OF THE 14 multimillion-dollar bond issues approved enthusiastically by Phoenix voters in 1988, the city's $15 million proposal to preserve its architectural heritage was uniquely ambitious.

Never before had the city even considered devoting such resources to historic preservation. No one familiar with Phoenix's screwy sprawl would have believed the public could embrace the cause so warmly. But the ballot numbers showed unmistakably that, amid the hell-bent-for-leather showdowns over new high-rises and vast housing tracts, the city nursed a tender regard for the faded antiquities lingering in its shadows.

With a decisive voice, Phoenix announced to historic-preservation buffs nationwide that it was finished apologizing for its existence.

Now the program spawned by love has itself drawn charges of favoritism and insider dealing in the first wave of contracts to be financed from the bond issue. More to the point, the actions of program administrators, particularly Phoenix Historic Preservation Commission officer Deborah Abele, are under attack.

Local preservationists, a genteel group more inclined to debate ceiling moldings than politics, are buzzing over accusations leveled by the city's most renowned preservation architect, Gerald A. Doyle.

Doyle's central accusation--that Abele and others circumvented their own bidding rules and channeled choice contracts to favored firms--prompted one member of the Phoenix City Council to call for an official inquiry into the program's administration. Some of the alleged favoritism benefited out-of-state firms, further fanning the anger of local architects scraping to survive hard times in the Valley.

Abele is inclined to dismiss the complaints as predictable grumbling in stressful times. But the response of city officials so far--that they weren't bound by normal bidding rules in awarding the disputed contracts--seems inadequate to stop the stain spreading over Phoenix's fledgling effort to honor its own heritage.

GERALD DOYLE, the architectural hand behind the restoration of the State Capitol and a host of Arizona's most important examples of historic preservation, is passionate about old buildings. They are the unifying thread in Doyle's long professional career and, though he admits it is hardly possible for an architect to make a living exclusively in historic preservation, a source of romantic bemusement to him still.

Doyle has been salvaging architecturally important buildings since arriving in Arizona in 1961. The 69-year-old Harvard graduate restored the Carnegie Library and the Evans House, both located in the downtown government mall, and several prominent landmarks in rural areas--including the John Slaughter ranch in southeastern Arizona, which is now a national wildlife preserve. A stout fireplug of a man under glowering Celtic brows, Doyle has evolved into something of a landmark himself, admirers say. "He's the dean of preservation architecture in Phoenix," says a young colleague in the field.

Lately, Doyle has become passionate about the city's program to preserve such glorious fossils as Tovrea Castle, all but swallowed by industrial-commercial sprawl along East Washington. Doyle, however, is not passionate about the program in the sense he once was, when he and his wife carried petitions as part of the effort to get the historic-preservation bond on the 1988 ballot.

The passion Gerald Doyle now feels is outrage over what he believes is a betrayal of faith. Doyle contends a skewed agenda has overtaken both the process and results of contracting for restoration plans for Tovrea Castle and three other local properties on the National Register of Historic Places.

"There were a number of irregularities in the bidding of these projects," Doyle asserts. "The word on the street was that, in some cases, certain firms were `preordained' to get the contract. Two of the favored firms are from out of state, which makes it that much more frustrating."

The first three projects call for restorations of Tovrea Castle, turn-of-the-century downtown warehouse the Ice House and a group of stone-and-adobe buildings--the prototypes for rustic-style National Park Service buildings throughout the country--at the entrance to South Mountain Park. The fourth project involves moving the Smurthwaite House, the city's last remaining example of shingle-style architecture, to the Pioneer Cemetery near the State Capitol. (The city plans to restore the house for use as a visitor center.)

Doyle admits the South Mountain Park project, one of two on which he bid, is particularly close to his heart. "I've hiked all over South Mountain Park," he says. "I've looked at the petroglyphs, taken my dogs up there. One of my daughters lives in a house that backs up to the park.

"In addition, I've probably done more work in stone-and-adobe structures than anyone else in the state, and it's unusual stuff to work with," Doyle continues. "My own house is stone and adobe, and I've done extensive restoration on it."

Doyle is bitter about losing out on the project to Architectural Resources of San Francisco, a firm which was brought into the bidding via a personal invitation from Deborah Abele. Abele admits going out of her way to contact the California firm, but denies her call conferred any special advantage.

"I only wanted to make sure we had the very best to choose from," Abele explains. "This particular firm has been doing a nationwide study of these rustic-style buildings."

