Tear Down Town
Three years since Phoenix New Times ran our "Exploding Downtown" series, the wrecking ball is still taking aim all over downtown, threatening what little history the city has left to preserve. Will Phoenix wind up a cross between Disneyland and Mill Avenue?
This week: Phoenix is too eager to scrape the slate clean, over and over.
When the folks at Hasbro recently released a new edition of Monopoly, the world's most-played board game, they replaced the fictional Atlantic City streets of the original version with real-life American cities. Three cheers for Phoenix, the country's fifth-largest city, for making the grade: Our hometown appears in the pricier "red" section of the board, in the spot formerly known as Kentucky Avenue. But while most cities are proudly illustrated with man-made structures Atlanta with a photo of its Centennial Olympic Park; St. Louis with its famed Gateway Arch Phoenix is represented not by an architectural marvel or an historic icon of its city, but by Camelback Mountain. In other words, by something built not by crafty city planners or forward-thinking founding fathers, but by erosion.
Clearly, the Hasbro people are on to us. It's more than a little disconcerting to know that even people who make board games for a living are aware that, when one thinks of Phoenix, one thinks not of grand skyscrapers or gorgeous cityscapes, but of a pile of dirt.
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On the other hand, how apropos. Because what iconic structure could possibly illustrate Phoenix in any context? We're not known for our cohesive city planning or our rich history of structural design. Phoenix's architectural past has long been treated like the detritus of an ex-lover we're ashamed of the mean guy who beat us, stole our money, and farted at the dinner table; the trampy, undereducated gal we stayed with because she had a big rack. Once they finally leave for good, we're so embarrassed we ever dated them that we destroy all evidence of their presence in our lives.
So goes Phoenix, wiped clean by a wrecking ball time and again. Except Phoenix never had a big rack to begin with; has never been a city sexy enough to fool anyone into loving us for long. Instead, we've been a place so concerned with being "small town" that we've put all our energy into reinventing ourselves, into becoming something we've never quite achieved. We've ripped out our foundation again and again, leveling landmarks like St. Mary's School, the Fox Theater and the old Ciné Capri movie house as capriciously as one would toss out a valentine from a former lover.
Long gone are hangouts where generations of Phoenicians gathered, places like boxing ring-turned-music club Madison Square Gardens and popular watering holes like the Kon Tiki, the Mecca Lounge, or Mr. Lucky's. (The late Jane Jacobs insisted, in her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, that any old building was valuable to a city; presumably this includes buildings that housed discotheques and country-western bars.)
The result is a city that has spent more time struggling than prospering, one that's wobbly with fatigue from its many reinventions. And as downtown Phoenix enters yet another development boom with the advent of light rail, ASU's new campus, and several proposed mega-block residential projects, it's also facing a citywide real estate slowdown. That's an economic conundrum that's been weathered with comparative ease by smaller cities ones that don't rip out huge chunks of their architectural history every couple of decades. What for Phoenix?
What's with this place, anyhow? Why are we a city compelled to wipe our slate clean every so often, rather than building on an established community? Why is it that our few remaining historic properties seem always to be shivering in the cold shadow of the wrecking ball?
Some say the transient nature of Phoenix culture is the problem; that without a multigenerational stewardship, no building is significant. There's the argument that no structure is historically important until it's at least 50 years old, and there's precious little of Phoenix's post-World War II boom left standing to even consider, so why bother? And there are those mostly in the building trades who think that the city has weakened its foundation by scaring off developers with its schizophrenic zoning rules and mad-as-hell ad hoc groups whose zeal for preservation precludes common sense.
What the hell is going on here?
Phoenix is the victim of its own vicious cycle, apparently. In a town that tears down and rebuilds every couple of decades, nothing looks old enough or architecturally significant enough to save. Which usually leads to more demolition.
"What we're left with in downtown Phoenix is mostly buildings between 50 to 80 years old," says David Tell, who moved here eight years ago from Michigan and publishes The Midtown Messenger, a newspaper devoted to historic downtown. "In many cases, it's unlovely architecture that doesn't look historic to us, especially if we've moved here from somewhere where 'historic' meant neighborhoods of Victorian homes trimmed with gingerbread and old red brick office buildings. In Phoenix, it's about stucco and monolithic structures, and it's easy to not be impressed by what makes them historic."
