Developers refuse to compromise with community on church preservation
Preservation controversy returns to downtown Phoenix this year, inching perilously close to the Grand Avenue arts and small business district.
Late in 2022, development company Trumont Group went public with a proposal to redevelop a 3-acre parcel currently occupied by Mercy Hill Church. The property was historically the First Church of God, designed by noted local architects Lescher & Mahoney and constructed in phases between 1946 and 1968. The church is the largest and most distinctive building in all of area known as “The Triangle,” which is literally wedged in between Roosevelt Street, Seventh Avenue, and Grand Avenue, and is one of the two historic residential neighborhoods backing up to the Historic Grand Avenue commercial strip.
Predictably, Trumont’s initial plan called for the site to be completely leveled, with a new, anonymous 4-story urban apartment block taking its place. To make it possible to build their vision, the property will need to be re-zoned from C-3 to a fairly new zoning category called the “Walkable Urban Code,” or WU. Local community groups, invited to comment as part of the rezoning case, made Trumont aware of the potentially historic nature of the church and requested that development plans be modified to incorporate the most important parts.
Trumont’s local representatives and consultants vowed to improve their proposal to make it more acceptable to their neighboring stakeholders. In December, they returned to present their newest plan – which differed from the original plan cosmetically, but in substance, was nearly identical. No part of the church could be saved, they said. Instead, we will honor its memory by using some of its architectural details on our façade.
Preservation advocates were skeptical of Trumont’s claims that saving any part of the church was infeasible. So what’s the real story here? Would a preservation requirement unfairly saddle a developer who is honestly trying to bring much-needed housing to downtown Phoenix with the burden of a useless and worthless pile of crumbling bricks? Or is this the story of a developer prioritizing the maximum return on investment at the expense of community character, creative placemaking, and historical interest? Let’s take a look.
The Trumont Plan
The Mercy Hill development would occupy two-thirds of an entire city block from Seventh to Ninth Avenues between Fillmore and Taylor Streets. The apartment block would be four stories high for most of its footprint and would wrap around, and above, a massive on-grade parking lot. In all, the proposal would contain 126 new apartments and around 145 parking spaces.
The plan is unremarkable and is architecturally representative of the kind of thing we have been seeing a lot of around downtown, and for that matter, around the country.
What’s the Big Deal?
Pretty much the whole of the three-acre site is already developed by buildings and parking lots. Aside from the church sanctuary, there are administrative offices, classrooms, and low-income apartments that are part of the church’s operations.
But the most visible and architectural parts of the property all occupy one 10,000 square foot corner of the 106,000 square foot site. These include the Sanctuary, brick arcades, and a high midcentury-modern bell tower.
These architectural features have a lot to say about Phoenix in the 1950s and ‘60s. Whether or not you think these are “historic,” the fact that they define the existing character of this place is undeniable.
There has been a lot of discussion in recent years about the concept of “placemaking.” (You can read my opinion piece on this subject here.) One of the major issues is that when you just keep tearing down pieces of your urban fabric willy-nilly, what you get are the worst aspects of Phoenix. This disposable culture has been our collective approach to building a city since 1871, and it’s a hard habit to break. When you constantly tear down your landmarks to make way for the new stuff, you lose your soul. So somehow there needs to be a both/and approach to urban redevelopment rather than the either/or that we are constantly presented with. Obviously, you can’t over-apply the preservation principle when there are needs to be met such as housing, public safety, neighborhood stability, and economic development. But in this case, what are preservationists asking for? Here is the magnitude of the request, superimposed on the aerial photo.
As you can see, the amount of land needed to save the really important parts of the First Church of God is pretty small in relation to the overall site, and it’s in a location that you should be able to work around. So how about incorporating it into the development? Is that even possible or feasible?
A Potential Alternative
Well, of course, it’s been done before, and right here in Phoenix. There are two examples that have been built, “The Stewart,” which reused a sizeable piece of the Stewart Motors building (a.k.a. Circles Records) and “The Logan,” which incorporated the front of the Stewart Title building. At least two more such projects are in the pipeline, reusing the City Center Motel on Van Buren and the old Miracle Mile Safeway store.
Both of these examples illustrate that not only can it be economically feasible to include an existing building in a successful development, but they can contribute to its success by providing a more interesting design and leasable commercial floor space. From a community perspective, they are among the few apartment designs that could be found only in Phoenix rather than the anonymous “Anywhere, USA” designs that seem to predominate.
This adaptive-use strategy could work for the Mercy Hill site as well. Here is a diagrammatic plan that shows one way that you could achieve 100% of the developer’s goals (126 apartment units in 4 stories, and parking that balances) AND achieve the preservation goal for the church building. Any you get 5,000 square feet of useable commercial space as a bonus!
The Developer Reaction and What’s Next
This idea was presented to the Trumont Group, and sadly, they have declined to make any changes to their overall development plan or seriously study the possibility. In the words of their representative, “we found that it isn’t optimum.” In other words, preservation costs something.
But this all comes down to a rezoning case. By up-zoning the property from a mix of R-5, P-1, and C-3 to the WU Code as they request, their development rights are effectively more than doubled. You read that right – the rezoning would represent a windfall that would double the value of the land – yet any erosion of their profit margin is, for them, unacceptable. Let’s hope that the city shows this project the door, because we can do better.