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.
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.