Guest Opinion

The Santa Rita's demolition continues downtown's trend of destroying history

Will the relocation of Tucson Electric Power's headquarters to downtown Tucson become the latest tragedy in the revitalization of downtown? Typically, corporate headquarters become trophy buildings that have a revitalization impact similar to that of a mausoleum.

The chosen location is the property at Scott Avenue and Broadway Boulevard, where the grandest of our downtown hotels stood until the wrecking ball was brought in on a cold December day in 1972. The original Santa Rita Hotel of 1904, designed by Henry Trost, was demolished, but an addition constructed in 1917 was retained. In grand Tucson style, this landmark hotel was replaced by surface parking and a single-story restaurant.

Now, the current owners plan to "improve" the site by demolishing the 1917 addition as part of the sale to TEP, thus continuing the mentality that any existing resources on site are of little value from an historic or green perspective. Nothing says "no way" like a speedy demolition before any real plans are completed.

Any claim that the 1917 addition might be historic has been all tidied up with an evaluation that looks at the stucco-ed 1970s exterior. It gets messy if you ask whether there are resources underneath that have integrity. The city always supports the "one blind date" approach, and there is never time for a second look, even though we will soon have another vacant lot in the name of downtown revitalization.

The city of Tucson historic preservation officer endorses this "don't look" approach. He is quickly becoming the Neville Chamberlain of historic-preservation, given this endorsement and his recent support of demolishing more than half of the Ghost Ranch Lodge on Miracle Mile Road. We are told not to harbor any thoughts that this project could become another Thrifty Block, since TEP is all ready to go and will be bringing 300 employees. And it's too big to fail.

The 1917 addition is constructed with reinforced concrete and certainly could be reused, but TEP is taking the same stand with this as it is the historic issue. Their preliminary plans choose demolition, despite all the green issues regarding the energy used to make the materials, build the 1917 addition and demolish the building. TEP wants a shiny new green building, and one of the closing requirements is that ever-important vacant lot when the deed is recorded.

A successful downtown revitalization needs to restore what made this a major gathering spot for the Tucson community in decades past. There is plenty of space on the site to accomplish this and allow the headquarters for Tucson Electric Power. The 1917 addition could be retained and restored for office use now, with design elements that would allow residential use in the future. Could we actually plan for future uses or expansions rather than mimic La Placita and other downtown buildings with little flexibility for residential use? This could be a great opportunity for future TEP employees who might like to walk to work and have an urban experience. A new lobby could connect the 1917 addition to the TEP building and serve as a community-gathering spot, as did the original lobby of the Santa Rita Hotel—a public lobby that is designed for people rather than just as a passageway to the elevators as can be seen at the UniSource Tower.

The original Santa Rita Hotel quickly became the place in small-town Tucson during its grand opening in 1904. The two-story lobby was a marble showplace that in later decades became famous as the site of cattle auctions, with straw laid down before the cattle were checked in. The Mission-Revival-designed hotel also featured a rooftop patio where the community danced almost all night during special occasions. This rooftop gathering spot could be brought back on the top of the new lobby, or even the parking garage, as a completely "new" venue for downtown.

Downtown revitalization is about incorporating the past with the future, and constructing buildings that can be adapted for different uses and desires for future urban experiences. This is not interfering with private-property rights, but changing the mentality and egos of our movers and shakers, elected or not.

The real tragedy is that except for the protection of a few landmark buildings, we continue the very actions that have brought our downtown to its knees.

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