Another Fine Mess

A Straightforward Project To Aid The Poor Is Now Tangled In Politics And City Red Tape.

By Dave Devine

WHETHER IT'S because of bad karma, a sinister conspiracy or the wrong "alignment of the planets," some ideas seem destined to fail.

The City of Tucson's attempts to rehabilitate five old adobe houses at 10th Avenue and 18th Street has been in that category for several years. It remains to be seen if the latest round of promises to change the situation and finish the repair work will ever be realized.

The project started out embroiled in controversy and has never recovered. The Tucson Water Department purchased the properties in the early '90s in order to demolish them. They wanted to put in a parking lot for their nearby maintenance facility.

Currents When some of the neighbors found out about the plans, they objected and the demolition was stopped. Then years of haggling ensued over what should happen to the buildings. Members of the Barrio Historic Neighborhood Association argued the structures should be preserved and returned to residential use. The Pima County Interfaith Council (PCIC) favored demolition, seeing historic preservation and gentrification as a threat to the longtime Mexican-American residents of the area.

In the fall of 1994, the city solicited proposals for the property. They offered the buildings and land for $1 to anyone who would restore the existing structures and build new housing on the site. The homes had to be permanently "affordable" for Tucson's moderate-income households.

Sixteen submissions were received, and in November 1995 the City Council awarded the buildings to the Tucson Indian Center on a 4-to-3 vote. That decision was directly counter to the wishes of PCIC and when José Ibarra replaced Bruce Wheeler on the City Council the following month, the vote was quickly reversed. Primavera Builders, PCIC's choice along with that of City Manager Michael Brown, was given the project.

The "Offer to Purchase" for the properties contained language intended to ensure the required rehabilitation and new construction was completed in a timely fashion. This was especially important for the existing adobe structures, since the longer they remained in a dilapidated condition, the higher the likelihood was that they would eventually collapse.

Based on its proposal, Primavera Builders was given 24 months to complete the rehabilitation work on converting the five present structures into seven homes and 32 months to finish the construction of four new houses on the site. The City Council authorized them to proceed with the project on February 12, 1996. Failure to meet the deadlines would result in the properties reverting to the city, according to the City Manager.

Two years have now gone by, and the buildings remain vacant and in desperate need of repair. They sit behind a chain-link fence topped by razor wire.

Some interior repair and foundation work has been done and construction material is on the site. But the walls of two of the homes are propped up just to keep them from falling over.

So what happened?

Fingers are pointed in several directions by those in City Hall and at Primavera Builders. Some blame city staff errors, while others see a hidden agenda to allow the buildings to deteriorate so badly they'll have to be demolished.

An obvious shortcoming with Primavera's original timeline for the project was its overly optimistic assumption that the property would be re-subdivided within six to eight months--a step required before the rehabilitation work could proceed.

The city was in charge of doing the re-subdivision, a process which has yet to be completed, and won't be for some time yet. Internal disagreements among the various city departments involved led to some of this extensive delay. But city officials also accuse the builder of not cooperating with the process and of being unrealistic in its approach to the project.

Once the re-subdivision is finally finished, rehabilitation efforts can begin in earnest. But both significant time and money have been lost. For example, because of the delay, $15,000 from the state's Heritage Fund for historic preservation had to be returned. Fortunately, other agencies have been more lenient with their funding deadlines.

Despite the years of delay, no one involved foresees the city taking the project back from Primavera Builders. As one City Hall representative said, "We wouldn't want to start over again with someone new."

Recently, the builders told the city that, assuming the subdivision process is finished in the next few months, rehabilitation of the first homes is "expected to be completed by June 30, 1998." The remainder of the $850,000 project is now scheduled to be done by the end of next year, 14 months after the original target date.

Gordon Packard, executive director of Primavera Builders, knows this project is being looked at closely. He says, "It's important to us to finish it off in the best way we possibly can." He adds that Primavera is anxious to get going on the work and thinks, when the homes are finally completed, "the city will be getting a bargain." TW

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