Does the City of Phoenix have a double standard when it comes to preserving its historic buildings?
by Bob Graham, Motley Design Group, LLC
The City of Phoenix was responsible for the destruction of the magnificent Fox Theater in 1975. That event was probably the low point for preservation in a city that appeared hellbent on the destruction of its own identity and heritage. Since then, the City’s attitude toward historic preservation seemed to have improved: an Historic Preservation Office was established; protective overlay zoning was enacted in many historic districts and for landmark buildings; and the Orpheum Theatre was even restored and integrated into the new City Hall. But the impending redevelopment of the American Legion Post No. 1 shows that the City’s commitment to historic preservation is slipping. While they expect private property owners to preserve their historic buildings, they so far have declined to preserve an important landmark that the City itself owns and controls.
Post No. 1 has stood on its site near the five-points intersection at Van Buren and 7th Avenue for precisely 99 years. Unfortunately for the Legion, that corresponds with the end of their 99-year lease, signed in 1920 in the wake of World War I. The city’s Community and Economic Development Department (CED, for short) is in the process of finding a willing developer to buy the site and redevelop it for apartments or condos. They have decided that preservation of Post No. 1 is incompatible with their economic goals, and to date have rebuffed requests to make preservation of the Post building a requirement.
City staff has downplayed the historical importance of the Post building, implying that its value is doubtful. But to be clear: the American Legion Luke/Greenway Post No. 1 is without question a very significant historic site that is eligible to the National Register of Historic Places. That fact has already been evaluated and endorsed by the city’s own Historic Preservation Commission and the State Historic Sites Review Committee. The history of the building has been extensively researched, and was summarized in this prior post. Between its establishment in 1920 and into the 1970s, the Post was a social hub for all Phoenicians and the most important center for veterans’ services and issues in the entire state. Most of these connections have been forgotten, as long-time Phoenicians pass away and new residents flood in from elsewhere. In its present condition, the building would not win any beauty awards, and so most people would not give it a second look. But the whole point and purpose of historic preservation is to preserve those connections and stories it has to tell in tangible form so we can learn from our past.
Instead, the City proposes lip-service preservation. Their current proposal would only require a developer to include an “interpretive feature” or monument that commemorates the history of the American Legion on the site. Clearly, this does not meet the goal of historic preservation, which is to preserve historic places. The place itself will be lost. Only a gravestone would remain.
The place itself will be lost. Only a gravestone would remain.
CED also falsely says that the site can’t be economically redeveloped in a way that complies with historic standards. This claim reveals either a total misunderstanding of those standards and a lack of creative thinking, or is simply misleading. The leadership of the Legion Post on site has been working with a potential developer on a plan that achieves both redevelopment and preservation. That plan proves that it can be done.
Of course, when it comes to others preserving historic buildings, the city bars no holds. The David and Gladys Wright House was privately owned, and the owners proposed to do what was within their legal rights: bulldoze the building for McMansion lots. The city rightly intervened, and with a lot of time and effort costing both the property owners and the city, found an angel to buy and preserve it. More recently, an elderly couple with a small historic home on north Central Avenue filed for demolition. The Historic Preservation Commission has voted to initiate overlay zoning that would delay demolition for a year, while alternatives are found. This zoning action puts a major crimp in the owners’ financial plans, but you know, the city values historic preservation, doesn’t it?
The American Legion Post No. 1 is 100 times more important to the history of Phoenix as a single house on north Central Avenue. It is a one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable resource. If the City of Phoenix can’t commit to preserving the Post, an historic building that they own and control, it loses the high moral ground the next time a major historic building is endangered by redevelopment.
If the City of Phoenix can’t commit to preserving the Post, an historic building that they own and control, it loses the high moral ground the next time a major historic building is endangered by redevelopment.
It’s now up to the City Council. The city needs to walk the talk when it comes to preserving its historic buildings. And if CED will not make preservation of the historic building a condition of redevelopment, then the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, comprised entirely of private citizens, should initiate HP overlay zoning as it has for other, privately-owned buildings.
It’s only fair.