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How The Van Buren Became a Precedent-Setting Example of Phoenix Preservation

Phoenix recently renegotiated a preservation contract with the owners of The Van Buren.
Phoenix recently renegotiated a preservation contract with the owners of The Van Buren. Robrt L. Pela
Before it was Phoenix’s hottest downtown concert venue, The Van Buren was home to the Phoenix Motor Company, a high-profile car lot and auto service center. In the interim, it was a vacant shell. And earlier this month, it became a precedent-setting example of the city’s interest in working with preservationists.

Earlier this year, the city approved a $250,000 rehabilitation grant for the building, contingent on an approved restoration by its owners, Pat Cantelme and James Kuykendall. The conditions of the grant were built around a 30-year historic preservation contract stipulating that if any changes were made to the building outside the grant’s guidelines, the owners would be made to pay back the grant in full.

“It’s not unusual to have a 30-year conservation easement,” explains city of Phoenix historic preservation officer Michelle Dodds. The current owners of the building wanted that changed to a 15-year easement, based on their 15-year lease with Charlie Levy and Stateside Presents, who operate The Van Buren through a partnership with Live Nation. Levy and Stateside also run Crescent Ballroom and Valley Bar.

Based on that lease agreement, the owners are asking Phoenix City Council to change the terms of the grant, reducing the time limit for the potential payback from 30 to 15 years. The pair was also requesting the ability to prorate the easement if the Van Buren doesn’t remain an event venue, or if it vacates the building after its lease is up.

“The owners are rightly concerned that, after the 15-year lease expires, they may not be able to find another renter for an event center,” Dodds says. If new tenants made changes to the building that aren’t approved by the grant agreement, Cantelme and Kuykendall would be forced to pay back the grant.

“The city is in great shape,” Kuykendall says. “They’re making a profit already from our building’s sales tax revenue, because it’s listed historically.” The building’s real estate broker, Sherry Rampy, estimates that the city has already earned about a third of the grant total from that same revenue.

To be eligible for historic preservation, a building must be at least 50 years old, have significance from a typical property in Phoenix, and must maintain its original architectural integrity. Cantelme and Kuykendall fully restored the Motor Company building, maintaining the original stucco finish and window frames. Future plans would see a restoration of the as-yet-untouched 4,000 square feet of the 25,000-square-foot building, which was built in the 1930s.

Phoenix City Council voted 8 to 0 on November 15 to chop the grant contract in half, and prorate the potential payback should new tenants make unapproved changes.

“There was no discussion at all at the Council meeting,” Dodds says. “It was just approved with other stuff. Council understands that landlords want flexibility, because no one knows what the future holds. This kind of vote is reassuring to others who are thinking about restoring or maintaining the integrity of an older building.”

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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