Heard Mentality

How much longer will the city allow the acclaimed museum to disrupt a historic neighborhood's peace and quiet?

Everyone has a breaking point.

For residents of the Encanto historic neighborhood, it came with a fashion show.

Not just any fashion show. This was "Wildfire," a 600-guest extravaganza showcasing international designer Ralph Lauren, complete with a carnival tent and an amplified rock band blasting music after 11 p.m. less than 100 yards from some of their homes.

Craig Larotonda
Heard lawyer Nick Wood says the museum wants to be a good neighbor.
Kevin Scanlon
Heard lawyer Nick Wood says the museum wants to be a good neighbor.

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But it didn't stop there.

At 11:30 p.m. on November 9, 2001, the music at Wildfire ended and the breakdown began. Guests poured onto residential streets. Catering crews started tearing down tables.

By the time Phoenix police arrived at the Heard Museum, which sponsored the event as a fund raiser, there was little to see. But that didn't stop residents from complaining.

Something had to give.

After all, some neighbors had spent more than a year asking museum officials to reduce noise from a growing number of private-use events, many held outside after dark. They urged the museum to require catering crews to keep quiet while loading equipment, which went on at times well into the early morning. Then they demanded that idling buses be kept away from the museum's rear parking lot, immediately adjacent to their homes.

But things only got worse.

What began with a few events has blossomed into a full-fledged cottage industry for the city's internationally acclaimed Native American museum.

In the past two years, the museum has drawn more than $1 million in event fees, catering contracts and alcohol sales by renting out portions of its sprawling Central Avenue campus to corporate parties, weddings and business meetings.

The money is in addition to any proceeds the museum makes from admissions, fund raisers and the handful of special events each year such as the Indian Fair and Market, which was held March 2-3.

The neighborhood doesn't oppose those cultural events because they live up to the spirit of the museum's mission statement, which is to educate the public about Native American contributions.

But private parties are another matter, especially when they disrupt the neighborhood.

Many of the events at the Heard currently violate city zoning codes and provisions that prohibit things like outdoor activities, outdoor cooking and mismanaged traffic control.

"We're not saying they can't conduct private-use activities," says Christopher Skelly, a former Maricopa County Superior Court judge, whose house sits directly behind the Heard's catering entrance. "We're just saying they have to do it in a way that complies with zoning laws."

Skelly is one of more than 60 residents that have jelled into a formidable group, the Neighbors of the Heard Museum Association. Most of the members live on either Hoover or Alvarado streets, which flank the museum property to the north and east. Some live in the two high-rise towers, Phoenix Towers and Regency House, which overlook the Heard's parking lots to the north and south.

The association's members are determined to see some measure of control exacted, either by the museum itself or by the city.

But even that simple goal may be hard to achieve.

The museum to date has shown little willingness to curb its profitable usage, even though it is in violation. Some events, like Wildfire, were allowed because the museum got a temporary permit.

The city has not intervened, despite receiving numerous complaints. Officials say they think the museum needs to make money and that the museum is trying to acknowledge the added burden on the neighbors by applying for rezoning and special permits. Many of the events take place indoors, but the outdoor events are hard to enforce because inspectors rarely work past 6 p.m., when the events typically begin.

"Even if they knew they were not in compliance, they're bouncing in and out of compliance," says city Planning Director David Richert.

The museum late last year applied to change its zoning, but Heard officials so far have resisted efforts by the neighborhood to drastically change the event guidelines.

The association has asked that the museum limit the hours of operation, the areas where music can be played and the route that traffic enters and leaves the facility.

"We're going to try everything within reason to arrive at an agreement regarding stipulations," says Nick Wood, the museum's zoning lawyer. "However, we can't agree to anything that would have a serious damaging impact on the Heard Museum to exist."

Richert's department supports the museum being rezoned, and the stipulations being proposed by the city can best be described as extremely lenient, even allowing events to continue until midnight on weekends.

Both the Heard and the neighborhood have proposed alternate stipulations that would keep private events from going past 11 p.m.

In less than three weeks, the zoning application will finally be discussed, at an April 1 meeting before the Encanto Village Planning Committee.

Ultimately, the issue will end up at the city council, whose members must decide what, if any, restrictions should be placed on the museum.

"Both of them have some valid issues," says new Councilman Mike Johnson, whose district includes the Heard. "A lot of our cultural arts centers are starting to have extracurricular activities to raise money.

"It's a matter of control. I really think the biggest key is communication."

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