Will Phoenix downtowners buy a revised design that’s really just a facelift?
The proposed redevelopment of the Stewart Motor Co. Studebaker building (a.k.a. Circle’s Records) by the Empire Group continues to concern downtown stakeholders. Following a rebuke of the developer’s latest plans by the Roosevelt Action Association (RAA), Empire is doubling down, refusing to take no for an answer and continuing to push the plan by any means at their disposal.
In May 2016 Empire angered the downtown community when it initiated demolition of the historic car dealership after their initial plans for a 19 story apartment project (which would have resulted in the demolition of as much as 75% of the building) met with resistance that, in their view, threatened their right to tear the building down at will. The inevitable storm of bad PR caused by the surprise demolition work caused the city of Phoenix to immediately pull out of negotiations with Empire to receive city support for their project.
Finding themselves suddenly cast in the role of Evil Villain Developer, Empire turned a complete one-eighty, firing their zoning attorney and blaming him for the “poor advice” that they accepted when calling in the bulldozers. The developer’s new representatives, the Rose Law Group of Scottsdale, embarked on an apology tour in an attempt to get the project back on track.
In a series of meetings with various groups, lead attorney Jordan Rose assured community leaders that the demolition was all a mistake that wouldn’t be repeated; that CCBG, the architects for the project, were already working on a new, exciting approach that would address all of the community concerns; that the new design would be so fantastic that project opponents would be amazed at the total transformation from the original plan, and would become its biggest supporters; and that the project wouldn’t move forward until it received said community support.
Empire’s hostage-taking approach following the public resistance to its first plan led preservationists to view their later overtures with suspicion. But in the interest of preserving one of the last pair of endangered car dealerships on Central Avenue, many were willing to withhold judgment until the developer shared the new plan.
Rose was informed that the community only wanted one thing: that the Stewart Motor Co. building be preserved.
“Preserved” in the sense that it would remain eligible to the National Register of Historic Places. It’s a plain, simple, cut-and-dried criterion for gauging whether or not the community’s desire has been addressed.
A quick aside about historic preservation
A working knowledge of historic preservation basics is important to evaluating whether or not Empire’s proposal meets the goal of “preserving the building.” How do we decide what’s historic, and what’s not? And how do we define what changes you can make without ruining those historic qualities?
For a building to be considered “historic,” it’s not enough to just be old. It must have two essential qualities: significance and integrity. These are the criteria used by the National Register to decide whether or not a property is worthy of listing.
Significance is pretty easy to understand – it’s the important “story” that the building tells. In the case of Stewart Motor Co., there are actually two areas of significance. First is the building’s part in the history of the Central Avenue “Automobile Row” and as a focus for auto sales. The second is as an important local work of architecture.
Integrity is a little slipperier. Some think of integrity as a measure of how much a property has changed since it was built, but that’s not totally accurate. Technically, it’s the ability of the building to “convey its significance.” So for a building to convey the significance of its architecture, the individual features that were important elements of the original architect’s vision all need to remain, in recognizable condition. And when we’re talking about “vision” and “design,” we are talking about the whole building, not just what some have called “the iconic elements,” and not just facades. In order to convey the building’s significance to the history of this part of Central Avenue, it needs to retain (recognizably) all of the elements that mark it as a full-service auto dealership of the 1940s and 50s – not just the showroom – and enough physical, surrounding context so that people can recognize its place in the larger streetscape.
The Ten Commandments of the preservation world, the “Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation,” were written to guide designers on what changes could be made and still retain the historical integrity of the building. The purpose of all of this is to identify a clear, unambiguous criterion to maintain pieces of our shared history in a way that they continue to “tell the story.” Because if you can’t tell by looking at a building what it is and how it’s related to our history, then what’s the point? Worse yet, if the building is changed in such a way that throws it completely out of context or implies a different back story, will future residents of our city get a completely wrong idea about our history?
Empire’s June 2016 proposal
In early June, the developer’s architects and attorneys unveiled the much-anticipated revision. While the building addition’s general form, height, scale, and massing are unchanged, it’s apparent that significant time and effort has been paid in the development of details and features aimed at increasing the project’s compatibility with the historic core’s architecture and the project’s place in the south Roosevelt neighborhood.
