Published May 2007
by Mae Lee Sun
ust west of I-10, sandwiched between Congress Street, St. Mary’s Road, and Silverbell Road, sits Menlo Park—one of Tucson’s oldest neighborhoods. Mac Hudson, president of the Menlo Park Neighborhood Association (MPNA) has family who’s lived there for years, although not as long as some residents whose family history in Menlo Park spans multiple generations. Most have gone about their business, working close to Downtown, where access to services like shopping and banking were convenient. When many of those businesses closed in the 70s and 80s, including El Banco, the white building that sat on the corner of Linda Avenue and Congress Street, some residents moved out, leaving older adobe and brick bungalows and former agricultural land to fall into disrepair or be abandoned.
In 2003 however, Hudson, along with a few friends and neighbors, poked around the scrubby, vacant lots, scattered with mesquites and thought these structures could somehow regain their use. One idea they had was to transform a crumbling 1905-era double-brick home with a detached coach house at 17 North Linda Avenue into a community center and public garden. After the house was purchased by Pima County in the 1980s, it served as a residence for county employees, including Ward 1’s present City Council Member, Jose Ibarra.
Hudson says, “Myself, along with other Menlo Park residents and neighborhood association members, formed the Linda Avenue (LA) Subcommittee to talk about what we wanted to see happen with the house and the land. We knew from the beginning, having spoken with past neighborhood leaders who had saved the place from destruction in the 90s that we wanted to honor the architecture and cultural traditions of the past. But we also wanted to be forward-thinking by making Linda Avenue sustainable beyond that, creating a space the neighborhood could use and learn from.”
So, off the MPNA went, searching for ways to fund the project, managing to mobilize support from the private and public sectors. They were successful in obtaining $250,000 in county bond money granted in 2004. Some of the bond money was used to hire Richard Fe Tom of The Architecture Company to complete an architectural assessment, gearing the property toward adaptive re-use. The exterior structure of 17 N. Linda was then stabilized. Concurrently, dozens of residents, children and local Chicano artists, including those associated with Raices Taller 222 (RT222), a Latino-based art gallery, planned to paint a 60-foot mural on the west-facing masonry wall that divided the property with El Rio health clinic. The participants, including Ceci Garcia and David Tineo of RT222, had such a good time, they extended the mural to a final span of over 200 feet and gave it a colorful ending. The mural however, was only one aspect of what Joanie Sawyer, Program Associate for PRONeigborhoods, and Ann Audrey, Environmental Projects Coordinator for the City of Tucson’s Office of Conservation and Sustainable Development, say has pulled this unique neighborhood and project together.
“The mural on the Linda Avenue Project is a good example of how to have fun and proves how possible it is to accomplish something when people work together. I also saw how at the end of the day, members of the neighborhood were able to trust that they could count on one another where before, they were skeptical about what could be achieved,” says Sawyer, whose organization funded the mural through its small grants program. PRO Neighborhoods remains involved, not only because they subsequently granted the MPNA additional funding to take things to the next level, but because PRO Neighborhoods’ role, says Program Manager Judith Anderson, is to provide assistance to groups wanting to effect change in their communities by helping them build partnerships with the public and private sector, even jumping in with “peoplepower” if needed. PRO Neighborhoods has also helped other neighborhood groups achieve similar goals, including the progressive neighborhood of Dunbar Spring, where residents have modeled many of the principles of revitalization that have been integrated into the Menlo Park LA project. Aubrey then stepped in as a representative of the City to oversee the water harvesting plans and supported the MPNA’s workshop series on sustainability, which was paid for by the second PRO Neighborhoods grant.
“You can plunk in basins around trees anywhere but if you’re not looking at the land ten years down the road, you’re going to miss the real challenges that come with first doing a site assessment to see what exactly you’re dealing with,” says Audrey. “You want there to be an integrated approach that can mitigate the noise issues and transient traffic on that particular site off of Congress and I-10 as well as look at how the outdoor space can be designed so that people can gather there year-round.” Audrey’s chief role is to help neighborhoods get their environmentally-based projects off the ground. The energy and success, however, comes directly from the commitment on the part of the residents, she adds, and not from the City or outside groups, although her office has effectively assisted the mid-town neighborhood of Blenman-Elm in planting trees in the right-of-ways and the central/northwest Keeling Neighborhood in designing a green pathway or “greenway”. She expects more neighborhoods to follow in the footsteps of Menlo Park with residents turning flat, dry, urban lots into lushly landscaped and sustainable garden/community spaces. The how-to workshops were taught by Audrey and local permaculture experts Brad Lancaster and Dan Dorsey of the Sonoran Permaculture Guild, who introduced residents to sculpted trenches and basins, planting in native “guilds” with mesquite, ironwoods, blue palo verde, grey thorn and quail bush, and showed them how to integrate the existing chunks of broken concrete from the site back into the landscape design.
Although the project is hardly complete, it’s this kind of enthusiasm and community-wide effort that Richard Elias, chairman of the Pima County Board of Supervisors, feels will preserve both the quality and way-of-life for older, residential neighborhoods. “As a fifth-generation Tucsonan, I know what neighborhoods mean to the people who live there. Menlo Park is a good example of a neighborhood under extreme stress and pressure from the millions of dollars in development related to Rio Nuevo, which is right across the street from Linda Avenue. Menlo Park is also a good example of a neighborhood that has taken a stand to protect its cultural resources by turning the neglected eyesore of 17 N. Linda into an asset that will be of great benefit to everyone. We’re here to help them accomplish that.”
And if taking on the 17 N. Linda Avenue site weren’t ambitious enough, even with the assistance and support of organizations citywide, the intrepid MPNA, who throughout the project has partnered with Chicanos Por La Causa—an award-winning community development corporation that represents and serves the Hispanic community—is also discussing plans with the County to expand their vision through appropriation of the old El Banco structure next door. Its current temporary function is to house the County’s wireless radio operations, but the MPNA is in the process of developing a business plan for it called “El Banco del Artes”, a haven for arts and culture in the neighborhood. The plan also includes a “Museo de Barrio” as well as a café/gift shop to encourage the project’s long-term financial sustainability and independence from County funding. However, they’re still considering ideas, all of which would not be put into action until agreements on El Banco’s use are finalized with the County.
For more information, contact Menlo Park Neighborhood Association at 628-4927; PRONeighborhoods at 882-5885; City of Tucson Office of Conservation and Sustainable Development at 791-4545; Sonoran Permaculture Guild at 624-8030; and Chicanos Por La Causa at 882-0018.