One Street's Story

On the westside, Linda Avenue illustrates both a neighborhood's hopes and tragedies

Because of the criminal activity that once took place there, some Menlo Park neighborhood residents refer to Linda Avenue—only one block long—as "Crazy Street."

Others, however, see a bright future for Linda Avenue's 10 homes and one building that once held commercial establishment.

Situated off Congress Street west of Interstate 10, the gateway to Linda Avenue used to be Banco de las Americas. This stark-white building is now Pima County's IT wireless operation—but not for much longer.

Next door, the county owns a vacant single-family home, in back of which is a smaller structure. For a decade, the Menlo Park Neighborhood Association has wanted to convert these buildings into a community resource.

Those hopes seemed to be in jeopardy a few weeks ago, when County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry wrote Supervisor Richard Elías, who represents the area. Concerning the county-owned residential properties, Huckelberry stated: "Given its longstanding vacancy and vandalism, a decision regarding permanent use of the property should be made as soon as practically possible."

In response, the neighborhood association was scheduled to send Huckelberry a letter last week calling for the property to become a "neighborhood resource center." This facility would include offices for a Pima Community College program as well as the PRO Neighborhoods organization.

In addition, the neighborhood association would like to see the bank building become the permanent home of Pima County's housing program.

In his memo to Elías, Huckelberry said he favored legally splitting the two county-owned properties. The neighborhood association, however, strongly opposes that idea.

"The most important point is to keep the parcels together so parking can be shared," said Menlo Park resident Amy Schwemm at a recent association meeting

Elías fully supports the Menlo Park efforts. "I share the neighborhood association's vision on this," he declares.

Five years ago, the county set aside $250,000 for the home-restoration project. More than half of that money has been spent, and not enough money is left to finish—so grant money will be sought.

Neighborhood association president Lorraine Bartlett hopes it can all come together within a year. "We're moving forward," she says enthusiastically.

For his part, Elías believes a two-year deadline seems reasonable. But he cautions, "I don't want to see an artificial timeline imposed."

Regarding Huckelberry's worries about the vacant structures, Elías suggests: "He ... doesn't want to lose them to a fire."

That's a reasonable concern, considering there have been around 30 nearby yard and brush fires in the last few years—and then there's what happened in April to a house across Linda Avenue.

Built in 1916, this small bungalow later became the home of Betty Davila Lopez and her husband, Henry. As the couple aged, maintenance of the property declined, and by 1994, things were going rapidly downhill.

"Our house was part of the street's bad element," observes Charles Mueller, present owner of the property and the grandson of the Lopezes.

When the city of Tucson finally got involved regarding code-enforcement last summer, Mueller and his mother, Monica Barbeau, went to work. They spent thousands of dollars cleaning up the property and had years of debris removed—including 11 unusable vehicles, four containers worth of junk, and even a small helicopter.

At the same time, they began working on the exterior of the house. "It looked great," Mueller remembers of the historic façade.

In April, however the home burned.

"It was so unfortunate," Barbeau says about the fire that collapsed the roof.

"We were so close," adds Mueller.

Within a few weeks of the fire, a Pima County grand jury charged a Linda Avenue resident, Gerardo Junior Parra, with two felonies related to the blaze. Neighbors report the area's frequent fires have stopped since then.

Both the Parra and Barbeau families were in Judge Christopher Browning's courtroom last week for an extremely brief case-management conference. Parra's attorney, Matthew Messmer, said that a trial could possibly be held in late December.

Messmer has said he doesn't think much of the state's case against his client. In a court filing last month, Messmer wrote: "At this time, the only evidence the state has disclosed to defense counsel that links Mr. Parra to this criminal incident is the statement of one neighbor, with motive and credibility issues. ... However, when police searched Mr. Parra, his residence and vehicles, not one shred of evidence was discovered linking him to the fire."

Meanwhile, Mueller still considers the house "a positive situation. It will just take a little longer to get there," he says.

He recently completed UA course work in architecture, and Mueller says that the fire has changed his plans for the property. He now wants to first build a rental guesthouse so that someone will be living onsite. However, given his finances, Mueller says that may take five years to complete. Once it's done, he plans to start working on the main house.

"This is another chapter in this drama," Mueller says.

Then, reflecting on Linda Avenue, he observes optimistically: "The street is just starting to come back."

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