Architecture and Design

Roosevelt Row: The Fight to Keep Downtown Phoenix "Authentic" Is a Fight to Let It Become Something It's Never Been

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It's happened before: A building we've grown to love or think of as part of our local history turns up one day surrounded by chain link. Local preservationists go mad, passing petitions and staging protests and complaining that we're murdering what's left of Phoenix's past. This time, Roosevelt Row business owners and concerned citizens are worried about buildings located at 222, 314, and 420 East Roosevelt Street. Developers have bought or attempted to buy the land on which they reside and have expressed interest in tearing down the buildings to make room for modern multi-family housing structures.

222 East Roosevelt, home to GreenHaus, a gallery and boutique that relocated this month to Portland, Oregon is the best-known -- and arguably most significant -- of the buildings. The former home of gay drag bar the 307 Lounge, the long, low building contains a pair of murals painted in 1950 by renowned Arizona artist Ted DeGrazia. 314 East Roosevelt is a vacant house on the north side of the street, while the 420 building is home to the law practice of Adrian Fontes SP, a preservationist and former co-owner of the now-defunct Bodega 420 market.

A petition posted in mid-December gathered more than a thousand signatures from locals hoping to save the 222 building or at least its murals, but to no avail.

Colorado-based Baron Properties holds demolition permits, issued in mid-January, for both the 222 building and an adjacent office complex, with plans to build a 111-unit residential complex and underground garage on the site. Baron delayed demolition while discussions about the fate of the murals continued (Tucson's DeGrazia Foundation was assessing whether the artist's murals could be saved; no attempt has been made to save an exterior mural, Three Birds, by painter Lauren Lee). Meanwhile, preservationist and San Carlos Hotel owner Robert Melikian offered to absorb the cost of preparing the building for later tenancy if a third party would pay to relocate it. But Baron abruptly announced, last week, its plans to demolish the building and move forward with construction, rather than wait the three months needed to relocate the building.

"I'm sorry that Baron won't wait 90 days for McCullough to move the building," Melikian says. "The lot is available and waiting, and could easily be prepared with a foundation and utilities. The 307 building could go right back into public service. In the scheme of things, 90 days is not a big deal for the owner."

Melikian concedes that Phoenix's reputation as a tear-down town is often well deserved. We've knocked down the Madison and St. James hotels and leveled the circular Washburn Piano store on Camelback, among many others. But considering our age, Phoenix has done a pretty good job of preserving buildings, too. In 2006, voters approved $13 million in grant money for property owners who would restore, rather than raze, historic buildings, and most of that money has been spent on these preservations. The city has designated 210 separate properties as historically significant, and named 35 residential districts as historic. We've moved our fair share of notable buildings, including the 1925 Lamar four-plex, relocated to Latham Street and restored as a duplex. The city has saved the Goldspot Market, a once-prominent Roosevelt grocery left long vacant and now home to popular restaurant Pita Jungle and a bustling Lola Coffee cafe.

"That building was threatened with demolition on three separate occasions," Dodds says of the Goldspot. "With preservations funds from the city, it was rehabbed." A similar fate seems likely for the recently saved WPA building, a gorgeous and dilapidated structure built in 1938 on the fairgrounds at McDowell Road and 19th Avenue.

But why were these buildings saved, while the trio of endangered buildings on Roosevelt, recently denied historic designation, remain unprotected? Because unlike the Goldspot or the WPA building, these buildings -- the characterless 222; the unremarkable Bodega -- are architecturally insignificant.

Before its salvation can even be considered, a building must be at least 50 years old. It's deemed important, at least by local tenets of historic preservation, if it's associated with a noteworthy person or event. If its architecture or construction is linked to a notable designer, a structure might be considered worth saving from the wrecking ball.

But realtor Sherry Rampy points out that, according to federal guidelines, the trio of structures on Roosevelt are considered "just old buildings." The so-called Wilcox Building, while a very nice example of Craftsman bungalow, is one of many such downtown homes. It was not designed by a notable architect. No celebrities lived there; it originally was the home of a local mail carrier. The developers who want to plow down the old 307 Lounge aren't knocking down Barry Goldwater's house, they're not endangering a Ralph Haver design, or obliterating another Frank Lloyd Wright home. Saving and repurposing beautiful structures and the past they represent might enhance our sense of community and connectedness, but more often than not, their lack of worthy craftsmanship or connection to civic pride spell their doom.

