Praying for Time

A historic church is the linchpin for a contested project

As a winter storm rages outside, Ralph Armenta guides me through the hushed confines of the First Assembly of God Church. Since 1950, the First Assembly has been a beacon of brick tranquility on Broadway Boulevard, just west of Campbell Avenue. And for 53 of those years, Armenta, a retired building contractor and devoted congregant, has meticulously renovated room after room.

Tonight, he leads me past the remodeled child care center and a puppet theater adorned with painted daisies. Nearby, an upright piano stands against a bright blue wall.

Despite the endurance of this building, however, and the dedication of longtime members like Ralph Armenta, serenity here is one fragile construct. Not far away, a citizens task force meets monthly, hashing over plans for a revamped Broadway. The result could include expanding the road to a width of 150 feet—thereby dooming a legion of landmark buildings, including the First Assembly of God Church.

To Armenta, that would be nothing short of tragedy. "We would lose a very valuable historic building," he says. "It would be a shame to destroy something like this just because they don't want to move the road over a few feet on the other side."

The threat hanging over the church has its own history, dating from a 1987 city transportation study that urged expanding Broadway between Euclid Avenue and Camino Seco. In 2006, a scaled-down version was approved by voters as part of a sweeping, 20-year regional transportation scheme. That vote, which would end the widening at Country Club Road, also created a powerful oversight body known as the Regional Transportation Authority.

Total budgets for the Broadway project now top $71 million, with $42 million of that coming from the RTA, $25 million from Pima County transportation bonds, $1.2 million from the Pima Association of Governments and $3 million from the city of Tucson.

But much has changed since 1987, including the gospel that expanding roadways is the best way to enhance urban landscapes—or even to ease traffic flows. According to a 2011 study at the University of Toronto, widening roads can actually make traffic congestion worse.

Concerns about Broadway's future also gained heft recently when the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation hosted a heavily attended celebration of modernist architectural gems in the project's path. The foundation simultaneously joined area merchants in reviving Broadway's 1950s appellation, The Sunshine Mile.

And in November, the Arizona Preservation Foundation named Broadway Boulevard one of our state's most endangered historic places. Post-World War II architecture "is getting to the point where it's eligible for historic status," foundation board president Jim McPherson told the Tucson Weekly. "But the width and breadth of this possible road widening would affect so many properties of that era."

Just as Broadway's potential expansion threatens those modernist landmarks, it likewise highlights the story of Ralph Armenta's church. According to city historic preservation officer Jonathan Mabry, the First Assembly of God was designed by noted architects Richard Morse and Merrit Starkweather. Completed in 1950, it exhibits "Romanesque Revival-style architecture," Mabry writes in an email, "and is listed as a contributing property to the recently designated Rincon Heights National Register Historic District."

Conversely, a house of worship seems to evoke more gravitas—and potential political ammo—than a dozen modernist masterpieces. That became clear during a Dec. 18 City Council study session, when Ward 6 Councilman Steve Kozachik tapped the specter of destruction to restate his opposition to the expansion.

The room darkened as an aerial photo of the project area—including the First Assembly—appeared on a screen. If Broadway is expanded to 150 feet, "that church is going to be demolished, right?" Kozachik asked Jenn Toothaker Burdick, the city's Broadway project manager.

"Yes," Burdick replied.

After more back and forth, Kozachik frowned. "I don't believe there's anyone within the citizens task force or with (city) staff who's going to get in that D-9 bulldozer and be the first one to knock down that building," he said.

Contacted later by phone, Burdick said she couldn't predict the church's fate. "But I can tell you there's going to be a lot of work to minimize any impacts like that on the roadway. ...Everyone on the task force is very sensitive to the desire to keep the historic buildings and the businesses there. And I think the task force is really feeling that need and that pressure."

But arm-twisting also comes from the RTA, which routinely hints at halting the whole project should it stray too far from the 2006 ballot language.

That threat is not lost on task force member Colby Henley. He represents the Rincon Heights Neighborhood Association, which encompasses the church. "I would say that the city staff have explained that the (task force) is able to consider a full range of options, but that ultimately the RTA ballot language is still in play and the RTA would have to approve of any design variations," Henley writes in an email to the Weekly. "Basically we have the freedom, but the RTA has veto power."

While Burdick describes the city's relationship with the RTA on this project as "evolving," that view may not be universally shared by the RTA's board members, who range from county leaders to tribal officials. So says Jim DeGrood, the authority's transportation director. He also suggests that city officials have been a tad disingenuous when accusing the RTA of inflexibility, since the city's own 1987 traffic study initially urged the Broadway widening.

"Are we wed to this alignment or that alignment?" DeGrood asks. "We at the RTA aren't necessarily wed to any alignment. The city has a policy that goes back to the 1980s that it's been following and asking us in the past to support. They may not be asking us in the same way now."

Indeed, times change, and so do perspectives. For instance, many task force members now envision a roadway that includes more mass transit, pedestrian access and bike lanes. And with Kozachik's prodding, they seem to be dragging reluctant city staffers along for the ride.

But inside the First Assembly of God Church, Ralph Armenta is still taking stock, just as he's done for more than a half-century. He recalls a less trepidatious past, such as when he helped rebuild the pulpit and expand the lobby. "I was kind of a lead person on that," he says. "Back in those days, I was the only contractor who had any knowledge in construction, so the pastors would let me handle the construction end of it. I did a lot of remodeling."

Armenta falls silent, glancing around. Then he clears his throat. "There were a lot of other people who helped" he says. "That's something about this church—any time we had something to be done, everybody pitches in. It's a family church."

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