The trend here, according to Steve Dreiseszun, president of the Story Preservation Association Steering Committee, has been to knock down those unlovely structures, then get busy aping other cities' design plans while ignoring our own history.
"But we're younger than most similar-sized cities," he says. "And the truth is, we have a foundation of lower, newer architecture than most big cities do. But that's becoming obliterated as we put up more and more tall buildings, because that's what says 'city' to most people."
That desire to look like a real, grown-up city means ripping down much of Phoenix's early 20th-century cityscape, one made up of smallish buildings that hugged the ground. Historical, schmistorical towering scions of glass and chrome are what's needed, developers believe, to pull our town up out of its decades-long puberty, once and for all. And thanks to our peculiar zoning arrangement, there's no better place than Phoenix to tear down a gorgeous old building and slam up a mega-structure.
"We have high-rise zoning everywhere," sighs Barbara Stocklin, manager of the city's Historic Preservation Office. "It's difficult to save old, lower-scale buildings, even if they're gorgeous and important and historic, because so much of our land is zoned in a way that allows you to build a 20-story building on it. A vacant lot on which you're allowed to build a high-rise is worth more than one with a nice old house on it, so buyers often just scrape a beautiful building, and then it's, 'Hey, here's a blank slate that's zoned for a high-rise! Come buy!'"
Stocklin has a demolition permit on her desk as she speaks, one that bears the name of the Edward Morin House, the oldest house in the Evans Churchill neighborhood. The stunning old home dates from 1909 and is one of only a dozen or so examples of this style of residential architecture left standing.
"But almost nobody cares," Stocklin says, sighing again. "And there's nothing I can do to save it, because we're a city that believes our value is in our land, rather than in preserving our architectural profile. It's sad."
Not really, according to most of the people behind all the teardowns. "Instead of asking why we don't have more historic preservation," says architectural designer Clyde Rousseau, "we need to ask why there should be.
"You have to look at it from the perspective of the developers," continues Rousseau, who's still recovering from a recent donnybrook with the Roosevelt Neighborhood Association over an enclave of four custom homes he built at Central Avenue and Lynwood Street.
"Developers are in it for the money, and there's no economic incentive for them to incorporate historic structures into their projects. There's no financial reward for preserving an historic building. In fact, it's more expensive to be mindful of an original structure, and, design-wise, it's more difficult, too it requires additional engineering, and the permitting process is more complicated." In the end, Rousseau says, it's easier and more profitable to tear down an old building and start from scratch.
Rousseau knows it's also easier than working with local historic neighborhood associations that want to save any building that's been around for a while, something he found out the hard way when the concerned citizens of the Roosevelt district objected to some of the design elements of his Isabell Court project. The neighborhood association sued the city over building variances that Roosevelt denizens didn't approve of, and the court case dragged on for years.
"The neighborhood decided I wasn't checking in with them enough," says Rousseau, who's obviously still angry. "They saw me as the big, bad developer out to rape the villagers, and I was punished. Why would any builder want to subject themselves to these people? They're not developers, they're people who love old buildings. They have too much power, and they're running amok, trying to save every old building in sight."
Even the ugly ones that nobody really wants, sometimes. Just ask Scott Haskins, a Santa Barbara-based developer who bought the Palmcroft Apartments, a 1940s complex in the tony Encanto Palmcroft neighborhood. The folks who live in the area were reportedly delighted with Haskins' plan to tear down the derelict apartments to make room for luxury condos, and no one at City Hall was asking any questions, since the zoning for that block allows for both new construction and rental properties.
But then longtime city activist G.G. George stepped in. George is president of the Encanto Citizens Association and vice president of both the Arizona Historical Society and the Historic Neighborhood Coalition. Haskins says that George decided the ratty old apartment building was worthy of saving, and used her influence to sidestep the Historic Preservation Commission, which determines a building's historic status once two-thirds of the affected property owners approve. And now, Haskins says, he's screwed, his potential profits chopped in half by busybody activists who want Phoenix to look like it's stuck in a time warp.