More than anything, 314 East Roosevelt stands as an example of how to keep multimillion-dollar developers from investing in your city.

"The developers who were in escrow to buy the land at 314 offered the bungalow for free to anyone who wanted to move it," says Rampy, who's vice president of the Roosevelt Action Association, a preservation and improvement organization. "But there was so much drama around saving the building, the developers got scared off. They took their money and are probably going to spend it somewhere else."

Rampy's referring to Wood Partners, the company that planned to purchase the complex at the northeast corner of Third Street and Roosevelt (currently home to PAZ Cantina), as well as a neighboring property that's home to the bungalow and is used for the Roosevelt Row A.R.T.S. Market. According to Nicholas J. Wood (no relation) of Snell and Wilmer, which represents Wood Partners, when things heated up with local arts and preservation activists, Wood canceled its purchase contract and walked away from the multi-million project, pulling its application to buy the land.

In short, preservationists chased away a developer who was willing to work to save a building, rather than tearing it down. The result, Rampy believes, is that the current owner of the lot may opt to tear down the Wilcox house in order to prevent this sort of conflict from squashing a future sale of the property. (At press time, Local First owner Kimber Lanning was negotiating with the building's owner to move the bungalow across the street, to an empty corner lot next to her Modified Arts gallery.)

"So what we're left with," Rampy says, "is a building that may be saved and no relationship with a developer who appeared to be interested in working with the community to address concerns about preserving buildings and making appropriate changes to the neighborhood. We chased that developer away, and there's a chance word will spread that Phoenix is not a good place for developers who want to work with a neighborhood to spend their money. We may have saved a bungalow, but lost a potentially fair-minded developer."

Cindy Dach understands why concerned creatives think scaring off developers is an answer. "When the community hears a developer is buying up land in the arts district," says Dach, a Roosevelt Row founding board member, "their first response is often, 'Something else is being taken away!'"

She cites Austin and Denver as cities that have placed moratoriums on pulling down older buildings. There, Dach says, developers are made to integrate their plans into the character of existing neighborhoods, rather than given carte blanche to bulldoze them.

Dach stops short of stating the obvious: For integrated development to work in Phoenix, the city would have to work as closely with the community as it does with developers. Builders who attempt to obscure plans would be made accountable and not, as many preservationists believe, be supported in keeping their plans secret. Zoning laws and historic preservation would have to be in place, and enforced.

The current mess is more about bad communication between the city and potential developers, Dach believes, than it is about the city trying to hide things from the community.

"We're all still new to this, and a lot of the preservation groundwork has been laid but not completed," she says. "We've been meeting with the city for a couple of years to explain the downtown we want. But those discussions have not been turned into zoning ordinances or permit laws yet. The city is in the middle of implementing our ideas, while citizens think these ideas are now policy."

In the meantime, developers who note a need for housing in downtown Phoenix may never hear from the city about citizens' concerns.

But a proposed Business Improvement District designation for Roosevelt Row might bridge that communication gap by making the developer an accountable member of the community. Primarily funded through additional taxes paid by participating businesses, a BID defines an area -- in this case, Roosevelt Row -- that uses those funds to provide services like marketing, security, and streetscaping. Potential developers would both answer to the board of a tax-funded BID and become members of the organization, and therefore be accountable to the district's regulations.

Arizona has the fewest number of BIDS of any state (California currently operates more than 80 of them, by comparison), its least effective example being the downtown Phoenix Copper Square district, which initially was a failure. But it's a model that's been used with some effect in other cities, insists Nancy Hormann, former executive director of Downtown Tempe Community, that city's BID.

"The Tempe improvement district has been a great success," says Hormann. "It's been used to recruit retailers who fit into the district. We've cleaned up the streets and sidewalks. And, if a developer were to show up and want to tear down a significant building, we would be ready to defend ourselves and to work with these guys to join the district and find a different solution."

But a BID can take months to get passed by its participants, who must agree and vote on a long list of articles and fee structures. A proposed improvement district may not be helpful to Roosevelt Row today.

Pete Petrisko thinks we're running out of time. "Phoenix can't afford to wait another 20 years to get our cultural identity right," he says. "The amount of development planned here in the next 12 months is going to completely change downtown Phoenix."

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela