“The Stewart” Will Still Destroy Our History

Will Phoenix downtowners buy a revised design that’s really just a facelift?

Facelift

By Bob Graham, Motley Design Group

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.

The earlier episodes of the Stewart Motors tale are documented in my earlier posts, “Storm Clouds Circle” and “Back Off or the Building Gets It.”

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.

Circles Demo
The building just after demolition was halted in April

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.

This is what can happen when you just save "ti iconic elements" and graft them onto something newer and bigger
This is what can happen when you just save “the iconic elements” of a 1947 Studebaker and graft them onto something newer and bigger

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.

Circle on Central and The Stewart
From “Circle on Central” (L) to “The Stewart” (R): Completely transformed or more of the same? (Both images CCBG Architects)

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.

Neighborhood reaction

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.

Doubling down

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.

Well, they ARE preserved ...
Well, they ARE preserved …

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.

Back Off or the Building Gets It

Stewart Motors held hostage for developer’s tax incentives

By Bob Graham, Motley Design Group

The developer of Circle on Central, the planned redevelopment of the historic Stewart Motor Co. Studebaker building at Central & McKinley, has apparently decided to play hardball as they plow ahead in their quest to secure GPLET tax incentives from the city of Phoenix despite mounting public opposition.

On March 28, the Empire Group pulled a permit for the complete demolition of the un-designated historic building, constructed in 1947 as the Studebaker dealership located in the heart of Auto Row, as Central Avenue north of Van Buren was known.  While the developer denies that they have any plans to demolish the building within the 30-day life of the permit, they made clear in a public meeting this Tuesday that they would seriously consider complete demolition of the building if their request for property tax incentives from the City is denied.

The Story So Far

Phoenix preservation advocates approached the developer earlier this year to open discussions on the affect of their proposed development on the historic building.  They were shown a 19-story mixed-use addition that would obliterate nearly three-quarters of the building. Alarmed at the impact of the design, a letter was circulated requesting that the developer consider alternative approaches that would leave the building substantially intact. To date, the developer’s plans have remained unchanged.

Whatever one thinks about the merits of the development, there is little meaningful leverage available to the community on its impacts because the property does not have any historic preservation protections (due to the resistance of the prior and current owners) and because the development conforms to zoning requirements without apparent need for variances or use permits.  As public knowledge of the project has grown within the downtown community, attention focused on one of the few elements of the project that requires a special approval process: participation in the Government Property Lease Excise Tax program, or GPLET.

For the full background on this story, the reader is referred to the prior article, Storm Clouds Circle.

GPLET for Dummies

The basic idea of GPLET is that after the project is finished it is placed under City ownership for a certain period of time and leased back to the developer. This removes the property from the property tax rolls because the City is not subject to property tax. A substitute excise tax is paid in its place (at a much reduced amount).

GPLETs have been handed out by past City Councils for years as one of the few tools available to incentivize downtown revitalization. They have been evaluated on a purely monetary basis – that the economic impact of a particular project will justify the reduction in tax paid by the developer over the course of the GPLET. The program has become controversial in recent years because of the tax implications on properties not receiving GPLETs – the other downtown property owners have to pay higher taxes to make up the difference.  Reduced tax revenues to the public school system have also been made an issue, although recent agreements include provisions intended to make the school revenue whole.

Many in the downtown community have been asking that the city re-evaluate its GPLET program and stop handing the incentives out so readily.  At some point, downtown has to be deemed a redevelopment success that no longer requires public subsidy; at which time GPLETs could incentivize the other kinds of goals that are not yet being addressed. A precedent was set just this year: Council’s approval of the Derby project was predicated on the inclusion of attainable housing in the project, at the request of the community. In the case of the Circle on Central development, it is fair to ask: no matter the economic benefit, should we be providing public subsidies to private projects that destroy valued historic buildings?

So, the Threat

Demo PermitMost people were quite surprised to learn of the developer’s application for demolition permit. Up to this point, the development team has seemed quite open and has implied, if not explicitly stated, that the project was still in its formative stages and that they would be happy to engage in a discussion with downtown stakeholders with the aim of improving the preservation impact of the project.

