Matt's Big Hassle

Three years ago, Mayor-elect Phil Gordon promised to make it easier for small businesses to renovate old buildings. But the problems faced by one indie restaurateur show that, if anything, it's harder than ever

Not everyone has bothered to apply for a demolition permit, though. In a notorious example, Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox and her husband, Earl, purchased the historic E.S. Turner House in the summer of 2004. Within weeks, they illegally tore down the 105-year-old Victorian home, one of the few 19th-century buildings left on Phoenix's historic register.

Stocklin estimates there are more than 190 individually designated historic buildings downtown. For those, she says, historic review and approval is required for any permits that would alter a building's exterior. There are also incentive programs to help with the costs of restoration. Demolition permits for historic properties have a one-year stay of demolition (except in cases of financial hardship), and require a detailed reuse plan that's subject to a public hearing. Demolition of non-historic buildings within historic districts is approved or denied on a case-by-case basis. To give a general estimate, only about a quarter of downtown is deemed historic — and that's being generous.

As for buildings that aren't in historic districts — and aren't designated historic, even if they might qualify — time's running out. A prime example is the M. Edward Morin house, a 1909 building on Second Street in the Evans-Churchill neighborhood, whose owner recently obtained a demolition permit. According to Mayor Gordon, the building doesn't have a historic designation, but it's in great shape. "We're trying to buy some time to get a proposal together to save it," he says.

With his background in restoring historic properties, Mayor Phil Gordon could use his expertise to help small business owners renovate old buildings.
courtesy of the City of Phoenix
With his background in restoring historic properties, Mayor Phil Gordon could use his expertise to help small business owners renovate old buildings.
In a downtown starved for unique restaurants, Matt Pool's first business, Matt's Big Breakfast, quickly became a hit with locals in 2004.
Laura Segall
In a downtown starved for unique restaurants, Matt Pool's first business, Matt's Big Breakfast, quickly became a hit with locals in 2004.

The Evans-Churchill neighborhood, a 160-acre area from Hance Park to Fillmore Street, Central Avenue to Seventh Street, which includes Roosevelt Row, is an enclave of mostly early 20th-century bungalows. It was too spotty to become a historic district, says Stocklin. But she says a good number of the individual buildings, like the Farish House — the 106-year-old house where Pool is opening his tavern — have individual historic designations. The Farish house is relatively rare, one of perhaps a couple dozen buildings of a similar age downtown. Stocklin says that the city started to grow after 1911, when the Roosevelt Dam was completed, so anything pre-1910 is considered an early building. The oldest building downtown, the Charles Pugh House on Second Avenue, dates to 1898.

In the section of Evans-Churchill where the future Biosciences Campus will be constructed, Stocklin says the old buildings in the best shape have been relocated off city land by private developers. According to Jason Harris from the Downtown Development Office, the city assisted with the move of seven old houses from Fourth, Fifth and Sixth streets, as well as a historic home next to the Japanese Friendship Garden (where the high-rise Portland Place condos are under construction). All eight buildings have been moved to the nearby Roosevelt historic district, and at least three have been redeveloped so far.

Considering the mayor's background, it's surprising that things haven't gotten easier over the past three years. In the early 1980s, Phil Gordon was a real estate developer whose passion was renovating old buildings downtown. His very first project was restoring the Corpstein Duplex, a circa-1920 building at Fifth Avenue and Roosevelt Street that was slated for demolition. The boxy cluster of Prairie School bungalows, now offices for the Arizona Commission for the Arts, is on the National Register of Historic Places. The Booker T. Washington School at 12th Street and Jefferson, built in 1928 as Phoenix's first all-black elementary school, was another one of Gordon's redevelopment projects. Now it houses New Times.

Gordon also helped draft the original Phoenix Historic Preservation Ordinance. Later, when he was a City Council member, he defended the preservation of the Warehouse District, a cluster of cavernous old buildings around Jackson Street, when the rest of the City Council wanted to raze structures to make room for the jail and a parking garage.

Back then, Gordon says, Mayor Terry Goddard was the city's only champion of historic preservation. Most property owners and tenants didn't consider renovations worthwhile, and there were few examples of beautifully preserved buildings to convince them otherwise. Financing was a big problem for buildings considered past their useful life, and the cost of restoring instead of building new, like today, was substantial.

"The challenge today that's different from then is that the land is so much more valuable for density now, so even though people will pay the return to restore a building, you can get a higher return if you tear it down," Gordon says. "I think things are a lot better now, but unfortunately we've lost a number of very significant buildings."

For example, he mentions Madison Square Garden, a 1929 boxing venue that was torn down last year to make way for an office building, and structures on the old Phoenix Union High School campus on Van Buren Street. (Two classroom buildings built in 1911, and a circa-1929 auditorium, have been renovated, though, and will house the University of Arizona medical school.)

A history major in college, Gordon talks about how he used to research a building's history by going into old phone books and looking at obituaries. He'd even find old bills and papers inside the walls. "You started to learn about the people, like you became a part of it," he says. There was also a sense of quality about the craftsmanship that he appreciated. "It was rewarding," he says. "Not financially, though."

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