Pat Soto has worn many hats, from farmer and nurse to school teacher in the Middle East. But on this steamy July day, she's in cool confines of downtown's Armory Park Senior Center, where she's a de facto ambassador of goodwill.
Buzzing around in her wheelchair, Soto points to the center's pool tables where older men hover, brows furrowed in competitive concentration. She rolls past the computer lab and fitness center and into the broad lobby, with its deep couches and bubbling aquarium.
Soto is among the seniors who live in the Armory Park Apartments next door. Along with the federally subsidized housing—nearly all the apartments are Section 8—she and other residents rely on this center as a hub for camaraderie, and for services ranging from hot meals to health clinics.
Both the center and the apartments were built in the mid-1970s, and they've remained kindred spirits. But that tie is about to be broken, thanks to plans to move residents to a new facility, slated for completion next year, on vacant land west of Interstate 10 at Congress Street.
In physical terms, the change will be an upgrade from the aging, cramped Armory Park Apartments, most of which are small studios. Still, to residents like Soto, a 66-year-old stroke victim who inhabits a rare one-bedroom unit, there are things more important than a shiny new home.
She glances around the senior center. "A lot of us don't have families," she says. "But we can come over here and eat at 3 o'clock, Monday through Friday. We have our own little tables and groups of people we really enjoy talking to.
"I love it here," she says. "Ninety-plus percent of the people here feel the same way. We don't understand why they want it destroyed."
But Steven Greenbaum, president of the Chicago-based Senior Housing Group, believes the improvements offered by his company's planned six-story, 143-unit building will offset any ruptured sense of community.
With help from the city of Tucson, Senior Housing won an annual allotment of $2.85 million in low-income, federal housing tax credits for the next 10 years. The company then used those credits, awarded by the Arizona Department of Housing, to entice investors to the $26 million project.
Greenbaum says he initially considered simply renovating the Armory Park Apartments. But that idea was scrapped when potential investors and the Arizona Department of Housing balked at dumping money into a building plagued by everything from decrepit plumbing to sporadically functioning elevators. Making matters worse, Armory's obligation as affordable housing ends in 2013.
"There's no perfect solution when you have a building that's 40 years old and in need of significant capital to save it, and you have expiring affordability commitment," Greenbaum says.
He argues that the new facility will offer its own advantages, including a full-time staffer to ensure that residents are connected to services ranging from food to medical care. He's less specific, however, regarding transportation links to the Armory Park Senior Center, a mile and a half way.
He suggests that the modern streetcar, slated to commence service along West Congress Street in 2013, will provide one option. However, its route passes a block away from the Armory Park Senior Center, presenting a big obstacle for mobility-bound visitors. Another option is Sun Van, a city transportation service for the disabled. But using Sun Van can often mean long waits.
Either way, says Greenbaum, the seniors will get where they need to go. "I'm still hoping to work with the foundation that sold us the (old) building, and the senior center, to make certain that residents still have access to whatever they need."
In winning the tax credits, Greenbaum says he also pledged to work closely with the Pima Council on Aging, and to make sure those services flow without interruption. But if so, upfront coordination seems meager to nonexistent; PCOA president Jim Murphy says he's unaware of any contact between his staff and Greenbaum's Senior Housing Group. "But I don't want to quibble about the timing of it, because (the planned move) is still a year away."
Murphy adds that his agency routinely arranges transportation to and from Tucson's senior centers, including the one at Armory Park. "If somebody wants to go there for a meal and for socialization," he says, "they'll be able to get there one way or another."
Yet there's no way to avoid the disruption of community and support that's grown over the years at Armory Park. This network extends to a neighborhood-funded program that delivers seven day's worth of meals to homebound residents. Neighbors Feeding Neighbors is operated out of the nearby St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, where Jefferson Bailey is both a deacon and the program's director.
He expects to lose half of his clients when the Armory Park seniors are relocated. That's a worrisome shift, he says. "Most of those residents are already with Meals on Wheels. But that only gives them one meal a day, five days a week. It's not enough to live on."
Bailey is also skeptical of a process in which the city and Greenbaum seem eager to impose a huge move on seniors, apparently without their consent. "The people who built the (old) building probably made a lot of money," he says. "And now we're on to the next grant project, and somebody else will make a lot of money. But the residents themselves don't have much say, do they?"
Robin Landers supervises the Armory Park Senior Center, and she voices the mixed feelings expressed by many. "I just go back and forth," Landers says. "It's such a difficult thing, because I'm very, very happy that my seniors will be in brand-new housing. ... At least they'll be in one-bedrooms, and the (Armory Park Apartments) are in really bad shape.
"But on the other hand, this is the only dedicated senior housing that's next to a dedicated, comprehensive senior center."
If Greenbaum's new facility doesn't nourish that connection, she says, those seniors risk becoming isolated. "And isolation is the No. 1 concern with the quality of life for older adults."
For now, Pat Soto continues to relish her small community—and she continues to steadfastly oppose the move. "No. 1," she says, "there's nothing wrong with our apartment building. No. 2, living next to the Armory Park Senior Center is a blessing from God."
Note: Tim Vanderpool is a member of the Armory Park Neighborhood Association board of directors.