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Urban Architect Rob Paulus: Shaping Tucson’s Skyline with Innovative Design

Embark on an architectural journey with Tucson’s renowned Urban Architect, Rob Paulus, in our latest “Life Along The Streetcar” episode. Host Tom Heath delves into the creative mind of Paulus, unveiling the inspirations and aspirations behind his transformative work in Tucson’s urban landscape.

Rob Paulus has been a pivotal figure in reshaping the skyline of Tucson. His unique approach to marrying historical elements with modern aesthetics has not only beautified our city but also enriched its cultural fabric. In this episode, listen to Paulus as he discusses his most iconic projects and his vision for Tucson’s future through sustainable and innovative design.

Episode Highlights

  • Rob Paulus’ Architectural Influence in Tucson: Discussion on how Rob Paulus’ projects have transformed the urban core of Tucson, showcasing his extensive and varied repertoire in both commercial and residential projects.
  • The Ice House Lofts Project: Insight into the Ice House Lofts, a pioneering project by Paulus, where an old ice warehouse was converted into a modern living space, blending historical architecture with contemporary design.
  • Approach to Historic and Modern Design: Paulus shares his philosophy of integrating historic elements with modern aesthetics, highlighting his unique approach to architectural design in Tucson.
  • Paulus’ Early Career and Influences: Exploration of Rob Paulus’ early career, including his experiences in California and the decision to start his own firm in Tucson.
  • Portal Bar and Ermanos Restaurant Design: Discussion about the creative process behind designing the Portal Bar and Ermanos Restaurant, emphasizing the innovative use of space and lighting.
  • Addressing Housing Affordability: Paulus talks about his new venture aimed at addressing housing affordability through the concept of accessory dwelling units (ADUs), demonstrating his commitment to community development.
  • Creative Use of Space in Challenging Projects: Paulus elaborates on his love for working on unusual and challenging projects, and how these constraints often lead to innovative design solutions.
  • Vision for Tucson’s Future: Rob Paulus shares his vision for the future development of Tucson, focusing on sustainable and high-design concepts.

But our journey doesn’t end here! “Life Along The Streetcar” is all about celebrating the vibrant community and diverse stories of Tucson. We’re eager to hear from you – our listeners and readers. Do you have an inspiring story about Tucson or know someone whose contributions are making a significant impact? Maybe you have thoughts on our city’s architectural evolution or wish to connect with Rob Paulus himself?

We encourage you to get involved and share your insights. Click the ‘Contact’ button to tell Tom what’s on your mind. Your suggestions, stories, and interactions are what make “Life Along The Streetcar” a true reflection of our community’s spirit.

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Transcript (Unedited)

Good morning. It’s a beautiful day in the Old Pueblo and you’re listening to KTDT Tucson. Thank you for spending a part of your brunch hour with us on your downtown Tucson community -sponsored, all -volunteer -powered rock -and -roll radio station. This week we speak with Rob Paulus, an architect whose career spans three decades, much of which has been designing spaces in Tucson’s urban core. We’re going to discuss a couple of his iconic projects as well as his newest venture to address the current housing crisis. Today is December 10th, 2023. My name is Tom Heath and you are listening to Life Along the Streetcar. Each and every Sunday our focus is on social, cultural, and economic impacts in Tucson’s urban core. And we shed light on hidden gems everyone should know about. From A Mountain to University of Arizona and all stops in between, you get the inside track right here on 99 .1 FM streaming on downtownradio .org. Also available on your iPhone or Android with our very own Downtown Radio

