Sam Neely, a community college student stands outside Macy's which sits over the Rio de Flag.

Urban decay grips Rio de Flag banks

October 24, 2002

Lucas Holub
The Lumberjack

Peeling paint and broken boards characterize much of Flagstaff's old southside, where the Rio de Flag meanders idly through.

A great deal of the area, loosely known to lie between Milton Road and Lone Tree Drive, south of the city-dissecting rail road tracks, is also characterized by the Federal Emergency Management Agency as lying in flood zone A.

This means development in the area has been nearly nonexistent since the FEMA enactment in 1983, almost 20 years ago. The area includes some of Flagstaff's most important history, including one college campus.

"Some of those houses were there when I was a kid in 1945. Those houses are, whew, ancient," said Mayor Joe Donaldson. "What was built down there years ago, could not be built today because we have recognized the flood plain. It has become very expensive to rebuild and build in the area."

Banks require insurance on any piece of property you take a loan on, and before a developer can break southside earth, flood insurance must be bought.

Insurance companies are having none of it, claiming the area is too high risk, and any undeveloped land on the 100 year flood plain will stay that way until the diversion of the Rio de Flag is complete.

Even if the flood doesn't wash away your home,

"The flood insurance is very expensive. It works out to about 1 percent of your mortgage annually," said Susan Weitzman of Lipton Realty. "And if your house burns down, you can't build on top of it."

Not all southside residents have flood insurance.

"I don't have flood insurance, it's too expensive," said Yolanda Sanchez, who has lived in the same house bordering the Rio for 50 years. Sanchez has never been flooded, but has seen the waters creep toward her door in the past.

Business owners along Beaver Street have suffered from insurance costs as well. The Rio de Flag runs directly under both Beaver Street Brewery and Macy's coffee shop.

"We recently bought our building and we had to buy flood insurance; it was outrageously expensive," said Tim Macy, owner of Macy's coffee shop.

FEMA standards have stifled even remodeling in the 100-year flood zone.

"It does restrict the ability to remodel. The city will let you do remodeling up to 50 percent of the existing structure, but you can't increase the footprints of the building," said Bruce Bourne, a realtor.

Business owners are having difficulty expanding and improving their current property.

"You can't build onto the property. I'd like to build a deck overlooking the Rio," Macy said.

Not only does southside suffer from the flood zone, but the downtown Flagstaff area as well. Insurance and FEMA regulations hinder growth in the historic district.

"There are some places now that they won't insure. If the Orpheum was built today, everything would have to be six to eight feet off the ground. We'd like to remodel downtown, but right now the cost is astronomical," Donaldson said.

Many developers are waiting for the diversion of the Rio de Flag to be complete before plans for building and renovating can commence, but for some residents, the renovations cannot begin soon enough.

"There's been a foot of water in this house. I think our kitchen is settling because of it," said a resident of 404 1/2 San Francisco Street who wished to remain unnamed. "This house is slated to be removed once the diversion takes place."

For all the headache the Rio creates for city planners and property owners, the Rio's rare qualities provide some redemption.

A foot trail alongside the Rio de Flag offers a unique view into an oasis in an otherwise arid area. Wildlife feeds on the water that threatens to destroy and debilitate human creation.

"The foot trail is a wonderful thing. It should be seen as heightening the value of houses along the Rio. There's diversity of birds, plants, and the foot trail enhances that. Beyond that, it connects the town," said David Wilcox of the Northern Arizona Museum.

Flagstaff children frequently play in the Rio's puddles and along its grassy banks. Some, more adventurous residents, have even tried to conquer the river in times of flood.

"People have rafted it. They wore headlamps when they'd pass under the buildings. It was very dangerous," Macy said.

Nevertheless, a 100 year flood could happen this year, despite the often scenic and beneficial properties of the Rio de Flag.

"You just need a lot of snow and then a warm day and rain," Wilcox said.

Even if the spring melt doesn't submerge downtown and southside, a heavy rain can cause significant damage to downtown and southside.

"It doesn't take much to flood us," Donaldson said.

Part Three: Rio de Flag Faces ReŽngineering

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