‘A Gift Back to Tucson’
By April Bourie
Moniqua Lane is a former lawyer turned developer/owner/operator of two Downtown Tucson hotels. She’s also a neighborhood collaborator who has been able to transform what she calls “weird, little, ugly parcels of land” into two hotel projects − the Downtown Clifton Hotel, which she opened in 2015, and The Citizen Hotel, which opened in February.
Before going into hotel development, Lane was an attorney living in Armory Park and working in the Barrio. She walked across the vacant lot near what is today’s Downtown Clifton every day to and from work.
Looking for another career path in 2012, she learned from a mentor in her law office that a piece of property was coming available during a probate case. After seeing it, she decided it was her opportunity to do something meaningful.
The transition didn’t come easy.
“I came into this as a young black woman with no experience. That meant I had to start with marginal places,” she explained. It also made it difficult for her to obtain a loan, and she ended up self-financing the project through her family.
The property had been serving as transitional housing for the homeless, and she had to be creative in transforming it into a hotel where people would want to stay overnight. She looked to the personality of the property for guidance.
“Each location is trying to say something to the people who live, walk and drive by and stay in my hotels,” she explained. “People will have a different experience at each hotel even though the two properties are within a half-mile radius of each other.”
She worked with designer Clifton Taylor to create the design that would amplify the Downtown Clifton’s personality. “He is a character, and fixture downtown,” said Lane. “He does all my design. I give him a concept, and he gives it nail polish and puts flesh and bones on my ideas.”
They decided to renovate the original 10 rooms to give them a true Tucson feel, with a “masculine, ranch, bunkhouse” look. In fact, the original 10 rooms are called the “bunkhouse rooms.”
Lane and Taylor were standing in the parking lot before the hotel opened when she asked him what she should name the hotel. “No one has more stories than you,” she told him. He agreed, and the Downtown Clifton Hotel was born.
She quickly determined that a 10-room hotel was not going to be financially viable at the location, and in mid-2016 decided to expand the hotel.
“I knew I would need to add amenities to achieve a higher price point, so we added a kitchen, bar and a courtyard surrounded by 22 rooms,” said Lane. “I could feel that the lot where we built the expansion had a place in the community at some point in time, and it wanted to be that way again.”
During the planning phase, she met often with Armory Park Neighborhood residents, and she came to realize she was right about the importance of the property to the neighborhood.
“One person described it as the ‘living room of the neighborhood,’ ” said Lane. “It was sweet to hear people say, ‘I learned how to ride a bike in this lot,’ or ‘I played baseball in this lot.’ It was a terrific opportunity to give life back to a corner.”
In 2018, another opportunity to purchase a “weird” property downtown presented itself in the form of the old Tucson Citizen building, just about a half mile north of the Downtown Clifton. After purchasing the building, she discovered just how weird the building was.
“There are no square walls. The building’s shape is a combo between a rhombus and a trapezoid. It also slopes to the south and to the west. I was warned that it would be difficult to renovate the building. I didn’t listen, but everyone was right.” Unique to most Tucson buildings, this one also has a basement.
During the renovation, Lane was studying to get her sommelier certificate with her friend Sarah Fox, who along with her husband Rob, owns Sand Reckoner Winery out of Willcox. Sarah asked Lane if she knew of any 5,000-square-foot basements available for rent in the area. “Not only do I know of one…I own one,” Lane said. After the Foxes looked at The Citizen Hotel’s basement, they decided it would be perfect for cellaring operations and a tasting room.
Wine has become the expression of The Citizen Hotel. In addition to Sand Reckoner being located in the basement, the hotel also offers a variety of wine tastings, dinners, and educational opportunities to the public. Daily wine tastings are held for guests only. The staff are sommelier 1 certified.
The design of the building allows people on the mezzanine to look down on the bar, which looks down on the basement where the wine barrels are stored.
Lane is not the kind of person who takes a break after finishing a big project like The Citizen Hotel. She has several upcoming projects, including a possible glamping opportunity next to Sand Reckoner’s vineyard in Willcox, creating a jazz/supper club in the basement of another downtown property, and working with Randi Dorman, Ice House Lofts developers. Lane and Dorman are developing the bungalow block on Broadway east of Downtown to create the Tucson Gastronomy Collective, a foodie hub that showcases Tucson’s culinary prowess.
“I’m a Tucson native, and I have always felt a real debt and gratitude to the entire Tucson community for me being who I am,” Lane said. “I’m not sure that I would have been able to be prepared to seize the opportunity to do what I do somewhere besides Tucson. From a young age I knew I wanted to stay here and give to the community. Real estate ended up being the vehicle for that. My intention with every property is a gift back to Tucson.”