Roosevelt Row: The Fight to Keep Downtown Phoenix "Authentic" Is a Fight to Let It Become Something It's Never Been

Roosevelt Row: The Fight to Keep Downtown Phoenix "Authentic" Is a Fight to Let It Become Something It's Never Been
Ben Voldman

Jimbo Reid is pissed off.

He's mad that there aren't any "cute chicks" today in Jobot, a coffee shop in an old house on Fifth Street. He's angry that the guy he's talking to on Jobot's cracked front porch keeps asking him about gentrification. He's fuming because the latte he ordered didn't come topped with a cute drawing made out of steamed milk, "like they always used to do at this fucking place."

Mostly, though, Reid is angry because the downtown Phoenix he knows and loves is, he says, about to go away.

"Come back here in five years," Reid barks, waving a heavily tattooed arm out at Fifth Street, "and I'll be sitting here at a Starbuck's, and she--" and here he jabs a tattooed thumb at a young woman with fuchsia hair wearing mismatched leggings and what looks to be a bustier, "will be some tight-ass lawyer on her way to an office."

He offers this last word as a vulgarity. Reid does not like offices. He doesn't like national chains. And he really hates that "the suits," as he calls them, are about to bulldoze the thing about Phoenix he loves the most: Roosevelt Row, the hip, scruffy arts district that has helped transform downtown Phoenix from a bombed-out also-ran feared by suburbanites to a destination for many of those same suburbanites -- and in a relatively short time, too.

There are no bulldozers on Fifth Street on this lazy Saturday, only people, mostly Millennials, pawing through books at Lawn Gnome Publishing, browsing tchotchkes at Misconstrued boutique, trying on T-shirts at Made. But Reid is right that things are changing, quickly and dramatically, on and near the Row. The once-scary neighborhood of reclaimed bungalows and former crack houses has lately fallen into the shadows of high-rise towers like the eight-story Roosevelt Point at Fourth Street, and by Arizona State University, which has been gobbling up downtown properties for a decade now. The imminent destruction of a trio of beloved old Row buildings is the latest in a trend that threatens to transform Roosevelt Row into something big and shiny and decidedly unscruffy.

The increasing din from local creatives, preservationists, and small-business owners who want to keep developers from obliterating their arts district is loud enough to drown out some equally compelling inquiries. Like whether every old building is worth saving. And if we're halting progress by chasing away big-money developers. And if it's possible that downtown's artsy character can survive gentrification.

"No way in hell," according to Jimbo Reid. "This whole place," he says, pointing a combat-booted toe in the direction of Roosevelt Row, "is gonna be gone, gone, gone."


Artist Hector Raul Primero's take on what Roosevelt Row may look like one day.
Artist Hector Raul Primero's take on what Roosevelt Row may look like one day.
Courtesy of Hector Raul Primero

In fact, Roosevelt Row isn't going anywhere, at least not yet. It's certainly about to be transformed, and a trio of buildings popular with locals will likely be razed as part of that transformation. But the loss of some well-loved buildings -- arguably insignificant ones, at least architecturally -- does not necessarily mean the end of a neighborhood.

Phoenix ought to have seen it coming. Ours is a town -- inarguably a town, still struggling to be a real city -- that has spent the past several decades emulating successful models used elsewhere to transform a downtown core from hovel to haven. We've co-opted urban studies theorist Richard Florida's "creative class" scheme, successful in Pittsburgh, to create a more vibrant city core by nurturing a downtown arts scene. We've borrowed so generously from Los Angeles and Philadelphia the notion that murals enhance a blighted area that, laid end to end, our own murals might reach from here to Death Valley. We've stepped up our historic preservation efforts and implemented arts overlays and adaptive reuse programs -- always looking over our shoulders at successful city plans, lifting ideas and executing them, sometimes to good effect.

Yet we've often ignored the final chapter of those other cities' stories, the one about how, once the creatives made neighborhoods more attractive, developers inevitably turned up, forcing out artists and small-business owners who could no longer afford the newly gentrified neighborhood they'd made so vibrant.

"The arts community is always the victim of its own success in a story like this one," admits Michelle Dodds, Historic Preservation officer for the City of Phoenix. "They attract redevelopment and end up having to leave because they can't pay the rent in the redeveloped neighborhood."

