Culture News

Did the City Really Save Three Roosevelt Row Buildings From Demolition?

West-facing exterior of the former Flowers building, featuring a 2009 mural by El Mac and Augustine Kofie.
West-facing exterior of the former Flowers building, featuring a 2009 mural by El Mac and Augustine Kofie. Lynn Trimble
The city of Phoenix announced in a press release on Thursday, July 6, that it had saved three Roosevelt Row buildings from demolition.

But that’s not exactly the case. The buildings the city is taking credit for saving — two bungalows and what's known as the Flowers building — aren’t under imminent threat of demolition.

They’re both part of ongoing adaptive reuse projects.

It's true that the Phoenix City Council took action on three buildings. Chandler-based Desert Viking Development owns two of them, and independent business owner Kimber Lanning owns the third.

The Council approved construction easements, which grant the property owners funds for property improvement in exchange for city limitations on how their properties can be developed.

The Desert Viking buildings include the former Flowers building, located at 501 to 515 East Roosevelt Street, and a bungalow at 909 North Fifth Street. The Flowers building, which is home to an iconic El Mac and Augustine Kofie mural, was built around 1950. The bungalow was constructed in 1910.

The developer was already planning to preserve both buildings. "They have a lot of character and less structural issues than some others," says Niels Kreipke, founder and principal for Desert Viking. "We like to save as many buildings as we can."

Those buildings are part of the developer’s adaptive reuse project called The Blocks of Roosevelt Row. The development stirred controversy when it was announced in 2016 because three art galleries and other tenants lost their spaces in the building so that renovations could begin.

The Flowers building will be done in the next few months, Kreipke says. So far, its new tenants include a cantina-concept restaurant by Aaron Chamberlin, a Phil the Grill barbecue place, and a barber shop.

After that, Desert Viking will tackle the second of three phases, which includes turning the bungalow into a restaurant. "We hope to put that in by the end of the year," Kreipke says.

Lanning’s property is the Wurth House, a bungalow built at 314 East Roosevelt Street in 1910. Lanning bought the bungalow from its previous owners in 2015, after learning it was slated for demolition. In May 2015, she had it moved across the street to its current location. She’s currently transforming the home into an office space.

"There's still a lot of work to be done, but we hope to be finished by the end of August," Lanning says. "The budget has already exceeded $200,000." So far, she's raised about $28,000 through fundraisers, but she's paid for most of the improvements out of her own pocket.

The Phoenix City Council approved conservation easements for both property owners at its meeting on July 6.

"I was just so surprised that it happened," Lanning says of getting the easement. "I had put my head down and had it in my mind that I would have to do it all by myself."

The exact terms haven't been formalized yet. But these agreements will prevent the owners from significantly changing the buildings without prior city approval.

In exchange, the property owners get city funds for adaptive reuse of their properties. The City Council approved $135,000 in funding to help Desert Viking further rehabilitate the Flowers building and bungalow. It approved $75,000 for Lanning to further rehabilitate the Wurth House.

Both property owners approached the city to request conservation easements in June, according to the agenda for the July 6 meeting. In a June 9 letter to the city, Kreipke wrote that easement funding would help with stabilizing and reinforcing the existing structures, restoring exterior walls and roofs, replacing doors and windows, and foundation work.

The $210,000 in funding is coming from the Downtown Community Reinvestment Fund, says Michelle Dodds, historic preservation officer for the city of Phoenix.

However, the city funding clearly isn't what motivated these property owners to undertake adaptive reuse. Their projects were already well underway.

Neither Desert Viking nor Lanning were planning to demolish the buildings in question, Dodds says.

No demolition permits were pending for the properties under consideration. So, it’s simply not true that the city saved the structures from being destroyed.

It is true that the city worked with two property owners to promote adaptive reuse for the next three decades. But there's nothing to prevent those buildings from being demolished after 30 years.

Even so, Phoenix City Councilwoman Kate Gallego, who represents an area that includes Roosevelt Row, considers the easements a good thing. "Roosevelt Row is a very special part of our city, and this is a tool for us to preserve and protect it," she says.

For those involved, it's a way to assure that at least some buildings in the Roosevelt Row arts district will remain in the face of the neighborhood's rampant development.

In recent years, multilevel housing has gone up on three corners at the intersection of Roosevelt and Third streets, forever altering the character of Roosevelt Row.

“There’s a lot of development pressure in that area,” Dodds says. “This is a way to incentivize people to keep existing buildings instead of demolishing them.”

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Lynn Trimble is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer specializing in arts and culture, including visual and performing arts
Contact: Lynn Trimble