Phoenix professionals, by contrast, perceive mountains of significance in Abele's decision to reach out to the San Francisco firm, one of two California firms she contacted by telephone. Indeed, sources trace the rumors of a fix to Abele's unusual step of personally soliciting bids. Says one unsuccessful bidder, "One guy I invited onto my team told me he'd already been contacted by Architectural Resources and said, `I hope you've got a strong proposal because these guys appear to have the inside track.'" SO FAR, Gerald Doyle is the only person to file a written complaint about the opening moves of the city's $15 million preservation program. But he is not alone in complaining that both the advertising and bid-award procedures were riddled with irregularities.

Other critics, who decline to be named for fear of being blackballed in future projects, charge that City Hall departed from its usual procedure for advertising the projects. Advertising was limited to a one-time notice in a local daily newspaper--in contrast to the usual practice of advertising repeatedly in trade publications widely circulated among architects and builders.

At the same time, copies of the bid requirements, termed a "request for proposal" (RFP), were mailed to a select list of firms kept by Abele. Abele contends the list is composed of professionals who have indicated their interest in historic preservation, and is updated annually in an effort to expand it. But one Phoenix architect observed, "I've been doing historic preservation here for 15 years and I'd never heard of the list."

Abele insists that no hidden agenda influenced advertising, only a desire to lift Phoenix's profile nationally. "Part of what I've done since joining the city in 1989 is to try and get us on the national map in historic preservation," Abele says. "I did make it clear I wanted the best possible people for these projects.

"We were not even legally bound to advertise these contracts, because technically they involve professional services," she adds. "We did so only in an effort to attract as large a field as possible."

Ironically, as even Abele acknowledges, the city's effort to attract the best and brightest did not include one logical step--advertising the projects nationally. "Probably the only reason national advertising was not considered was timing," Abele says. "We haven't had anyone complain that they didn't know of the projects."

Unhappy architects, however, contend that the limited advertising, together with suspicions that deals had been cut, resulted in a low response rate. And the turnout was surprisingly lackluster, especially considering how many Phoenix architects are out of work these days.

Tovrea Castle, despite being profiled in national historic-preservation publications, attracted only six proposals. Doyle and others assert that under normal circumstances a landmark as famous as the Tovrea property would attract several dozen proposals. The Smurthwaite project attracted only three bidders, none of them local.

"The word on the street was that [the] Salt Lake City [firm of Cooper/Roberts Architects, Incorporated] was locked in on the Smurthwaite job," Doyle claims. "People felt they would be wasting their time to bid on it."

Cooper/Roberts, one of the firms on the list that received individually mailed RFPs, recently won another coveted job from the city, that of compiling a manual on historic building styles in Phoenix. Abele, who currently is working with Cooper/Roberts on a draft edition of the manual, denies the Salt Lake City firm had an inside track on the Smurthwaite project.

Cooper/Roberts stood out only because its qualifications are outstanding, Abele maintains. The firm won a national award for a particularly difficult assignment to relocate a former miners' hospital in Park City, Utah--a job that involved moving the huge structure down a steep slope.

Abele contends the out-of-state firms simply outhustled the local competition. "Cooper/Roberts, for instance, went beyond what was required in the RFP and planned a route for moving the Smurthwaite House as part of their proposal, which one of the other bidders would have charged $10,000 to do," Abele says.

Both out-of-state firms sent representatives to Phoenix to conduct field surveys of the historic properties before submitting their bids. "We were struck by who came in person to look at these buildings and who didn't," Abele comments. "A lot of the local bidders didn't call or come in."

A SOUR HAZE of controversy continued to surround the historic-preservation projects after proposals were unsealed August 9, increased by alleged deviations from the rules by which winners were selected. City officials and volunteer members of the Phoenix Historic Preservation Commission interviewed applicants and came up with a list of top-ranked bidders, based on a system that ostensibly applied to everyone equally.

However, Abele and other city officials then engaged in a series of negotiations that resulted in a new ranking of winners, touching off more accusations of favoritism.

For instance, the Phoenix firm of Ryden Architects was awarded the Ice House contract at the behest of the property owner, even though the firm was ranked third by the commission. Abele contends the two higher-ranked firms asked to withdraw their proposals upon learning the property owner would rather work with a local architect.

"We pointed out to them they were both first in line for other projects, so there was no problem," she says. "They withdrew voluntarily."

Doyle and other critics think the rules were unfairly altered. "I'm all for the property owner being able to pick the architect, but in this case public money is to be used, as has been cited as the reason for going the RFP route," Doyle comments. "If you say you're going to use a certain set of rules, you owe it to everyone to stick by those rules."

In another apparent breach of process, Ryden Architects also won the Tovrea Castle job, despite official statements that no one firm would be awarded more than one project. "When I questioned [city officials] about Ryden winning two, I was told I had misunderstood the condition," Doyle gripes. "Now they're saying the Tovrea project is not included in the limitation."

