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I nearly fell off my bike on a recent cold night when I saw the agent listed on a for-sale sign in front of one of the most historic homes in Arizona -- the Farmer-Goodwin mansion in Tempe.
My stomach tightened, and I slowly began circling on my bike in the middle of Farmer Avenue, hoping that I hadn't seen what I thought I'd seen.
But there it was in big letters: Steve Tseffos.
The bulldozer-loving Realtor/developer was indeed in charge of the sale of this rare, two-story adobe home framed by magnificent trees spread across three-quarters of an acre in the heart of Tempe's oldest neighborhood. The Farmer-Goodwin mansion was built in 1883 and was the home of the first principal of what is now Arizona State University.
A former newspaper reporter who later worked as spokesman for state Attorney General Grant Woods in the early 1990s, Tseffos transformed himself into a money-grubbing developer who single-handedly infuriated residents of an old Tempe neighborhood west of Mill Avenue with his aggressive redevelopment plans.
Tseffos once told me he wanted to bulldoze several blocks in Tempe's Maple/Ash neighborhood to make way for high-density apartment and condominium projects in the heart of the city's coolest neighborhood where a century of flood irrigation has spawned massive trees and lush landscapes.
Tseffos' aggressive development plans worried community activists to the point that they formed their own company dedicated to buying property in the neighborhood before Tseffos could get his hands on it.
It's a high-stakes monopoly game, especially with soaring real estate prices that have turned what were $70,000 homes 20 years ago into $500,000 investment properties.
Now Tseffos has his grips on Tempe's crown jewel -- the second-oldest existing home in the city and one of the most important historic structures in the state. The Farmer-Goodwin mansion has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1972.
Tseffos assures me that he is doing everything he can to make sure the house is sold to a party that intends to keep it standing rather than tear it down and build trendy, high-end lofts that are popping up all over the downtown area.
"The goal here is to save the building," Tseffos says.
I'd like to believe him.
But I don't.
Tseffos has a less than stellar reputation. In 1993, while working as spokesman for Grant Woods, Tseffos disguised his voice with a Southern drawl and berated Woods' political rival J. Fife Symington III to a radio talk-show host.
Despite numerous sources stating it was Tseffos who made the unethical call, Tseffos denied to my colleague Paul Rubin that he was involved in the political dirty trick.
Tseffos later resigned as Woods' press secretary after he got tangled up in a gambling and misappropriation-of-funds scandal in the Attorney General's Office. Out of the limelight of politics, Tseffos quickly turned his attention to real estate.
Ironically, it was politics that led Tseffos to the listing for the Farmer-Goodwin mansion. While standing in a long line to vote in the presidential election, Tseffos ended up next to one of the mansion's owners, Pat Alexander.
Alexander and her husband, Norm Drazy, purchased the then-dilapidated property in 1993 for $150,000 and spent the next 11 years restoring the 3,330-square-foot structure. They invested another $150,000 or so in the home and countless hours of sweat equity. They also received $30,000 in state and federal historic-preservation grants.
What started as a dream ended in a nightmare for the couple who are now in the midst of a contentious divorce complete with restraining orders. As a result, their labor of love has to be sold.
Alexander tells me she was impressed with the silver-tongued Tseffos from her chance meeting on Election Day, and she and Drazy signed a contract with him to market the property last December 15.
Rather than focusing on selling the house as a historic property, Tseffos began hyping the value of the underlying zoning and the potential to convert the residential property to even more lucrative commercial zoning.
He slapped on an aggressive listing price of $899,000 -- which seems somewhat high, especially since the interior of the property still needs significant restoration work.
Immediately after Tseffos secured the Farmer-Goodwin listing, he and his Realtor wife, Dina, persuaded the owners of an adjacent property to let them offer their property for sale. Now Tseffos had a contiguous acre of prime real estate in the heart of Tempe's most historic neighborhood.
Tseffos quickly posted three signs in front of the mansion and the adjacent property -- prominently promoting the high-density residential zoning.
Tseffos' strategy has Joe Nucci, Tempe's historic preservation officer, deeply concerned.
