More changes are coming to Grand Avenue, as the city seeks proposals for redeveloping the corner of West Polk Street and Seventh Avenue. That’s where one of the nation’s first American Legion posts has been situated for nearly 100 years. But now, that could change, depending on what gets approved for the site.
The city plans to issue a Request for Proposal for the site in coming months, which will call for creating a mixed-use, mixed-income development that includes veteran housing and support services.
The 1.68-acre site was deeded to the city in 1920 for the purpose of creating American Legion Post 1. The American Legion had a 99-year lease that expired in February 2019, but that’s been extended so the group can celebrate its 100-year anniversary at the site next year.
The site includes both an original building and subsequent additions, plus iconic elements including a towering flag pole that the city plans to keep in place. Beatrice Moore, an artist and preservationist who owns several properties nearby, calls the main building “one of the most important buildings in this area.”
What happens next will depend on who submits proposals, and what the city ultimately approves.
Preservationists such as Bob Graham are keeping a close eye on the Request for Proposal process, hoping the existing buildings can be incorporated into the new development. Graham is a historical architect who has been involved with several adaptive reuse projects, including the Knipe House in Roosevelt Row.
But there’s no guarantee that will happen.
The property is not listed on the Phoenix Historic Property Register or National Register of Historic Places. But that doesn’t lessen its historic significance for Moore, one of several preservationists who has weighed in on the issue.
Moore heads a group called Grand Avenue Arts & Preservation, which sent a letter to city officials on May 21. They’re asking that the existing American Legion buildings be preserved and renovated, and that any new construction not exceed three stories. “We don’t need any more upscale housing downtown,” she told the council.
Other community groups have advocated for saving the original buildings as well, including the Arizona Preservation Foundation, Downtown Voices Coalition, the Grand Avenue Members Association, the Phoenix Historic Neighborhoods Coalition, and Preserve Phoenix.
Patrick Mays spoke on behalf of the American Legion Post 1 during the June 26 City Council meeting, noting that he’s been working with both city officials and fellow preservationists on possible ways to keep the post at its current location. But he’s open to other options, if they bring better services for veterans.
“Preservation at all costs is no service to anyone,” Mays told the council. “Adaptive reuse of our current facility would be preferable." But he says its should be an option, not a requirement. "To make it a mandate or restriction, we believe limits our opportunity."
Moore took a different approach, based in her experience with renovating the Bragg’s Pie Factory building she purchased with Tony Zahn back in 2004. Moore recalled people telling her that building should be demolished. They opted for adaptive reuse instead, creating what’s become one of the area’s most vibrant creative spaces.
“This building is a perfect building to renovate,” Moore told council members. "That building can be fixed up and it can be actually an incredible contributor not only to the historic fabric of the neighborhood but provide services for veterans at that site."
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In the end, the City Council authorized moving forward with the Request for Proposal, which could result in the land being sold or leased. Either way, its use will be restricted for 99 years, to assure that veterans continue to benefit significantly from the property.
During that period, at least 60 percent of housing on the site has to include affordable or workforce housing, with preference going to veterans. And there has to be at least 3,000 square feet set aside for community support services for veterans, although the city can’t designate a particular veterans group such as the American Legion.
The city will also require proposers to consider incorporating existing elements as part of their plan, and award points based in part on how well they do so.
Moore hopes the end result will encourage more historical preservation, rather than demolition, in the Grand Avenue area. “We want what’s best for the veterans, but we also want something that’s not going to set a terrible example.”