Historic buildings in downtown Phoenix struggle to survive

[By Evie Carpenter, Downtown Devil]

Phoenix may be young in comparison to the old, Gothic mainstays of the East coast, but as venerable buildings like the Ramada Inn continue to be razed, many community activists are trying to reignite an appreciation for historic preservation in the nation’s fifth largest city.

The Hotel San Carlos has been in continuous operation since 1928. A building must be over 50 years old and meet other requirements to be added to the Phoenix Property Register and designated as historic. (Evie Carpenter/DD)

“Phoenix in general needs to be more aware of its history,” said Phoenix policy and research analyst, urbanist and blogger Yuri Artibise:

I think the buildings provide a sense of place, they provide what’s kind of called a city’s DNA.

Robert Melikian, a historic preservationist and author of “Vanishing Phoenix,” said that preserving a city’s old buildings helps add character to an otherwise bland concrete jungle.

Historical buildings “give you a sense of personal identity to the local area. Otherwise, there’d be just the same high-rise buildings in every downtown,” said Melikian, who also co-owns downtown’s Hotel San Carlos, which has been in continuous operation since 1928. “They show that we are all connected — they’re a link to the past. They’re time machines that show us what was important in the old days.”

In order to raise awareness of the threats to historical buildings in the Phoenix area, a group of neighborhood leaders formed the Phoenix Historic Neighborhoods Coalition, said G.G. George, president of Encanto Citizens Association and vice president of the coalition. Last year the coalition compiled a list of threatened historic buildings called the 2010 Most enDangered Dozen.

Donna Reiner, who acted as the chair of the enDangered Dozen Committee, said the coalition made the list to highlight buildings specifically in Phoenix, rather than building in Arizona or nationwide.

The buildings we chose “didn’t have to be on the historic, city or national register,” Reiner said. “It was more (an issue) of who had built it, who had lived in it, what was its connection to history.”

Reiner added that the physical condition of the building, its owners and whether the building was in foreclosure were also considered when choosing the Dozen. Neglect is one of the main reasons that a building becomes endangered, she said.

Artibise and Reiner said they agree that some may not view the buildings they chose as historic because they are not as old as historic buildings in cities on the East coast. Compared to those cities, however, Phoenix is much younger –- not yet 150 years old.

“You hear a lot people say, ‘Well, they’re not that old. It’s not like we’re tearing down 200-year-old buildings. They’re only like 50 years old,’” Artibise said:

But, you know, you need something to be 50 years old before it gets to be 100 years old.

A building must be over 50 years old and meet other “standards for integrity and historical significance” to be added to the Phoenix Property Register and designated as historic, according to the city’s Historic Preservation Office website. However, residential owners can designate their own neighborhoods as historic within the guidelines set by the city of Phoenix, Melikian said.

George said she has been in her historic home, located in the Encanto neighborhood, for 41 years. The neighborhood has been on the national register of historic neighborhoods since 1984.

Phoenix has 34 other residential historic districts, according to the city’s Historic Preservation Office’s website.

Although Melikian said that Phoenix has had success in preserving historic residential areas, he is unhappy with the efforts made to preserve historical commercial buildings.

“Commercial (historical preservation) is almost non-existent in (Phoenix’s) historic preservation,” he said:

It’s pretty much up to the community-minded owner whether they want to save the building or not. There’s nothing the city can do to stop them from tearing down a building.

Melikian suggested the city allow the public to designate a commercial building as historic rather than letting the owner of the building make the decision.

“We give too much authority to the owner, and we have a very weak preservation ordinance,” he said.

Nonetheless, Reiner said she thinks the city and groups like the Phoenix Historic Neighborhood Coalition “do a really good job of promoting historic preservation and explaining why it’s good.”

Both Reiner and Melikian mentioned that they believe Proposition 207, which passed in 2006, hinders historic preservation as well. The proposition, also known as the Private Property Rights Protection Act, states that the government may take private property as long as they offer “just compensation” to the owner of the property. Compensation may occur if an owner sees his or her property value decrease due to “the enactment of a land use law,” which includes historic overlay, according to CountySupervisors.org.

“People would misguidedly say that a historic overlay means I can’t do anything to my property, which is not true,” Reiner said:

If you are in a historic district and you do have historic overlay, your property values will remain more constant than if you don’t.

However, Melikian said that Proposition 207 scares the government away from designating properties as historic in order to avoid lawsuits.

“The government is paralyzed by Prop. 207 … but the government can’t designate anything historic because then they are going to be sued by people saying that they diminished the value of their property,” he said.

Despite the potential impediments of Prop. 207, if a building is designated as historic the owner will often renovate it to make it more practical. The city’s award-winning Adaptive Reuse Program was created in 2008 to support property owners who wish to modify their building for a new purpose.

“Some of these buildings, especially the older homes, were built for a specific purpose in a specific time, and times have changed so I think you can adapt,” Artibise said. “I think you need to work with what you have and use that as a starting point as opposed to destroying everything and starting from scratch.”

Melikian listed a variety of different uses for an adapted historic building and said that the reused building could become a novelty.

“History sells — it’s great,” Melikian said:

People love to go to historical buildings, restaurants, bakeries, ice cream shops, coffee shops. That’s the greatest thing — a historic building with a new use.

For many buildings in the downtown Phoenix area, though, the adaptive reuse program came too late.

Melikian said he wished the Fleming building on First Avenue and Washington Street was still standing, observing that it had “lasted almost 100 years but could have lasted another 100” and that it held the first elevator in the territory.

“It could have been a museum for youngsters to see what it was like in the 1890s and that was torn down for a high rise,” he said. “That building could have been used as a gateway, like a grand entrance to the high rise … now it’s just a nice high rise, same as in a dozen other cities.”

In the 1984 Historic Phoenix Commercial Properties Survey approximately 143 historic commercial buildings had lasted from about the 1920s to 1984, but 55 buildings have been knocked down in the last 25 years, Melikian said.

“It’s a terrible shame that no one cares about,” he said.

George described historic preservation as holding on to Phoenix’s past, which becomes vital when looking toward the city’s future.

“If we lose our history, we lose anything, any way to make decisions in the future,” she said:

We need to know what happened in the past to help us make comprehensive and intelligent decisions in the future.

Contact the reporter at ecarpenter@asu.edu

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Posted on February 4, 2011, in Downtown Vitality, Historic Preservation and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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