In our furor to keep this from happening, we appear to have become extremists: We must, we seem to be saying, save every building. We must do everything we can to keep this neighborhood from evolving. We must keep downtown from changing.

Why? It may be, according to architecture writer Walt Lockley, what the French call nostalgie de la boue.

"It means 'nostalgia for the mud,'" Lockley says. "In this case, it's a way of thinking about the emotional quality of a building, but not the actual value of the building. We become romantically attached to a building or a neighborhood because of what it represents to us. Some young people think you can't have an arts district that's gentrified, with all the corners tucked in. That takes away from the experience of exchanging ideas, in some people's minds. Maybe there has to be a place that's grungy and marginal so when you go there, you have the kind of experience you wouldn't have at the same kind of place in a shiny new shopping mall."

Phoenix lost that special grungy, marginal place once before. Twenty years ago, the downtown arts community scattered after the spaces they'd been leasing -- bombed-out warehouses and abandoned storefronts in downtown's outer fringe -- were torn down to make room for the ballpark now known as Chase Field. The artists and gallery owners eventually resettled on Grand Avenue and what would become Roosevelt Row, the epicenter of the current downtown art scene.

RoRo, as it's come to be called, is that rarest of things: a grassroots urban renewal project that worked, combining rehabilitated bungalows with new infill projects, all of it overseen by the nonprofit Roosevelt Row Community Development Corporation, a homegrown supporter of small local businesses.

Artist and preservation activist Pete Petrisko thinks Phoenix is running out of time to take a cultural stand.
Artist and preservation activist Pete Petrisko thinks Phoenix is running out of time to take a cultural stand.
Evie Carpenter

Bordered by Seventh Avenue and 16th Street, Interstate 10 and Fillmore Street, the district in which RoRo resides has operated as a mixed-use area for more than a hundred years. In the 1970s, after parts of the area were rezoned for high-rise incentives, land speculation led to neighborhood decline. The area's blighted buildings and former drug dens were affordable for working artists, whose open-studio policies and contemporary galleries helped revitalize a former slum.

What started as a handful of artist studios, funky cafes, and boutiques has evolved into a nationally recognized reclamation project. Roosevelt Row paved the way for the bustling Phoenix Public Market, open on Wednesday nights and Saturday mornings -- the first downtown Phoenix farmers market to really take off, its cafe mobbed by weekday lunchers. Once-empty storefronts are now home to FilmBar, a Second Street movie theater and wine bar, and a rundown, low-rent apartment building has become Combine Studios, a live/work space purchased and renovated in 2011 by artists Carrie Marill and Matthew Moore, that's home to the ASU Art Museum International Artist in Residence Program. Up-and-coming galleries -- Kimber Lanning's Modified Arts, Wayne Rainey's MonOrchid, the artist collective eye lounge -- have hung on to become leaders in the downtown arts scene. Their First and Third Friday mob scene, which routinely draws crowds of thousands, has increased awareness of the area -- among art lovers, scenesters, and people looking for a vibrant city block where they can shop and eat and hang out.

That vibrant downtown district also has drawn developers with big plans. And this time, according to artist and activist Pete Petrisko, there may not be anywhere for the ousted creative class to run to.

"Twenty years ago, the art community pretty much moved from one blighted area to a different blighted area," he says. "There was more housing and more storefronts that could be cheaply rented. That's no longer the case. So if the whole downtown arts community relocates again, where do we go this time?"


The recently closed GreenHaus building is the former home of gay drag bar the 307 Lounge. Outside, a well-loved mural by Lauren Lee titled Three Birds.
The recently closed GreenHaus building is the former home of gay drag bar the 307 Lounge. Outside, a well-loved mural by Lauren Lee titled Three Birds.
Evie Carpenter

It's happened before: A building we've grown to love or think of as part of our local history turns up one day surrounded by chain link. Local preservationists go mad, passing petitions and staging protests and complaining that we're murdering what's left of Phoenix's past. This time, Roosevelt Row business owners and concerned citizens are worried about buildings located at 222, 314, and 420 East Roosevelt Street. Developers have bought or attempted to buy the land on which they reside and have expressed interest in tearing down the buildings to make room for modern multi-family housing structures.

