Guest Commentary

Tucsonans need the good sense to hang on to something

For at least the last 60 years, land speculators, developers and car dealers have been the aristocracy of Tucson. Their beliefs have defined land-use and preservation decisions.

Our city today has primarily been developed with the perspective that highest and best use means maximizing profit for the owner through zoning, at the least expense to develop. Modification of this perspective because of local government decisions or the concerns of surrounding residents is considered a violation of private-property rights. There is usually a compromise to be found between how favorable a rezoning should be to the property owner and the impacts to the larger community. Elections are often based on which way the pendulum has swung.

Preserving "some old building that is in the way of progress" is the bastard stepchild of most land use decisions.

This perspective is always at the forefront, whether the Tucson Medical Center is amending the area plan to consolidate the hospital into a tower, an infill condominium mid-rise is being built near the historical entrance to the Presidio, or the Arizona Historical Society is considering selling their museum to the University of Arizona.

The Department of Interior has key guidelines that are valuable in the debate over preservation, but local government often uses these guidelines to justify demolition--or may ignore them in another circumstance. The National Trust for Historic Preservation gets to the essence: "Historic preservation is simply having the good sense to hang onto something ... an older building or neighborhood or a piece of landscape because it's important to us as individuals and/or as a nation ... ." The importance can be that the building is just a charmer and a gift to the streetscape or has viable adaptive reuse to serve a marketable need. Often, the reason for preservation is the building's connection to the past and the stories contained within its walls.

The Pusch/Talk of the Town building (the "Thrifty Block") is a classic example of strict interpretation of Interior Department standards to justify demolition; the city ignored the Trust for Preservation point of its connection to the past and its stories. Karen Thoreson and city staff pushed for the demolition of some old building that is in the way of progress--but progress became a parking lot. The 1960s urban renewal viewpoint of demolition-parking lot planning had returned.

On April 11, the City Council is scheduled to consider the TMC plan amendment, which increases height limitations of certain areas of the campus, but with no legally enforceable requirement to save the landmark sanatorium buildings, let alone preserve even one of the four patient court buildings. Pledges have been made toward preservation, but TMC would certainly want more than a "pledge" from the City Council in the plan amendment that they could build a 150-foot tall hospital

In the very near future, the council will decide if a condo mid-rise next to the El Presidio Historic District can exceed the current ordinance restriction of 52.5 feet to upwards of 100 feet. New housing is extremely important, but it should not overwhelm the one- and two-story traditions of the historic district across the street. Massive earth-moving for underground parking and foundation work may impact the 140-year-old adobe walls of the Fish-Stevens row houses nearby on Main Avenue.

It is a great idea for the Arizona Historical Society and the Arizona State Museum to move downtown as part of Rio Nuevo, but the Historical Society seems to have forgotten the pedigree of their museum building and the need for preservation. A who's-who of the Old Pueblo in the 1950s included members of the then-Arizona Pioneers Historical Society. Community leaders who made the facility a reality included George Chambers, Dr. Nelson Bledsoe, and Helen and John Murphey. The brass plaque outside the museum commemorates the completion of the museum in 1954, with Josias Joesler as architect.

Our elected and nonelected community leaders need to have the good sense to hang on to the desert sanatorium, the original historical society museum and other buildings that tell the story of our community. Highest and best use is not always the tallest building, the greatest density or another parking lot.

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