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'Sunshine Mile' of Broadway named endangered historic place

A national historic preservation group has named the "Sunshine Mile" section of Broadway as one of America's 11 most endangered historic places.

The Washington D.C.-based National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded nonprofit, added Sunshine Mile to the list because its unique and eclectic post-World War II and mid-20th century buildings are at risk of being destroyed or irreparably damaged by the planned widening of the Midtown boulevard.

Sunshine Mile is a two-mile section between Euclid Avenue and Country Club Road with commercial buildings that the trust says represents "one of Arizona's most significant concentrations of historic mid-century modern architecture."

With years already invested in planning for the widening, and another step in the process already approved by the City Council earlier this year, it may be too late to block adding more traffic lanes in the stretch. But neighborhood activists and fans of mid-century architecture still hope to influence the details.

Most of the buildings on the Midtown section of Broadway were individually designed and built between 1939 and 1972 as retailers expanded out of Downtown. The section was nicknamed Sunshine Mile in 1953.

It now has its own business group, the Sunshine Mile Business Association. Businesses include Yikes Toys, Zocalo (furniture), Tucson Tamale Co., Natural Grocers, Inglis Florist, Rocco's Little Chicago, and other restaurants and boutiques. Hirsch's Shoes was located there for 62 years but closed in the spring. The Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation bought the building two weeks ago to protect it.

Preservationists hope the "endangered designation" will help them persuade Tucson to preserve as many buildings as possible as well as the character of the commercial district when they widen the road. The local preservation group nominated Sunshine Mile to the national list.

"One of the great moments of growth in Tucson was after World War II," said Demion Clinco, head of the local preservation group, after a Wednesday press conference to announce the designation.

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"We went in the 1930 from 30,000 people to almost 225,000 by 1970. There was really optimism because it was the post war years. It's now been 70 years and people are beginning to look back and say 'Wow, those buildings really are historic and architecturally significant,'" Clinco said.

As Tucson expanded east from Downtown, Broadway became the backbone of the newest commercial district and many car dealers, appliance stores, shoe, music and other businesses located there. Ranch houses surrounded them. Today, it is a major route into and out of Downtown.

Traffic congestion persuaded traffic planners to add the widening of the Sunshine Mile section of Broadway 10 years ago to a list of projects funded by a half-cent sales tax through the Regional Transportation Authority. Voters approved the plan and the tax.

But the widening has been ensnared in a tug of war between those who want to protect the mid-20th century character and those who want speedier access. Original plans were scaled back from eight to six lanes.

Tucson is designing the project and still working out how to accommodate businesses and adequate parking.

The road widening is well underway and five buildings near Campbell and Broadway are already scheduled for demolition, said City Councilman Steve Kozachik. He contends the widening is not needed; in April, he was the only member of the Council who voted against moving forward with the project as planned.

Some of the planned demolition will happen because the widening is wiping out parking, Kozachik said.

"We the city are obligated to a property owner. If we take a business’s parking, we have effectively run them out of business. So we have to consider that a full take and we have to offer to buy them," said the Democrat, who represents the area.

Kozachik said he was assembling groups of property owners to see if some are willing to sell and have their buildings bulldozed so that the lot could then be used to provide parking for property owners who want to remain. That could save some buildings, he said.

Clinco said the foundation hopes to persuade Tucson not to tear down buildings to make way for more parking but instead to adjust parking requirements.

Andie Zelnio, an architect and member of the group, said the region gained a collection of individually designed buildings because builders could afford to develop unique properties after World War II. Material and labor were cheap.

"You can buy one of these buildings cheaper than you can build it. What we don't want to see happen is what happened to El Con (mall) and the rest of Broadway, which is sort of a stucco (style) and national chains that don't contribute to our local economics," she said.

Arlie Adkins, assistant professor at the University of Arizona's School of Landscape Architecture and Planning, said transportation planners across the country are recognizing that it is no longer just about building roads but building communities.

"Building ever faster and wider roads, even if the building is not getting torn down, is not contributing to an environment that supports the small businesses in this corridor. Driving down at 40 plus miles per hour on this roadway is going to be even more encouraged as it (Broadway Road) becomes wider," he said.

More than 270 sites around the country have been placed on the annual list of 11 most endangered historic places over the past 29 years and fewer than five percent were destroyed.

Places on the list include urban districts, rural landscapes, 20th century sports arenas and more properties that are threatened by neglect, insufficient funds, inappropriate development or insensitive public policy, said Christina Morris, director of the Los Angeles field office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Among the small number of other Arizona sites added to the list in previous years are the Grand Canyon, the Oak Flat area near Superior and the Mountain View Officer's Club at Fort Huachuca that was used by African Americans.

Morris said that in addition to the architectural significance, the "quirky charm" of Sunshine Mile attracts small businesses and tourists. In fact, this week it is hosting Tucson Modernism Week, an event with lectures, tours and exhibits on historic architecture.

"Preserving this two-mile stretch … not only strengthens Tucson's distinctive identify but it can be a force that spurs investment and urban revitalization," Morris said.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

The former Hirsch's Shoes building, in the middle of the stretch of mid-century modern buildings known as Tucson's 'Sunshine Mile.'