Opened in 1931, the Aztec Lodge in Albuquerque, N.M., was the state’s oldest “motel” still in operation along the original Route 66. But in recent years, it no longer charmed travelers with the novelty of Southwestern-themed amenities. A structure in disrepair, its units were, for typical occupants, just a bit better than floor space at a shelter.

Yet it had been a noteworthy landmark, made more noticeable by one former guest/tenant who unwittingly established a tradition by adorning the walls outside her room with some tiles. The property eventually became a head-turning curiosity, displaying plates, matchbox cars, plastic dolls, and knickknacks on every vertical surface. A mannequin once standing on the office overhang like a ship’s masthead could not steer the place away from its ultimate fate. To the dismay of some preservation-minded locals, the Aztec was demolished last year.

Elsewhere, designers and nonprofit developers are finding opportunities in structures like the Aztec. Outdated motels can be more than unique pieces of history; when restored and converted into affordable housing they can trigger urban renewal without displacing those with the fewest options.

“While we may not be serving the exact individuals who relied on these motels as places of last resort, we are striving to serve the same population segment by providing stable housing to people who would otherwise be uprooted regularly,” says Stephan Daues, regional director of housing development for Mercy Housing California.

Daues oversaw work on a project to redeem Sacramento’s Budget Inn Motel, a dilapidated 101-room property built in 1961. The conversion resulted in the Boulevard Court Apartments—74 studio and one-bedroom apartments that serve as a home facility for disabled formerly homeless individuals. Daues saw the project as an opportunity to achieve three goals: to provide permanent housing and on-site support for the formerly homeless; to eliminate blight; and to stimulate development with a well-designed physical transformation.

“The visual impact [of such a transformation] can have direct impact on others’ decision to invest in a community,” says Daues. “And the social fabric can be enhanced by virtue of a more stable resident population, along with owners and staff committed to the community. The positive dynamics spiral upward and outward.”

In 2008, Mercy Housing California converted the Islander Motel in San Leandro, Calif.—regarded as a notorious crime magnet—into Casa Verde, which now offers 68 studio and one-bedroom rental units to residents who earn 30 percent to 45 percent of the area’s median income.

“As Jane Jacobs knew long ago, you need places for all aspects and income-levels of society,” says Ed Shriver, FAIA, principal at Pittsburgh-based Strada and chairman of the 2012 AIA National Convention session, “Main Street Connectivity: Patterns and Processes Linking Urban Commercial Patches.” “From my perspective, these kinds of efforts promise to serve an important role in urban ecology.”

These projects also can serve the dual roles of preserving history and conserving natural resources. Back in New Mexico, an hour north of the ill-fated Aztec Lodge another historic Route 66 motor lodge is getting a new lease on life, thanks to the Housing Trust of Santa Fe. The nonprofit recently acquired the Stage Coach Inn, a 1940s-era 16-unit Pueblo Deco–style motel. It plans to rehab the original units and add 44 new ones to create a 60-unit multifamily rental project offering affordable housing and stabilization services for individuals with children.

The project will include many sustainability features that could help it achieve LEED Platinum certification. It also makes use of the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program, which provides income tax credits to those developing affordable housing.

Unfortunately, there is a shortage of federal incentives that specifically promote retrofitting for the purposes of affordable housing, according to Christina Finkenhofer, manager, federal relations, at the AIA. “HUD has a slew of programs available to those who need affordable housing, and we applaud that,” she says. “However, there are not nearly enough incentives for building owners and designers to go into decrepit buildings and put them to good use.”

Finkenhofer, who will chair “Tax Incentives 101: The Federal Energy-Efficient Commercial Buildings Tax Deduction” at the 2012 AIA National Convention, reports that for the past year the AIA has been lobbying for federal funding to help community design centers and incentivize affordable housing generally.

Many architects in the preservation field have long been aware of the link between their work and sustainable practices. The trick is making preservation—and its opportunities—central to the sustainability discussion.

“By finding new uses for these old motels, the developers are blending the best of both architectural worlds—historic preservation and green building practices,” says Barbara Campagna, FAIA, founder of BAC/A+P and former Graham Gund Architect of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

“Reusing these motels is an inherently green practice,” she says, “because they help keep what’s here and, in doing so, avoid the environmental impacts of new construction.” aia

To learn more about these and other sessions at the 2012 AIA National Convention, visit