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Lawyer’s Claims on Wright House Less Than Accurate

October 5, 2012 by Connor Descheemaker

At the beginning of June, the word began spreading through the preservation community of a threat to one of our state’s (and possibly our nation’s) most significant homes.

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.

An image of the David & Gladys Wright House during an open house this past weekend. (Connor Descheemaker/DD)

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.

But I’m not here to tell you about the history of the house and what’s happened up to this point. You can check out The New York Times, NPR, CBS or The Arizona Republic to hear those stories.

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.

(Connor Descheemaker/DD)

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:

“According to Acting Historic Preservation Officer Michelle Dodds, there are no legal means available to prevent the buildings’ teardown, as “neither structure is [listed] on the local [historic property] register. Had they been listed, they would have three days with the Historic Preservation Office to approve or deny [the demolition].””

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.

“…owner consent is required by the ordinance. It’s not. Owner consent is a policy that was adopted by the city council, and is therefore applied at the city council level in the post-[proposition] 207 time frame. You heard a claim that it is not possible for initiation of this kind of designation without the owner’s signature on the application form. That is clearly wrong…It specifically says that the historic preservation commission or the planning commission can initiate.”*

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:

“[The owners] didn’t close [on the property] until after the landmark process was begun. [And they] have had offers [on the property] predicated on it being designated historic. Clearly the landmark status isn’t hurting the land values of it at all. In fact, it’s probably helping its value since so many people know about this.”

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.

(Connor Descheemaker/DD)

*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.


9 Comments »

  1. photowrite says:

    We seem to value personal property rights here in Arizona above all else. But in this case, it’s really a business that owns this property and that business went into this knowing the risky nature of buying a landmark property. (If not, they failed to do their due diligence.) They took a risk, a gamble, such being the nature of a business investment. Now they are trying to bully the city and the public into protecting them from the risk of their bad decision by shaking the holy property rights shield at us. They want a guarantee of a big profit on their risky investment and they want us to give it to them handing them the keys to the bulldozer.

    • Nadine Lockhart says:

      I don’t think they want to bulldoze; I thought that a first, but then I remembered one of the first things I was taught when I was in grad school to become a counselor/therapist: Never believe what the client tells you; instead, look at behavior. THEY keep extending the date (maybe hoping for better offers?); THEY could have bulldozed it down as soon as they received the mistaken permit, but they didn’t. If you look at some of the other news reports, it’s the developers saying, “But we’re trying to do something most businesses would not do, and put everything on hold and let people come to the rescue . . .” Hoffman says that and in that statement is all you need to know. They miscalculated; they won’t make near as much profit by construction than a outright selling the house and doing nothing. This became Plan B (they probably did plan to build in the beginning) when a Realtor told them, “This hous is a little more significant than you realize” and thus began their other idea of threatening to take it down, and have someone buy them out well over their cost. By their own admission, (KSAZ TV, FOX 10), they were going to build two house and sell them at $800,000 each and deconstruct the Wright house. Do the math. They paid 1.8 mil, and the two houses sold would only bring in $1.6 mil, and I haven’t even added in materials, labor, fees/licenses, etc. Hmmmmmmm. Is anyone picking up on this? They didn’t do their homework, and now lucked on a way out of the corner they’ve painted themselves into. I hope someone is reading this.

  2. Nadine Lockhart says:

    Thank you for addressing each point so thoroughly and systematically. Many people are mislead by legal bravado, even when the information purported is more wishful thinking and/or fiction. The result may be that the general public gives up without resistance, perhaps the desired result in 8081′s attorney’s behavior. That is to be expected. And, happily, so is a response, such as this helpful article.

  3. mark lymer says:

    you might ask Grady about the lot split itself, by dividing an existing building without consideration of historic value. seems as if the lot split docs were not entirely comprehensive. i can imagine running into this with the city if i were doing a split…mark

  4. mark lymer says:

    http://www.8081meridian.com/FLW___David_Wright_Home.html

    Update: October 5th, 2012
    As previously stated, 8081 Meridian has reached an agreement directly with the City of Phoenix Manager’s Office which extends the standstill period an additional 30 days. During this time, the owners will stay solely focused on negotiating a fair and equitable arrangement with the City of Phoenix Attorney and Manager’s Offices for a long-term stay. Until such arrangement is finalized, or all efforts to do so have been exhausted, the owners will not be entertaining offers from any private parties to purchase the property.

    • Nadine Lockhart says:

      Yes, what does that mean? I saw it when it first was posted today and it’s early poorly written or is in some legal code I cannot decipher.

  5. mark lymer says:

    MILLER|KRAMER pllc will cease operation as of December 31, 2011.

    Beginning January 1, 2012, Diane Miller will be practicing as The Law Office of Diane M. Miller pllc, at the same location, 815 N. 1st Avenue, Suite 2, Phoenix, AZ 85003. On January 1, 2012, Chris Kramer will be joining Mariscal, Weeks, McIntyre & Friedlander, 2901 N. Central Avenue, Suite 200, Phoenix, Arizona 85012. Phone 602-285-5000; fax 602-285-5100.

  6. Rom jaymes says:

    Well, when a society values money over all else, we are left with a culture that values nothing. Art has no merit, and still we are surprised when people want to destroy something of value just to make a buck. It is a sad day whent we look back and see that we have nothing to show for our contribution to human development because of temporary business venture. But of course, we need more “seudo-neuveau-euro-stucco” mac mansions in this country…

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