Wearing a T-shirt with the Tucson Inn neon sign on it, Jude Cook stands at the podium and tells Pima Community College Governing Board members that Tucsonans counted on their promise to care for and cultivate their history. Now they feel betrayed.

“You rip this down, you’re going to end up with anytown anywhere,” he told the board.

Three historic motels next to Pima Community College’s downtown campus could either be restored and put to use as college offices, or they could be demolished and replaced with parking lots. The community has a window to weigh in now on a public conversation that could sway the final decision.

Pima Community College bought the Tucson Inn, the Copper Cactus Inn and the Frontier Motel in 2017-2018 and has been holding the properties vacant. The buildings are contributors to the Miracle Mile Historic District.

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“I don’t think we need more parking lots, we need vision,” Cook said.

Cook’s message was echoed throughout the meeting with a crowd of about 80 people questioning the board’s potential reversal and calling for creative solutions to preserve their Tucson heritage for future generations. Cook has helped to recently restore the giant Tucson Inn sign and he owns the Ignite Sign Art Museum.

The 1952 Tucson Inn and its restored neon sign, in particular, are longtime Tucson landmarks beloved by the community.

The college board had planned to spend up to $10 million turning the hotels into facilities for an innovation center, faculty affairs, diversity program, and education tech services offices. 

The Tucson Inn (lower left), surrounded by Pima Community College buildings and parking lots to the east and south, is at risk for demolition to make way for additional parking at the Pima Community College Downtown Campus in Tucson, Ariz. on May 22, 2023. Credit: Michael McKisson

Now, as part of their budget planning process for the next fiscal year, the governing board said it’s reviewing the cost of restoring the buildings. The new total cost estimate is $35.7 million – about $26 million more than originally expected. 

The rising estimate is apparently due to construction costs and the state of the old buildings, according to Brandye D’Lena, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Facilities.

Chancellor Lee Lambert said at an April study session the option to adapt and reuse the motels was the commitment and promise to the community, and that changing course now could threaten the college’s reputation of integrity.

Herb Stratford, a preservation professional, told the board he is baffled by the budget increase and offered to volunteer his time to help. Stratford restored the Fox Theatre and is currently working on the Teatro Carmen in Barrio Viejo.

“These properties will become a magnet to the community and visitors alike. That impact will not only be economic but will be emotional,” he said at the May meeting. “You can’t manufacture nostalgia but you can get value from it.”

Dan Maher, director of architecture at GLHN Architects, which did a feasibility study, said the original amount being cited was an average construction cost multiplied by the square footage so the college could get started assessing the buildings. “There is been nothing that has been bid or designed or anything to that effect,” he said, which would give a more accurate cost estimate. Maher also said construction costs have seen “unprecedented escalation across the market.”

The board heard about the potential options for the historic buildings during the April meeting and then held a May 22 public meeting to hear from neighbors and historic preservation advocates.

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Next, college staff will likely make a recommendation with a proposed budget in May and then there will be an additional opportunity for community members to weigh in at a public hearing and vote on June 14. The agenda will be posted here. See board members and their email addresses here.

The packed two-hour public in-person meeting this week — with more people joining online to have their say on what actions they want for their community — showed how much this preservation, neighborhood and economic issue matters to Tucsonans.

Some, like Cook, wore their T-shirts with the Tucson Inn neon sign. Many mirrored Cook’s outrage that the college board would even consider bulldozing the historic buildings and pave the way to put up a parking lot.

“We don’t need another parking lot,” said Tim Hagyard. He told the board he’s a native Tucsonan who expects more of the college board.

“I think it would be a huge missed opportunity for the community if those buildings went away,” he said. “You’ve taken on a responsibility with the community by taking on these properties and if that’s not something you’re up to, I think you should give them back to the community to do something with.”

Historic preservation advocate Ken Scoville told the board restoring and reusing historic buildings is key to revitalization of the Miracle Mile district. 

Advocating to save the buildings, Carlos Lozano told the board it has “a moral duty to the community” and a “moral imperative to preserve our heritage.” 

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

No matter which option the board chooses, college leaders said the three classic neon signs, which are separate from the buildings and in front of the hotels, will remain along Drachman Street. The area has become a corridor for big, bold signs from other old motels, creating a neon art walk along the northern boundary of the college campus that is popular for graduation, wedding and quinceañera photo shoots.

Any demolition would have to go through a de-registration process with the city, a process that includes historical preservation committees.

The sun sets over the Copper Cactus in on May, 22, 2023 in Tucson Arizona. Pima Community College buildings are visible in the background. Credit: Michael McKisson

The options include: 

1. Stick with the original plan to preserve the front half of the Tucson Inn, including the diner, and demolish the condemned two-story hotel building. The plan also would preserve the Copper Cactus Inn and the Frontier Motel and “keep the integrity and charms of the hotels” to create a total of 26,750 square feet of space, said Benny Sanchez, Pima Community College Director of Facilities Planning, at the April meeting. 