222 East Roosevelt, home to GreenHaus, a gallery and boutique that relocated this month to Portland, Oregon is the best-known -- and arguably most significant -- of the buildings. The former home of gay drag bar the 307 Lounge, the long, low building contains a pair of murals painted in 1950 by renowned Arizona artist Ted DeGrazia. 314 East Roosevelt is a vacant house on the north side of the street, while the 420 building is home to the law practice of Adrian Fontes SP, a preservationist and former co-owner of the now-defunct Bodega 420 market.

A petition posted in mid-December gathered more than a thousand signatures from locals hoping to save the 222 building or at least its murals, but to no avail.

Colorado-based Baron Properties holds demolition permits, issued in mid-January, for both the 222 building and an adjacent office complex, with plans to build a 111-unit residential complex and underground garage on the site. Baron delayed demolition while discussions about the fate of the murals continued (Tucson's DeGrazia Foundation was assessing whether the artist's murals could be saved; no attempt has been made to save an exterior mural, Three Birds, by painter Lauren Lee). Meanwhile, preservationist and San Carlos Hotel owner Robert Melikian offered to absorb the cost of preparing the building for later tenancy if a third party would pay to relocate it. But Baron abruptly announced, last week, its plans to demolish the building and move forward with construction, rather than wait the three months needed to relocate the building.

The DeGrazia murals inside the former 307 Lounge depict the history of grain alcohol.
The DeGrazia murals inside the former 307 Lounge depict the history of grain alcohol.
Catherine Slye

"I'm sorry that Baron won't wait 90 days for McCullough to move the building," Melikian says. "The lot is available and waiting, and could easily be prepared with a foundation and utilities. The 307 building could go right back into public service. In the scheme of things, 90 days is not a big deal for the owner."

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Melikian concedes that Phoenix's reputation as a tear-down town is often well deserved. We've knocked down the Madison and St. James hotels and leveled the circular Washburn Piano store on Camelback, among many others. But considering our age, Phoenix has done a pretty good job of preserving buildings, too. In 2006, voters approved $13 million in grant money for property owners who would restore, rather than raze, historic buildings, and most of that money has been spent on these preservations. The city has designated 210 separate properties as historically significant, and named 35 residential districts as historic. We've moved our fair share of notable buildings, including the 1925 Lamar four-plex, relocated to Latham Street and restored as a duplex. The city has saved the Goldspot Market, a once-prominent Roosevelt grocery left long vacant and now home to popular restaurant Pita Jungle and a bustling Lola Coffee cafe.

"That building was threatened with demolition on three separate occasions," Dodds says of the Goldspot. "With preservations funds from the city, it was rehabbed." A similar fate seems likely for the recently saved WPA building, a gorgeous and dilapidated structure built in 1938 on the fairgrounds at McDowell Road and 19th Avenue.

But why were these buildings saved, while the trio of endangered buildings on Roosevelt, recently denied historic designation, remain unprotected? Because unlike the Goldspot or the WPA building, these buildings -- the characterless 222; the unremarkable Bodega -- are architecturally insignificant.

Before its salvation can even be considered, a building must be at least 50 years old. It's deemed important, at least by local tenets of historic preservation, if it's associated with a noteworthy person or event. If its architecture or construction is linked to a notable designer, a structure might be considered worth saving from the wrecking ball.

But realtor Sherry Rampy points out that, according to federal guidelines, the trio of structures on Roosevelt are considered "just old buildings." The so-called Wilcox Building, while a very nice example of Craftsman bungalow, is one of many such downtown homes. It was not designed by a notable architect. No celebrities lived there; it originally was the home of a local mail carrier. The developers who want to plow down the old 307 Lounge aren't knocking down Barry Goldwater's house, they're not endangering a Ralph Haver design, or obliterating another Frank Lloyd Wright home. Saving and repurposing beautiful structures and the past they represent might enhance our sense of community and connectedness, but more often than not, their lack of worthy craftsmanship or connection to civic pride spell their doom.

