The Big Checkout

Neighbors complain about plans to demolish a Joesler-designed motel in downtown

The Downtown Motor Hotel

has seen better days.

Built in 1941 at 383 S. Stone Ave., the low-slung brick hotel served travelers for many years. But today, while an iconic sign still hangs over the shuttered office, most of the motel's rooms sit behind a chain-link fence, with iron bars on the doors to discourage squatters.

And if Tucson-based Compass Affordable Housing, which bought the property in May, has its way, the building will soon be demolished to make way for a four-story apartment building designed to house homeless veterans.

But the proposed demolition has some residents in the Armory Park and Barrio Viejo neighborhoods unhappy with the scale and design of the new building.

And they're especially worried that the State Historic Preservation Office and a consultant working with the developer appear to have little regard to the potential historic nature of the motel, which was designed by famed Tucson architect Josias Joesler.

Gary Patch, who lives in an 1860s adobe house across the street from the proposed apartment building, pointed to documents in which a State Historical Preservation Office official shows a general disregard for Tucson architecture, saying that "[b]y Tucson standards, (Joesler's) a genius."

"That's kind of demeaning," Patch said.

Patch, like many residents of the two historic neighborhoods that surround the proposed building, has invested years and tens of thousands of dollars improving his home in Barrio Viejo—and, in the process, have helped preserve aging properties and increased property values. He says the scale of the "stick and stucco" building is wrong for the neighborhood.

"We completely support low-income housing and housing for veterans," Patch said. "We just think this is out of scale. There's nothing on the block that comes near the height of what they're proposing. At four stories, these people are going to be looking down into neighborhood homes and yards."

Patch added that the proposed apartments do not appear inviting.

"These apartments are very small," he said. "There's one window in each apartment. The residents will be warehoused in dark, high-density units."

Patch complained that the developer has been sidestepping required public hearings to assess the impact of removing a historic property and is only now starting the process—with the developer saying it is too far along to make significant changes.

The process, called a Section 106, requires any federal agency planning to demolish a historic place—or a property that would qualify as a historic place—to first consult the Advisory Council of Historic Places. The section was implemented in the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.

Though the motel isn't listed in National Register of Historic Places, it does contribute to the Armory Park National Register Historic District. Since the project uses funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the parties involved are required to complete the Section 106 process to determine the adverse effect the demolition would have on the surrounding area.

Since the process began in May, the city, in coordination with the Tucson Historic Preservation Office, has hosted two town hall meetings to collect public comment on the project.

The last, on Oct. 28, saw a turnout of about 50 people. Though everyone agreed that low-income housing was in high demand in the area, many voiced concern about the design of the building, arguing that a four-story structure would tower over the surrounding area.

Attendees added that the units inside the planned development were too small. One woman suggested scaling the building down to a single story.

Others argued that the demand for low-income housing continued to rise and that the money for those projects was constantly absent.

Brian Flagg, who runs Casa Maria Free Kitchen on East 25th Street, said the project isn't about the design, but Tucson's homeless who need a place to sleep.

"You guys are talking a lot about the design of this building," Flagg said to the audience. "From a poor person sleeping on the street tonight, they're saying, 'work that stuff out.'"

Still, some argued that the design and location of the building did more of a disservice to the residents it was trying to draw. Some added that downtown has long since abandoned class diversity and instead been developed to draw college students and people willing to spend money on nightlife activities.

For others, the issue behind the project was the lack of public outreach on the part of the developer and the State Historic Preservation Office.

Patch was among the first to send letters to the office in Phoenix about the undertaking after hearing about it through neighbors. His main concern was that the city was demolishing a historic property built by Joesler, a revered Tucson architect who built a number of residential and non-residential properties from the 1920s to the 1950s.

Patch sent an initial letter to SHPO Architect Robert Frankeberger in late May, and obtained emails between Frankeberger and Mark Appleby, a private consultant who advised Compass through the Section 106 process. Patch echoed his concerns—and criticized SHPO's failure to tell the public about the project—at the October meeting.

"There's total collusion between SHPO and the developer on this project," Patch said, referencing emails he had requested from the office. "They've been in bed together since before last January."

In the emails—public records that Patch provided to the Weekly—Appleby asks Frankeberger to proofread and "word-smith" consultation letters to SHPO and a letter for invitation to the Advisory Council of Historic Preservation.

Frankeberger later warned Appleby of community "push back" toward the project.

"Your prediction on the 'push back' was pretty good and we were somewhat prepared, though the protestors are a bit shrill," Appleby wrote in an email in early October. "Seems the hotel's architect is a bit of a local hero."

Frankeberger's response came early the next day.

"By Tucson standards, he's a genius," he wrote. "Their local architecture greats, such as Arthur T. Brown, can't compete with the 'popular,' and unschooled notion of what constitutes architectural excellence."

The advising Frankeberger provided to Compass consultants to move the project forward, Patch added, was perplexing.

"He's talking to the developer and coaching them on how to respond to all these issues and helping them basically get their development approved," Patch said after the meeting in October. "Why isn't he helping the neighborhood? We didn't know about this until way late in the game. Why isn't he helping us? He's supposed to be saving these buildings."

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