to Catholic Community Services, also sparked heated controversy at tonight's meeting. When asked how that decision was reached, Joy Taylor, a consultant to the project, said, "They were presented as the property managers in the original application." Some attendees disputed Taylor's statement, however, and no mention of it was found in a review of the application.

After the meeting, those opposing demolition of the school pointed out that Catholic Community Services controls the board overseeing the project while also managing the complex. They accuse the agency of a conflict of interest, one that will pay them $175,000 a year, or a total of almost $7 million, in administrative and operating fees over the 40-year life of the HUD subsidy of the senior citizen housing project.

Architect Tom concluded tonight's session by showing slides of the proposed construction. He said, "All these negative feelings have got to go. Give this project a chance to work. We can save the school. It's just a function of how much money the city is willing to spend. Let's work together." That sentiment, however, did not appear to be shared by many in attendance as the meeting broke up.

FEBRUARY 24, 9:30 a.m.

It became obvious at today's sparsely attended meeting that supporters of the senior citizen housing project were looking for capitulation from those who wanted to save the building, not compromise. In response, neighborhood association president Pedro Gonzales said, "They're not hearing the families. They're pushing their own agenda and not hearing the side that made a stand on saving the school."

Throughout the morning, facilitator Loyola kept referring to a meeting held the other day at the Pio Decimo Center with 25 senior citizens. "They want the project and are passionate about having the facility in the neighborhood," he said.

Architect Richard Fe Tom then presented a series of five construction options, all of which were located on the existing 2.5-acre school site. Each apartment would cover approximately 600 square feet, except for some smaller units that could be placed inside the old school building itself.

The estimated cost of the alternatives ranged from $4.3 million to totally remove the school and build a new project, to $5.6 million for installing living units within the old school, with an average building cost of $70,000 to $90,000 for each of the 62 one-bedroom apartments.

Since there is only $3.5 million in federal funds and $434,000 in local money available to implement the project, someone wisely asked where the extra million or two would come from. City of Tucson Community Services Department director Karen Thoreson replied, "If there is consensus reached around some option, the city staff could recommend to the Mayor and Council that additional money be spent on it."

Despite what the HUD official told the Weekly, Thoreson again squashed the idea of looking for a new site for the senior housing complex. "The project may not move," she insisted. "The grant is for this piece of property only."

Another issue that emerged today was the existence of old oil tanks on the Drachman site; the tanks may have leaked, thus presenting potential clean-up problems and even higher costs. But it was Thoreson's statement that the senior citizen project must be built at the old school location that left some attendees bewildered, especially when both Council members Fred Ronstadt and Steve Leal agreed with her.

At the end of the third meeting the question remained: What will those who want to save the school do next? They could return to picketing the site, force the police to arrest them, and let Tucson's elected leaders deal with the headlines.

MARCH 1, 7 p.m.

After Saturday's session in which five options for the project were presented, in a surprise move architect Tom added two new ones. Both would save the entire school and require a three-story apartment complex to be built next to it for the senior citizens.

The first new alternative would restore the old building, thus bringing the total cost of the proposal to $6.7 million. With a price tag of $4.1 million, the other option would leave the school in its current dilapidated condition.

Those weren't the only new developments. The 50 or so neighborhood residents in attendance learned that the City Council would again discuss the issue on March 19 during a daytime meeting. An attendee asked, however, to change the date to the 26th so the meeting could be held in the evening, allowing more people to show up.

Another surprise came when, after denying for two weeks that the project site could be moved, city staff members admitted that might be possible after all. "But," they said, "HUD hasn't moved a site in the last five years."

To decrease the density of the senior housing project, the possibility of using a lot across the street from the old school site was also raised. This land, which now has a small shrine on an otherwise vacant lot, was bypassed according to Tom because it wasn't felt appropriate to split the project for management purposes.

At the urging of facilitator Loyola, a few people then commented on the options. Most of those attending, however, remained silent. Based on very limited input, and on the unlikely assumption that the silence of the majority meant they agreed, the field of choices was narrowed to two: the original proposal, which would save the central core of the building and cost $4.5 million; or converting the entire school into apartments at a price of $5.6 million.

On Saturday those who favor preserving the school had suggested its façade should be left alone in order to save taxpayers money. Tonight, however, some of those who spoke wanted to have a 1937 appearance put on the building, which would cost $430,000 more. Thus, the price tag of this $4 million project has ballooned to $5 or $6 million, a hefty cost for 62 one-bedroom apartments.

At the conclusion of the meeting, neighborhood association president Pedro Gonzales again criticized the process. "All the stuff we bring up, they don't want to talk about," he said. "It's typical city government."

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