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Demolition by Neglect

Left to decay, historic homes continue to disappear

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There's a house on my block that probably dates back to the early 1900s, with stout adobe walls and a squat chimney in the corner. For years, there was an old man living there, but he is now gone. His passing revealed a substantial debt on the house, and none of his relatives would pick up the tab.

So the old man's house is now owned by the bank, which apparently is quite content to see it simply wither away. The roof has split open in spots, allowing monsoon rains to seep in. Tree roots are wrenching the ancient foundation; a porch is buckling from disrepair.

This humble home, like many others in my neighborhood, is a bona fide piece of history. And like so many others, it is slipping away through benign neglect. At some point, whoever comes to own the house might find demolition far cheaper than bringing it back to life.

That notion, common throughout Tucson's historic neighborhoods, came into sharp focus recently as several new overlay zones were implemented in the central city. Critics say these zones, ostensibly aimed at spurring development, actually encourage the demolition of decaying historic properties, and putting shiny new buildings in their place.

At the same time, the city has flimsy deterrence, with meager fines for demolition of historic properties without first obtaining permits, and no money to help struggling historic property owners who do want to maintain their homes.

Like my own Armory Park neighborhood, the West University neighborhood—scene of a recent and bitter fight about an overlay zone that will allow 14-story private dorms next to single-family dwellings—is pocked with aging properties that could easily slide into complete decay and ultimate demolition.

"People are doing neglect for the sake of neglect," says Chris Gans, president of the West University Neighborhood Association. "We have a number of them in our neighborhood. They rent the houses out; they don't put any money into (maintaining) the outside. They're run-down and really crappy."

Owners complain that their properties aren't worth the money to repair them. "But those homes are a part of history," Gans says. "You can keep making those kinds of arguments until there's nothing left."

But a familiar argument it is, and one that brushes right up against City Hall. Lowell Rothschild is the father of Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, and co-owner of a frontier-era adobe building in downtown's Barrio Viejo that has sat empty for years, its window frames covered with warped plywood, the crumbling adobe walls exposed to sunlight and rain.

In 2010, city officials took compliance action against the owners for such disrepair. But those owners appealed, gaining them another five years before repairs of the building must be done. In past interviews, Mayor Rothschild has said his father was simply waiting for the real estate market to rebound before taking action on the property. Today, it sports a "for sale" sign out front.

But according to Jonathan Mabry, the city's historic-preservation officer, taking a hard line in such situations can spur unintended consequences.

"If the city pushes too hard on the owners of a historic building that's really in bad shape," he says, "one way they can come into compliance with the building code and all the other regulations is to knock it down."

The goal, says Mabry, is preservation rather than punishment. "In those situations, the city is willing to work with the property owners on a long-term plan, beginning with stabilization and blight remediation—not having the doors and windows boarded up forever.

"We're more interested in saving the building and ameliorating blight for the neighbors than in winning in court or collecting fines."

That's hardly just an academic point in a city with 6,960 historically designated properties, and 31 districts now listed with the National Register of Historic Places. Five of those districts also have locally designated historic preservation zoning overlays.

Unlike the national registry, the local designations have some regulatory teeth, with enforceable design guidelines, and mandatory reviews of significant changes proposed for building exteriors. They also govern demolitions, in what Mabry calls a "rigorous" process.

He argues that the city also does a good job of requiring property owners to maintain their historic buildings. "But there are cases where the buildings are pretty far gone—they're basically adobe ruins—and we have worked with the property owners."

Bringing those buildings up to current codes and making them inhabitable can incur "tremendous costs," he says.

While some owners can afford the expense, he calls it a misconception that historic districts are filled with rich people able to restore their properties on a whim. "It may be the case in historic districts in other cities," Mabry says. "But Tucson has a number of working-class historic neighborhoods."

This reality was spotlighted recently when a state lawmaker moved to gut property-tax breaks awarded to the owners of historic properties. "She had the perception that only wealthy people lived in historic districts, and are benefiting from this tax break," he says.

"We had to help educate (the Legislature), and say, 'Well, that's not the case in a lot of Tucson's historic districts. That property-tax break, which goes back to the early 1970s, is the margin of difference for some longtime Hispanic families in older parts of town—the difference between them being able to continue living in their ancestral homes, or being forced out.'"

It can also be the margin that keeps a building from getting razed. And every demolition carries a price far beyond the destruction of a single property. For districts to retain their national historic designation, more than 50 percent of their structures must have historic status. Some Tucson neighborhoods are inching precariously close to that threshold; the Barrio Anita Historic District, near St. Mary's Road and Interstate 10, has already lost 43 percent of its historic properties.

Nor is the West University neighborhood—site of the recent city rezoning overlay—that far behind. Mabry noted as much at a City Council meeting on Dec. 13, when he described how 55 contributing structures have been demolished since West University's historic district was created in 1984.

The rezoning, he said, could remove many more.

"Clearly, previous councils found rationales compelling (demolition) about 50 times. Twenty-nine property owners in the transition area now have a significant incentive to apply for demolition applications. Based on the historical trend that I just described, it's not far-fetched to think that 10, 15 years from now, all or a majority of those historic properties will have demolition applications approved for them. ... That type of erosion to the historic district may lead to a loss of the historic district designation over time."

Clearly, there are two types of demolition by neglect: Those perpetrated by sly and slovenly property owners, and those executed by government fiat. And both take the same grim toll.

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