Published: 12.27.2007Tract homes may land on preservation listPost-World War II subdivisions could qualify
Alfredo Rendon (top) and his wife Olga Rendon have lived in the same house in Tierra del Sol since 1957. Their East Side neighborhood is flush with Tucson ranch homes, an architectural style marked by very low-pitched roofs and red brick exterior walls.
A recent tally of local neighborhoods confirms what southern Arizonans have been shouting from the rooftops for decades: Tucson is not another Phoenix.
Though both cities sprouted sizable stretches of tract housing in the decades after World War II, the way Tucson grew and the homes built here - about 66,000 from 1945-73 - are very different from our larger neighbor to the north, according to a study commissioned by the city.
The Old Pueblo grew in smaller chunks than the Valley, and our mountain views and local brickworks sparked a distinct style of home - the Tucson ranch. The inventory of 304 neighborhoods built from 1945-73 is on the first cut of post-World War II subdivisions that could qualify for the National Register of Historic Places, said Marty McCune, city historic preservation officer.
The list was culled from just more than 800 neighborhoods started during the study period.
"There are just so many of these neighborhoods that we have to have a way of weeding out the ones that clearly are not going to be eligible," she said.
The study lays the groundwork for comparing Tucson neighborhoods - a key to deciding which to nominate as historic districts, which would likely increase property values and could net homeowners a 50 percent property tax break if they agree to limit remodeling.Echo of baby boom
Tucson's post-World War II housing explosion matched the nation's. Veterans needed homes for the baby boom, which was springing up so fast that traditional, one-at-a-time construction couldn't keep pace, said preservation specialist R. Brooks Jeffery, associate dean of the University of Arizona College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture.
"Like the rest of the nation, we had a pent-up demand," he said.
The answer was production building, in which neighborhoods could be built assembly-line style, Jeffery said.
But Tucson had smaller lenders than Phoenix, and many developers here were small-time operators - often married couples developing just a few acres - which helped make Tucson's production scale smaller than the Valley's in the post-war years, the study shows.
A similar report shows Scottsdale's 103 post-war neighborhoods averaged 146 homes each while here the average was 83 homes.
Tucson's water situation also forced smaller neighborhoods. Phoenix's valleywide water system allowed broad-ranging developments with thousands of homes and dozens of plats, or chunks local governments approved one by one. Tucson had no valleywide water system, said Deborah Edge Abele, president of Akros, the Tempe consulting firm that got $57,000 to do the study.
"Everybody kind of had to find water on their own, and that created a very different pattern," Abele said.
Developers here often filed just one or two plats for small neighborhoods that could rely on wells or small private water companies, she said.
The city bought many of those companies and made them part of Tucson Water, but the Halcyon Acres Water Users Association, created in the early 1950s to serve the neighborhood on the northeast corner of Camino Seco and 22nd Street, still serves 77 customers.
Another difference between Tucson and Phoenix was in materials. Because of the Tucson Pressed Brick Co., which used clay common under Tucson but not common under Phoenix, builders here used red brick while Phoenix builders used slump or cinder block, Abele said.
This red brick and very low-pitched roofs are key features of the Tucson ranch. The low roofs were designed to provide views of the Santa Catalina and Rincon mountains, Abele said.
"You could sell a view to everyone in the neighborhood," she said.Are they really historic?
Tierra del Sol, which stretches from Wilmot Road to Kolb Road and from 22nd Street to Golf Links Road, is the largest neighborhood to make the first cut in the study. The middle-class subdivision is full of Tucson ranches built in the 1950s.
Alfredo Rendon, an electronics supervisor retired from Hughes Aircraft Corp., and his wife Olga, a housewife, built their Tucson ranch in the 6600 block of East Calle Luna in 1957. They paid about $9,000 for the three-bedroom, one-bath home where they still live.
They never thought about whether their neighborhood with curving streets lined with ranch house after ranch house is historic. But they would welcome the 50 percent property tax reduction the move could offer.
"If they're willing to drop the valuation, then, yeah, I'm interested," Alfredo Rendon said.
There should be little concern that thousands of new tax breaks could deplete local government coffers, said state preservation officer James Garrison.
About 14,000 of Tucson's 117,000 homes are in historic districts, with 5,000 more in the pipeline in eight neighborhoods trying to get on the register.
But only about a third of eligible homeowners apply for the tax break, and increased property values would help offset the tax losses, Garrison said.
Some might scoff at the idea that neighborhoods built as late as the 1970s are historic, he said.
"It's just a sea of mass production. I have talked to architects who believe none of that construction should be eligible (for the National Register)," Garrison said.
Retired Air Force Master Sgt. James Carr bought his house in Tierra del Sol in 1969. Since then he has added a brick family room, enclosed the single carport and added a double carport. The changes could make it tough to qualify as a "contributing property," a requirement to get the tax break, but Carr never thought his house was historic anyway.
"I think more of downtown Tucson," Carr said.
But attitudes can change. Decades ago many people didn't think the millions of bungalows that sprang up across the nation in the first half of the 20th century were historic. Thousands of those homes are now on the National Register and are popular with younger people, Garrison said.
"Just because we haven't warmed up to the mass-produced housing doesn't mean people in the next generation won't want to live in it," he said.More study needed
Jeffery had hoped to see Abele's top picks for National Register consideration, but McCune never expected that. The survey is not a final product; it's a starting point for weeding out neighborhoods that are not eligible. More study is likely in the coming year, she said.
Abele didn't want her picks to influence Tucson's decision on which neighborhoods to nominate for the National Register.
"The community needs to decide, not me," she said.
Abele recommends the city create a committee to guide further winnowing. Because of the large number of homes and neighborhoods, she suggests eliminating neighborhoods that meet only one of the four National Park Service criteria for inclusion. The Park Service requires that one criterion be met.
The study might allow Tucson to lump neighborhoods together for the nomination process. Phoenix is doing that with 10 neighborhoods, McCune said.
"In the next few months we need to decide which direction we're going to go," she said.