Visual Arts

2 Roosevelt Row Properties Slated for Demolition; Petition Seeks Adaptive Reuse and Mural Preservation

In a city progressively known internationally for its downtown's mural art, arguably the oldest surviving murals in downtown (along with the building housing them) are now threatened with imminent destruction.

So reads the opening salvo of a petition crafted by a trio of Phoenix residents hoping to preserve the building at 222 East Roosevelt after its current occupants, GreenHaus owners Cole and Dayne Reed, move to Portland in February. The site is home to murals painted inside and out.

See also: Greeting Card Artist Ted DeGrazia's "Unseen" Murals on Roosevelt Street

Both 222 East Roosevelt Street and the adjacent property at 1002 North Third Street, once home to the Church of Scientology in Arizona, have been purchased by Colorado-based Baron Properties, which already owns several residential and industrial buildings in metro Phoenix.

The City of Phoenix Planning and Development Department's Site Plan Review Team granted preliminary approval after a review of the preliminary site plan (PRLM 1404282) for Baron's "Illuminate Apartments: A development located at 1002 North 3rd Street (Central City Village)" during its December 2, 2014 meeting at Phoenix City Hall. Citizens who want to see the plan can head to counter 6 on the second floor of Phoenix City Hall.

Baron Properties principal Justin Sims confirmed for us several days ago that they're planning "four levels of apartments." The ground level will have some units along Roosevelt Row, he explained, plus a fitness center and clubhouse. But he wouldn't share much more. On Tuesday afternoon, we viewed the recently approved plans and learned there will also be one level of underground parking. Current plans specify 111 dwelling units. They're required to have one parking space per unit, but the plan calls for a total of 145. The plan also includes 36 secured bike parking spaces, a leasing office and generous use of plant material along Third Street. Landscape design is by Logan Halperin Landscape Architecture of Phoenix.

The petition was published Thursday night, December 19, on the website under the name Pete Petrisko, but penned in collaboration with Robert Diehl and Connor Descheemaker. Diehl says he planted the seeds for a possible petition through social media for a couple of months, and found kindred spirits in Petrisko and Descheemaker. As of Tuesday evening December 23, they had collected more than 525 signatures.

Their goal is reflected in the petition's title: Save 222 E. Roosevelt & the Oldest Murals in PHX - with Adaptive reuse instead of Demolition. It's a familiar issue for Roosevelt Row and neighboring areas, which have seen the development of new residential complexes like Roosevelt Pointe in recent years. But the prospect of seeing several murals destroyed adds a new twist to the familiar adaptive reuse versus new construction debate.

We spoke with Jim McPherson, who told us while donning his "Arizona preservation hat" that he alerted several folks -- including Gail Brown with the City of Phoenix Office of Arts and Culture, Bob Booker of Arizona Commission on the Arts, Rusty Foley of Arizona Citizens for the Arts, and Catrina Kahler with Artlink -- to the prospect of losing the 222 East Roosevelt building and its murals. Talk among yourselves, he told them. But it's the petitioners who were first out of the gate on making a public case for preserving the building and its mural art.

Three murals risk being destroyed if 222 East Roosevelt undergoes demolition. An exterior east-facing wall features a mural with three birds painted by local artist Lauren Lee in 2012. The mural was commissioned after GreenHaus issued a call to artists, and has since become a significant way-finding tool and aesthetic element within the neighborhood best known for First Friday art walks.

Two interior murals, including one concealed by a faux wall the Reeds erected in order to exhibit art without damaging what's concealed behind it, were painted in 1950 by Ettore "Ted" DeGrazia before he bought land in Tucson to build the Gallery in the Sun that now houses much of the deceased artist's work. Surviving DeGrazia murals are a rarity, according to Lance Laber, executive director for the DeGrazia Foundation, who says most have been damaged or destroyed due to leaky roofs or inclement weather.

Laber notes that Baron Properties called him about the murals three months ago, saying they were going to build some apartment buildings on the corner and wanted to try and do their best to save the murals. But if we can't, he recalls them saying, they're coming down. Two months ago, they met with Laber at GreenHaus. He believes the firm is genuinely interested in preserving as much art as possible, and says they've even set aside money for doing so.

Still, Laber was frustrated to learn after arriving for their meeting that a 40-foot mural (which appears to depict key moments in the history of alcohol) was covered, which meant his collections and preservation people couldn't see it. But they were able to inspect another, smaller mural -- which depicts a ballet dancer in a champagne glass. The dancer is painted on drywall that can be removed from the surface to which it was attached. The larger mural was painted on drywall affixed to a brick wall. The problem of how to remove and relocate the larger mural, if that's even possible, has yet to be solved.

It appears that going the historical preservation route won't work, and Baron Properties has pointed out that "no historically-designated properties are being demolished." The building at 222 East Roosevelt doesn't have a historical designation and Kevin Weight, a historic preservation planner with the City of Phoenix, says the building's exterior doesn't meet the qualifications. He also notes that regulations for buildings on the Phoenix Historic Property Register govern only the exterior rather than interior. Still, Weight says he "hopes that the interior murals are preserved."

Cole Reed hoped the building itself would live on, but says the two people she approached about buying it told her they couldn't swing it financially. She's hesitant to share their names, concerned they'll be unjustly vilified for not coming to the building's rescue although it was never their responsibility to do so.

Petition ringleader Diehl says what happens next is a no-brainer. "The building will be demolished unless the developer can be persuaded to preserve it." He figures his best shot is letting the developers know people care.

Sims says the thriving arts scene was part of what attracted Baron Properties to Roosevelt Row, adding that they're not in the business of destroying art. They've spoken with Wayne Rainey, owner of the monOrchid gallery, about the possibility of exhibiting and selling works by local artists on site. Still, it appears now that only the mural that can definitely be removed will outlast the demolition.

