Great Things are Possible

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.

The American Legion was a familiar part of daily life in Phoenix in 1920.

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.”

Developer’s initial site plan. (North is up.)
Cardinal Development initial proposal (Architectural Resource Team, architects)

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.

An alternative site layout that preserves and showcases the historic buildings.

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.

OK, perhaps the colors are a bit “on the nose,” but the Legion is very proud of their gigantic flag.

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.

History? What History?

The City of Phoenix’s strange resistance to preservation of its own historic buildings

by Bob Graham

Second of a Series

In the proposed redevelopment of the American Legion Post No. 1, there are two important facts that the City of Phoenix seems to be eager to sweep under the rug. First, that the Post building is, objectively, an important historic building. Second, that in proposing to demolish the bulk of the building, they are violating City-adopted plans and principles.

Community & Economic Development (CED) department staff can’t be blamed for their initial blindness to the significance of the Post. They are not, after all, particularly knowledgeable about history or historic preservation. But sometimes, it seems that they don’t want to know, either. Case in point: from the beginning of the process, the City’s position on preservation of Post No 1 was that it was “not historic.” Despite community calls to save the building, and without having done any research or analysis, staff apparently decided that the building had no historic value, based only on its appearance.

So, since the City apparently lacked the knowledge, resources, or interest to make an informed decision, we decided to help them out.

Starting in 2017, I worked with Donna Reiner, local historian, to document the history of the Post building and prepare a nomination to the National Register of Historic Places that shows exactly why the building qualifies as historic. The nomination was taken through the process and was approved by the Phoenix Historic Preservation Commission, the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), and the State Historic Sites Review Committee (HSRC). All that remained to be done in order for the property to be listed individually on the National Register was for the nomination to be forwarded to the Keeper of the Register in Washington DC and for that final approval to be granted.

Then, in 2019 CED sent a letter to SHPO asking to halt progress on processing the nomination while the city “determine[s] the next steps for the property.” That hold is still in effect as of June, 2021, despite the “next steps” having been “determined.” (Note: some have publicly stated, or implied, that the hold was requested by the Legion. This is false, unless I am being misled.)

The city’s requested hold on National Register listing is inexplicable. Listing of the property in the National Register, in and of itself, would have no negative effects on property development. In fact, the effects would all be positive, opening up additional options for redevelopment such as the 20% historic preservation tax credit, the state historic property tax program, and potential historic preservation grant eligibility.

In halting the listing, CED may be intending to avoid certain regulations that apply to historic buildings. If the project will use federal low-income tax credits, as is proposed, as a historic building it would be under additional scrutiny under the National Historic Preservation Act. But halting the listing will not avoid federal requirements, as they apply to both listed and eligible properties; the property has already been determined eligible.

The City should be obliged to treat its historic buildings in the same manner as it expects of the private sector. The City has 100% ownership and control over the property. This is not a case where the City is asking a private property owner to preserve a building that might be blocking a more lucrative development scheme, as the City frequently requires: the David & Gladys Wright House is a prominent example.

The City itself has adopted historic preservation as a core value, particularly downtown. The Phoenix 2015 General Plan’s Downtown chapter includes a “History and Local Business” element (pp. 162-163) which states, in part:

Straight out of the 2015 General Plan.

“THE GOAL: Protect downtown’s historic structures, buildings, and neighborhoods while encouraging the growth of local business. Promote and expand upon the distinctive, authentic sense of place experience that downtown Phoenix offers.

“MEASURES FOR SUCCESS: Increase in the number of adaptive use projects each year; Increase in the number of new historic properties on the historical register.

“[CED] should encourage the adaptive reuse of existing buildings and pursue redevelopment at strategic site locations downtown.

“Continue to list eligible downtown historic properties on the Phoenix Historic Property Register and provide strengthened demolition protections for designated and eligible historic properties …”

The City should be obliged to treat its historic buildings in the same manner as it expects of the private sector.

