Out with the old

A robust, superannuated woman with the stern countenance of the righteous guides her electric tricycle to within hailing distance of two relaxed-looking men who have filled patio chairs for a leisurely smoke.

The three exchange brief pleasantries.
"Did you go to church today?" the sober matron asks the men.
"Was there a Mass today?" responds the younger and heavier of the men.

"I don't think so," replies his companion, an impish octogenarian with large, droopy ears.

The three debate the present day of the week and, after some difficulty, arrive at a consensus, agreeing that organized worship is yet a day away.

"Of course," says Droopy Ears, "you could always pray on your own, at home."
"That's right," the woman wholeheartedly, if solemnly, agrees. She adds that she encourages everyone to pray regularly. "They tell me what church they belong to, and I say, 'That's all right, as long as you believe in Jesus,'" she says, repeating it twice and putting added emphasis on the prophet's name so that it comes out JEEEE-zuss.

Behind the trio, a slow stream of other aged residents emerges from a dining room as another lunch at the Desert Crest retirement home comes to a close.

A cluster of utilitarian but not unattractive buildings and cottages on Maryland Avenue just east of 20th Street, the xeriscaped complex is home to 100 seniors. Average age is 82. Average stay is five years. Desert Crest is for many of its residents the final stop in their long and productive lives. The setting is pacific. Unhurried. Congenial.

There's no outward sign that the peaceful community in the shadow of Squaw Peak faces upheaval and doom.

Instead, life continues for these remarkably able-bodied and endearing people who have witnessed most of the waning century.

"Do you read books?" asks the heavier man after taking a drag on his cigarette.

"I read the Bible, mostly," the woman answers.
"I got some books you might like to read," he says, and he gives her a brief description of them. He promises to bring them to her, and she thanks him, giving him a stately nod as she guns her trike. When she's out of earshot, Heavy leans over and says with a wink:

"I call that one there Miss Hotsy-Totsy."
"Yeah. Miss Hotsy-Totsy."

If the owners of Desert Crest have their way, the colorful residents of the retirement home will soon make way for bulldozers and a dense outbreak of luxury apartments.

After nearly a decade of mortgage problems brought on by circumstances it claims were beyond its control, the Foundation for Senior Adult Living placed Desert Crest into bankruptcy last August and has found a buyer to take the property--and its debt--off its hands. That buyer, JPI Apartment Development, plans to demolish the retirement center and put up 396 apartments.

For the foundation, the decision makes good business sense. Its president, Guy Mikkelsen, says that if the foundation didn't sell to JPI, the center's mortgage holder would foreclose and bring in its own developer to put in apartments.

Either way, Desert Crest's demolition is a done deal, Mikkelsen asserts.
That's a familiar refrain in the Biltmore area, where other smart business decisions have been derided as heartless by local residents who tried in vain to save the Cine Capri from profit-minded property owners, and others who continue to fight plans to grade the Adobe golf course.

Those causes generated wide media attention. But so far, Desert Crest's octogenarians haven't captured the same interest as the giant movie screen or Adobe's manicured lawns.

The residents and their neighbors want to change that.
Meanwhile, they are fighting the foundation's proposals in bankruptcy court, hoping to save their homes.

They say they didn't expect the Foundation for Senior Adult Living to act like other profit-hungry businesses.

That's because the foundation is not in business to make profits.
It's a charity, and it has for years billed itself as an agency of the Valley's Roman Catholic diocese.

In recent months, however, the foundation has made efforts to distance itself from the church, while the diocese has remained conspicuously mute on the subject of Desert Crest.

The residents of Desert Crest--some Catholic, drawn to the center by its affiliation with the church--say that silence mystifies them.

So they wait, both hopeful and afraid of what they might hear from Bishop Thomas O'Brien and U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Redfield Baum.

As early as March, they should know if their houses will be history.

Desert Crest's own history began 40 years ago, when its location at 20th Street and Maryland was on the outskirts of town.

None of the current residents lived there then, of course. Mac McCullough, for example, was still a construction safety engineer and far from retirement.