Off The Walls

Tucson's Historic Preservation System Needs Improvement.
By Dave Devine

IN TUCSON, AS elsewhere, they say that good walls make for good neighbors. But in downtown's Armory Park neighborhood, two illegally constructed walls have led to a bitter feud.

Armory Park is one of our town's five designated historic districts. Because of that, there's a three-tier review process imposed on all exterior building projects in the area.

The first step in that process is to have the Armory Park Historic Zone Advisory Board review proposed projects. They make recommendations on architectural compatibility to the Tucson/Pima County Historical Commission. The results of both of those reviews are then sent to the city's planning director, who makes a final decision.

For several years, the 12-member volunteer Armory Park board has had a reputation for uncompromising strictness about what it considers to be architecturally appropriate for the neighborhood.

One person who went through the process said the board interpreted the city's historic code in a uniquely conservative way. He also said the board has the power to make or break a project.

That's probably overestimating the power of this purely advisory body, which had created a lot of controversy in the neighborhood.

But the Armory Park board's aggressive attitude toward architectural compatibility and enforcement of historic development guidelines finally caught up with it. In November, at a neighborhood meeting, 11 of the 12 sitting members were voted out. The election saw a new slate of candidates who promised to be more neighborhood-friendly.

The election was a culmination of events which began in late 1995, when an illegal wall was constructed in the neighborhood, followed shortly by another one. Both walls were too high, did not have the needed building permits, and had not gone through the required review process.

The Advisory Board objected and the city filed zoning code complaints against both of the builders. In one case, wall-builder James Tiscione freely admits he intentionally circumvented the system because he wanted to protest the advisory board's policies.

After months of reviews, meetings and appeals, the fate of the two walls was decided by the city council in September. During a two-hour hearing, Tiscione was directed to make his wall more architecturally compatible with its surroundings. The other wall was approved.

Based on his treatment that day, Tiscione now says he "got fed up" with the existing advisory board and decided to rally a coalition to run against the incumbents. He believes the board's attitude toward what constitutes historically compatible architecture was skewed, opinionated and was threatening to stop development in the neighborhood.

Other Armory Park residents, however, believe Tiscione and his slate are made up primarily of people who want to maximize profits on their own development projects in the neighborhood. They cite the numerous historic code violations issued against many members of the slate as proof of the group's unwillingness to follow the rules.

One of the slate's members, Patrick Darnell, was cited for seven violations because of changes to approved plans he made on a building he recently constructed. Darnell says he needed to save money and that the changes were minor. He also says a city inspector approved the building with the changes and never said anything about them.

He admits, however, that as a member of the advisory board he will expect people to abide by the law. He believes it's unfortunate that the historic district ordinance requires neighbor to spy on neighbor. But he doesn't think the new members of the board will have much choice but to continue the practice.

Accusations of ballot-box stuffing at the neighborhood-run election were made about the meeting which nominated the new slate. Despite that, and the numerous code violations issued against many of its members, Tiscione's slate of candidates was approved by the city council on December 16.

But even that simple process was mishandled by city officials. The previous advisory board should have been in place for four years under city law. But because of a bureaucratic oversight, they were only appointed for one-year terms in 1995. Thus, the whole Armory Park ruckus should never have happened in 1996.

Tiscione believes the new advisory board will approve his wall as is and that he'll be able to keep it in place. That's a fairly optimistic view given the other two required levels of review combined with the city council's vote on the issue.

Whatever happens with that wall, one hopes the bitter feelings and personal animosities in Armory Park will be lessened in the coming months. But this case again demonstrates how fragile Tucson's historic districts are, and how inconsistently city government treats them.

In the 1970s, Tucson was a leader in historic preservation. Since then, however, the city has become a follower, well behind many other Arizona communities.

It's been 13 years since the last local historic district allowing for architectural review of new development was designated. The last neighborhood that seriously sought the status, midtown's El Encanto, was bitterly split over the issue. After much acrimony, the effort failed.

Given this lack of interest in local historic designation, it's time for Tucson to consider copying Phoenix's method of dealing with architectural review. Up north they don't have neighborhood review of projects, and city staff members decide disputes. The results have been impressive, with 17 designated neighborhoods.

As Mayor George Miller asked at the September city council meeting concerning the two walls in Armory Park: "When do we stop hearing these cases?" TW

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