Tucson app. If you want to interact with us on the show, we recommend you do that through Facebook and Instagram. And if you want more information about us, our book, past episodes, or simply to contact us, head over to our website lifealongthestreetcar .org. And of course, you can listen to our podcast and all kinds of platforms out there, and we hope that you do. It’s December, it’s chilly, and that means the ice skating rink is back out in front of the convention center. This annual tradition has been up since around Thanksgiving and will last through the new year. Lots of people out there skating around and enjoying sometimes some very temperate, mild temperatures, even though they’re out there on them skates ice skating. It’s been chilly though. Been wearing them long sleeves lately, but not gonna complain about that. We love that weather. That’s what brings football and all kinds of people to Tucson. Well as you’re out and about exploring you might want to try to identify some of

the projects created by our next guest. His name is Rob Paulus. He’s a local architect and has been involved with projects all along the urban core from the east to the west and all stuff in the middle as well. I was kind of surprised to see some of the commercial and residential projects that he had been involved with. Didn’t realize that his repertoire had been so expansive. But I had a chance to talk with him by phone just a couple of days ago and kind of excited to share not only information about his current projects but something he’s working on right now that’s going to help address some housing affordability issues that we’re seeing.

So on the phone with us today is what I, the person I like to affectionately refer to as the urban architect because you can’t really walk much around this area without seeing something he’s had his fingerprints on, big, small, and everything in between, Rob Paulus. Thanks for joining us today on Life Along the Streetcar. Oh, thank you. It’s my pleasure. Awesome. Yeah. And I was, I was looking at your, um, uh, I mean, I’ve known you’ve done a lot of stuff and I, I think I’ve lived in at least one of your projects on one North 5th, but then I looked at your website and I’m like, oh my gosh, you’re like all over, uh, the urban core. You’ve got stuff on every end and, and, you know, even within just a couple of miles of the street car out. So you are, you are our show’s official architect. Oh, thank you. Are you originally from Tucson? I’m originally from Tucson and born and bred. Moved out as soon as I got my degree from the U of A. Went to California and I cut my teeth on projects out there

then moved back. And I’ve been here since. Started my own firm kind of a year and a half after getting back and yeah, that’s it. So you worked for other firms in LA or in California and then you came back to Tucson, started your own firm. About what time frame was that, what year was that? So I came back in 94, and I remember it was two months before the Northridge earthquake, and that kind of opened up a lot of doors for design and stuff in California. So I missed that, but then came back to Arizona, and it’s funny when you work in a metropolitan area and you come back to sleepy little Tucson, you’re like, wait, everyone needs to get awake here. So that was really fun to do, because then it kind of nurtured, like, okay, let’s get this going here. So I worked for a medium -sized firm. There’s no real big firms in Tucson. So it was like a 20 -person firm architecture one for about a year and a half. Then I went out on my own in 95. So late 95, I started my own thing. But it seems like, you

know, you woke us up looking at, you know, all of your projects. They definitely have this flair, at least the ones that I’m, you know, that I’m focusing on in the, you know, kind of the core of Tucson. They have this historic component to it, which is Tucson, but then they have this edgy, you know, California feel as well. So you’ve woken us up. Oh, thank you. And that is actually the ideal project that we love to work with, where it’s something that, you know, I just got back from Rome and stuff there is thousands of years old. But here things are like 100 years old, 150 at the most. So it’s really fun to play off of old and new. That’s something that I think my firm has gotten pretty adept at, is taking the historic proportions or whatever it is that’s historic materiality and then doing something new with it. It’s almost like I had a former professor talk about this, where he said, when you’re around your grandparents, you don’t act like you’re old, typically you act even younger. And

that’s really informed how we look at things, like make it completely different, make it fun if it’s more static, or you can use proportional elements to make it vital and modern, new materiality, but then almost if you squint your eyes or as you walk past something the solid void is similar. So that’s something that we’ve learned to do. And it’s kind of taken on a new kind of life for our projects that are in more urban settings. And even inform things that aren’t, even things that are out in the middle of nowhere becomes like, how do you create something old, which the desert is millions of years old? So how do you accept that and put something new into it and celebrate nature that’s around you? And you do have projects all over, you know, and I’m looking at, you know, the central, you know, first, I guess the first time I heard your name come up, this was years ago, was with the Ice House Lost. That’s the first time I remember hearing Rob Paulus and, and that, you know, I think that’s