More than anything, 314 East Roosevelt stands as an example of how to keep multimillion-dollar developers from investing in your city.

"The developers who were in escrow to buy the land at 314 offered the bungalow for free to anyone who wanted to move it," says Rampy, who's vice president of the Roosevelt Action Association, a preservation and improvement organization. "But there was so much drama around saving the building, the developers got scared off. They took their money and are probably going to spend it somewhere else."

Rampy's referring to Wood Partners, the company that planned to purchase the complex at the northeast corner of Third Street and Roosevelt (currently home to PAZ Cantina), as well as a neighboring property that's home to the bungalow and is used for the Roosevelt Row A.R.T.S. Market. According to Nicholas J. Wood (no relation) of Snell and Wilmer, which represents Wood Partners, when things heated up with local arts and preservation activists, Wood canceled its purchase contract and walked away from the multi-million project, pulling its application to buy the land.

In short, preservationists chased away a developer who was willing to work to save a building, rather than tearing it down. The result, Rampy believes, is that the current owner of the lot may opt to tear down the Wilcox house in order to prevent this sort of conflict from squashing a future sale of the property. (At press time, Local First owner Kimber Lanning was negotiating with the building's owner to move the bungalow across the street, to an empty corner lot next to her Modified Arts gallery.)

"So what we're left with," Rampy says, "is a building that may be saved and no relationship with a developer who appeared to be interested in working with the community to address concerns about preserving buildings and making appropriate changes to the neighborhood. We chased that developer away, and there's a chance word will spread that Phoenix is not a good place for developers who want to work with a neighborhood to spend their money. We may have saved a bungalow, but lost a potentially fair-minded developer."

Cindy Dach understands why concerned creatives think scaring off developers is an answer. "When the community hears a developer is buying up land in the arts district," says Dach, a Roosevelt Row founding board member, "their first response is often, 'Something else is being taken away!'"

She cites Austin and Denver as cities that have placed moratoriums on pulling down older buildings. There, Dach says, developers are made to integrate their plans into the character of existing neighborhoods, rather than given carte blanche to bulldoze them.

Dach stops short of stating the obvious: For integrated development to work in Phoenix, the city would have to work as closely with the community as it does with developers. Builders who attempt to obscure plans would be made accountable and not, as many preservationists believe, be supported in keeping their plans secret. Zoning laws and historic preservation would have to be in place, and enforced.

The current mess is more about bad communication between the city and potential developers, Dach believes, than it is about the city trying to hide things from the community.

"We're all still new to this, and a lot of the preservation groundwork has been laid but not completed," she says. "We've been meeting with the city for a couple of years to explain the downtown we want. But those discussions have not been turned into zoning ordinances or permit laws yet. The city is in the middle of implementing our ideas, while citizens think these ideas are now policy."

In the meantime, developers who note a need for housing in downtown Phoenix may never hear from the city about citizens' concerns.

But a proposed Business Improvement District designation for Roosevelt Row might bridge that communication gap by making the developer an accountable member of the community. Primarily funded through additional taxes paid by participating businesses, a BID defines an area -- in this case, Roosevelt Row -- that uses those funds to provide services like marketing, security, and streetscaping. Potential developers would both answer to the board of a tax-funded BID and become members of the organization, and therefore be accountable to the district's regulations.

Arizona has the fewest number of BIDS of any state (California currently operates more than 80 of them, by comparison), its least effective example being the downtown Phoenix Copper Square district, which initially was a failure. But it's a model that's been used with some effect in other cities, insists Nancy Hormann, former executive director of Downtown Tempe Community, that city's BID.

"The Tempe improvement district has been a great success," says Hormann. "It's been used to recruit retailers who fit into the district. We've cleaned up the streets and sidewalks. And, if a developer were to show up and want to tear down a significant building, we would be ready to defend ourselves and to work with these guys to join the district and find a different solution."

But a BID can take months to get passed by its participants, who must agree and vote on a long list of articles and fee structures. A proposed improvement district may not be helpful to Roosevelt Row today.

Pete Petrisko thinks we're running out of time. "Phoenix can't afford to wait another 20 years to get our cultural identity right," he says. "The amount of development planned here in the next 12 months is going to completely change downtown Phoenix."