2. Preserve the front of the Tucson Inn, including the diner, but demolish the hotel building and the other two hotels, creating 4,500 square feet plus 190,000 square feet of parking for a total cost of $8.9 million to fit the existing approved $10 million in spending.

3. Preserve the front of the Tucson Inn, including the diner for 10,500 square feet of space, and build a new 6,000-square-foot building and 137,500 square feet of parking for an estimated $17.3 million.

4. Demolish all but the neon signs for $3.6 million to create 220,000 square feet of parking, although the college could build on the lots in the future when funding is available.

5. Lambert proposed a fifth option could be to continue discussions rather than deciding quickly. But Lambert himself won’t be part of the conversation. He announced this week he is leaving Pima after 10 years to take a job as chancellor of Foothill-De Anza Community College in Cupertino, California.

There have been three feasibility studies by three different design firms for these properties, said Maher at the May meeting. For the past year he’s been working with the program staff who might eventually work in the buildings on visioning exercises for the new spaces.

The Tucson Inn property abuts the Pima Community College Downtown campus and is in danger of demolition to make way for a parking lot on May, 22, 2023. Credit: Michael McKisson

Once lovely, now crumbling

Meanwhile, the buildings continue to decompose.

The once-lovely Tucson Inn designed by Anne Rysdale — the only registered female architect in Arizona in the ‘50s — 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 1948 Copper Cactus Inn and the roof blew off the 1958 Frontier Motel during a storm.

Since the college bought the buildings, construction costs have climbed. The original cost estimation used a $650 per square foot number and it could be more like $1,000 per square foot now, said D’Lena, the college administrator for facilities, at the May meeting.

Not all of the Tucson Inn can be saved, according to an architectural design feasibility study. But the college wants to keep some of the front facade, including the diner.

Some college board members wanted to consider the spending on the motel projects in context with a $193.4 million facilities wish list, including emergency-level air conditioning replacements and the need for more science labs, plus $182 million in upcoming deferred maintenance needs over the next 10 years.

Renovating the motels is not a priority for Pima, said board member Maria Garcia at the April meeting. The immediate need is addressing deferred maintenance, added board member Luis L. Gonzales.

Parts of the historic Tucson Inn, pictured on May 23, 2023, has been condemned by the city and Pima Community College is considering demolishing some or all of the buildings. Credit: Michael McKisson

Community backlash

A memo for the April meeting anticipated “potential backlash from current members of the Tucson historical community.”

The board previously included historic preservationist Demion Clinco, but last year he lost his seat to former PCC faculty member Theresa Riel, who is now the board chair.

The backlash was felt at the May 22 special meeting for the board to hear from community members about the motel projects. 

Stratford, the preservation professional who questioned the budget increase, made the case for keeping Tucson’s roots and growing the city’s reputation for embracing and building on its own identity.

“Authenticity is what makes a community unique and special,” Stratford said.

If the college is not going to restore the motels, it should let them go to someone who will restore them, Stratford said.

Bobbie Jo Buel Carter, the longtime newsroom leader of the Arizona Daily Star, said she’s lived downtown for 42 years. She said she’s seen the community work year after year to restore their neighborhood. She and her husband helped restore more than a dozen buildings downtown, including an old apartment complex that was condemned and surrounded by razor-wire fencing.

Neighborhood and community restoration “speaks to what Tucsonans value and also what helps drive our economy,” she said.

“Tucsonans value the heritage of the city. It’s one of the reasons we want to live here. It brings tourists,” she said, holding out her hands as she recounts the daily walking tours that show pride in community. 

“It takes a long time to see what the future might look like, and what people might value,” she said. “The buildings you own, they will be valued, and that stretch of the city will come back, if you don’t level it. Seize the opportunity.”

“If you don’t have the stomach for it, that’s fine, sell the properties to somebody who does value them. There’s no harm in walking away from it. But demolition — you can’t reverse it,” she said. “And the parking lots — people have said it — there couldn’t be a worse possible use.”

Riel said the decision to put in more parking lots isn’t a done deal, although all of the college’s currently proposed options include parking lots.

“Please rest assured that we are going to make the best decision that we can make” that will improve student education, the college and the community, she told the worried audience. “We want to try to do it all … We’re not making this decision lightly.”

The iconic Tucson Inn sign in early August 2022 with the Tucson Hotel, once luxury housing, now affordable housing — in the background. Credit: Michael McKisson for Arizona Luminaria

Nine months ago, the Tucson Inn sign was broken down. An August 2022 photo shows the last light breaking through gray clouds. A monsoon storm is creeping in. And the inn’s treasured sign is in shambles. Missing letters, rust and old paint.

At dusk, on a recent May night in downtown Tucson, the sun is fading, casting the iconic Tucson Inn and its boarded-up windows in the thick shadows of towering desert palm trees.

Time has passed since the summer monsoon storm, since a community investment in preservation. After an unexpected stretch of stubborn springtime rain, light rays crown the recently restored Tucson Inn sign, painted anew in bold blue, red, yellow and orange.

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