Walls Come A-Tumblin' Down

HUD And Catholic Community Services Demolish An Architecturally Honorable Plan To Rebuild The Old Drachman School.

FIVE YEARS AGO, the effort to replace the old Drachman School in Tucson's barrio began with the best of intentions. The idea was to construct a new building that would honor the architectural history of the former structure, provide 62 units of senior-citizen housing, and partially offset the ravages of urban renewal inflicted upon the area in the 1960s.

But now the process has degenerated into a bitter dispute that has split the neighborhood.

The original Drachman School was built in 1902 at the corner of 18th Street and Convent. A 1927 addition designed by architect Merrit Starkweather greatly increased its size. When a 1948 fire almost totally destroyed this building, a new school was built according to the plans of Arthur Brown.

In 1994 the City of Tucson and the Tucson Unified School District decided to build an even newer Drachman School a few blocks away and demolish the old building. In an effort to save the existing structure, however, residents of the Barrio Historico and Santa Rosa neighborhoods appealed to the City Council to give them a chance to look for new uses for the old building. The Council did that, and provided the group with $150,000 of Community Development Block Grant funds as support.

Tucson architect Jody Gibbs was hired to conduct a feasibility study on saving the old school and determining alternative uses for the building. After neighborhood surveys, meetings, and analysis of the building's condition, Gibbs reluctantly concluded that because of structural defects and environmental problems, the school should be demolished and replaced with a new senior-citizen housing complex.

Gibbs, a longtime critic of both the City of Tucson's and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's local housing policies, also came up with a conceptual design for the new project. It included recreating Starkweather's 1927 façade, an idea nearby resident John Crow praised, saying, "Gibbs' design was going to be a real asset to the neighborhood."

To implement the project, in 1997 the Barrio Historico Neighborhood Association joined with the Tucson Community Development and Design Center, a group once headed by Gibbs that had experience in building federal housing projects, to apply for Section 202 construction funds from HUD. This application, however, failed.

To improve their chances, the two groups approached Catholic Community Services to join with them in re-applying for federal funds. The agency agreed, and last December HUD awarded the project $3,651,000. The City of Tucson also decided to contribute $434,000, much of which was to be used for masonry construction and historically appropriate windows.

It was a merry Christmas, 1999 for those involved with the effort. This year, however, has seen nothing but trouble.

An 11-member board came together to oversee the project's implementation. The barrio neighborhood association, the Design Center and Catholic Community Services each had three members. In February, however, citing budgetary concerns with the proposed design, Peg Harmon of Catholic Community Services gave the board an ultimatum: Either her agency "would have control over the selection of any and all vendors, contractors, and consultants" for the project, or it should be replaced on the board.

According to Design Center representative Bill Risner, "We had a meeting in Phoenix with HUD officials. We had found another agency to replace CCS, but the HUD officials insisted we try to keep them on board."

Terry Goddard, head of HUD's Arizona office, explained that decision. "Catholic Community Services was the one member with Section 202 experience. Since HUD awards points on this experience, the other groups were incidental to the application. If CCS had been removed, the grant could have been lost."

That explanation, Risner says, "is absolutely false. The Design Center owns one 202 complex and assisted with two other award-winning projects. I don't know that CCS has any 202 experience."

After that disagreement, two contractors concluded the proposed design could be built within the approved budget, after all. The board then unanimously voted to hire Gibbs as project architect.

But then it spent months trying unsuccessfully to reach agreement with Gibbs over a contract. His proposed fee was $175,000--not excessive according to Drachman board member and fellow architect Bob Lanning, but too much in the opinion of Ed Ross, a former HUD employee who now serves as a cost analyst for the agency. When the Drachman board sought clarification from Ross, he refused to respond.

HUD also had problems with the method Gibbs proposed to use in preparing plans for the project. Gibbs wanted to work with three contractors to determine the new building's final details, and then have them competitively bid for the construction work. According to Risner, HUD officials insisted that only one contractor could fill that role.

Risner says this rule was strictly made up by HUD's Phoenix office, that it is nowhere to be found in the agency's regulations. But after months of fighting the federal bureaucracy, and after the board finally failed to retain Gibbs to design the new project, the Design Center members resigned from the Drachman board.

Risner elaborated, "We quit because the game was rigged. HUD wasn't playing fair. The Design Center wanted a masonry building, but they will build a frame/stucco building which looks like a nursing home to serve the needs of CCS, not the tenants." Another Design Center board member, Hector Morales, added, "The project started out as high-quality construction which would last 100 years. Now it will be cheapened and the quality design won't be there."

To explain their resignation, Risner wrote Goddard, stating, "Our continued participation was made impossible because of the actions of your staff .... CCS achieved its objective in a 4-3 vote to select a new architect. Their control over this project was abetted by the active cooperation of your staff .... Fundamentally, your HUD office is comfortable working with developers and not groups with grass roots involvement .... This project could have been a healing project. Instead, it has, through HUD's efforts, been converted into a divisive project in the neighborhood."

Two other members of the board resigned at the same time. Barrio resident Kathryn Wilde stepped down, questioning Catholic Community Service's motives, stating, "It is their absolute intention to profit from this venture," while lamenting what would happen to the building's design.

Santa Rosa neighborhood representative John Crow also dropped off the board, but for different reasons. He says, "Jody Gibbs is a brilliant architect, but he is hard to work with. He kept bringing up problems and wanted to control the whole thing, but that wasn't his job. I still think the project will benefit the neighborhood."

While this dispute was going on, the membership of the board of directors of the Barrio Historico Neighborhood Association changed substantially. According to Pedro Gonzales, president of the renamed Barrio Viejo Neighborhood Association, "We sent a letter saying we don't approve of the demolition of Drachman School. We don't support this project because it wants to knock down our history again. We would like to see more housing in the barrio, but not at that site because it has a lot of history, a lot of memories."

Thus, two of the three groups that comprised the original Drachman board have stepped aside, leaving only Catholic Community Services and some independent neighborhood residents to oversee the project. The Architecture Company has been hired to design the new facility, and is working with contractor TA-Wallick to finalize plans and construction cost estimates.

Many of those formerly involved with the project fear the new building will be built of "stick and stucco," not masonry, and will be much less historically compatible than the original design. Jody Gibbs says, "The project is becoming exactly like urban renewal. It's a disgrace. If they're not going to do it right, they shouldn't do it, but they think a piece of shit in the barrio is OK."

Drachman board member Bob Lanning disagrees. He characterizes the new design as Soronan with hipped roofed buildings grouped around courtyards. He thinks the design is compatible with the area and the project will benefit the neighborhood.

Concerning the deep split this project has caused in the barrio, Peg Harmon of Catholic Community Services says, "Many, many people in the neighborhood support the project. But some people don't want to see elderly housing built and I don't know why."

Current plans call for saving a portion of the west entrance of the existing 1948 building, along with the courtyard and stage of its central core. The remainder of the structure is to be demolished next month, with a meeting to mollify neighborhood critics possibly coming in February. Construction of the new building is scheduled for September.

Comments (0)

Add a comment

Add a Comment

Tucson Weekly

Best of Tucson Weekly

Tucson Weekly