"Tovrea is not among the bond projects for which we will give only one contract apiece to the firms," Abele explains.

Some architects say they were told the reason Ryden won the Tovrea job is that one of its subcontractors, P&D Technologies, has particular familiarity with the site. However, once the Tovrea contract was clinched, P&D notified city officials that it plans to close its Phoenix office. "This pretty well trashes the city's rationale for picking Ryden," notes one observer.

Abele, however, contends that P&D will fulfill its commitments to the city while gradually phasing out its Phoenix operation.

Abele is unrattled by criticism of the bid awards, saying it stems from the harsh economic climate rather than flaws in the new bond program. "When there's work for all, no one complains," she observes. "But in hard economic times, you're more open to criticism because people really feel it if they miss out on the money."

Money, Doyle claims, is not the point of his arguments. "There isn't a lot of money in these projects to begin with," he says, noting that the total price tag of under $200,000 is but a small fraction of the bond issue.

"The point is they should be done by people who really care about Arizona," Doyle contends. "I think it's easy to understand that those people who have a heartfelt concern about a building would be really disappointed to see it go to someone with no personal stake in the city."

Doyle thinks career considerations may have influenced the City Hall bureaucrats overseeing the contracts. "Most of these professional bureaucrats are looking to move up and there's probably no ladder in Arizona for someone in historic preservation," Doyle muses. "There is no advantage to cooperating with local architects, while contacts made elsewhere might open up new avenues of opportunity to pursue."

Abele, who ran a consulting firm in Colorado Springs before taking the Arizona job, acknowledges that part of the lure here was an opportunity to become better known in the field. But she denies that self-interest influenced her handling of the recent contracts. "These [out-of-state bidders] aren't major firms," Abele says. "They won't get me work elsewhere."

Phoenix architect Paul Winslow, whose firm performed a much-acclaimed renovation of the old Phoenix City Hall, defends Abele. "I have nothing but top marks for her," says Winslow, one of five unsuccessful bidders on the Tovrea Castle project. "I find it hard to believe Debbie would do anything devious. If she exerted influence at all, my guess is it's just because she is so protective of historic properties and wanted to assure the best possible treatment for them."

"I don't think you have to live somewhere to care about something," Abele comments. "It's what you bring that's important. I was brought here because of my background and skills. What I found was a city that had all the pieces for a great historic-preservation program--a supportive council, necessary ordinances, and then, six months after I got here, the bond issue passed so we had the money to put it all together.

"All the great western cities have wonderful buildings, but we are just coming of age here in Phoenix," she adds. "My goal here is to show we can do historic renovation and it doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg. When I leave here, I want Phoenix to be nationally recognized as a leader in historic preservation."

AMONG THE ENTITIES invoked by Gerald Doyle to audit the doings in the Office of Historic Preservation are the city manager, several members of the Phoenix City Council, and the Arizona Board of Technical Registration.

He does not intend to let the matter drop, although City Hall seems inclined to do just that. City Manager Frank Fairbanks referred questions to a deputy, saying he wasn't personally familiar with the issue. "The selection of a consultant for this project is related to the City's procurement of professional services which are not governed by laws relating to public competitive bidding," says Deputy City Manager David Garcia in a September 30 response to Doyle's complaint. "The City may legally contract with any individual, firm or team that can provide the desired professional services."

Phoenix City Councilmember Craig Tribken, however, pulled the Ice House contract off the city council agenda recently after hearing Doyle's complaints. "We're not just talking the letter of the law, but the spirit, too," Tribken says.

After looking into the matter, Tribken agreed to support the Ice House contract, saying he felt its good aspects outweighed the bad. The contract was approved October 9 by the city council.

But Tribken says he will push for changes in the selection procedure governing future contracts. Tribken says he doesn't want to see the four projects delayed, but is worried that a cloud is forming over the nascent historic-preservation program.

"If we say we're going through a public process, with advertising and so forth, we need to stick with it," he comments. "It's important that everyone plays by the same rules."

One specific change he'll push for is to assign greater weight to local preference. "I think the local architects intrinsically deliver something to the table that out-of-town firms can't bring, no matter how talented they are," Tribken says. "There's a tendency to seek validation from outsiders, but heritage means being proud of who we are, and part of that is saying, `We do have the talent here to do the job.'"

The passion Gerald Doyle now feels is outrage over what he believes is a betrayal of faith.

Doyle is not alone in complaining that both the advertising and bid-award procedures were riddled with irregularities.

Abele insists that no hidden agenda influenced advertising, only a desire to lift Phoenix's profile nationally.

"When I leave here, I want Phoenix to be nationally recognized as a leader in historic preservation."

"We're not just talking the letter of the law, but the spirit, too," Tribken says.

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Kathleen Stanton