Preservationists and RoRo fans worry that locally owned cafes like Jobot will one day be replaced with chain shops like Starbucks.
Preservationists and RoRo fans worry that locally owned cafes like Jobot will one day be replaced with chain shops like Starbucks.
Evie Carpenter

It's drizzling as denizens and business owners march slowly up and down Roosevelt Row, carrying signs and a coffin representing the potential death of the downtown arts district.

The late January rain is a nice touch for the gloomy procession. Tourists in town for the Super Bowl honk and give thumbs-up symbols as they drive past protesters chanting "Save Roosevelt Row!"

"This is one of a very few walkable neighborhoods in Phoenix," says preservationist and public relations consultant Stacey Champion, one of the protest organizers, the next day. "Take these walkable streets away, and you lose a very important element of our downtown. I love this part of town. It reminds me of Minneapolis, where I grew up."

But is this coveted "walkability" even typically Phoenix, or is it another example of our city aping another city's culture? Even before the advent of the automobile in every family carport, Phoenix was sprawling; the corner grocer was a necessity, not a scene-making privilege. Locals who argue that walkable areas like Roosevelt Row bring important energy are talking about something that hadn't defined our local neighborhoods since the 1930s. Why are we attempting to save something that typified Phoenix nearly a century ago? Why are we nostalgic for something we never had?

One can argue that the fight to keep Phoenix "authentic" is, in fact, a fight to let it become something it's never been. Roosevelt Row is what Phoenix has become, not what we have always enjoyed. Authenticity is deeply connected to a city's story, its historic roots, its pedigree. A truly authentic Arizona would involve wide open expanses of desert, cowboys, and low-rent mobsters.

There's some unfortunate irony in the knowledge that, if we were truly fighting for Phoenix's authentic character, we would be fighting for teardowns, and not against them. Rebirth -- and here is where one might make an apologetic reference to the mythical phoenix, rising from its own ashes -- is actually what our desert town has been about, ever since LBJ's New Communities Act of 1968 chased businesses from downtown's still-bustling core and into the sprawling suburbs, where it settled in malls both mega- and strip.

What we're fighting for is something different, something that's literally and categorically not Phoenix. What we want is what others have, a list of longed-for city amenities: Walkability. Public transportation. Maybe some shade structures.

We're on our way to getting those things, as anyone who has ridden light rail from Sky Harbor to Uptown Plaza might tell you. But changing the character of an entire city takes several rounds in the ring. We cannot become Portland or even Columbus, Ohio overnight. We must first learn to work with developers, who are going to bring their big boxes of money and do what they want with them, whether we partner with them or not.

And we have to make peace with the fact that working with developers, no matter how much shame or anger or money we offer them, may not discourage gentrification. Robert Melikian, a determined local preservationist, knows this better than most.

Melikian is trying to save the Steinegger Lodging House. Built in 1889, it's the second-oldest building in Phoenix. Located on Monroe at First Street, the once-beautiful Victorian is now clad in a decrepit stucco façade added in 1935. Melikian has offered to buy the building from its current owner, Minneapolis-based CSM Corporation, which owns the Professional Building next door and plans to reopen it as a hotel next year.

"I've offered to make the Steinegger into whatever the owner wants, at my expense," says Melikian. "A good restaurant and bar would work well there. It would bring business to the new hotel. There's no reason the citizens of Phoenix should lose this building." The Steinegger's owners have yet to respond to Melikian's offer.

We want to become a better city, and we want to maintain our "character." It's important for the community to fight to retain what it's built, and not stand by while investors come in and obliterate that work.

But there's an unfortunate inevitability, too: The gentrification of a cultural hub usually means its death. A newer, brighter version of the old neighborhood appears in its place; crime goes down, property values go up. Its revitalization benefits those who are moving in, not those being bought out. And another big hunk of who we used to be, or who we once fought to be, becomes nostalgia.

"We're trading our heritage for the increased bank accounts of a few men, which is what private property rights in America are really about," Melikian says. "When it comes to preserving historic buildings or neighborhoods, we can only educate or shame the businessman into doing the right thing. The answer to when to save the historic building is 'almost always.' But how to do it is almost impossible."

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