a very sort of tip, not typical, but indicative of what you do. It’s, it’s an old ice warehouse, literally that was converted into a very modern living experience, but with the exterior still looking a lot like an ice warehouse. Oh, yeah, no, definitely. that was a really fun eye -opening experience for our development team, for my architectural firm. What can you do with, which in this case was 36 ,000 square feet of space, just open space. So it’s a, I think it’s like five different buildings put together. And it was almost like a stage set. So we could go in and say, in this building, we’re going to do this. And the next one, it’s double the height, but no windows. So we punched in windows. It was really an interesting experience and authenticity and materiality. And then our thing is like a project isn’t anything unless it functions really well. So in that case, we kind of packed the suitcase, if you will, with demising walls and made really livable spaces that were to the space that

it was in, each building component that also embraced the outside, which very fond of landscape and how the distant view, as well as foreground view, how all that works with your living experience, natural light, natural ventilation. In this case, it was really bizarre because you’re near a train track and how do you employ that and make it part of the architecture? So that was a really fun one for us. I think it actually showed what was possible too. Yeah, that’s what I was going to say. I mean, you’re doing this in early 2000s before there was, I mean, what we consider now, you know, downtown. It was not, you know, this was not the place to be. We hadn’t really come to that yet, and you’re designing these fairly upscale residences in an old warehouse, which does not seem Tucson -ish at the time. Yeah. No, it was, honestly, the, I was talking about the scary factor is what our development team or my architectural firm, what draws to it is the fact that it was scary. It’s basically, it’s

so crazy to think that we purchased this, I think it was in 03, or 02, because we opened it in 05. It took three years, but it was an old ice and cold storage warehouse. So literally, they never had any leaks in the roof. I don’t think they even cared because anything that would drop down to the fault ceiling would freeze because it was minus 15 degrees. So they, I think we saw it in May and you can imagine it’s pretty hot in Tucson. We’re walking through this old warehouse and it’s dripping cold water from the ceiling. Then and we realized there’s ice that’s frozen up there, like a foot and a half thick in some areas because it was minus 15 degrees and they had just turned off the kind of freezer part of it. So it operated as a warehouse until when, like 2000, until you bought it in 2003? I think so, I think 2002 even. And then, because they stopped making ice, I think in the 80s, like late 80s. And then they moved that production up to Phoenix, but they still use the warehouse portion,

which was for like frozen vegetables, Christmas trees, whatever that could they could fit in there. And so it was really the scariness is what drew me to it, as well as my development partners. And it’s one of those things like, what can you do with a building? And we said, well, it’s a certain cost. This has to work. I think my inclination was it worked in California. Other development partners from back east Chicago area, they’re like they’d seen it all before. And so we just jumped at it. I mean, now I would say this is a project that makes sense to me because you’ve got, you know, with your history and background, you jump into something like this and people are like, oh my gosh, it’s a Rob Paul, so I can’t wait to see what he does. But in 2005, you were still, I mean, your firm was 8, 10 years old, done some projects, but you hadn’t done anything to this scale at that point, had you? Oh no, not at all. So it was, and to be part of the development team was really eye -opening and educational

just to see that part of it too. So yeah, it was, it was awesome in many ways and lived there for a number of years. And then I just learned this in kind of preparation for the show, going sort of to the opposite spectrum. You were the team behind Ermanos and Portal, that fancy bar there on 4th Avenue. Yeah. Which is completely different. I mean, literally, Portal is a transportational experience, and when you walk into that bar, it feels like you’re sort of entering into a kind of a dimensional warp there, so your form and function seem to be right on spot. I was thinking, it’s funny you say that because that was the intent of the two owners, Mark and Eric, as well as us, is how do we transform people to literally another planet, another space? And that project was amazing. It was really fun to do that kind of thing, which was kind of a carryover, like, as a designer, you’re always like, let’s push this here, let’s push this there. there’s usually two or three things on every project

