Jim Kaufman's Bottom Line

The cryptic savior of historic downtown structures says he'll raze his classic PUHS buildings before he'll lose his investment

Jim Kaufman, a developer who has played a key role in the revitalization of downtown Phoenix, has been credited with saving many cherished buildings: The renovated Orpheum Theatre, the art deco Professional Building just south of Bank One center, the majestic administration building on the old Phoenix Union High School campus (it dates to territorial days) and three adjacent historic school properties, including Union Hall, which he restored and reopened.

Such structural treasures provide a link to the past, preserving memories and paying homage to those who helped build the community. During more than 20 years as a downtown investor and developer, Kaufman, 58, has tried to keep those higher motives at heart.

So it is the ultimate irony that Kaufman could be the one who tears down the imposing historic structures remaining on the Phoenix Union High School campus at Seventh and Van Buren streets.

The Orpheum Theatre, anostalgic reminder of Phoenix's days gone by, might have been demolished had it not been for the actions of Jim Kaufman.
The Orpheum Theatre, anostalgic reminder of Phoenix's days gone by, might have been demolished had it not been for the actions of Jim Kaufman.
The Orpheum Theatre, a nostalgic reminder of Phoenix's days gone by, might have been demolished had it not been for the actions of Jim Kaufman.
Paolo Vescia
The Orpheum Theatre, a nostalgic reminder of Phoenix's days gone by, might have been demolished had it not been for the actions of Jim Kaufman.

All four -- the administration, liberal arts and science buildings and Union Hall -- were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. But as many alumni are horrified to learn after all these years, that doesn't protect them from the wrecking ball. It just means there are a few bureaucratic hurdles to clear before they can be reduced to rubble.

Kaufman has quietly started stepping over those hurdles. But when members of the Phoenix Union High School Alumni Association heard about his plan to possibly tear down their most hallowed halls, they began to gear up for a fight.

"We are not going to sit idly by and watch the buildings be destroyed," vows Don Jackson, head of the 5,000-strong association.

City historic preservation policy does allow for the demolition of historic properties under certain conditions. Kaufman says one condition, economic hardship, would apply to his PUHS buildings if the city should decide to condemn and take his property as part of its grand Phoenix Civic Plaza expansion plan. Already, the city is proceeding with a $3.3 million demolition of the buildings on the north side of the PUHS campus that it purchased from Kaufman three years ago.

Assistant City Manager Sheryl Sculley says the land north of Kaufman's buildings needs to be cleared for construction of a $20 million to $30 million Civic Plaza exhibition hall, which would host events while a $500 million expansion of the Civic Plaza facility that straddles Washington Street is undertaken.

According to the code, "economic hardship" exists when a reasonable price cannot be obtained from a property "that retains its historic features or structures." Kaufman fears that if the city decides it wants the land beneath Union Hall and his other three school buildings -- and the city has said it may -- the property would be worth more with nothing on it. The structures, which also house his business office, a charter school for the arts and the headquarters of a new Internet venture, would likely just be in the way of any city plans.

Kaufman says he hasn't commissioned an appraisal of the land for 12 years, so it would be meaninglesss to talk about today's value of the property and how much it would be cut by the buildings' presence. But city documents hint at how far apart the city and Kaufman could be: A 1995 bank appraisal puts the value of Kaufman's four acres at $3.5 million. In 1996, the city paid nearly $50 a square foot for the northern parcel -- which would equate to more than $8 million for the rest of Kaufman's land. In a January memo contained in city files, Kaufman suggests the land is worth more than the $40 per square foot the city paid for a small strip of land on the south end of the campus in 1991. At that rate, Kaufman's minimum asking price would be nearly $7 million.

In what he calls a protective action, Kaufman applied for a demolition permit in January and was turned down by the city -- the standard procedure for such a process. That triggered a 12-month wait before Kaufman can get the go-ahead (if he proves economic hardship) to tear down his four buildings.

Should the stately buildings be razed, he says, "It would be a very sad day for me. It would be a very sad day for Phoenix."

He is, he says, someone who has put much of his life and life savings into the property. And he is also a resident of Phoenix, a citizen who hopes that public policy will support saving old buildings while new projects rise to keep downtown vital.

But he is, ultimately, a businessman. And he intends to protect his equity.

Suddenly, Kaufman is hoping for his own savior. He needs somebody to come forward and save the day, sparing not only the buildings, but also his reputation.

Because the fact is, despite the lovely monuments to Kaufman's downtown investing over the years, if he knocks down what is left of PUHS, that likely will be his legacy.

"I'd hate for that to happen," he says. "But I have a stated purpose. And I've restated my purpose and I will continue to restate my purpose. And hopefully, somehow, there will be a resolution before that event has to happen."

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