"What sets off the alarms is the way it's being marketed," Nucci says. "If you were offering this as an historic property, you would appeal to that market. The message on this marketing seems more directed at redevelopment and the value of the zoning."
The current zoning on the Farmer-Goodwin site allows a developer to build up to 22 units per acre. While it is unlikely the city would approve that many units, it's not unreasonable to envision the historic mansion being torn down and replaced with half a dozen or so $400,000 lofts.
Both Alexander and Drazy tell me they want the mansion preserved -- but they have different approaches to how this should be done.
Alexander says she's delighted with Tseffos' marketing strategy and believes that nobody would dare demolish the mansion because of its historic value.
"I think people would be crazy to tear it down," she says.
Instead, she likes Tseffos' idea for a developer to bulldoze the adjacent house that has no historic value and build a row of "brownstone" lofts on that property and on a portion of the Farmer-Goodwin property.
Tseffos says that would allow a developer to recoup the high cost for preserving the Farmer-Goodwin house by making a profit on the sale of new residences adjacent to the mansion.
This approach is also supported by Tempe Mayor Hugh Hallman, who says the city is not in a position to buy the Farmer-Goodwin mansion, but that saving the property is a high priority. Hallman says the development/preservation approach is "a great solution that allows somebody to come in and be both historically sensitive and make it [profitable]."
Drazy, however, is vehemently opposed to developing any of the Farmer-Goodwin grounds. "That piece of land and that house need to stay the way they are," he tells me.
Unlike his wife, Drazy is far from thrilled with the way Tseffos has been marketing the property. Drazy sent Tseffos an angry letter immediately after Tseffos posted the for-sale signs in front of the mansion.
"With the three signs in a row, it looks like you have a monopoly game in progress, especially since two of them prominently advertise that it is zoned R-3 and therefore ripe for development," Drazy wrote Tseffos in the letter, a copy of which he provided me.
In the letter, Drazy reminds Tseffos that he was adamantly opposed to Tseffos' proposal to subdivide the property for development and that he was willing to take a lower price from a buyer who was committed to preserving the property.
"I don't want to see anyone 'pave paradise and put up a parking lot,'" Drazy wrote to Tseffos.
Drazy says Tseffos "went ballistic" after receiving the letter, calling him up yelling and screaming. Drazy says he's repeatedly told Tseffos he wants the property to be preserved, but that Tseffos just doesn't seem to listen.
Drazy says Tseffos recently rejected an offer from a wealthy French couple seeking to buy a bed and breakfast property in the Southwest.
Drazy isn't about to give up. He says he wants to place a historic preservation easement on the property that would prevent any future buyer from tearing down the mansion and subdividing the land.
"I will not sign [a sales agreement] unless there is some sort of historic preservation easement or something that assures me in writing that that place is protected in perpetuity," Drazy tells me. "Not only the house, but the land."
Tseffos and Alexander, however, don't see the need for a preservation easement.
"I don't think we are at that point to even discuss [an easement] yet," Tseffos says. "There is nothing threatening the property."
Alexander says she wants to rely on the good will of a potential buyer to preserve the mansion rather than make it a condition of the sale -- which would likely lower the selling price.
The best long-term solution would be for ASU to purchase the Farmer-Goodwin property because of its historical significance. Hiram Bradford Farmer purchased the adobe and accompanying 160 acres in 1886 for $3,000.
That same year, Farmer was named first principal of the Tempe Normal School, which eventually evolved into Arizona State University. Farmer also used the house as a dormitory for girls.
The house fell into disrepair in the late 20th century. Alexander and Drazy purchased the house in 1993 and began a massive rehabilitation. They shored up the foundation, stabilized the adobe walls, retrofitted the plumbing and electrical, installed a new steel roof, and cleared the overgrown grounds.
But their dream of opening a bed and breakfast was shattered on the shoals of the impending divorce. Hopefully, their mutual desire of preserving this grand old dame for future generations will not become an innocent victim of their failed marriage.
Ultimately, the fate of the property may rest with Tseffos.
That's not a comforting thought.
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