Let’s say it’s 1940. It’s the Roosevelt era. You’re in a blue coupe driving from the East Coast to San Diego, California. There are no freeways. The only way to get across the country is on two-lane highways. On Highway 80 you drive into Arizona through Douglas and Bisbee and then up to Tucson.

Along the Miracle Mile strip in Tucson, everything is related to new automobile culture. There are motor court hotels (aka motels), gas stations, drive-in restaurants, drive-in movie theaters, car dealerships, bowling alleys, and nightclubs. Nothing is a chain; everything is mom and pop. And every one of those businesses is trying to attract your attention with a neon sign and a name that makes the West seem exciting and romantic.

Tucson Inn, 1956. Photo by ArizonaArt from a Creative Commons license

Are you feeling some nostalgia here? Well, buckle up. This is a 3-minute tour of 82 years of history.

The Interstate 10 freeway is built along the Santa Cruz river. It has three or four exits at first, forcing traffic into certain areas, including Miracle Mile. But once more exits are added and the freeway is fully activated, it completely bypasses the old highway system.

“Everything along the highway faces economic disinvestment,” says Demion Clinco, CEO of the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation.

How Miracle Mile got its name — and lost it

In 1937 a $200,000 highway improvement project created the center median and a stream-lined traffic circle at each end of the roadway. In 1937, Arizona Highways magazine referred to it as “Miracle Mile.”

“Arizona is to have a “Miracle Mile” — an almost perfect piece of roadway that will be fool proof! It will be the only safety-plus thoroughfare in the West, and as such will put the state in the spotlight of national highways.”

Fifty years later, the Tucson City Council voted 4-2 to rename the “North Miracle Mile Strip” to “North Oracle Road” in an effort to rehabilitate the area’s image.

Source: Oracle Area Revitalization Plan (PDF)

“So mom and pops can’t survive, the traffic is gone, and there’s just this slow erosion of this American dream,” which was the idea that you could move out West and use your savings to open a small business.

This was happening all over the country. The 1960 horror movie Psycho is set in an old highway motel in Arizona and suddenly the bypassed vintage motels are pretty scary.

By the late ’60s and ’70s, you start to see “places like the No-Tel Motel, which are taking these smaller charming Spanish-revival motels and converting them into something more seedy — a by-the-hour motel with ‘wa-wa’ beds (water beds) and massage beds that you put a quarter in and it vibrates,” Clinco says. 

When you drive by, you see sex workers, peep arcades and porn shops.

“By the early 1980s, Miracle Mile had become famous as a decrepit locale for scandals, and sank into economic quicksand,” Clinco wrote in the history of the district for the National Register of Historic Places application.

In 1987, the city changes the name of Miracle Mile in an effort to try to rebrand and get rid of the bad reputation.

“Miracle Mile was the age of opportunity and then it became this symbol of the worst in the community,” Clinco says. 

Maybe, there’s room for one more miracle.

The city of Tucson is hoping to take the infamous No-Tel Motel back in time.Before the shootings, drug crimes, porn and prostitution. Before the name changed to the wink-wink name.

Before all that, the No-Tel Motel was the De Anza Motel, built in 1940 as a Spanish revival-style drive-in motor court for tourists along the Miracle Mile strip on U.S. 80.

Last week the city bought the No-Tel Motel for $875,000, with plans to change it first into a homeless shelter and soon into a cute affordable housing project for older adults.

It will be christened with another new name: “Milagro on Oracle.” 

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Around the motel, something bigger is happening. The whole rundown Miracle Mile district — once a hip tourism gateway glowing with neon on its mid-century motels — is starting to see redevelopment.

The revitalization movement began around 15 years ago and its results are starting to show now that the city, local nonprofits and even Pima Community College are buying and redeveloping the old motels. 

Two years ago, Klayton Kirkwood couldn’t see it coming. Now he says Miracle Mile is becoming a place for people to seek refuge.

Kirkwood is the director of the Tucson Men’s Center, a residential recovery program of Teen Challenge, a nonprofit organization that bought and demolished the Tiki Motel two blocks north of the No-Tel Motel. 

The nonprofit is making way for a major expansion and hopes to help make the neighborhood safer, Kirkwood says, “to have it be a place that brings life.”

