Storm Clouds Circle

New development threatens Stewart Motor Co. Studebaker building

By Bob Graham, Motley Design Group

Empire Commercial Development’s acquisition of the Stewart Motor Co. Studebaker building at Central & McKinley Street in downtown Phoenix has raised alarm with many downtowners. The preservation community appears to have good reason to be concerned: the site of the historic auto dealership, known to many as the long-time home of Circles Records, is planned to host a 19-story, 321-apartment mixed use project. As currently rendered, the development will result in the demolition of 75% of the historic building, dashing hopes that it would be rehabilitated as another example of respectful adaptive reuse in Roosevelt Row.

Storm Clouds over Circles

The Stewart Motor property has long been identified as being eligible to the National Register of Historic Places. The building’s history and architecture make a significant contribution to the understanding of Central Avenue north of Van Buren Street as “Auto Row.” However, listing in local, state, and federal historic registers can only be done with the consent of the property owner. At this time the property has no formal protection from being altered or demolished, and as renderings appearing on the developer’s web site and in site plan submittals to the city of Phoenix indicate, their plan is to demolish all but the southeastern quarter of the building. Fortunately, there still may be time for community involvement to influence the outcome.

Stewart Motor Co. Studebaker: a rare remnant of Auto Row

The growth of Phoenix’s urban fabric after World War II was almost totally oriented around Arizonans’ love of cars and their ability to get them quickly out to the suburbs. Because cars largely defined the Phoenix we know today, one of the most important themes in the historical development of our city is automobile transportation.

Phoenicians’ love of the automobile grew quickly after the invention of the horseless carriage. Auto sales and service companies soon clustered near the state highway that ran through town, Van Buren Street, located mostly west of Central.  As the city expanded in the 1920s, Auto Row (as well as other commercial businesses) spilled north along Central Avenue to Roosevelt, replacing earlier residences. Along this half-mile stretch of Central in 1930 one could peruse dealerships exhibiting new Durants, Pierce-Arrows, Oldsmobiles, Vikings, Packards, Pontiacs, Auburns, Hudsons, Essexes, and DeSotos. Between the dealerships were used-car lots, gas stations, and various auto-specialty services and other businesses.

Central Avenue 1940s
North Central in the 1940s (Brad Hall)

Many of the early auto brand names went bankrupt or were consolidated during the Great Depression and World War II. The dealership system was affected as well, but the auto-centric character of north Central continued through the 1950s. The last new auto dealership on Auto Row, Stewart Motor Co. Studebaker, opened in 1947. By 1948, Auto Row hosted most of the major automakers familiar today together with a few hold-overs of the earlier era. In addition to the Stewart Studebaker dealership, Coulter Cadillac-Oldsmobile, Phoenix Lincoln-Mercury, Madison Motors Ford, and Stephens-Franklin DeSoto-Pontiac were the name-brand dealers on north Central after the war.

Stewart Motor Co. Studebaker
Stewart Motor Co. Studebaker building soon after construction

Stewart Motor’s building was about double the size of the other dealerships on Auto Row, and was designed for Jack P. Stewart by local architect W. Z. Smith in a cutting edge Streamline Moderne style that echoed the wind-swept design of cars of the day. The sinuous exterior was painted a bright yellow, which was carried into the showroom interior and trimmed in soft turquoise and russet. The showroom was unique in Phoenix for its rotating display turntable as the central feature of the design. The auto repair shop in back was a cavernous space, 20 feet in clear height with exposed wood bowstring trusses above that. Parts sales and offices in the northern part of the building completed the functional requirements of an auto dealer. While less ornate than the showroom, the office block provided visual balance along the Central Avenue side and was conceived as an integral part of the design.

1957 Aerial
Stewart Motor company from the air in 1957

Stewart Motor Co. operated the dealership through 1966, the year the last Studebaker rolled off the assembly line. The era passed to secondary uses, and in 1972 the building was rehabilitated by the Singer Family as Circles Records, which operated until 2010. The building has been on the market ever since the closing of Circles.

The Stewart Motor building is a rare survivor of the demolitions that took place along Central Avenue in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. There are only three other auto sales and service buildings left on Auto Row of the dozen or so facilities that have existed there over the years. Only two of those have been protected and rehabilitated, the A. E. England Motors building (in Civic Space Park) and the C. P. Stephens DeSoto building (Central & Roosevelt). The third, the Phoenix Lincoln-Mercury building (just south of DeSoto) remains, like Stewart Studebaker, without any formal recognition or protection.

Historic status

The Stewart Motor Co. building was first recognized as an historic resource in the Central Phoenix Historic Commercial Properties Survey in 1984. The city of Phoenix Historic Preservation Office tried for several years to have the building designated with city register listing and an HP zoning overlay, offering the owners the prospect of historic preservation grant money in return for allowing the property to be listed. They declined. Because of a restrictive state law known as Prop. 207, rezoning a property against the owner’s wishes such that its market value is potentially reduced is not possible unless the city is prepared to pay the difference or take the issue to court. (So far, Prop. 207 has never been tested in court.) The Stewart Motor Co. property remains eligible for listing, but unprotected.

For a short time in 2010 it appeared that the building would be saved as the new home for Arizona Opera. The city entered into discussions with the Singer family to purchase the building outright using arts and culture bond funds on behalf of the opera company. Our firm, Motley Design Group, was hired to analyze the building and prepare an initial analysis of its suitability as a rehearsal venue, with storage and offices for Opera administration. It was a use that fit hand-in-glove with the spaces available. Unfortunately, negotiations faltered on environmental issues and the city backed away from the property.

