Where All the Lights Are Bright

Downtown development thrives as Michael Keith works on new housing projects.

What other area in Tucson has millionaires, street walkers, blue- and white-collar workers and retirees all living side-by-side?

This is a question that home builder Michael Keith asks about his downtown barrio neighborhood.

"All weekend long here, you see BMWs driving up and down looking for 'For Sale' signs," he says.

While attending Rincon High in the 1960s, Keith snuck into some abandoned historic mansions near City Hall one day. They were slated to be torn down to make room for a parking lot. "They were beautiful, with a sense of elegant lifestyle," he says. "It was crushing to think they were going to be demolished."

Keith later enrolled at the UA and took two decades to get a degree in political science. Along the way, he left town and spent five years in Saudi Arabia as a procurement agent for a general contracting firm.

After returning to the university, Keith used some of his savings to build a speculative house in Oro Valley. At the end of the project, he got a surprise.

"I learned to my astonishment that there were still outstanding invoices the contractor hadn't told me about, so my profit was less than anticipated," he says.

Based on that tough lesson, Keith decided to become a general contractor himself. He obtained his license in 1985, purchased two rundown adobe structures in the barrio south of downtown and worked with the city of Tucson's rental rehabilitation program to restore them.

"They say (in building), you learn 90 percent of what you know on your first project, and mine allowed me to separate truth from fiction on historic preservation work," Keith says.

He lists three fallacies that his initial rehab project taught him: Buildings that are dilapidated can't be restored; people wouldn't rent properties located that far south; and barrio owners couldn't charge market-rate rents.

"Its cheaper to restore than take a building down and rebuild because there is always a market for character," he says.

Next, Keith rehabilitated two nearby properties, then he continued to work on other barrio projects until 1992, when he got his first chance to build a new home in the historic El Presidio neighborhood on downtown's north side.

After that, Keith constructed more new homes downtown, and three years ago he was selected by Jerry and Emma Talen to restore the Cheyney House in El Presidio.

Built in 1905, the 4,000-plus-square-foot former mansion had been deserted for years. Many people thought that what little remained should just be demolished. But the Talens believed otherwise.

"For 18 months I spent every second of my life devoted to that project," he says.

Although there were no photos readily available that revealed what the house originally looked like, Keith found a 1910 picture at the Arizona Historical Society. Combining that with an early aerial photograph that showed the roof of the house, he started on the restoration. It resulted in an award-winning project costing $800,000.

"He was diligent and he put in a lot of hours," Jerry Talen says. "After the job was done, we're still friends."

Returning to the barrio, Keith recently completed four courtyard homes on narrow lots and sold two of them quickly for more than $200,000. The interest in the units indicated to him there's a strong market for downtown housing.

"There is a broad demographic looking for convenience and community that cuts across racial and age groups," he says. "It is growing in size constantly and is huge."

Thanks to the publicity from his work on the Cheyney house, Keith was able to purchase a small vacant lot at the corner of Franklin Street and Court Avenue in the El Presidio neighborhood. The first phase of this infill effort, which begins construction shortly, will be seven homes, four of which have been pre-sold for more than $300,000 each.

Margaret Hardy, the president of the El Presidio Neighborhood Association, worked with Keith on two earlier projects.

"He got a lot of input about the design and he cares about the details that makes a quality project," she said. "We were thrilled when he decided to do the development and couldn't be happier about it."

After that, Keith will be tackling a considerably larger undertaking. As part of a team, he was selected by the city of Tucson to build homes on 13 acres along west Congress Street in the Rio Nuevo district. While the total plan calls for 200 housing units and 16,000 square feet of retail space, Keith's initial involvement will be 24 houses, each priced less than $160,000.

To develop designs which are attractive, yet not too expensive, Keith is holding workshops for potential buyers.

"You have to trade square footage or amenities for affordability," he says.

While it will probably be at least a year until the Congress Street units are under construction, Keith says eventually he would be interested in getting involved with a downtown adaptive reuse effort, similar to the Ice House project (See "Lofty Developments," Oct. 16).

Having spent almost two decades building and restoring homes in the central city, Keith is excited about its future.

"The demand for something with character is so strong that downtown is really thriving and it's just going to get better," he says. "I'm really up on downtown."

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