The Szechwan Palace Restaurant located at the former Chinese Cultural Center.EXPAND
The Szechwan Palace Restaurant located at the former Chinese Cultural Center.
Lynn Trimble

Judge Sides with Phoenix Chinese Cultural Center Preservationists

Thing are looking up for a group of Chinese-Americans who want to save buildings and a garden that were once home to Phoenix's Chinese Cultural Center. 

A Maricopa County Superior Court judge has ruled in favor of a restaurant owner whose business is still open at the center. The business owner hopes that legal action can stop planned renovations at the site.

Though the center is no longer in operation, its site includes buildings made with rare materials and a large garden on 44th Street just north of Van Buren Street. Today those belong to a company called 668 North. 

That’s a subsidiary of True North, the Scottsdale-based private equity firm that purchased the site for $10.5 million in June.

The firm plans to relocate its headquarters there, after undertaking interior renovations and other design changes.

Members of the Chinese-American community in Phoenix are working to prevent those changes. They want to preserve the center’s architecture and garden, which were completed in 1997.

The lawsuit was brought by CJ Design & Construction Corporation, which operates the Szechwan Palace Restaurant at the former center, and owns the suite where the restaurant is located.

It was filed against 668 North, as well as David and Gemma Tedesco. David Tedesco is the president of True North.

Chinese Cultural Center supporters inside the courtroom during a recent hearing.EXPAND
Chinese Cultural Center supporters inside the courtroom during a recent hearing.
Lynn Trimble

During the hearing on Tuesday, September 26, attorneys for each side presented positions to the judge, while about a dozen members of the Chinese-American community sat in the courtroom. Many held large signs with photographs showing various Chinese design elements at the site.

The ruling issued on Wednesday, September 27, means that preservationists have succeeded in putting a stop to changes at the site. But it's not a permanent fix.

Judge Randall H. Warner's decision grants a temporary restraining order, which replaces an order issued on Friday, September 15. The new order prevents 668 North from removing roof tiles — at least until another hearing takes place.

The ruling also states that the new owner has to keep the garden in its current condition, which means that no garden statues can be removed or destroyed.

Fencing around part of the former Chinese Cultural Center, before green mesh was added.EXPAND
Fencing around part of the former Chinese Cultural Center, before green mesh was added.
Lynn Trimble

However, the company is not required to remove temporary fencing, except where it blocks pedestrian access to the center from 44th Street. Fencing was installed around the perimeter of the buildings and garden earlier this month for security reasons.

The next hearing on the matter is scheduled to begin on November 3, at the Maricopa County Superior Court building downtown. At that hearing, the judge will consider whether changes at the site should be allowed to move forward.

Chinese Cultural Center supporters argue that the roof and other design elements have cultural and historical significance, in part because they were created by Chinese artisans using rare materials from China. They want the center preserved, rather than renovated.

But Wednesday’s ruling is just one piece of a complicated legal battle between Chinese Cultural Center supporters and the site’s new owner.

CJ Design & Construction filed a second lawsuit on Friday, September 22. That one alleges that actions taken by 668 North, including erecting a screened fence around building and garden perimeters, are harming the restaurant owner’s business by driving away customers. So far, there's been no ruling in that case.

Chinese Cultural Center supporters have also taken their fight to the federal level.

A nonprofit organization called the Arizona Foundation for Chinese Religious Rights filed a lawsuit in United States District Court on Monday, September 25. Ten individuals are also plaintiffs in that case.

That lawsuit was filed against the site’s new owners and the city of Phoenix.

And it includes some serious allegations.

The foundation says the new owners are violating the civil rights of Chinese-American community members by locking the garden so they can’t pray near a Confucius statue and other religious elements on the site.

Members of the Chinese American community pray outside the former Chinese Cultural Center.EXPAND
Members of the Chinese American community pray outside the former Chinese Cultural Center.
Lynn Trimble

Several days before the federal lawsuit was filed, Chinese-American community members prayed along a sidewalk on 44th Street, after they were unable to get inside the garden.

The federal lawsuit also accuses the city of Phoenix of violating the Chinese-American community members’ right to freely exercise their religion.

That stems from a city permit issued to the new owners for erecting the perimeter fence, and a permit request for removing roof tiles that's currently under city review.

As of Wednesday morning, September 27, no permit for removing tiles had been granted, according to Mo Glancy. He's the assistant director for the development division of the city of Phoenix planning and development department.

In its lawsuit, the foundation states that roof tiles and other design elements of the buildings and garden have both cultural and religious significance.

And it argues that altering or removing any of those elements is the equivalent of desecrating a church or temple.

Attorneys for the foundation want 668 North to reopen the garden so people can pray there. And they want the city of Phoenix to deny permits that would let the new owners change or destroy the site’s Chinese elements.

It’s impossible to know how long these legal battles might last. The first hearing for the federal lawsuit is scheduled for Tuesday, October 3.

In the meantime, Chinese Cultural Center supporters are using several additional strategies, from gathering signatures for an online petition to seeking historical preservation through the City.

“We’re trying to save a treasure,” says supporter Charles Qian. “It’s such a pity that some people want to destroy it.”

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