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.

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