Those who've crafted the petition are hoping the online signatures they've gathered will help persuade Baron Properties to build around the existing structure at 222 East Roosevelt Street. Diehl even had Ryan Tempest of the "urban awareness group" called This Could Be PHX create an image showing one such solution, according to group co-founder Quinn Whissen. We called architect Kym Billington, figuring it couldn't hurt to ask whether the wall containing the long DeGrazia mural could be incorporated into the apartment complex design somehow, but he referred us back to Baron Properties.

In the process of rallying support for an adaptive re-use alternative, the petition's authors committed something of a faux pas by writing their petition and putting it online without talking with Cole and Dayna Reed about their plans. Cole Reed learned of the petition last Friday, after her phone "started ringing off the hook." She read the petition, and felt its semantics implied they were skipping town without a care for what became of the building that's been their home, business and working studio for nearly three years. "It's a matter of respect," she says -- and people making false assumptions.

She contacted petition organizers about altering the petition's wording, so they substituted the building address for GreenHaus. The address has a colorful history that includes serving as headquarters for Phil Gordon's mayoral campaign and a drag bar dubbed 307 Lounge. Petitioner Connor Descheemaker says it's important to preserve the building because of its significance in the Phoenix LGBT community's history.

Petrisko insists no slight against the Reeds was intended, but Cole Reed hasn't forgotten unkind comments shared by those who see their move to Portland as a betrayal of the Phoenix art scene. Some figured they'd stay once gay marriage was legalized in Arizona (which happened on October 17 this year), but Reed says that's not enough. She wants to live in a state with favorable laws towards adoption by same-sex couples, since Dayna is pregnant with the couple's first child. They'll be here for February's First Friday, and part of the Saturday to follow.

See also: Cole and Dayna Reed of greenHAUS to leave Arizona, Despite Legal Same-Sex Marriage

Once the petition's authors decided what they wanted to say, they simply ran with it, says Petrisko. Think enthusiasm, rather than deliberate decision to leave the building's current occupants out of the loop. Diehl says he felt the Reeds had already done enough, paying to have the DeGrazia murals cleaned and assuring they stayed safe behind protective walls during their tenure at the site. "They took a shell," he says, "and made it a living thing."

Now that they've got several hundred signatures, petition organizers will have to decide on a next step. Their petition is actually addressed to four entities: Phoenix mayor Greg Stanton, property developer Baron Properties, architect Kym Billington, and Phoenix historical preservation officer Michelle Dodds -- who was featured prominently in a recent article published by The New York Times.

When we spoke to Diehl Tuesday morning, he was itching to call the developers to arrange a time to discuss the petition. He's convinced they've got enough signatures to make a compelling case for building apartments around the existing 222 East Roosevelt structure, leaving it intact for use by a business that's compatible with the Roosevelt Row arts scene credited by Mayor Stanton and others with helping to fuel economic development downtown.

The mayor's office tells us he'd like more information about Baron Properties' plans before commenting. He's not alone. We at Jackalope Ranch have been waiting for the developer to reveal details about their plans, and make a clear statement about whether there's any wiggle room for walking them back to something that preserves the 222 East Roosevelt building and its mural art.

We're guessing that's not going to happen, since we learned during a Tuesday, December 23, afternoon phone call from Baron Properties principals Scott Fisher and Sims that they're planning to start demolition sometime after the Art Detour event in March of 2015.

In a series of bullet points we received late Tuesday afternoon, Fisher was clearly operating on the assumption that they'll be moving forward as planned. But he offered several points meant to show they're the good guys. "We sought no increased heights or densities other than what is currently allowed in the neighborhood," he writes. Another point reads: "We have hired a well-regarded local architect in downtown Phoenix, to craft an overall design that is of the neighborhood."

His bullet points don't address the Lauren Lee mural, but confirm the fact that Baron Properties has asked the DeGrazia Foundation for assistance in preserving both DeGrazia works. "One will certainly be saved and donated to the Foundation or relocated elsewhere in downtown Phoenix," Fisher writes. "Preservation of the second mural is more challenging," his statement continues. "We are working with the Foundation to save it and are open to suggestions from anyone on how to do so." It would be easier, of course, if we could all see the darn thing.

Several points appear written to assuage those concerned the new development will hinder the region's thriving arts scene. Fisher notes the firm's plans to "animate both buildings with major works of art by local artists," adding that they'll "soon be organizing a design competition." His reasoning goes like this: "The combination of the preserved pieces of art along with the new ones to be commissioned will result in the area having more art, not less." During a brief call made to alert us that the bullet points were forthcoming, Fisher and Sims mentioned plans to incorporate an existing door in their design, and Fisher's nifty 11 points titled "Statement by Baron Properties Regarding the Preservation of DeGrazia Murals at 3rd Street & Roosevelt" says they "plan to incorporate elements of the existing building into our new development."

"We have no doubt our project will not only enhance a wonderful local art district but fill it with more customers so ambitious restaurants and small businesses like The Local won't have to close but instead will have more to welcome," Fisher writes. It's a sentiment followed by his final bullet point, which may feel to some like a shot in the heart: "By continuing to work together there is no doubt we will achieve a win-win." Sounds a bit like something out of the 1996 film Jerry Maguire starring Scientologist Tom Cruise. It's a fitting choice of words perhaps, considering the former tenant of the Third Street building they're set to demolish as the new development plows ahead.

You can read the petition here.

See also: 40 Favorite Murals in Phoenix

Editor's note: This post has been edited from it's original version to correct a photo caption.

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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