that you’re doing something kind of new. Otherwise, it’s templated. It’s like, oh, function plumbing, mechanical, electrical. There’s only so much you can do with that. But on the portal, it was really interesting to push this vocabulary of compound curves and how do you build that. And so at our old office, it was basically an aluminum shoebox on the outside with a rain screen. And then the inside was violin. And a violin has a perfectly flat register on the top and bottom and then it flows kind of to the F hole and to where the bridge comes down. I play violin and that’s why it was so interesting to do this 30 by 60 kind of shape in each of the two spaces to make it look like a violin. But that portal, we then took that curve and went all the way down with it to the floor almost and custom lighting, everything’s indirect lighting. It’s really, we learned a lot from that and in many ways and it’s still highly successful. We always talk about local restaurants, there’s a certain time period

that you have or a certain lifespan and with what we, when I say we, it’s always we. There’s contractors, there’s owners, there’s, it was a really great symbiotic relationship to create something unique that far exceeded anyone’s concept of what it could be. Yeah, well, I, it’s a, it’s an experience just getting into that bar, their cocktails are fabulous as well, but just the ambiance as you’re sitting in there certainly does not go unnoticed. And I should have known, but I didn’t realize until recently that this was yours. I’ve always seen you more as a residential side, whether it’s single family, multiple family things. So I just realized how much of the commercial world you’re actually in. We’re going to be back to talk about that world in just a moment and finish up this conversation with Rob Paulos, talking about his iconic projects in the Urban Core. And we’re about to talk about something he’s launching to help with the housing shortages that we’re seeing in Tucson. But first I

want to remind you that you are listening to Life Along the Streetcar on Downtown Radio 99 .1 FM and streaming on downtownradio .org. Support for Downtown Radio is provided by the Tucson Gallery located in downtown Tucson inside of the proper shops at 300 East Congress Street. The Tucson Gallery offers original work, reproductions and merchandise from Tucson artists like Joe Pacek, Jessica Gonzalez, Ignacio Garcia and many more. For information about all of the artists, including when they will be live at the gallery, head to the TucsonGallery .com or find them on Instagram and on Facebook as Tucson Gallery.

Just before the break we were talking with Rob Paulus, our architect guest today, about work that he has done specifically on Armando’s Restaurant and the Portal Bar within. We’re gonna kind of finish up part of the conversation and move into some new things he’s working on that involve the city’s new quest for accessory dwelling units on single family properties that are hopefully provide more housing options and push prices down a little bit for those needing it. That project might be one of the most kind of design projects we’ve done. Spent so much time on that and it’s been published it got into Interior Design Magazine which has two million and people looking at it. It’s really been a fun project and the success for the owners is amazing too. Well, I don’t want to diminish it being in a magazine, but I looked at your media page and like 80 % of your projects are in magazines. It’s so much shape or form. They’re home of the year, merit awards, all kinds of stuff, architecture, home

and digest. I even saw, what was it, this old house, you got a mention back way back in the 90s from this old house. Oh yeah, that was still around. Yeah, that’s funny. Yeah, your accomplishments are amazing in that realm, you know, and after looking at it, you kind of get a sense of that style, that modern, that historic, that, you know, future and also respect for its location. And I also noticed there are a lot of projects that seem to work in odd spaces, like very narrow projects or, you know, multiple homes on smaller lots, things that require kind of a creative use of space. Oh yeah, thank you. That’s honestly, if it’s unusual, so I had, I’ve always liked unusual stuff and even had a professor in school that talked about, it was like my story, like I’d get sick as a kid, I’d lie in my bed and look at my little track on my parents that we all lived in and said, man, if you flip this house upside down, it’d be so much more interesting with the soffits and level changes. And then to

