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Phoenix 2013: Reeling, But Bearing Down for What’s Next

January 14, 2013 by Connor Descheemaker

(Photo courtesy of Gabriel Radley

To begin a new year in Phoenix is often to pick through the waste of the past, and salvage what you can.

The past year of preservation has been one of endless fights. To be entrenched in Phoenix’s history, especially as it relates to its properties, is to be ready for anything, to be hyper-aware of potential courses of action, and be prepared to engage in a defense of every act you take.

Three tremendous tasks faced the Phoenix preservation community this year, leading to city council meetings, petitions, articles, and even international attention.

Coming first at the end of April was the saga of Circle K. First emerging at a Garfield Organization meeting, Circle K announced a partnership with the successful local development firm Vintage Partners to build a 16-pump station across the street from its current location on the northeast corner of Seventh and Roosevelt streets.

In the process, Circle K planned to demolish a decades-old warehouse on the southeast corner of the street to make way for its new, massive structure.

According to the developer, the building (which most recently served as a tire and service shop) was beyond being saved, and held no architectural significance. The community was simply made to accept that the structure was a lost cause.

Rather than fighting for the integrity of the building, people were made to argue on the best way forward for the development, and either stop the new gas station entirely or ensure that it would serve the community in the best way possible.

Over time, as Circle K and the developer moved through the permitting process, community opposition to the development increased and public meetings became ever-more-full.

Mounting pressure on Circle K, and increasingly fierce rhetoric between the two parties led ultimately to a last-minute withdrawal of their liquor license application, the day it was to go before the Phoenix City Council.

As of this writing, all plans for Circle K’s development have been cancelled, and the community is left with another vacant building, full of potential.

Talk among the community has been of possibility, with many eagerly looking at a vital corner along an active thoroughfare going straight to the heart of the city.

Preservationists have begun to talk of an assessment being done on the former tire shop to see whether it can be salvaged and transformed to a new use, or whether a new structure must be put up in its place.

Things previously thought impossible are now viable options for downtown development.

Just a few months after the Circle K proposal hit the community, one of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s most remarkable structures became threatened by a lot-split permit from the property’s newest owners.

The David and Gladys Wright House
, as thousands around the world now know, was built by Wright for his son and his wife in a style that was comparable to only one other design in the internationally-renowned architect’s oeuvre, the Guggenheim in New York.

Again, the fight proceeded through all levels of government and community, with tens of thousands around the world signing a petition to preserve the property, and local efforts to get the site declared a landmark, which would prevent the property from being demolished for three years.

Months of failed offers to buy the property and preserve it alongside conflicting press statements from the ill-fated developers created a universally chaotic situation, leaving onlookers wondering at what the truth of the situation really was.

Then finally, just before Christmas, a mysterious buyer emerged, closing on the house, creating a “Christmas miracle” of sorts for the Phoenix preservation community.

This buyer, though still anonymous, plans to preserve the house through a nonprofit foundation which would make the house a permanent fixture in the city, a beacon of hope to a beleaguered city known best for its propensity for destruction.

(Photo courtesy of Gabriel Radley

But the celebration of the holidays was short-lived for many, as the Phoenix Suns followed through on their months-long promise the day after Christmas, tearing down all but the façade of the nearly century-old St. James Hotel.

The teardown was the culmination of months of threats to the once-promising historic block, almost entirely intact at the beginning of the year and marked most prominently by an Ed Varney-designed warehouse (still standing), and the Madison (fully demolished) and St. James (partially standing) hotels.

And the vision for the property? A VIP parking lot for Suns season ticket holders.

A magnificent present for the community, indeed.

Although the community prevailed in the cases of Circle K and the Wright house, another gaping hole was created in downtown Phoenix thanks to the Phoenix Suns.

With preservation currently relegated to a reactive role in local politics, advocates have been wondering aloud at how to get a more powerful seat at the table with regard to lobbying and education.

Currently, statewide preservation is championed by the Arizona Preservation Foundation. Neighborhoods are represented by their respective associations, and cumulatively by the Phoenix Historic Neighborhoods Coalition. Cities like Mesa and Tempe each have their own preservation foundations, protecting such landmarks as the “diving lady” sign in Mesa, and the Eisendrath House in Tempe.

But Phoenix proper has no such group, and a few determined souls are aiming to change that, with rumors abounding of the formation of a Phoenix nonprofit dedicated to preservation.

Though the vision and effects of such a group remain to be seen, to have another group working toward a more historically-conscious future holds nothing if not promise for the city.

After a turbulent 2012, Phoenix preservationists no doubt are aiming for a more stable, proactive 2013.

(Photo courtesy of Gabriel Radley)


1 Comment »

  1. J. John Lang says:

    Wouldn’t it help a great deal if ASU or another Valley institution of higher education had a degree program in Historic Preservation of Architecture? I know that ASU in Tempe has some programs that seem to “dance around” the topic, but I had a “bad experience” even trying to attend one related course there. In many cities in the Northeast and Midwest there are active HP programs that become strongly involved in their respective communities. If there is an academic program, it needs to be strongly involved in such a way. The city can be a learning laboratory. I was turned off by what I saw at ASU a few years ago when I approached the School of Architecture — in fact, I was left angry and disgusted. I don’t know what has happened since.

    I did have a good experience taking a Historic Preservation course in Tucson at U of A, but the man who taught it, who is also Associate Dean of the School of Architecture there, has been unable to find funding to create any program in this area, as he claims the budgets keep being devastated. I have thought about leaving the state to pursue my interests in this field. I have delayed on this pursuit due to indecision and now illness. But I hope to recover and do a degree in this in a Midwestern or Eastern school. The only really notable programs I know of in the West are at the University of Oregon and University of Washington in Seattle. Even the San Francisco Bay area offers no such program, and many people from there go to the University of Oregon.

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