A bicyclist rides by a mural by Jessica Gonzalez on the side of the No-Tel Motel on Oracle at Grant Road. Credit: Michael McKisson for Arizona Luminaria

No-Tel Motel time machine

Let’s continue our drive through the past decade, a blacktop in eight decades of Miracle Mile’s history.

With the advent of the internet, people can watch porn at home and out of public view. Suddenly, even the seedy businesses aren’t viable. 

Around 2010, Clinco becomes concerned that aged motels are viewed exclusively as liabilities.

“I thought, ‘if we don’t do something, we’re going to lose all these old motels,’” he says. “There was so much urgency around day-to-day crime that it was difficult to envision the future.”

Where some people saw problem properties, he saw a future of renewal with neon artwork and boutique hotels for tourists.

“I saw that we had enough historic fabric intact,” he says. “What I saw was classic Americana, a connection to American car culture and this idea and vision of the West. It’s charming.”

A monsoon storm creeps up on the Tucson Inn and its iconic sign in early August 2022. Pima Community College is renovating the site. Credit: Michael McKisson for Arizona Luminaria

Let’s accelerate a bit.

The city decides to adpot the Oracle Area Revitalization Plan. The Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation saves a lot of the classic neon signs. Highway 80 gets a historic highway designation, like Route 66. And about 5 years ago, the No-Tel Motel, and many like it, become part of an officially recognized Miracle Mile Historic District, listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Meanwhile, at city hall, Tucson receives a fellowship from the Urban Land Institute to study this corridor. That leads to a multi-million dollar planning grant and a major collaborative revitalization program called: Thrive in the 05.

That brings us to today. The motels are run down but starting to attract redevelopment interest. They’re appreciated by some for what they once were and what they can be.

“That building type no longer serves its purpose, so we have to adaptively reuse those buildings to serve a different population in a different way,” says Corky Poster, an architect at Poster Mirto McDonald, architects for the Milagro project. 

“You can’t preserve history unless you can find a viable contemporary economic use for those buildings,” he says. “You can’t turn everything into a museum.”

“That’s really the challenge for all of Miracle Mile,” he says, “is how do you adaptively reuse that so it becomes a healthy economic use once again.”

Many of the motels are now shelters or subsidized housing. The Ghost Ranch Lodge is now housing for low-income seniors. The Tucson House — once luxury housing — is now low-income housing.

Poster compares the revitalization of the Miracle Mile corridor to the early phases of redevelopment in downtown Tucson. First came the low-income housing developments, like the MLK building. Then came some student housing projects and other private development. 

“And that’s pretty much how the Miracle Mile will work,” he says. “With affordable housing leading the way, it becomes a catalyst for new development but in the future it also guarantees it will be a mixed-income community, and from an equity standpoint that’s really important.”

A view of the No-Tel Motel which was just purchased by the city of Tucson, at 2425 N. Oracle Road. Credit: Michael McKisson for Arizona Luminaria

The No-Tel Motel deal

The city bought the No-Tel Motel for $875,000 from Bharatkumar and Shaila Patel.

Previously the city bought the two properties north of the motel for $1,065,000 from CoreCivic, a private prison company that operated a detention center there. 

Combining the three properties, the city will redevelop the 1.81-acre site as “Milagro on Oracle,” a 63-unit affordable housing project for older adults.

Tucson is prioritizing acquisitions in the 85705 ZIP code as one of seven target areas for affordable housing development, according to the city’s Housing Affordability Strategy.

This will be one of the first projects the city hopes to do in the area, making “intentional investment over time,” says Ann Chanecka, deputy director of Housing and Community Development department. 

“We’re hoping overall it brings a boost and some positive energy to that corridor,” she says.

An artist’s rendering shows what the redeveloped No-Tel Motel site could look like, including new apartment units and parking. Credit: Courtesy of Poster Mirto McDonald

There are 31,000 older adult households (ages 62+) in the Tucson area who are low-income and housing-cost burdened, meaning they pay 30% or more of their income on housing, according to the University of Arizona’s MAP Dashboard.

Until construction starts on Milagro, likely next summer, the city will use the properties as emergency shelters for homeless people. Tucson also owns the Wildcat Inn half a mile south and operates it as a shelter.

The three partners in the Milagro project are the city, the builder Gorman & Co., and the financial consultant Sabino Community Development Resources.

The project will use $2.1 million in tax credits over 10 years from the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit program, awarded by the Arizona Department of Housing.

