Grave Consequences

It's a familiar story: The City of Phoenix prepares to demolish an old building to make way for a new one, and preservationists take the city to court.

In the case of the A.L. Moore & Sons Mortuary, however, it's preservationists of a different sort who have gummed up the city's construction plans.

The city plans to demolish the historic mortuary at Fourth Avenue and Adams Street to make way for a new municipal court complex. But when the city filed for immediate possession in May, giving undertakers only until November to vacate the building, the morticians appealed to Superior Court Judge B. Michael Dann, arguing that the city had originally told them they'd have until May 1997 to move their operations.

Dann agreed with the undertakers this week that he did have the power to delay the city's plans, but only gave the embalmers an additional month, until December, to get out of the way of the city's bulldozers.

That's likely to cause them huge business losses, the undertakers say, but they're hesitant to discuss why. Their attorney Mike Riikola, however, is more candid.

Riikola explains to New Times that his clients are facing disaster because the historic Moore building had become a "central preparation area" for five other mortuaries.

A total of 12 Valley funeral homes operated by the same company that runs A.L. Moore & Sons had centralized their embalming operations in two facilities, including the building in question. The second preparation facility serves its own set of mortuaries, Riikola says, and can't handle a sudden doubling of volume.

Because of the city's immediate possession order, Riikola says, five funeral homes will suddenly have nowhere for corpses to be embalmed.

"Grieving family members need to be served in the most sensitive way, and it's shocking that the city is callous to that," he says. ". . . [I]t's shocking that the city would be insensitive to that."

The city, however, is in a big rush.
Changes in the way DUI cases were handled in the early 1980s produced a huge jump in the case load at the municipal courts. As a temporary solution, the city leased the old Phoenix Union High School complex to house its municipal courts.

That lease will expire in December 1999. But before a permanent location for its courts could be found, the city spent a year considering three downtown sites. Ultimately, city planners rejected buying and renovating two existing sites, and went with a $70 million, ultramodern facility to be erected at Third Avenue and Washington Street, just west of City Hall.

But that decision wasn't made until December 1995, only four years before the city's lease at Phoenix Union runs out. And the city's previous experience with building City Hall made it clear that three years was a very tight schedule.

"I'll be frank with you; we've been flat-out running in this project from day one," says project manager Paul Blue. Blue and other city staffers, however, say that the undertakers at A.L. Moore & Sons should have known that they would have to leave the premises. After all, they point out, the Moores themselves were eager to have the city condemn the property many months ago.

In November 1995, mortuary heiress Posey Moore Nash sent a letter to site-selection manager Rick Naimark encouraging the city to purchase her funeral home for demolition.

For years the Moores had been morticians in name only, renting out their downtown building to another corporation that actually ran the day-to-day operations. It's that company, SCI Arizona Funeral Services, which has fought the city's attempt to take immediate possession of the Moores' property.

SCI officials say that when they asked the city about its demolition plans, they were told they'd have until May 1997 to move their operations.

But Blue says the undertakers asked the city the wrong question.
It's true, Blue says, that the building won't get knocked down until April or May of next year. But the city needs to take possession of the building much earlier than that to perform environmental studies and other checks. He says, "I couldn't tell you off the top of my head what is exactly under the mortuary," which has been embalming Phoenicians since 1906.

Blue reels off a list of things the city must do before it knocks over the historic building. When he's questioned why giving the tenants a better idea of when they need to leave isn't one of them, he blames the city's rush and poor communication between departments.

Riikola says he's angered by the city's position, that SCI officials simply didn't ask the right questions. "That's just flat preposterous. They can't seriously contend that the CEO of this corporation and their lawyer were unaware of what the city was telling them. That is almost malicious."

Under Arizona condemnation law, the city won't be liable for any business losses the company experiences when it finds itself unable to embalm the overflow of corpses from its other Valley locations. The city will, however, have to pay the Moores for the land, as well as compensation to SCI for what the company will likely pay in increased rent at another location. The total: $1.6 million, with all but a few hundred thousand dollars going to the Moores.

As for the business losses SCI faces in its sudden move, however, the city won't have to pay a dime.

City attorney Bill McDonald says he feels for the morticians. "It could be said to be a little harsh. . . . Probably the best remedy would be if we could pay them for their business losses. But the law doesn't require that. And we can't do something that the law doesn't require. Otherwise you'd be yelling at us about that.

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Tony Ortega
Contact: Tony Ortega