There’s been another milestone in the ongoing saga of the former Chinese Cultural Center in Phoenix, where a small group of activists have been waging periodic protests for more than a year now.
Portions of the roof, including tiles that are part of the center’s Chinese architecture and design, were removed last month. It’s a move the activists have been trying to prevent for a full year, in part by filing multiple lawsuits.
The Chinese Cultural Center was built in 1997, by a real estate firm called BNU Corporation. That's a subsidiary of China National Cereals, Oils and Foodstuffs Corporation (COFCO), a business owned by the Chinese government.
Elizabeth Mann spearheaded those efforts, but left BNU in 2008. Now, she’s leading the charge against planned changes. And the center’s owner worries she may be going too far.
The center was purchased for $10.5 million in June 2017 by Scottsdale-based private equity firm True North. It’s being renovated by 668 North, a subsidiary of that firm, so it can serve as the future headquarters for the firm’s 350 employees. David Tedesco is the founder and CEO for True North.
Activists have focused their efforts on preserving the roof and a Chinese garden at the site, which sits on the west side of 44th Street, just north of Van Buren Street.
They’ve filed lawsuits against the new owner, and the city of Phoenix. They’ve pushed for historic preservation, alleged religious discrimination, accused city officials of corruption, launched citizen petitions, held rallies, spoken at city council meetings, boycotted businesses affiliated with True North, and created an aggressive social media campaign to further their cause.
Litigation is still pending, which has slowed True North's efforts to renovate and ready the property for occupancy. The city issued a demolition permit for the roof last year, but Tedesco can’t start demolition until a related court case winds down, assuming the judge rules in his favor.
Even so, he’s removed portions of the roof, including some of the Chinese tiles the activists want kept in place. Citing roof and interior damage caused by recent rains, Tedesco got court approval to make the minimum repairs needed to prevent further damage.
Mann suspects that Tedesco is doing more than making repairs, in part because she’s seen a bulldozer operator working on the roof. Ultimately, the roof will likely be removed and replaced, as Tedesco transforms the onetime Chinese Cultural Center into a modern commercial complex with elements of midcentury design.
But getting to that point won’t be easy.
Mann’s opposition group still shows up at city meetings to protest the current owner’s plan. And it’s had a small but visible presence on the site for more than a year. Recently, Tedesco informed Mann that they couldn’t protest on the property, but that hasn’t stopped them from showing up to watch for signs of any changes taking place. Mann has even hired a drone operator to take fly-over photographs of the site, Tedesco says.
Late last month, property manager Erika Crockett called the Phoenix Police Department to report that several individuals were “protesting and harassing workers while on the property.” Two left the premises after police warned them they’d be arrested for trespassing if they continued to protest. Mann avoided arrest by staying in the Chinese restaurant on-site, rather than resuming her protests outside.
During the course of the past year, she’s tried a variety of strategies to win public support, including frequent outreach to local and national media. How she frames her case varies, too.
At times, Mann posits that the center’s roof is public art, which can’t be destroyed. It’s true that the original developers were required to include public art elements, but there’s no obligation for that to happen now, according to Gail Browne, executive director for the city’s office of arts and culture.
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Other times, Mann draws on Arizona law regulating condominium associations, because the center was originally organized as a condominium. True North’s original purchase didn’t include a small number of units belonging to the man who operates Szechwan Palace there. But Tedesco says he’s since purchased those units, giving him full control over the property.
Tedesco has offered to preserve the Chinese garden, if the opposition halts its legal proceedings. Or he’s willing to move Chinese artifacts like statues to another site. Mann wants to the center to remain as is.
To the layperson, it looks like a cut-and-dry case of property rights: Tedesco has them; Mann does not. Of course, it’ll be up to the courts to decide whether that’s the case. In the meantime, both sides are weighing in on the others’ tactics. “This is a hate crime,” Mann says. “They must really hate us to be doing this."
Tedesco is more tempered, but he’s clearly growing frustrated with Mann’s ongoing presence. “We are concerned she is obsessed to an unhealthy degree and may pose a security risk."