The developer was invited to present their project to the Roosevelt Action Association, which represents the neighborhood within which the project is proposed. They accepted and the developer attended a meeting on the evening of April 5, accompanied by his architect and his attorney.

Empire’s bottom line could be paraphrased as follows: The project is not going to change. We are only going to preserve the southeast corner of the building. We will throw you a bone by committing to a façade easement on the part that we don’t plan to tear down, and by putting historical displays inside. And if we don’t get GPLET, we will probably tear down even that last bit of the building.

There Are Alternatives

Aesthetics aside, architectural design is largely an exercise in reconciling competing values and requirements. Some, such as the ability to stand up or be safely fled if there is a fire, can’t be compromised.  Other requirements are often found to be at odds and a decision must be made as to which gets priority. For instance, the client may want to make a window larger, but doing so will increase the heat load. Which do you want? A bigger air conditioner or a smaller window? This mundane example could be one of thousands of similar trade-offs that architects make in the course of designing a single project.

“Historic preservation” in the case of Circle on Central has become one of those values that have been compromised in favor of other aspects of the project that the developer finds more important.

We know that the developer’s program can be accommodated on this site with a drastically reduced impact on the Stewart Motors building, because prior to the public meeting, an alternative scheme was shared with the developer’s architects that could provide similar or greater development intensity while preserving enough of the building to retain National Register eligibility. This plan is arrived at if you value preservation as a higher priority than, say, reducing the building height or eliminating curb cuts along Central Avenue.

Assume as a given that the project has to accommodate about 310 apartments and about 330 cars. This density is capped by the zoning. One way to reduce the amount of building destruction that must take place is to reduce the footprint of the new addition and make it taller. You would not be losing any units or square footage. You would probably lose some efficiency and therefore increase the cost overall. However, the zoning also provides height and density bonuses for projects that preserve and rehabilitate historic buildings. In this case, by preserving the building, you could increase the yield of the property from 310 units to as many as 540 units under the code. As a practical matter, because of the limits of parking feasibility, you could probably achieve only about 100 additional units, but going from 310 to 410 units is a significant increase and should help offset the loss of efficiency.

The alternative proposal would preserve more of the building and all of the facades
CCBG Rendering 1
The current proposal (CCBG Architects)

Minor alterations to the shape of the building would also result in a significantly increased level of preservation. Just by stepping the façade back where the new addition meets the old building, you can preserve all of the historic streetscape along Central. If you reopen the historic driveway entrance to the service bays, you can use that as an entrance to your parking garage.

Circles Reimagined - Picture # 1
The whole Central Avenue side, preserved!

Finally, the project may qualify for historic preservation tax credits or other incentives if a successful compromise can be reached. The biggest hurdle would be convincing the National Park Service that placing a 350-foot building next to/atop the historic building would not result in an unacceptable change to its historic context. But it would be worth exploring. If the expense to rehabilitate Stewart Motors were $200 per square foot, the tax credit would be worth half a million dollars.

Where is the Stewardship?

Admittedly, the design concept presented above is pretty rough in comparison to the developer’s plan, but we don’t have the benefit of eight months in design development. What I hope this example demonstrates is that the developer’s plan can’t be considered the one and only plan that works.  The developer has made a conscious decision from the start to sacrifice 75% of the building because they thought they could. And by right, they can; but that does not mean that we should dedicate public money to it.

Donovan Rypkema, noted advocate for the economics of preservation, recently posted on FaceBook:

“This argument of ‘historic preservation versus property rights’ has become a stale cliché that continues to be the framing of the argument. I’m waiting for the enlightened journalist to instead write about ‘owner intransigence vs. property responsibilities.’ Historic preservation is a property responsibility movement — the responsibility of stewardship, not just the right of ownership; the responsibility to one’s neighbors, not just one’s self; the responsibility to generations of children not yet born, not just the right to muck up a historic property for the whim du jour.”

It couldn’t be better said, and speaks to Empire Group’s approach to this design. They need to understand that just because they own the property, that doesn’t mean they don’t have a responsibility of stewardship. And the community should not knuckle under to the “whim du jour” because one piece of the building is being held hostage, while the rest is already under a death warrant.