A Vision for the Luke-Greenway American Legion Post No. 1
By Bob Graham, Motley Design Group
We have a golden opportunity to make something great in downtown Phoenix. Something that could be a landmark destination that outlives us. The Luke-Greenway American Legion Post No. 1 could be a lasting source of pride, a connection to our history, and a place for Veterans to heal. Or not.
In past articles I have called attention to the potential destruction of one of the oldest American Legion posts in the nation, why it’s considered a bona fide historic building, and the City of Phoenix’s hypocritical treatment of it, at least so far. In this article, I would like to explore what could happen on the American Legion site — because I believe that, if left on its present course, the project will be a terrible waste. What could be lost is the possibility of not only saving a significant historic building for future generations, but also the potential to revitalize an important veterans’ organization and create a community focal point at the gateway to Grand Avenue.
The Luke-Greenway American Legion Post No. 1 could be a lasting source of pride, a connection to our history, and a place for Veterans to heal. Or not.
A Little Background on the Legion
Along with the VFW, the American Legion is one of the oldest and most important veterans’ organizations in the country. Born in the aftermath of World War I, their mission is “to enhance the well-being of America’s veterans, their families, our military, and our communities by our devotion to mutual helpfulness.” Veterans disproportionately suffer from brain injuries, posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, problematic alcohol use, thoughts of suicide, and have often been sexual abuse victims. Organizations such as the Legion have been essential to not only offering fellowship and camaraderie in returning to civilian life, but also in helping veterans to connect with the resources they need to get back on their feet.
These days, most of us are not military veterans, or know a lot of vets. You may be surprised to learn that 10% of the adult US population served in the military, which would amount to something over 300,000 veterans in the metro Phoenix area. They are served by 43 American Legion posts — about 7,000 veterans for every post.
This post – Luke-Greenway #1 – is especially important due to their location, nearest the biggest concentration of homeless and disabled veterans in Arizona. But the Post has the potential to do a lot more than they are doing now, if they were given the proper resources .
The Post has the potential to do a lot more than they are doing now, if they were given the proper resources.
The City’s RFP process
The Request for Proposals (RFP) put out by the city in 2019 laid out the bones of a project to redevelop the site as a multifamily residential community focused on catering to veterans. Developers proposing to buy or lease the property had to show how their proposed project matches up to the city’s outline. There were some good things in the RFP: it focused on low- and moderate- income rental units, and tied in a wide variety of other community goals.
The problem was that it didn’t go far enough in two key aspects: it only required that “portions of the existing building” be saved, and it only dedicated 3,000 square feet for the Legion. The existing building has 16,000 square feet of floor area. So, a developer can meet the terms of the RFP by saving just the big meeting hall for the Legion, and destroy 13,000 square feet of historic building. The remainder would no longer be eligible to the National Register of Historic Places. Equally bad, by shrinking the Legion’s space to less than one-fifth of its current size, the Legion’s ability to serve its community, as well as its ability to earn the income needed to support the organization, could be eviscerated.
The Currently Proposed Plan
The plan moving forward in the City Council approval of the developer selection (as of 6/21) wraps the two street sides of the site (Polk on the north, and 7th Ave. on the east) with three- to four-story apartment blocks containing 92 residential units. It also reuses about one third of the floor area of the historic buildings, which appears to include the Main Hall and the Kitchen. The remainder is shown as being removed for a “Memorial Garden.”
The proposed plan complies with the City’s project outline in the RFP, as one would expect. As can be seen from the rendering that was submitted, the proposed design “engages the street,” however does not allow any views into the site, even to the small part of the building that remains. The plan suffers from both shortcomings: destruction of history and insufficient space for the Legion.
An Alternative Vision: What’s Possible
Can the essentials of the City’s RFP be accommodated on the Legion property while also addressing these two additional goals, left out of the project requirements? With a little reverse engineering of the development plan and using fairly close measurements taken from aerial views, we tried to develop a plan that would save the Post building and make it a centerpiece rather than an afterthought. Further, it would be a plan that keeps the Legionnaires whole with respect to their 16,000 square feet of program space, saving the restaurant, bar, administrative offices, and additional meeting rooms. The resulting plan, below, shows that it should be feasible.
There is quite a bit of flexibility in this plan. Of course, while preserving the Legion’s program space in the historic building, parts of the building could be multi-use as support space for the apartments. By saving the old Legion State Office building on the northwest corner (a Lescher & Mahoney design), you get an additional space that could be a gym, business incubator, physical therapy clinic … just name a small-scale use that could fill a need for veterans. There’s also more parking available in this plan, which is important to the Legion for events, and because many users are disabled. The commercial space on the southeast corner could be built now, if there is a need, or could be phased for later expansion.
Obviously, I have not had the time to develop this plan fully. (Unlike the developer’s architects, I am not being paid for this.) I am sure there would be details to be worked out that would affect the unit yield and the costs. I’m aware that this may be a more costly plan than the one on the table, but that’s my point. If the city has to accept a little less cash for this project, or needs to help in other ways (like sponsoring a preservation grant), then now’s the time to recognize this and get the project adjusted, before it’s too late.
I’m not saying that “my plan is the best.” But I do think it shows that we can do better than what we have been given. I also think that an approach like this one leaves the door open for some additional sources of money, and the potential to think outside of the box with regard to the limitations of the project. I will talk about that a little more in the last article I plan in this series.
This project could be, and should be, a win-win. With enough community support, we will be able to make that happen.