The No-Tel Motel redevelopment scored points in the tax incentive application for being “a unique opportunity,” says David Wohl, of Sabino Community Development Resources. It’s an opportunity to preserve some historic buildings that add to the character of the district and an important part of the city’s reinvestment strategy in the Miracle Mile area.

Here’s how the deal works. An investor will put in $18 million and they will get the tax credits. That means the developer partners don’t have to borrow or repay that $18 million from a bank, and since they don’t have a giant bank loan to repay, they can charge lower rents, making the units more affordable for low-income tenants.

Fifteen of the apartments will be in the remodeled motor lodges, with patio spaces where the carports used to be and community lounge spaces where the motel offices used to be. The other 48 units will be built in a new four-story building on the vacant lot between the motels. The complex will share a garden, fitness center, computer room and parking.

“We’re basically sandwiching a contemporary building between two historic buildings,” says Poster, the architect. “Our goal is to be faithful to the historic motels and respect the layouts of those but also make enough space on the vacant property in between for new housing and parking for the whole site.”

An artist’s rendering shows what the redeveloped No-Tel Motel site could look like. Credit: Courtesy of Poster Mirto McDonald

Brand new lives at two more motels

Kirkwood, the director of the Tucson Men’s Center, sees the construction site at the former Tiki Motel on Oracle Road as a redemption as much as a redevelopment.

The nonprofit Teen Challenge of Arizona bought the troubled property for $720,000 after raising prayers and money through their Redeem the Corner Project in just two months. 

The Patels who owned and sold the No-Tel Motel also owned and sold the Tiki. 

The Tiki Motel was a set of eye-catching bright yellow “pueblo deco” style casitas and a neon sign depicting a tiki head and shield. (The Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation bought the neon sign for future preservation.)

Built in 1940 as Oracle Court, it was renamed the Tiki in the 1960s.

But in recent years the Tiki Motel was the site of drug addiction and drug-related deaths. In 2021, Tucson Police responded to more than 70 incidents in the 2600 block of North Oracle Road, where the Tiki stood. 

It was next door to the Teen Challenge Tucson Men’s Center, a residential recovery program that is home to 28 adult men at a time who are recovering from addiction, plus staff. They would hear sirens, see the foot traffic, and sometimes had to administer Narcan to save lives from opioid drug overdoses, says Kirkwood, who was also a student here himself.

Teen Challenge had wanted to buy the Tiki for several years to stop what was happening there and benefit the neighborhood, but the price and timing hadn’t been right until now, Kirkwood says.

The nonprofit also owns a three-story former glass factory next door, which it converted into a chapel space and a thrift store called Blessingdales, which helps fund some of the recovery program operations, because no one is turned away for lack of funds. Someone shot through the window of the thrift store a few months ago. The store will soon move temporarily to a new location.

When he found out buying the Tiki was possible, Kirkwood says he started thinking about how to adapt and reuse all the small casita buildings.

“But God had so much larger of a plan than we had seen that day in May,” he says. 

In July, Teen Challenge demolished the Tiki and plans to demolish their residential facility, chapel and thrift store, creating a blank slate of more than 2 acres to build a new campus that can house twice as many men.

The former Tiki Motel at 2649 N. Oracle Road during demolition in early July 2022. Credit: Michael McKisson

The thrift store will be located on the corner for better traffic and the chapel will be prominently in the center of the property, with big windows for mountain views.

The men’s center is located in another former motel, which used to be called the Thunderbird Lodge. The swimming pool was turned into a putting green and the carports are being used as a basketball court. The nonprofit has been tight on space, even repurposing a storage room into a counseling room. 

A neon sign inside the chapel at the Tucson Men’s Center. Credit: Becky Pallack

The men’s center held its last services at the old chapel on Wednesday night. A neon sign on the stage inside the chapel says, “Brand New Lives.” 

The Tiki property has struggled, Kirkwood says. It’s the same for the men who come to the center for support so they can change their lives.

“There is a past to all of those sites, but what we’re about is the future,” he says.

The new Teen Challenge campus is in the design phase now. In the meantime, the nonprofit is leasing a different former motel, the Wayward Winds, from the Gospel Rescue Mission, which had redeveloped the property as a shelter for women and children in 2012. That shelter has moved to the Gospel Rescue Mission’s 350-bed location at the H.S. Lopez Center of Opportunity.

The men at the Wayward Winds have been enjoying gathering in the prayer garden, with a ramada and rocking chairs, to listen to guitar music and get fresh air, Kirkwood says.

