Blog Archives

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

Midtown Phoenix empty lot where WWII housing once stood sold

[Source: G.G. George] — The Encanto Citizens Association Board attended the foreclosure auction on Thursday, June 11, 2009 for the vacant land on the north side of McDowell Road between 13th and 15th Avenues.  The property that the out-of-state investor, Scott M. Haskins, had purchased in 2006 for $5,400,000 had contained 32 moderate-rate apartments meant to house war workers during World War II.  It was just two years ago to the day, June 11, 2007, that Haskins had the historic Palmcroft Apartments demolished.  In ECA’s opinion, Haskins’ action irresponsibly wasted a historic resource that, properly managed, could have sheltered low-to-moderate income families for generations to come.

The Encanto Citizens Association opposed both the alley abandonment and the grab for the excess right-of-way at the 15th Avenue bus stop.  Councilman Michael Nowakowski, Mayor Phil Gordon, former Councilman Doug Lingner, and the other Council members denied the developer the alley abandonment and the excess right-of-way.  The F.Q. Story Historic District also supported ECA’s position.

The property was sold at auction to Michael Sklar of the Sonata Property Group for $500,000.  Mr. Sklar is familiar with the neighborhood, having previously lived at 1621 N. 11th Avenue.  The Encanto Citizens Association will continue to monitor this property and, in the best of all possible worlds, work harmoniously with a developer who truly has something to contribute to the appeal of Encanto-Palmcroft.

National Trust officials tour Valley for possible 2012 conference

Kathy Adams and Lori Feinman of the National Trust for Historic Preservation flew into town last week to view Phoenix’s convention facilities; tour selected historic sites and neighborhoods in Phoenix, Scottsdale, and Tempe; and visit with area preservation advocates to determine Phoenix’s ability to host the 2012 National Preservation Conference.  Meeting them at Sky Harbor was Sally Forrest, National Accounts Director for the Greater Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Phoenix Councilman Michael Nowakowski welcomes National Trust representatives Lori Feinman and Kathy Adams. (Photo: Midtown Messenger)

The three lunched at the Hotel Valley Ho, one of the National Trust’s Historic Hotels of America, and then drove to downtown Phoenix to tour the Phoenix Convention Center, the Hyatt Regency and Wyndham hotels (two of the host hotels), and Orpheum Theatre. Barbara Stocklin, City of Phoenix Historic Preservation Officer, and Jim McPherson, Arizona Advisor to the National Trust, joined them for dinner at the Rose & Crown Pub in Heritage Square Park (a large outdoor venue that could serve as the opening reception for the 2,500-plus attendees of the 2012 conference).

Phoenix's historic Ellis Shackelford House was decked out in the colors of Arizona's state flag. (Photo: Midtown Messenger)

On Tuesday, Adams and Feinman started off the day by visiting the historic San Carlos Hotel and breakfast at Palette in the Roosevelt Historic District.  Then it was a “timed-to-the minute” whirlwind van tour of First Presbyterian Church, Security Building (and ASU’s PURL overlooking the city), Monroe School (Children’s Museum of Phoenix), Phoenix Union High School Buildings (University of Arizona College of Medicine), Steele Indian School Park, Heard Museum, and several midtown residential historic districts.

State Historic Preservation Officer Jim Garrison and Modern Phoenix Founder Alison King joined the group for lunch and tour of the Arizona Biltmore Resort and Spa.  Then it was off to drive by the Wrigley Mansion, and visit the Desert Botanical Garden, Gammage Auditorium, Pueblo Grande National Historic Landmark, and St. Mary’s Basilica.  Special guests “popped in” throughout the day to say hello, provide their perspective on preservation, and tout Phoenix as a conference site: Attorney General Terry Goddard (Palette), State Senator Debbie McCune Davis (UA College of Medicine), City of Phoenix Council Member Greg Stanton (Children’s Museum), attorney Grady Gammage (Gammage Auditorium), former Phoenix mayor John Driggs, and Arizona 2012 Centennial director Karen Churchard.

Dan Klocke (Downtown Phoenix Partnership), Charles Fortenberry (Southwest Association of Buffalo Soldiers), John Jacquemart (Arizona Historic Sites Review Committee), and G.G. George (Encanto Citizens Association). (Photo: Midtown Messenger)

Topping off the visit was a reception at the Ellis Shackelford House in downtown Phoenix.  Over 60 preservation advocates from all over the Valley (and Sierra Vista!), city officials, and downtown business group leaders attended.  A balloon arch, special signage, decorations, and flowers in the colors of Arizona’s state flag welcomed our guests from the National Trust.  City of Phoenix Council Member Michael Nowakowski, Garrison, Stocklin, Feinman, and McPherson said a few words, and the rest of the evening was spent enjoying each other’s company and dining on wonderful hors d’oeuvres from Catered by St. Joseph’s.  Gift bags courtesy of the State Historic Preservation Office and City of Phoenix were presented to Adams and Feinman, and each attendee received a small gift as well.