The biggest and most positive change has been the new commitment to preserving all of the building’s facades along Central Avenue and McKinley Street. However, because the footprint of the new apartment tower is closer to the street than the front of Stewart Motors, the north half of the historic façade ends up as one side of an interior space behind a glass curtain wall.
Another new commitment is a significant investment in local art. The entry would be marked by a flaming Pete Diese steel sculpture (his largest to date). Otherwise-dead areas of the parking garage would be enhanced by huge murals the size of (or perhaps emulating) billboards.
Presentations were made by the development team to a variety of stakeholder groups. A consensus appears to have reached that while “The Stewart” is an improvement from “Circle on Central,” the project still has not addressed the community’s greatest concern for preserving the building, nor has it provided more than lip service to a grab bag of potential mitigating features. The neighborhood group representing the area, the Roosevelt Action Association, summarized this in a July 25 letter to the city. RAA has declared “an impasse,” essentially giving up on talking with Empire because they aren’t listening.
So why, with all these improvements, is the project still unacceptable? Because it does not meet the simple criterion communicated to the developer that the Stewart Motor Co. building be preserved. Instead, it seems to be doing everything except for the one thing that the community requested.
On July 28th the developer’s attorneys issued a rosy response (pun intended) to RAA’s letter, putting a positive spin on each of RAA’s objections. This letter reveals a remarkable disconnect in communication between the sides while shining an interesting light on their future strategy toward achieving a GPLET tax incentive from the city.
The first item RAA discussed with the developer, in RAA’s words “to no avail,” was the “further preservation of the building.” In the response, Rose expresses agreement with this goal but goes on to defend the proposal as it stands – that the new design “preserves the most significant as well as recognizable portions of the building” and using the analysis (but not explicit support) of its paid preservation consultant to provide a fig leaf of legitimacy to a design that would make the building ineligible to historic registers. Not only would the project still demolish at least two thirds of the fabric of the building, the most interesting feature of the new design – the encasement of a portion of the façade behind glass – would radically change the context of the facade and result in “head in a jar” preservation.
That RAA was hoping to be presented with “alternative design solutions” met with similar “agreement” and a non-responsive defense of the current design. I believe that the neighborhood was hoping for more than a skin-deep façade remodel of Circle on Central, and be presented with designs that actually changed the form of the building, but this distinction appears lost on Rose.
RAA members apparently also put funding for historic preservation on the table. This desire is understandable due to the unfortunate lack of funding for the preservation office in the city and state, and the developer has leapt on this item with a commitment “to provide substantial funding to the Historic Preservation Office.” As an element of a development deal, this arrangement appears to be ill-advised, as it sets a couple of bad precedents: 1) that our historic buildings are for sale, and 2) kicking back public subsidies to fund preservation rather than working through the traditional channels is acceptable. (Personally, I believe it was an issue worth discussing in a brainstorming session but should be discarded.)
Rose’s letter puts similar spin on RAA’s ideas to include museum space (RAA: 3,000 square foot historical museum; Rose: museum-quality exhibits, no area commitment) and alternative funding sources (by which RAA probably mean preservation grants and tax incentives and Rose appears to mean GPLET).
Divide and conquer
As reported in the Downtown Devil, the RAA has publicly disavowed the areas of “agreement” implied by Rose’s letter of July 28, but that has not put an end to the campaign to get back into good graces with the city. While city representatives have stated that they don’t intend to restart discussions with the developer at this time, that stance could change if Empire can show support in the community for the project.
It appears that the strategy now is to drive a wedge into the opposition between “preservationists” and “artists.” Compared to Circle on Central, The Stewart is tailor-made to appeal to our local arts community as much as it alienates preservationists. Several in the arts community report being contacted for “one on one” meetings with the development team in order to “get their input” – or perhaps to gauge what it would take to get their support. A similar effort is being mounted to push the “affordable housing” potential of the project, which could splinter off the pro-urban members of the coalition.
A cynic could get the idea that Empire believes that the artists and “urbanistas” can be successfully bought off by purchasing some of their art and throwing in a few below-market units, opening the way for a new run at the city to secure the estimated $15 million in GPLET value for their project. That would be a tragedy for the unity of our downtown community that, if successful, would set the worst precedent of all.