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HISTORIC PRESERVATION TAKES TO THE SHADOWSWHEN IT COMES TO SAVING PHOENIX'S RAREST BUILDINGS, CITY HALL SENDS THE WORK OUT OF TOWN AND LEAVES THE LOCALS IN THE DARK

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"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.

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Kathleen Stanton