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

Kaufman says he's not bluffing just to get people on his side, or fanning controversy. But he says repeatedly that such historic buildings should belong to the community and should be protected by the community (hint, hint).

Here are some possible scenarios for what could happen over the next seven months:

• The city moves to condemn the land, Kaufman gets an appraisal proving it's worth more without the buildings, then flattens them to get the highest price from the city.

Don Jackson, standing in front of the PUHS administration building, says alumni will mobilize to save it and other historic buildings from the wrecking ball.
Paolo Vescia
Don Jackson, standing in front of the PUHS administration building, says alumni will mobilize to save it and other historic buildings from the wrecking ball.
The Downtown Transit Center at Central and Van Buren was reconfigured after Jim Kaufman told cityofficials the original layout didn't make much sense.
The Downtown Transit Center at Central and Van Buren was reconfigured after Jim Kaufman told cityofficials the original layout didn't make much sense.

• The city doesn't condemn the land, but someone else -- interested in the land and not the buildings -- makes an offer that is less than what Kaufman considers fair market value. So Kaufman knocks them down.

• The city decides to condemn the land but pay Kaufman the full price for the property, then in a partnership (with the Civic Plaza Corporation or someone else) turns the entire property into a Civic Plaza extension, integrating the historic buildings.

• A mega-development company partners with the city and pays what Kaufman says the land is worth, again saving the old buildings while constructing high-rise condos or another revenue-producing venture.

Kaufman is hoping for one of the latter outcomes.

"That's all I'm trying to do -- it's a difficult task -- to see if we can't get the fair market value of the land and figure out a way to get the preservation in the same deal."

Kaufman -- who also owns two shopping centers in the Valley -- has already had an impressive return on his 27-acre PUHS property. He purchased the property more than 15 years ago for $13 million, then sold nearly half of it (east of Seventh Street) for an undisclosed price. Since then, he has earned more than $40 million leasing and selling portions of it to the city and the Civic Plaza Corporation. Kaufman says such amounts don't reflect the millions of dollars put into operating and improving the properties "or the debts I've incurred with lenders all over the place."

Both sides -- the city and Kaufman -- are being quite civil now, couching polite comments on the issue with indications that nothing has been decided, that they hope everything can be worked out, that they are both just protecting their positions.

But many, including former Phoenix mayor Terry Goddard, are furious at the city for starting demolition of the structures on the north side of the campus, including a 1921 building that was not on any registry but was the first to be destroyed. He says the older parts of the campus need to be saved. Period.

"It's a major piece of our heritage and something of spectacular quality," he says. "Knocking stuff down for the sake of knocking stuff down -- it's absurd and shortsighted."

Phoenix city councilman Phil Gordon says already the "tragedy" of the demolition of the 1921 industrial arts building has spurred some action: He and councilman Doug Lingner will propose a change to the city code that would call for thorough review and public hearing before any old building -- not only those on a historic registry -- can be demolished by the city.

"Just because a building is not on a historic registry doesn't mean that it's not historic," he says.

And, now that the city has plaster on its face over that case, officials are trying to find a way to spare Kaufman's four PUHS buildings from demolition. Gordon says City Manager Frank Fairbanks vowed last week to save them.

Amazingly, the destruction of the northern PUHS buildings began even though the full City Council has not formally approved the Civic Plaza expansion plan. (A council subcommittee adopted it a week ago, after demolition had already begun.) When and if the council approves the plan, the city would have to ask voters for permission to spend bond funds on the deal. Assistant City Manager Sculley says that may not be until March.

Meanwhile, the city is clearing most of the old high school site. And the clock on Kaufman's demolition permit is ticking.

Goddard, now the state coordinator for the federal Housing and Urban Development office, says the city has put Kaufman in a tough position: "An ironic twist after all he's done for the city." While both sides seem cordial now, Goddard predicts the controversy will get nasty.

"And in a fight between Jim and the city, I'd bet on Jim," Goddard says.


Jim Kaufman is uncomfortable. After wading through a throng waiting to be seated for lunch at the Hyatt Regency's Compass restaurant, he learns they are part of a dental convention. He shudders. He doesn't like going to the dentist.

Worse, he is meeting a reporter. Kaufman is hesitant about talking, unsure why anyone would want to read about him.

"I'm not very interesting," he says.

But friends and colleagues frequently use that word to describe Kaufman. They also call him talented, wealthy, influential, mysterious.

"He's the Howard Hughes of Phoenix," says longtime friend Phil Gordon. "He's even got the long hair, but not the long fingernails."

Indeed, Kaufman sports a long, white ponytail bound by three bands. His nails are trimmed and clean. He wears no fancy watch or diamond jewelry, just a wrap-around silver wedding ring in the shape of an eagle, part of a matched set he and his wife bought in Sante Fe.

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