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Housing Hassle

The city continues its efforts to replace the low-income MLK apartments

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Martin Luther King Jr. gave his life for equity and justice. Some Tucsonans favor rebuilding the downtown public housing project that bears King's name in the hopes of furthering those noble goals, as well as enhancing revitalization efforts. Others, however, believe the proposal will sacrifice much-needed elderly housing while amounting to just another sell out to private developers.

Built for $1.5 million, the 96-unit, six-story complex at the corner of Congress Street and Fifth Avenue was swamped with tenant applications when it opened in 1970. The complex was renovated in 1993 at a cost of $1.8 million, and last year, the City Council endorsed an application for $11.5 million in federal funds to demolish and rebuild MLK. The new structure was to be built just to the north, allowing the construction of a privately financed retail/housing development along Congress Street.

The application was unsuccessful, but the city intends to try again, this time asking for approximately $10 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as part of a $24 million funding package. Among the changes to be made in the application are lowering the proposed building to six stories and substantially reducing the size of the on-site underground parking lot. To make up for the lost spaces, another downtown parking garage is planned for a nearby corner.

To justify its request, the city has prepared a list of 20 project improvements, including larger apartments for all tenants, improved security and the installation of dishwashers and ceiling fans in each unit.

"Thirty years from now," says Jack Siry, assistant director of the Community Services Department, "people will say this new building met the needs of the residents. It will be something people will be proud of."

Only 68 current tenants would be accommodated in the new structure; the rest would be moved to a proposed development to be built near Silverbell and Goret roads on the city's westside. Despite that, the residents of MLK overwhelmingly support the application, and Siry points out that 24 affordable rental units and eight affordable residences will also be created if the application is approved.

Local activist Pat Malchow, however, wonders why the city wants to tear down any public housing.

"We need thousands of these units in this town," she says. "This application is a symbolic gesture that (this type of housing) won't be there for those now over 40."

Longtime Community Services foe Jody Gibbs concedes that the existing MLK apartment house is no architectural beauty, but criticizes the application for several reasons.

"Don't tear down public housing units until all that need them, have them," the architect says of Tucson's ever-growing number of people who qualify for assistance. Gibbs believes local priorities are all wrong when it comes to the poor, and blasts city officials, saying, "They don't care what happens to them. We have social and economic problems downtown, not physical ones. The city isn't serious about addressing the problems of low- and moderate-income people, but they are serious about helping developers."

Part of the justification for the funding application is to provide space for a new 100-unit apartment/retail complex to be implemented by Congress Street Redevelopment. Tom Warne, a partner in that effort, believes the current MLK building must be demolished.

"To make it work," he says, "we need to create a retail streetscape along both Congress and Fifth Avenue. It will re-energize the area and have an immediate, large impact by changing the complexion of the east end of Congress Street."

A nine-year MLK resident strongly disagrees. While he supports the city's funding proposal, the tenant wants out of downtown; he also ridicules the city's Rio Nuevo plans.

"I wish I could say that downtown has a bright future," says the resident, who requested anonymity, fearing reprisal. "But I can't. The city is trying to build downtown for six-figure income households, but they avoid the area like the plague."

The city is going all-out to try to get the new federal application approved, including spending $35,000 for outside assistance. But with grants nationally cut from last year by almost 75 percent, to $120 million, the process, as Siry says, "is extremely competitive."

If Tucson doesn't receive the federal money, Siry indicates the project will move forward anyway. "Our fallback position is to bond against the HUD monies (the city now receives annually)," he says. "We certainly want the grant money."

Though it appears the existing MLK building is slated for demolition, one problem with the replacement proposal has yet to be fixed: The project is located near the main line of the Union Pacific railroad, in an area where train whistles are blown frequently as locomotives pass over several at-grade crossings, and the lonesome wail exceeds federal noise standards.

Siry acknowledges the situation. "Before people move in (to the new building), it will have to be addressed. We will resolve the issue by a 'No Whistle Zone.'"

To eliminate one downtown whistle-blowing location at Seventh Avenue and the tracks, the city might install some more physical barriers, in addition to the existing crossbars, so motorists can't cross as a train approaches, thus dispensing with the whistle requirement.

Even given that potential hurdle to the MLK project, Siry is confident the problem can be overcome. "Additional studies may be required," he says, "but we have some local discretion on the noise issue."

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