History Deteriorating

Is a prominent law firm letting an old adobe building go to hell?

Joanne Garver sits in her apartment, located in a building built in the 19th century. Her eyes drift along its graceful adobe walls; at 79, Garver adores these antique downtown buildings for their roots, their endurance and their defiant nod to history.

For all of those reasons, she's also troubled that next door, another old building has become a forlorn specter of decline, its window frames covered with warped plywood, its crumbling adobe walls exposed to sunlight and rain.

Last year, city officials took the building's owners to task for such disrepair; those owners appealed, gaining them another five years before repairs of the building must occur.

Neighbors such as Garver wonder whether, in five years, that historic building will still be salvageable. Regardless, its fate seems beyond control of surrounding residents, even though most of Barrio Viejo is designated as a historic area.

Depending upon whom you ask, the conglomeration of frontier-era row houses is owned either by the law firm Mesch, Clark and Rothschild, or solely by two of the firm's partners, Lowell Rothschild and Douglas Clark.

Lowell Rothschild is the father of Jonathan Rothschild, also an attorney with the firm, and currently a Democratic candidate for mayor of Tucson.

The law firm is also notable for often representing the city in court. That representation includes defending the city against another prominent Barrio Viejo property owner named Donald Rollings. (See "Leak Litigation," Currents, May 12.) Five years ago, Rollings sued for lost rental income and the cost of repairing his 15 adobe buildings, which he claims are being steadily destroyed by leaky, century-old water mains coursing beneath the barrio streets.

Although Tucson Water has steadfastly denied culpability, other barrio residents have since voiced similar concerns as they watch floors buckle and walls crack. While the city initially prevailed against Rollings in court, that verdict was thrown out on appeal, and the case was remanded back to a lower court.

This spring, Rollings reactivated his lawsuit against the city, which once again will be represented by Mesch, Clark and Rothchild. To date, the firm has been paid around $630,000 for its work against Rollings, according to the City Attorney's Office, with more fees on the horizon.

Which leads us back to Joanne Garver. She's a Democrat who initially supported Jonathan Rothschild in a contest where he is currently the only mainstream contender. She wonders whether the property next door is being allowed to deteriorate because of the candidate's political connections.

"I really hope it's not all about politics," she says. "That building was decaying when I moved here several years ago, and it's still decaying now."

Other neighbors believe the property's owners plan to let it slip into such disrepair that it can ultimately be razed.

So who is ultimately responsible for what neighbors see as neglect? Pima County assessor's records show that the property on the corner of 17th Street and Convent Avenue was purchased in 2005 by Mesch, Clark and Rothschild for $385,000. But Jonathan Rothschild insists that his father and Clark are the sole owners. "It's clearly not owned by the law firm," Rothschild says. "The law firm doesn't own any property."

Clark didn't return a phone call seeking comment.

Meanwhile, the dismal condition of the Mesch, Clark and Rothschild building is only highlighted by another property of the same vintage immediately to its south. That set of row houses—now home to Joanne Garver, among others—was beautifully restored by barrio developer David Carter.

As a mayoral candidate, Jonathan Rothschild says he's fully devoted to preservation, and would "love" to see his associates' rundown property redone "just like the places next door, and hopefully someday, it will be."

That may not be happening anytime soon, however. "I drove my dad by it the other day," says Rothschild, "and he just said, 'Well, when the market comes back.' Then he looked at me and said, 'You know, if somebody gives us a good offer ... .'"

Either way, Rothschild steadfastly denies that his father and Clark plan to tear down the building. "I can tell you that's nonsense," he says.

But Lisa Mele, who recently restored her second barrio home, predicts that demolition is exactly what the owners intend. And she holds the sentiment that her timeless neighborhood is more than just an investment opportunity.

"I don't think Mesch, Clark and Rothschild appreciate the historic value of these properties," Mele says. "They're just down here to make a buck. They should have invested their money somewhere else instead of buying that building and letting it go to hell."

Raima Chalmers is another longtime barrio resident who finds Rothschild's excuse rather flimsy. "They bought the building when the real estate market was high," she says. "They could have fixed it up then."

Regardless, the property continues to grab attention beyond that of its immediate neighbors. Tucson police visited the boarded-up building last year after an apparent break-in, says Teresa Williams, the city's code-enforcement administrator. That put it on the radar of the city's Code Enforcement Division, which then took compliance action against the owners.

"You can't use boarding as a permanent way to secure a building," says Williams. "You have to have your windows and doors all intact. It can be vacant, but it has to look like somebody's there."

According to Williams, the owners appealed, seeking more time to address the city's demands, which included installing windows and re-plastering patches of bare adobe. They were subsequently granted a five-year extension to finish those repairs, which means they'll have owned the building for at least a decade before they're forced to preserve it.

However, Williams defends the extension. "What we didn't want," she says, "was for them to tear it down, which they could do."

But according to Jonathan Mabry, the city's historic-preservation officer, demolishing a structure protected by historic zoning is no small task. "For a demolition permit to be approved, the applicant would have to demonstrate either that there was an imminent safety hazard to the public, or economic hardship, as it's defined in the code," he says, "and that's a pretty high bar to get over. ... That's why applications for demolition permits in city historic-preservation zones are pretty few and far between."

Either way, five more years of deterioration and neglect would be inexcusable, says Raima Chambers.

"I think that building looks like blight, and I don't even care if it is blight. But I do care if somebody isn't taking care of their adobe house. There aren't very many of these left."

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