He remembers a day when he was in recovery in the men’s center, lying in a bunk bed watching a cockroach and wondering what he did to end up in a place like this. In the future, he hopes the men who come here wonder “what did I do to deserve a place like this.” He wants them to feel uplifted, encouraged, and have space to see how worthy they are.

Pima Community College owns the Tucson Inn in the foreground and the Frontier Hotel in the background. Credit: Michael McKisson for Arizona Luminaria.

The Pima Community College project

Pima Community College plans to be part of the revitalization movement, too.

The college bought the Tucson Inn, the Copper Cactus Inn and the Frontier Motel along Drachman Street, next door to its downtown campus, in 2017-2018 and has been holding the properties vacant, waiting for the right time for redevelopment.

The once-lovely 1952 Tucson Inn designed by Anne Rysdale — the only registered female architect in Arizona at the time — has precast concrete details, mixes modern motifs with midcentury design and was one of the larger motels in the district. But it was condemned by the city in 2017 and boarded up following a spike in crime.

Around the same time, city inspectors found major electrical problems at the Copper Cactus Inn and the roof blew off the Frontier Motel during a storm. 

Now the college plans to spend up to $10 million turning the motels into college facilities, considering concepts like a Tucson Inn diner supported by the culinary program; a resource center for refugee and immigrant students; a food pantry; space for faculty workshops; and an art center. Most of the proposed projects are existing college units that have outgrown their current spaces or need to relocate to free up space.

“The thought is that this location is so central to the city of Tucson that it would be so convenient for people who need these services,” says Brandye D’Lena, Pima’s assistant vice chancellor for facilities.

This illustration shows how the Tucson Inn and two other motels on Drachman Street (in color) relate to the Pima Community College Downtown Campus and surrounding area (in white). Credit: Courtesy of Pima Community College

In May, the college board approved hiring GLHN Architects and in June it approved a contract for construction management services. 

The planning and design process is expected to kick off this month. It will be a collaborative process involving campus leadership and staff, D’Lena says. 

Not all of the Tucson Inn can be saved. But the college wants to keep some of the front facade, including the under-repair giant neon sign — “perhaps the most iconic neon sign in the United States,” D’Lena says.

“We’re happy to be the stewards of that sign,” she says. “Actually, it’s a privilege.”

The restored sign will add to the neon art walk along that side of the campus.

These restored motel signs are displayed along Drachman Street on the north side of the Pima Community College downtown campus. Credit: Michael McKisson for Arizona Luminaria

The other two Spanish Revival style motel structures — the 1948 Copper Cactus Inn, originally called El Rancho Motor Hotel, and the 1958 Frontier Motel — will be kept and fully renovated so the exteriors look like new, she says. 

When students and faculty start using the facilities in 2025, D’Lena says, “the buildings will be engaged and alive instead of kind of stuck in the corner.”

Who knows? The next path for the old three-legged Frontier sign — rooted in the earth some 70 years ago when Tucson really was a desert frontier — may be starring as a hip Instagram hotspot for a college-town that loves its past, as much as it does investing in future generations.

A street historian

Today, near the Pima projects on Drachman and about a mile south of the No-Tel Motel on Oracle Road, Lanny Wallace is smoking on the corner outside the Tucson House.

The 50-year-old is tolerating the heat and listening to classic rock on a boom box he’s pulling in a small cart.

The Tucson House used to be luxury apartments. It’s slated for a complete remodel as part of the “Thrive in the 05” plan. But that’s in the future. For now, it’s rundown.  

Across the street, construction workers are finishing the sidewalks on a 120-unit complex of affordable apartments, built by the nonprofit counseling agency La Frontera. Wallace was born and raised in Tucson. He’s seen redevelopment projects come and go.

“Tucson has changed too much,” he says.

He grew up in foster care and has sometimes been homeless. He says he’s been sober for 16 years but there are drugs around him in this building and in this neighborhood.

He says he’d rather see Pima Community College buy the old motels than see more of them turned into shelters.

“I understand we’ve got to beautify Tucson, but beautify people” too, because people are struggling, he says.

Just as he starts to connect the city’s problems with a lack of resources, “Money” by Pink Floyd comes on the radio.

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Becky Pallack is the Operations Executive at Arizona Luminaria. She's been a journalist in Arizona since 1999.