Many homes in the old part of downtown would fit into the historic center of another city. They were built during and after the turn into the 20th century, some being clapboard or brick with sandstone foundations and fruit trees in the backyards.
But most of our older neighborhoods are what I call “uranium boom” developments, built simply, quickly and affordably to meet the needs of Moab’s rapidly burgeoning population in the late 1950s. The first homes in Hecla subdivision (named after a uranium mine) are remarkably small and box-like. Same for the original homes in Mountain View, on Palisade and along the park. The look has changed somewhat; garages have been turned into livable spaces and landscaping is often xeriscape, either on purpose or due to neglect.
Much is said and written about the need for affordable housing here. Local leaders continually grapple with code changes and development proposals. But the urgency of preserving a sense of place and neighborhood ambiance, while orchestrating smart growth, is also a challenge.
The Moab City Planning Commission tabled a request last week that would allow for the destruction of one of Moab’s uranium-era homes on a four-house cul-de-sac and replace it with three structures — perhaps duplexes — on a lot that is just a little north of half an acre in size. Residents who live on Mi Vida Drive, and particularly those on Rosalie Court, are hoping the covenants placed on the Utex subdivision in 1956 will preserve their understanding that single-family homes are the only permissible dwellings in their neighborhood. During the uranium boom the area was owned and platted by uranium magnate Charlie Steen, whose house on the hill overlooking Moab is now Sunset Grill.
Mi Vida Drive, which gracefully curves along the same lines as Main Street to the northeast, was named by Steen for his mine of the same name that launched him into riches. He generously donated land for schools and churches, and the rest was carved into lots for single-family homes. The area was zoned R-1 until a couple of years ago when it was up-zoned to R-2, which would allow for smaller houses and densities. Neighbors may have been asleep at the switch when this happened, but the rezone seems to have opened the door on a developer’s plans to demolish the home and build what is being called the Guia Estates subdivision.
I first noticed that changes were afoot a few months ago when large pieces of heavy equipment were moved into the backyard of the home that’s at stake. (Interestingly, the covenants recorded by Steen more than 60 years ago also prohibited the storage of large construction equipment in the subdivision.) I’ve long admired the plate-glass window with ivy twining around it in the home’s backyard, which can be viewed from north U.S. 191. When I saw the long arm of a track hoe stretching in front of the window, my heart lurched. The home had just earlier been sold after being on the brink of foreclosure. Its brief stint on the real estate multiple listing service described it as “a perfect fixer-upper and with the right TLC it would be great. It’s a solid investment for the folks who like to do it yourself.” The verbiage didn’t recommend that it be razed and developed, and neighbors probably hoped that a new family could afford its price tag of just over $200,000. But we all know that in Moab you’ve got to be on the hustle to score one of those deals.
Although city planners have recommended approval of the proposal, which staff has called a “three-lot minor subdivision” but which residents feel is anything but minor, the planning commission tabled the plan in order to gain legal advice and other information. Perhaps there will be compelling reasons to let Guia Estates move forward, and legal footing that might trump the original covenants. My fear is that projects like this can erode the neighborhood feel that is already in jeopardy in this busy town. And although “uranium boom houses,” as I call them, may not take any design awards in architecture annals, they are a part of our town’s charm and sense of place. Projects such as this could hasten their demise, which is a further consideration for local planners and leaders who guide the future of fixer-uppers that stand on the brink between dilapidation and development.