"He'll be fine!" George chuckles. "And I didn't use any special power to make this happen. I merely brought the importance of the property to the City Council's attention. It's a national treasure!"
"It's an awful property!" Haskins says. "And saving awful properties like that one is why Phoenix looks the way it does."
The man has a point. It's hard to see any former or potential beauty in the Palmcroft, which was built as wartime housing in 1943. But Dreiseszun, who agrees that not every old building should be saved, believes that the Scott Haskinses of the world aren't hearing a passionate plea to preserve what's left of our city's past. Instead, they're made deaf by a loud litany of building restrictions.
"The concern here has become, 'If we alienate developers, Phoenix will die,' because no one will want to come here and build," Dreiseszun says. "And the developers are saying, 'How dare you limit my ability to express myself!' But that's the city's job. If we let developers build anything they want, Phoenix will always look like a city in transition."
"I came here wanting to connect with Phoenix," says photographer Wayne Michael Reich, a former New Yorker who's made a name for himself photographing the vestiges of Phoenix's fast-dying architectural history. (Steve Jansen, New Times' assistant Night & Day editor, also makes it a habit to snap old buildings.) "What I found was a place that seems to want to be some other place, like Los Angeles or Chicago. I feel like I'm running a race with a city that's in a hurry to obliterate its past. You know, I find these beautiful, human touches in the buildings I'm photographing, but they all have demolition signs in front of them. Pretty soon, there won't be any human touches left to find. Phoenix will be big and shiny by then, but it won't ever be Los Angeles or Chicago, just an impostor."
Even in our attempts to document our rise from the ashes, Phoenix's inability to make up its mind are we a city that's about to be successfully reborn at last, or a city that's about to muck up its façade one more time? is apparent. A new art exhibition at ASU called "New American City" offers 23 local artists' visions of our city's big, shiny future, while "Phoenix: Land of Somewhere," a group exhibition at Modified Arts, depicts downtown's failure to overcome a faceless past.
And then there's what all the historic preservation people have lately been calling "the Phoenix book." Phoenix: 21st Century City is the fourth in a series spotlighting what London-based boutique publisher Booth-Clibborn is calling "emerging centers for art and design." (Tellingly, Booth-Clibborn required that Phoenicians interested in joining Moscow, Brooklyn, and Berlin on the shelf raise the money needed to publish the book something the publisher didn't require of the other cities it's devoted books to.) But where the Phoenix edition is concerned, the city shown here often looks so weary from "emerging" that it appears to be on its way back into the dark hole from which it's dragged itself, probably in search of much-needed rest.
Open the book to any page and you'll find depictions of places and things both profoundly dreary and instantly recognizable as symbols of life in the Valley of the Sun. In one photo, a scuffed black trash bin stands proudly center stage before a slump-block fence; in another, dozens of cookie-cutter ceramic tile rooftops line up like soldiers around a paved cul-de-sac. A gray-on-gray painting by artist Jeff Lyon depicts dark clouds hanging limply above a freeway off-ramp.
The book's cover photo says it all: Rather than depicting the Luhrs Tower, or the Orpheum Theatre, or any single landmark found at ground level, it instead offers a cloudless, pale blue sky, one that could be found most anywhere at all. Far down toward the bottom of the picture, a scattering of power poles poke up out of a dusty brown cloud that is, apparently, our fair city. In the upper right, an airplane is shown, jetting quickly away from Phoenix. It's easy to imagine that the plane is full of people who came here from somewhere with a rich history, expecting to find a landscape that tells our city's story and welcomes them into it. And off they fly, in search of a city with a deeper identity, a city that isn't ashamed of displaying what it once was.
Next week: Urban gurus from Jane Jacobs to Richard Florida say it's essential to preserve old buildings, but Phoenix does little to encourage indie businesses to come downtown and open shop in a place with some history. Also: a peek at the future cityscape.
Read the whole series online.