hear a professor say the same story one day in class, like, wait, that’s what I like. I like the weird and then unusual stuff. So yeah, thank you for that. It’s true. The truth is, the tougher a project is, the weirder the site, typically it creates something new, which is all about space. You know, how does the structure works, materiality. So you were definitely onto something there. I remember touring the 18th Street bungalows, you know, when, when they had first opened before they were so, you know, they hadn’t even sold yet and walking through and just remembering like every, there’s some weird angles in that, but every space had a purpose and there was a use for every space. There wasn’t like any area that was sort of like, quote unquote, dead space. Oh yeah, no, thanks. That was a really fun project. It’s Armory Park, it’s historic, and there’s very strict controls on what you can do. Like your height is determined by what’s adjacent to you. So there was an adjacent, fairly high,

one -story building right across the street. And we said, wait, if we keep that height and keep all the details similar to historic, we can actually do two -story, but make it look like one. And that became the design. So it’s really, we could have probably even pushed it further, but it was interesting. I love, I talk about restraint is good. You know, when you have things pressing up against you, I used to run marathons and that’s a huge restraint because you have to conserve your energy for that last six miles where you’re, we call it bonking, where you’re, you start losing the blood sugar in your muscle and you start burning fat. And so that’s been really useful in trying to get these projects done, the more restraint you have. Typically, you come up with more interesting ideas if you’re open to that. Well, yeah, I think, I know I personally work better under a deadline, which is a time constraint. I get more creative with how I’m going to get something done so I can understand that.

Yeah, the, I think the project that I’m really excited to hear how this comes out for multiple reasons is kind of what you and I have talked about briefly, which is this concept of accessory units on properties. It’s something the city has finally, after many years, put forth some basic guidelines on how this can be established and, you know, through zoning and permitting. And this seems like a project you are taking on full force at this point. Oh yeah, I’m glad you brought that up. Shameless plug. So we’re starting an ADU concept that hopefully will turn into a business and I actually purchased a house near botanical gardens that this ADU will fit into the backyard. So I’m redoing the front yard. I’m going to move into the front yard. I’m redoing the front house. I’m going to move into that and then we’re going to build an ADU in the back and use it as a way to tell people this is what’s possible. It’s super high design. It’s based on a lot of the stuff happening in California, which

it’s interesting. Just a little anecdote, the entire state of California instituted a four foot rear yard setback, which exploded what’s happening out there. It’s multi billions of dollars moving in. And it’s interesting to solve the housing crisis. It can create a benefit for young people in the family that don’t have a place to live, but that they can live back at mother -in -law cottage, the granny flat, whatever you want to call it. It’s really opened up a lot of interests on many people’s level, including mine. But the whole idea of density within an urban core, it’s almost like the easiest density that you can provide is going into existing lot. We don’t need a site really to develop. So the idea that this is potentially ultimately made in a factory and then delivered to the site and craned onto a foundation with all the utilities put in. So it’s really, it’s going to be really interesting to see this develop. And, you know, it’s nothing new. It’s been done all over the world, especially

on the West coast. So it’s interesting to think of that coming to Tucson. Well, and it is coming. And if you, if for those that aren’t as familiar with, you know, like the downtown area, there are a lot of very sizable lots that have previously been zoned as just a single family without any sort of additional opportunity for that. And now putting an accessory unit, because obviously many people listening to this know my business is mortgages outside of when I’m having fun on the radio, and you’ve got affordability issues because we don’t have enough property. We have housing supply issues, but we also have people that have these lots that can earn extra income. So you’re solving so many problems by creating density through existing homes, existing lots and just adding a component to it. I think it’s going to solve a lot of problems for a lot of different people. Oh, that’s great. I’m glad you brought that up because it’s with us like we’re going to build a one bedroom. I think it’s 520

