Prop 2 vs. Bulldozers


When it comes to preserving what little heritage Phoenix has, good will is fine. But it takes cold, hard cash to make a difference.

And cash is what Proposition 2 is all about. Most of the $15 million in new taxes that would be raised if voters give their approval on October 3 would allow the city to buy and renovate historic buildings. Some cash also would be available for owners of buildings in historic areas to do face-lifts on their decaying properties.

There hasn't exactly been a renaissance of historic preservation in Phoenix. So it makes sense that one of the biggest boosters of Prop 2 is the vice president of practically the only historic-rehab firm in the Valley.

The measure, which has generated no organized opposition, was crafted by the Preservation Coalition, which is headed by Michelle Irwin and Monica Lee. Irwin's connection is that she is a member of the city's Historic Preservation Committee, charged by the city council with advising it on matters of preservation and restoration. And Lee? She's vice president of the rehab firm, Phoenix Intergroup Inc.

And if you want some information about the measure, you can call the telephone number for the coalition listed with the city clerk. The phone will ring at Phoenix Intergroup, which is owned by rehab king Phil Gordon.

Gordon's ability to get these projects is based on more than good luck and his friendship with Terry Goddard. The fact is that Gordon has virtually no competition.

"We simply don't have anyone else beating a path to our door to do these projects," says the city's Margaret McKeough.

Lee, wearing her Phoenix Intergroup hat, says, "Of course, it's limited in who's going to be able to do it. It takes some expertise."

It took Phoenix until 1984 to enact its first historic-preservation ordinance. That set up the Historic Preservation Committee. But no one gave the group any money to buy endangered old buildings. About the only thing the committee--and even the city council--can do under the ordinance is delay demolition for a year. "That's not much of a deterrent," admits Irwin.

What happens now is committee members try to jawbone building owners into saving the structures. They've had some success, Irwin says, "though what we have done has been basically through coercion."

Prop 2 would change all that. It would provide $15 million to wave in front of developers to get them to sell to the city rather than raze. The funds also could be used to condemn property when developers balk. Proposition 103, a companion measure, would give the city the legal right to spend the money.

Of the total to be raised, $5 million would be earmarked to purchase and maintain the Tovrea Castle on East Washington Street. Irwin acknowledges the Tovrea family hasn't expressed any interest in selling the property to the city. The family has said it doesn't intend to demolish the castle, but Irwin is not convinced that means the landmark will be properly protected. "It's not enough to preserve the castle if you surround it with self-storage lockers," she says.

Of the remaining $10 million, some would be loaned or granted to owners of buildings in historic neighborhoods to repair or restore exteriors. That could be handled like a revolving fund: As monies are repaid, they could be loaned out again for other projects. Prop 2 also would allow the city to do its own purchasing and renovating of historic buildings, with an eye toward eventually leasing or selling them. The city's rehab efforts so far have mostly revolved around Phil Gordon. Two years ago he got the city council to agree to loan him $400,000 at no interest in exchange for a promise the company would "use the funds to expand its redevelopment activities." Gordon also vowed to provide forty jobs, at least half of which would be for low- and moderate-income people.

Gordon says he never got that loan. But the city did put $250,000 into a pair of Arizona banks as partial collateral for some business loans he took. He concedes he might not have been able to get his loans in the first place if he didn't have the city's financial backing. "It made the bank feel a little more comfortable," Gordon says, because the loans were for historic projects.

More recently, Gordon convinced the city to lease office space for the Phoenix Arts Commission in one of his buildings on Roosevelt Street for three years at $37,500 a year.

What cinched the deal was Gordon's offer to renovate at least 5,000 square feet of office space in another building in the Roosevelt Historic District and relocate a new business into the area.

Gordon did just that, remodeling a pair of unremarkable buildings he owned on Fifth Avenue into a single office building. One of the new tenants moved in a month ago: Phoenix Intergroup. And the other tenant is going to be Landiscor, another company owned by Gordon.

Gordon also is involved in the Las Antiguas project, the city's sole big-ticket restoration effort to date. Phoenix set up Las Antiguas as a nonprofit corporation to buy old buildings and vacant lots in the Roosevelt area. The corporation, on whose board Michelle Irwin sits, is using the city's condemnation powers to acquire some properties. The city has agreed to lease 13,500 square feet of office space in the new project.

Those little stabs at preservation could become giant steps with the infusion of Prop 2 cash. But the breakdown of funds hasn't been decided yet. Also unresolved is how the city should choose projects to fund. The historic preservation committee will make recommendations later this month to the city council on both questions. But the council won't act until after the election.

Irwin says the committee will ensure that the council does the right thing. But her assessment of the city's elected officials comes two months after the council voted to ignore a recommendation of its bonding committee on how freeway mitigation funds should be allocated. Only last week, after public criticism, did the council decide to abide by that committee's recommendations.

Despite potential flaws in Prop 2 and Prop 103, Irwin says they offer Phoenix residents their best--and maybe last--chance at preservation. She points out that other cities have large sources of private funds for historic preservation. In Indianapolis, for example, the Eli Lilly drug company bankrolls a private foundation that buys and restores old buildings. Says Irwin, "We don't have that kind of corporate support in Phoenix."

And while Phoenix isn't like some centuries-old Eastern cities, that doesn't make what the Valley has any less valuable. "Yes, Phoenix isn't Philadelphia and isn't Washington," she says. "What we have may not be grand, it may not be palatial, but it is the city's heritage."

What happens if the two measures fail and there isn't any money or authority to preserve old buildings? That leaves the largely toothless historical preservation committee with little to do other than receive notices that a developer intends to demolish a building in a year. "And all we can do," Irwin says, "is have a memorial service every time something is torn down.


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