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

Two examples:

When the city was planning to build the new Downtown Transit Center at Central Avenue and Van Buren Street, the original plans called for a linear development running north and south on Central Avenue. A narrow strip of land facing First Avenue would have been left open. Kaufman noted that the configuration would limit the remaining land's development potential -- who would want a skinny parcel of land facing a one-way street? The more logical layout would be to place the station on the southern part of the block, facing Van Buren, leaving the northern part open for development.

Some, including parking-lot owner Leon Woodward, smelled a rat, complaining that Kaufman's proposal would plow under private parking spaces that compete with Kaufman's garage across the street. And they noted that Kaufman was a contributor to Phoenix mayor and council races.

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.

Kaufman says he wasn't seeking any favors, just offering a sensible alternative. The city reconfigured the station plans.

Another time, Kaufman sat in on meetings regarding the construction of the Arizona Science Center and the Civic Plaza East parking garage. After hearing how many busloads of schoolchildren would be visiting the center on field trips and how the garage would easily accommodate them all, Kaufman asked what he thought was a simple question: Where's the bridge?

Officials hadn't planned a pedestrian bridge to transport kids safely across a busy street. Today, there's a bridge spanning Washington Street, connecting the museum and rest of Arizona Heritage and Science Park with the garage.

Kaufman says he can't help but throw in his two cents on such things, whether or not they directly involve his properties. And he says his comments are not always immediately welcomed.

"I'm not a planner or an architect. People look at me and say, 'Who the hell are you?'"


Who the hell is Jim Kaufman?

His résumé might conjure an image of a businessman who took a routine path to success. It definitely would describe someone who wears a suit (a pricey one) to work each day in a luxurious downtown high-rise. He's got a business degree from Arizona State University. Years of experience as a mortgage lender and real estate developer. Key positions on the executive committee of Phoenix Community Alliance and the board of the Downtown Phoenix Partnership, powerful groups that work toward improving downtown.

But Kaufman has traveled a difficult, roundabout route. He not only breaks the millionaire-developer mold, he demolishes it. He is long-haired and prefers to dress modestly and casually. He works out of an office on his Phoenix Union High School property that features a music studio.

His college degree was a miracle, he says, considering he suffers from dyslexia, a learning disorder that hadn't even been identified when he was going through school.

"I thought I was just stupid. So did everybody else," he says.

Kaufman's family had moved to Phoenix from Syracuse, New York, in 1956. A self-described nerd, Kaufman entered West High School as a sophomore and struggled to keep up.

He graduated in 1959 near the bottom of his class. When the final grade-point averages were posted on the door of the principal's office with the highest achievers at the top, Kaufman had to get down on his hands and knees to find his name. He was torn between his father's dream that he get a college degree and his English teacher's advice that he eschew college and become a tradesman.

Kaufman got into Phoenix College, which at the time accepted all Valley high school graduates. For that, he will be forever grateful. He says the community college gave him a chance when no one believed in him. And it helped prepare him for higher studies at Arizona State. Since then, he has been a passionate supporter of the community-college system, contributing money and speaking its praises whenever he can.

Kaufman's first career was in music. He played guitar at a Scottsdale coffee house and a Phoenix steak house, performing his own songs. He sold pianos and taught guitar on the side.

"But I wasn't good enough as a performer or old enough as a composer to make anything meaningful happen," he says. While he continued to dabble with his instruments, he gave up songwriting for nearly 30 years.

He found work as a mortgage lender, then got into real estate investing. In 1981, he bought his first downtown Phoenix building, the property on the northwest corner of Central Avenue and Washington Street that is now Renaissance Square. He sold the building a few months later, but the transaction tossed his name into the ring as a downtown player. As a result, he says, he was one of about 20 people invited to a lunch hosted in 1982 by Keith Turley, then head of Arizona Public Service.

The gathering was organized to discuss ways to save downtown Phoenix, Kaufman says. He credits Turley, who died in December, with having the vision for getting the revitalization started. (He says sports mogul Jerry Colangelo has provided "the magic" over the years that has helped the new downtown take shape.)

The Phoenix Community Alliance grew out of that meeting, with Kaufman as a founding board member. And when the Phoenix Downtown Partnership spun off from that group in 1990 to focus on a narrower section of downtown, Kaufman was a founding board member again. He still sits on both boards.

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