Since that time, developer after developer approached the Singers with the hope of rehabilitating the building. Each time, negotiations hit a major stumbling block: the $2.9 million asking price. In the depths of the latest recession, the property cost just could not be amortized into a successful project. As the US clawed its way out of the hard times and downtown started to take off again, hopes were raised that a successful sale could be negotiated and the building could be saved.

The Circles on Central development

Within the last year, rumors once again circulated that the building was under a sale contract. In mid-2015, the offer came that apparently stuck. In November, news appeared that a 19-story apartment was in the works, but that the building would be saved. No details were known, and preservationists remained hopeful but cautious.

In January, the architects for the project, CCBG, led a tour of the planned project for the benefit of preservation group leaders. Representatives of the Arizona Preservation Foundation, Phoenix Historic Preservation Commission, and the Postwar Architecture Task Force of Greater Phoenix were shown renderings of the proposed project and given a tour through the property. Sadly, the treatment of the historic property represented in the development plans fell far short of their hopes and expectations.

CCBG Rendering 1
The Developer’s Proposal (Empire Group)

In the proposal, the only part of the building that will be preserved is the showroom, which occupies less than 25% of the entire building footprint. Gone is the bowstring-trussed auto repair shop. Gone is the parts storage and office wing. Gone is the design juxtaposition and intersection of the curvy showroom with the staid, clean modernist offices. In their place will be a solid mid-rise residential tower wrapping the side and rear of the showroom. Aside from the loss of significant historic fabric, the abrupt change of scale is jarring and completely changes the artistic intent of the original architect.  In doing so, it not only destroys the historical associations, but the architectural ones as well.

15-2742 Site Plan Reduced
Site plan submittal by CCBG Architects

The preservationists who attended the tour, including Alison King, Jim McPherson, and Bill Scheel, responded with a joint letter outlining the preservation concerns. One passage summarizes their opinion:

“… the proposed midrise structure renderings shared with us would permanently alter the building in a manner that would most likely disqualify it from a listing on both the National Register of Historic Places as well as the City of Phoenix Historic Register. It is our preference that the original footprint not be altered at all, and urge you and your client to consider alternatives which keep the building intact.”

The letter contains a number of specific criticisms, and the full text can be viewed here.

What can be done?

A 477,000 square foot building on a complex site such as this will typically require additional approvals or at least administrative interpretations in order to comply with zoning. Developers in the downtown area are also frequently requesting development incentives from the city. Each of these processes is an opportunity for public leverage on the project. In addition, if the developer proves willing to discuss creating a positive partnership with the community, the property could become easier to lease and the project itself could be enhanced by public support for creative solutions that result in the building being preserved.

In this case, it is an open question whether the proposed building meets the “Building Form Guidelines” of the zoning ordinance of not having “massing that is boxy, bulky, and elongated” above 65 feet (you be the judge).  The building’s articulated “building base” is to be 1 to 4 stories in height – this base appears to be at least 6 stories. Both of these requirements are first reviewed at the staff level, and if minor adjustments are required, by the Design Review Committee. We should let city staffers know that their decisions will be scrutinized by the public and protested, if there is basis to do so.

The site plan submitted in January also indicates that the project needs to avail itself of the “sustainability bonus” provisions of the downtown code in order to increase the number of apartment units from 270 to 320 (50 units). In order to do this, the project as designed must amass at least 30 “points” by providing certain public benefits and amenities. As an example, the project claims 4 points for “pedestrian amenities” intended to benefit the public, but which are in this case amenities for residents – swimming pool, fitness center, outdoor eating areas, etc.  We should ensure that any bonuses claimed by the developer are strictly adhered to and provide clear public benefit.

It appears likely that the developer will be seeking city tax incentives (GPLET) for the project. In this case, the City Council must be made aware of the public concerns for preservation of the building, and condition the allocation of any incentives on preservation. This tactic was successful in demanding a set-aside of affordable housing units just recently for the nearby Derby micro-unit apartment project.

It also may be worth discussing all of the incentives that the developer is passing up by not preserving the building in a way that protects its historic and architectural character: the 20% Federal Historic Preservation Tax Credit, the State Commercial Property Tax program, and the potential for city of Phoenix threatened building grant money. All told, the value of the incentives would likely eclipse $1 million in this case. And that’s just the direct cash incentives – if the project were to avail itself of the sustainability bonus points for rehabilitating an HP-zoned historic building and provide a 30-year conservation easement, it would be provide 50 bonus points – enough to increase the number of apartment units allowed by 162 units and the allowed height of the building by 75 feet, or about 7 floors.

Not over til it’s over

I hope that downtown residents and preservation supporters will recognize the opportunity that still exists to preserve the Stewart Motor Co. building and band together to achieve this goal. Resist the urge to accept the token “hood ornament” that we have been offered, which is all that Stewart Studebaker would become if the current plan is carried out. As encouragement, remember three other historic buildings that were narrowly saved, only when the public outcry became too loud to be ignored: the David & Gladys Wright House, the Sun Mercantile, and the Fairgrounds Administration Building. Each of these appeared lost, and in each case, community voices halted the demolition.

3 thoughts on “Storm Clouds Circle”

  1. Prop 207 is needed, because far too many busy bodies can not respect individual liberty and freedom when it goes against their personal opinions. The property mentioned does not belong to this blogger, the city, historic preservationists or the community. It belongs to a private property owner (s) who should be free to not have an ideology (historic preservation) forced on him.

    No one is stopping you from preserving property you own, but you are trying to force property owners to comply with your agenda on property you didn’t even pay for.

Leave a Reply to Beverly Barron Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *