Crack Addicts, Political Shenanigans and Indian Relics

Only in Phoenix is this a formula for a real estate hustle

David Therrien had a simple proposal for real estate developer Dixon "Duke" Cowley.

In July 2000, Therrien says he approached Cowley seeking to lease an abandoned lumber yard that Cowley had purchased in June 2000 for $1.2 million.

Therrien says he wanted to negotiate a one-month lease for the 7.8-acre site to stage an elaborate robotics art show where machines destroy each other in a spectacular frenzy of fire and noise.

During discussions about the lease, Therrien says he asked Cowley if he would sell the property that once housed the O'Malley's lumber yard. The lumber yard is across the street from a warehouse Therrien owns at Ninth Avenue and Jackson Street in downtown Phoenix.

Therrien says Cowley wasn't interested in selling the land he had just purchased for $3.50 a square foot for anything less than $8 a square foot. According to Therrien, Cowley had a good reason to expect that the land he had just purchased would soon more than double in value from $1.2 million to nearly $2.7 million.

"I was told by him that he had a county supervisor friend and that the county was going to be using that property for something," Therrien says. "His intention sounded to me like he was just going to speculate."

Arizona has a long history of land speculation, and this particular deal features another local tradition: political friends in high places disposing of tax revenues for private benefit.

Unknown to Therrien at the time was that Cowley was a longtime friend and former business partner of the chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, Don Stapley.

Less than one year after Therrien's meeting with Cowley at his old 40th Street office, Cowley's lumber yard site became the centerpiece of Maricopa County's controversial plan to build a sprawling $25 million homeless compound spread out over 14 acres of prime downtown property.

That plan is quickly becoming a reality.

County supervisors -- including Stapley -- voted in March to purchase the Cowley property and set aside $2 million to acquire the land. Last month, the county filed a condemnation suit against Cowley seeking immediate possession of the property after Cowley rejected a $1.475 million offer to buy the land.

Cowley and Stapley did not return calls seeking comment on Therrien's recollection of his conversation with Cowley.

County spokesman Al Macias says Stapley has had little involvement in the homeless project and suggested that Cowley's purchase of the property was simply a "coincidence."

Coincidence or not, the fact that Stapley has a publicly undisclosed relationship with the owner of a key parcel of land for the homeless compound surprised retired Supreme Court Justice Frank X. Gordon, who is overseeing a regional plan to develop coordinated services for the homeless.

"Whether it is a breach of ethics or anything is not something I'm prepared to pass on," Gordon says.

But the timing and secrecy surrounding Cowley's acquisition of the land is hard to dismiss.

"Sure looks funny, doesn't it," Gordon says.

The appearance of impropriety surrounding the Cowley property could dampen efforts to raise $13 million from private sources to help finance construction of the project.

"That may certainly put some brakes on it," Gordon says.

Construction of the homeless project is a top priority of the county and downtown business interests poised to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in the Capitol Mall district. The county is rapidly expanding its administrative offices into a long-neglected area of downtown that has been overrun with the homeless and rampant drug dealing.

Delaying construction of the project is something the county wants to avoid -- so much so that last winter the county was willing to violate state and federal antiquities laws.

Last February, supervisors instructed county staff to forgo required archaeological testing at the homeless project site during a secret executive session, records obtained by New Times reveal.

"The BOS [Board of Supervisors] provided the instructions to us that archaeological testing is not to be done," states a February 20 e-mail from county facilities management director Norman Hintz that describes the executive session.

Discovery of significant artifacts could trigger a costly and lengthy study of the site.

"I think it is virtually certain that we will find artifacts down there," says archaeologist John Giacobbe, who conducted a preliminary survey of the site known as La Villa.

Anything that may slow down the project is welcome news to a cadre of neighborhood activists and homeless advocates who say the county's project is nothing more than an expensive cosmetic fix.

Critics complain that the project fails to provide what is needed most -- drug treatment, funding to treat the seriously mentally ill, creation of halfway houses for released convicts, jobs and, most important, low-cost housing.

"This is just a plan to free up land for development downtown and to contain and manage homeless people," says longtime homeless housing advocate Louisa Stark.


Despite nearly two years of public meetings, few people involved in the homeless project know that Board of Supervisors chairman Don Stapley's former business partner owns most of the land being assembled for the site.

There's a good reason for this. The county took steps -- intentional or not -- to obscure the ownership of the lumber yard property from the public.

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