Tear Down Town

It's a knock-down, drag-out for the city's soul

The trend here, according to Steve Dreiseszun, president of the Story Preservation Association Steering Committee, has been to knock down those unlovely structures, then get busy aping other cities' design plans while ignoring our own history.

"But we're younger than most similar-sized cities," he says. "And the truth is, we have a foundation of lower, newer architecture than most big cities do. But that's becoming obliterated as we put up more and more tall buildings, because that's what says 'city' to most people."

That desire to look like a real, grown-up city means ripping down much of Phoenix's early 20th-century cityscape, one made up of smallish buildings that hugged the ground. Historical, schmistorical — towering scions of glass and chrome are what's needed, developers believe, to pull our town up out of its decades-long puberty, once and for all. And thanks to our peculiar zoning arrangement, there's no better place than Phoenix to tear down a gorgeous old building and slam up a mega-structure.

Even still-viable buildings look like derelicts around here: This auto-repair shop at Third Street and Fillmore is still in operation.
Wayne Michael Reich
Even still-viable buildings look like derelicts around here: This auto-repair shop at Third Street and Fillmore is still in operation.
A multi-story condo complex rose on the former site of an ancient warehouse near Third Street and Fillmore.
Wayne Michael Reich
A multi-story condo complex rose on the former site of an ancient warehouse near Third Street and Fillmore.

Location Info


Downtown Phoenix

Washington St. & Second St.
Phoenix, AZ 85004

Category: Community Venues

Region: Central Phoenix


"We have high-rise zoning everywhere," sighs Barbara Stocklin, manager of the city's Historic Preservation Office. "It's difficult to save old, lower-scale buildings, even if they're gorgeous and important and historic, because so much of our land is zoned in a way that allows you to build a 20-story building on it. A vacant lot on which you're allowed to build a high-rise is worth more than one with a nice old house on it, so buyers often just scrape a beautiful building, and then it's, 'Hey, here's a blank slate that's zoned for a high-rise! Come buy!'"

Stocklin has a demolition permit on her desk as she speaks, one that bears the name of the Edward Morin House, the oldest house in the Evans Churchill neighborhood. The stunning old home dates from 1909 and is one of only a dozen or so examples of this style of residential architecture left standing.

"But almost nobody cares," Stocklin says, sighing again. "And there's nothing I can do to save it, because we're a city that believes our value is in our land, rather than in preserving our architectural profile. It's sad."

Not really, according to most of the people behind all the teardowns. "Instead of asking why we don't have more historic preservation," says architectural designer Clyde Rousseau, "we need to ask why there should be.

"You have to look at it from the perspective of the developers," continues Rousseau, who's still recovering from a recent donnybrook with the Roosevelt Neighborhood Association over an enclave of four custom homes he built at Central Avenue and Lynwood Street.

"Developers are in it for the money, and there's no economic incentive for them to incorporate historic structures into their projects. There's no financial reward for preserving an historic building. In fact, it's more expensive to be mindful of an original structure, and, design-wise, it's more difficult, too — it requires additional engineering, and the permitting process is more complicated." In the end, Rousseau says, it's easier and more profitable to tear down an old building and start from scratch.

Rousseau knows it's also easier than working with local historic neighborhood associations that want to save any building that's been around for a while, something he found out the hard way when the concerned citizens of the Roosevelt district objected to some of the design elements of his Isabell Court project. The neighborhood association sued the city over building variances that Roosevelt denizens didn't approve of, and the court case dragged on for years.

"The neighborhood decided I wasn't checking in with them enough," says Rousseau, who's obviously still angry. "They saw me as the big, bad developer out to rape the villagers, and I was punished. Why would any builder want to subject themselves to these people? They're not developers, they're people who love old buildings. They have too much power, and they're running amok, trying to save every old building in sight."

Even the ugly ones that nobody really wants, sometimes. Just ask Scott Haskins, a Santa Barbara-based developer who bought the Palmcroft Apartments, a 1940s complex in the tony Encanto Palmcroft neighborhood. The folks who live in the area were reportedly delighted with Haskins' plan to tear down the derelict apartments to make room for luxury condos, and no one at City Hall was asking any questions, since the zoning for that block allows for both new construction and rental properties.

But then longtime city activist G.G. George stepped in. George is president of the Encanto Citizens Association and vice president of both the Arizona Historical Society and the Historic Neighborhood Coalition. Haskins says that George decided the ratty old apartment building was worthy of saving, and used her influence to sidestep the Historic Preservation Commission, which determines a building's historic status once two-thirds of the affected property owners approve. And now, Haskins says, he's screwed, his potential profits chopped in half by busybody activists who want Phoenix to look like it's stuck in a time warp.

"He'll be fine!" George chuckles. "And I didn't use any special power to make this happen. I merely brought the importance of the property to the City Council's attention. It's a national treasure!"

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