In Tucson

The category: New city neighborhoods forming their own identities while still respecting their heritage – though gentrification’s a challenge.

The stats: It’s one of 15 small historic neighborhoods that flank the city center. A handful of local architects and builders have transformed the area. Their homes, which range from 600 to 2,700 square feet, are adobe, rammed-earth, straw-bale, concrete-block, and industrial-style metal-sided structures. 

The residents: Heather and Tom Wuelpern (37 and 47) and their daughters, Annika, 5, and Tessa, 2. Heather is an artist, interior designer, and faux-finish expert who works with local homeowners on interior color and design. Tom is a designer-builder whose firm, Rammed Earth Development, specializes in eco- and regional design and materials.

How they got here: Tom moved to Arizona from Michigan for graduate study and to learn about adobe and rammed-earth construction. It was a ground-up experience. “With my MBA in hand, I started a $7-an-hour ditch-digging job at a rammed-earth project,” Tom says. He moved to Tucson and fell in love with the Spanish heritage of the homes in the city’s core.

Why they’re never leaving: The 2,700-square-foot rammed-earth home, built by Tom in the tradition of other Sonoran hacienda-style houses in the Barrio Santa Rosa, a neighborhood that’s more than 130 years old. The Wuelperns’ home has a tall “great room” with craggy, recycled beams and warm-toned concrete floors, and a covered porch that wraps around a sheltered, north-facing courtyard.

It’s an easy walk to downtown’s art galleries, museums, and restaurants. Then there’s the neighborhood culture: After the day’s heat, people spill out onto the streets and chat or sit in an adjacent park. “Since the front walls of the homes run right to the street, the Barrio lives and feels more like European or northern Mexican communities,” Tom says. 

The story behind the neighborhood: According to Tom, it was “a very scary place” when he moved here in 1989. Since then, it has evolved slowly and on a house-by-house basis. Now it’s a friendly, ethnically mixed neighborhood of younger families and longtime residents, and the downtown is being revitalized.

Want in? Average price runs about $400K ( The cost of new or remodeled housing runs $200 to $300 per square foot, including land. Demand is high, and housing stock is limited. A nearby planned development called Rio Nuevo, which is just beginning construction, also celebrates colonial Mexican architecture.

Other new city places we love
Conover Commons in Redmond, WA, is one of Northwest architect Ross Chapin’s and Cottage Company’s “pocket neighborhoods.” The award-winning answer to the challenge of small-scale development features a dozen well-designed two-bedroom, two-bath cottages surrounding a garden courtyard.

Downtown Albuquerque is enjoying a loft boom, and the most intriguing project is at the Gothic-style 1914 Albuquerque High School. Located in the EDo (or East Downtown) neighborhood, the in-city village will feature 180 “on-campus” lofts, 54 of them in the former gym.

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