Efforts to save the Chinese Cultural Center in Phoenix have been underway for several months. And preservationists have faced several setbacks, as the center's new owners have continued efforts to replace the structure's roof.
But after some last-minute legal maneuvering, preservationists have gained some ground in the battle.
Created in the style of China's Forbidden City, the Chinese Cultural Center's roof is one of the main points of contention for those who want to see the center preserved. So they're pressing on with efforts to save the roof, even though the city of Phoenix issued a permit on Tuesday, October 31, that authorizes the center's owners, a company called 668 North, to remove and replace the roof.
Despite that permit, 668 North hasn't been able to change the center's roof, because of a temporary restraining order. The order was first issued in Maricopa County Superior Court back in September, and then it was extended by Judge Randall H. Warner as part of an ongoing lawsuit seeking to stop changes to the center.
After a November hearing in that lawsuit, in which the owner of Szechwan Palace Restaurant sued the center's developers, Warner ruled that the temporary restraining order would expire after 5 p.m. on Monday, December 11.
It looked like 668 North would be able to proceed with modifying the roof after that time, but on Friday, December 8, that expiration date was effectively thrown out.
That's when attorneys for Szechwan Palace succeeded in getting the Arizona Appeals Court to hit pause on Warner's ruling ending the temporary restraining order. For now, that means his ruling is no longer in effect, and that the roof issue is back in limbo, pending further court rulings.
That's good news for members of the metro Phoenix Chinese-American community who say the center's Chinese design elements have cultural and religious significance. The center was built in 1997 with the same materials and techniques used to create the Forbidden City during the 15th century, says Elizabeth Mann, who helped developed the center.
They're opposing remodeling plans by 668 North, a subsidiary of Scottsdale-based private equity firm True North that bought the center for $10.5 million in June. Rather than preserving the site as a center of Chinese culture, the new owners are planning to strip away Chinese design elements and transform the center into the new headquarters for 668 North's 350 employees.
Preservationists have tried stopping those changes by myriad means — including petitions, protests, and appealing to the Phoenix City Council. Now, litigation is the focus of those efforts.
The Arizona Appeals Court ruling involves a case brought by Michael Zhao. His company, CJ Design & Construction, operates the Szechwan Palace Restaurant and owns, rather than leases, the restaurant's space at the Chinese Cultural Center.
Zhao's lawsuit was filed on September 15 against 668 North, as well as True North CEO David Tedesco and his wife, Gemma Tedesco. It alleges that changes to the roof and other common elements at the center would harm Zhao's business, by driving away customers who come to see the center's Chinese architecture and garden.
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Zhao's attorney, Jack Wilenchik, has filed several motions in recent days aimed at stopping roof demolition. So now it's a matter of watching and waiting, until more court rulings come down.
Phoenix New Times reached out to True North following the December 1 ruling, but company representatives refused to comment on plans for the roof or garden, or when they expect renovations to be completed.
Preservationists remain vigilant by attending hearings, press conferences, and protests.
Mann is among them, and she's adamant that the roof shouldn't be replaced. "Once you tear it down," she says, "you can never get it back."