The City of Phoenix approved a lot split for a property in the Arcadia neighborhood of Phoenix. The particular arrangement of the split (right down the middle of the house on the property) effectively approved demolition.
The house in question was the David and Gladys Wright House, built in 1952 by arguably the world’s most famous and prominent architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, to house his son and his family.
The home had been recently purchased by the high-end, McMansion-producing development firm 8081 Meridian, who aimed to tear down the house and build two more houses in its place across the massive lot, effectively doubling their money.
The historic home was constructed and designed entirely by Wright himself, from the structure to the carpets—one of roughly 30 such buildings in the United States. The home is especially noted for its curvilinear design, echoing the world-famous Guggenheim Museum design in New York, which wouldn’t be completed for another seven years.
The reason I’m writing today is to address something brought up just a few days ago at the Camelback East Village Planning Committee meeting, where the Wright House narrowly was approved to go forward in the landmark designation process.
Thanks to some tips from a few attendees, and a recording of the meeting, it came to my attention that the lawyer for 8081 Meridian, in his defense of the developers’ property rights, referenced an article of mine from earlier this year on the process to save downtown’s historic Madison and St. James hotels.
In his comments, Christopher W. Kramer noted a quote of from Michelle Dodds, Acting Historic Preservation Officer for the City of Phoenix. The quote in question read as follows:
Responding to the quote, Kramer said of the situation, “When we’re talking about the Phoenix Suns, well we can’t do anything about that because the owner doesn’t consent to its designation as an historic property…but when we’re talking about 8081 Meridian…building houses one house at a time, we can play with them, we can take their private property rights.”
But upon further research, it became apparent that this case and that of the Hotels are completely separate. While the Hotels were seeking a spot on the city’s Historic Property Register, the Wright House is in the process of Landmark designation. And from there, the cases become even more disparate.
I consulted with Ms. Dodds on the situation just the other day. She stated that with the Hotels, there had been multiple attempts to get the properties added to the Register, and each time they were denied by the City Council due to lack of property owner support. But, “On this house, the Council has no precedent. The Council has never had the opportunity [to hear the case].”
Additionally, in pursuing Landmark designation (a designation initiated by the Zoning Department rather than Historic Preservation), there is no need to obtain the property owner’s consent, as long as at least one of the five criteria listed in the zoning ordinance are met.
According to Grady Gammage, Jr., land-use attorney and son of the namesake for one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most notable buildings, Kramer first “cited the wrong section of the ordinance. [If it had been] Historic Preservation Policy they won’t initiate—but this wasn’t initiated by Historic Preservation. [It has become] city council policy that they won’t approve [landmark designation] without owner consent, which won’t become an issue until the November 7th city council meeting.”
At the meeting itself, Gammage made his case even more clear.
The developers then argued that the state’s use of the property would be considered a “taking” under the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution.
Mr. Gammage again refuted this claim, citing the Penn Central Transportation Co. Vs. New York City, a Supreme Court case which in effect ruled that historic property designation was not a “taking” under the Constitution.
In Arizona, a Landmark designation only provides a three-year stay of demolition. In Gammage’s words at the meeting, “No, it’s only a three-year delay, which doesn’t rise to a Constitutional taking.”
There was still yet more to 8081’s argument, claiming that the designation, under Prop 207, would leave the owners entitled to compensation from the City because such a ruling would hurt their property values.
Mr. Gammage again responded in kind:
At the moment, the developers have multiple offers on the table from those looking to preserve the House, including one reportedly offering over $2 million in cash, giving the owners a profit of over $200,000, basically invalidating any claim of economic hardship.
The overall confidence though of the developers remains.
In his closing comments at the meeting, lawyer Christopher Kramer stated, “You can’t allow it. We won’t allow it. The courts won’t allow it. So you’re buying a lawsuit, basically, by approving this. By pushing it up the chain. You’re buying a lawsuit for the City of Phoenix. And we’re going to win. And the house is going to come down anyway.”
We shall see.
*Blogger’s Note: Mr. Gammage’s Proposition 207 reference refers to a law passed by the public in 2006, which puts the state’s money in the balance if a particular land use law affects the property value of a private piece of land, among other factors. (The complete text of the proposition can be read here.)
Blogger’s Note: A huge thank you to Jim McPherson, Will Novak, Michelle Dodds and Grady Gammage, Jr. for tipping me off to the content of the meeting, and helping with the research for this post. Also, an even bigger thank you to Dan Mitchell of the “Save the David and Gladys Wright House” Facebook group, who graciously provided me with a recording of most of the Village Planning Committee meeting.