square feet and the cool thing about it’s it’s big, it’s sizable. But what’s interesting is we may be one of the first people that’s building a sizable porch. So we’re kind of almost matching the inside area, the living area, and putting that outdoor porch that’s shaded as well. So that’s and then the idea is that that’s the one bedroom, then there’s also going to be a studio and a two bedroom and potentially even just an office module. So someone who doesn’t need plumbing, but they just need electrical, that could be another feature that we offer. So we’re hoping that this gets kick -started with this actual building that I’m very much into. Even when I was in school, I was already working for an architect and it was really hard sometimes to be theoretical. Because we combine both, we combine theory plus this actual building it. So that’s the goal with this, is to get it built and let people see it. And then there’s really, there’s no way, there’s no reason for any, you know, to misconstrue

our concept because it actually exists. So we’re hoping that that works for us. Well, Rob Paulus, you’ve been developing in downtown before there really was a modern downtown. So I look forward to what the future brings as you develop this concept and bring it to the urban core. If anybody wants to learn more, I’d, you know, recommend you check out the website robpaulus .com. There’s a projects page with just some phenomenal work that’s been done, some renderings of things. It’s just really, it’s like a little magazine page in and of itself. And Rob, I appreciate you taking your time to talk with us today. Oh, thank you so much, Tom. I appreciate it. That was Rob Paulus, an architect. His website is robpaulus .com. All kinds of fun projects on there for you to check out. Residential, commercial, old, new, reuse of space. just really very creative mind to pull all these things together. My name is Tom Heath. You are listening to Life Along the Streetcar on Downtown Radio 99 .1 FM and we’re

streaming on downtownradio .org. You’re listening to KTDT Tucson, Arizona 99 .1 FM Downtown Radio. I’m Brother Mark, host of a show called Radio Club Crawl that airs every Tuesday at 3 p .m. We try to focus on most of the bands that are coming through Tucson, and we give you a tasty taste of their music. If you wanna check out what’s happening around Tucson, check out Radio Club Crawl, Tuesdays, 3 p .m., right here on KTDT Tucson, Arizona, 99 .1 FM, Downtown Radio. Thank you very much, enjoy your evening, bye -bye. All right, episode, what is this, episode 276, oh my God. 276 is coming to a close here, as we are coming down to the wire of 2023. 3. Next week we’ll have a normal show and then I think we’re gonna wrap up the year with some best of maybe I don’t know it’s Christmas Eve New Year’s Eve I’m not sure if we’ll do shows those two days or I’ll try my hand at editing up some of my favorites from the 50 or so episodes we did this year. Please get out if you are so inclined and explore

this beautiful weather enjoy it if you’re downtown you’ve got the the ice skating rink all kinds of festivities happening all along the urban core streetcar remains free if you want to hop on there And take a ride and while you’re at home invite you to check out our website Downtown radio org see all the cool shows that are happening. You know we always this time of year There’s countdown shows some of the best and since there’s different genres represented the the countdown shows are all a bit different It’s always a fun time for me to kind of catch up on all the things I might have missed throughout the year all that information is available on downtown radio org and as a reminder You can kind of click on that donate button over there if you are so inclined to support our efforts here in the station. If you stick around for a little bit, and I hope you do, Ted Przelski with words and work will be kicking off the next half hour, and then at the top of the hour, Ty Logan, Heavy Mental,

back into the music at one o ‘clock, and again, all those details are available on downtownradio .org. And what about you? What do you want to know? Right? As we roll into 2024, tell us the things that we should be talking about, right? You’re in the know. You listen to a cool show. so what are things that we should be sharing those hidden gems that you know about that everyone should know about hit us up on instagram or facebook tag us in something uh you can contact us through our website we uh we don’t do this alone 276 episodes many of them are driven by individuals like yourselves so keep us uh keep us up to date on what’s going on out there we want to thank ryan hood for letting us use their dillinger days music to start the show and we’re leave you with some appropriate music from Synth Madness. It’s a song that’s very much related to our guest today. It’s from 2014, and it’s called We Built This City. Of course, they did it on rock and roll. We did it with Rob Paulus. I hope you

have a great week, and tune in next Sunday for more life along the streetcar.