As of this date, the proposed site plan for the property would result in demolition of over half of the building’s floor area, which clearly is not a preservation approach. Only the Main Hall would be reused (“preserved” would be an overstatement). The proposed plan instead incorporates a “memorial garden” and an interpretive exhibit about the Legion, putting these features forth as project “benefits.” (Let’s be clear about the interpretive exhibit: it is mitigation for a loss, not a project benefit, and to call it otherwise is misleading.) The proposed project is clearly not aligned with the City’s General Plan.

Here’s how much of the building would be demolished under the current plan. The rest would be covered up by new 4-story buildings.

This will hopefully dispense with the questions of whether or not the building is historic (of course it is) and whether the City should respect that fact (of course it should). But there are even more reasons to take a preservation approach to this project. The Legion property is a very special one that deserves a visionary plan, of which preservation can play an important role. In addition, such a plan can enhance both the economics and the community benefits the project could bring to Downtown. These topics will be explored in upcoming posts.

An Uphill Battle

The City of Phoenix’s latest economic development project endangers American Legion Post No. 1

by Bob Graham

First of a Series

From the 1950s through at least the 1980s, Phoenix government was notorious for its disregard of the city’s history. Things seemed to improve in recent decades, but here we are in 2021, once again moving toward civic destruction of one of our few remaining downtown historic buildings.  The threat today is to American Legion Post No. 1 – one of the first three (and possibly the first!) American Legion posts in the United States.

The history of the post is detailed in my prior article, Not to be Forgotten. Unknown to most modern-day Phoenicians, the American Legion post was an integral part of life in Phoenix for over fifty years. Evolving from the original Pickrell House that was donated to the City to house the Legion in 1919 into the building you see today, the Post looks pretty much as it did after the last major remodel in 1961. During its most active years, the Post was a veterans’ club, a community social center, and the base for veterans’ initiatives across Arizona, all at the same time.

The City’s 99-year sweetheart lease of the property to the Legion expired two years ago. Instead of renewing the lease for a new term, the City elected to find a developer to buy the property, potentially leaving Post No. 1 homeless. The Legion was given a measure of hope when the City Council required that the Post be provided a place in the redevelopment. The disposition of the historic building was not clear, but the fact that the Legion would be given a home there led many to believe that the building, too, would be preserved.

In May, 2021, the City announced the selection of a developer and rolled out a draft redevelopment plan for the property. At this point, it’s not clear if, or how much of, the Post building might be saved as the property is redeveloped. But early indications are not good: the plan on the table shows two-thirds of the building being demolished, and what’s left being surrounded by four stories of apartments.  The facilities needed by Post No. 1 for its normal operations are just not there.

May, 2021 proposed redevelopment plan

What’s so aggravating about this state of affairs is that it’s a totally avoidable, self-inflicted wound. There are choices being made by city staff that are prioritizing one set of narrow economic interests over all other community interests. This could easily be the type of project that does it all … redevelop the property to provide much needed affordable housing downtown, preserve an important historic building, and revitalize a key organization serving our veterans. But instead, we get one of three.

What’s so aggravating about this state of affairs is that it’s a totally avoidable, self-inflicted wound.

There are a number of complex aspects to this issue, each of which deserve an in-depth discussion. They boil down to these major points, which I will address in future articles:

  • Despite the City’s resistance to recognizing it, the historic value of the property is not in serious dispute. The city has an obligation to live up to its own stated preservation goals and treat this historic place with the respect it deserves.
  • As a redevelopment site, the American Legion property is a special one. It deserves a visionary plan that balances all community interests to make it a memorable point of community pride, and not just another apartment block.
  • Enacting such a plan will provide more and better economics for the project and a return to the City that goes far beyond the money. Historic Preservation incentives, grants to underwrite veterans’ services, and other creative development strategies could all come into play if the City were to take the time to properly develop the plan.

There is still time for the Post No. 1 redevelopment to improve, but the City needs to hear from its citizens that they care, and that the plan on the table just is not good enough. Let’s do this one right.