Judge Allows Dinosaur Sculptures to Remain in Phoenix Homeless Encampment | Phoenix New Times

A Judge Ordered Phoenix to Clear Out the Zone. The Metal Dinosaurs? They Can Stay

A Maricopa County judge gives more protections to dinosaur sculptures than the unsheltered people he is forcing out.
Several metal dinosaurs were installed in the Zone, forcing unsheltered people out of a city easement.
Several metal dinosaurs were installed in the Zone, forcing unsheltered people out of a city easement. Katya Schwenk

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In late March, a judge gave the city of Phoenix until July to clear out the downtown homeless encampment known as the Zone, where hundreds of people live on the streets.

But the metal dinosaurs and sculptures that a property owner in the Zone installed in a rogue attempt to deter people from sleeping outside their building? Those must stay, Maricopa County Superior Judge Scott Blaney decided in the same ruling.

The dinosaurs "shall remain in place until the City has abated the public nuisance in the Zone," given that there is "no showing whatsoever that the artistic sculptures create the health and safety issues created by the encampments," Blaney wrote in his March 27 decision.

The 23-page ruling detailed the poor conditions unsheltered people face in the Zone. That includes living in tents and other structures along the streets, sometimes experiencing violent crime, and dying from the Valley's intense summer heat. The judge sided with the dozen people who own property in the area, which spans from Ninth to 15th avenues south of Jefferson Street. He found that the encampment was a public nuisance and that the city was required to clear it.

Activists have argued that the language of the ruling was stigmatizing, putting too much blame on people who are unsheltered rather than the city of Phoenix. The U.S. Justice Department is investigating the city for violating the rights of unsheltered people.

Phoenix Kitchens, which is owned by California-based Maker Kitchens, secretly installed the large metal dinosaurs and other sculptures in November on a city easement in the Zone. The structures prevented three dozen unsheltered people from pitching tents beside the commercial property.

Over the last several months, the issue of the dinosaurs — which the city has requested be removed — has become a part of the property owners' legal arguments. In a March 2 court pleading, attorneys for the property owners argued that the city had "made a choice [emphasis in original] to allow on its public property one set of obstructions — homeless encampments — and not to allow other kinds of encroachments [the dinosaurs]."

This demonstrated the city's responsibility for the situation in the Zone, attorneys for the property owners argued. "They're picking and choosing who gets to stay and who gets to go. We tried to clear the sidewalks, and [the city] said nope, it's not permitted, they need to take [the dinosaurs] down," Ilan Wurman, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told Phoenix New Times before the ruling was issued.

Blaney's ruling has ensured the metal structures will stay for now — while ordering that the people living around them be moved, despite the fact that there is insufficient shelter space in Phoenix to house those being displaced.

"The City is enjoined from further, arbitrary enforcement of Phoenix City Code against Phoenix Kitchens regarding the artistic sculptures Phoenix Kitchens installed next to its building," Blaney wrote.
click to enlarge
A massive metal triceratops is the only dinosaur that remains of several that were installed in November by Phoenix Kitchens.
Katya Schwenk

Dinosaurs Displaced 36 People

The towering metal dinosaurs in the Zone appeared in November while utility work was being conducted along a stretch of Ninth Avenue. At first, it was unclear who was responsible for the strange installation. Eventually, records obtained by Phoenix New Times showed that Phoenix Kitchens put the structures in place. The company is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

New details about the dinosaurs' provenance have since emerged in court records. In a February 13 declaration, Scott Hall, the deputy director of the city's Office of Homeless Solutions, testified that the city had been blindsided by the dinosaurs.

On November 7, representatives from Phoenix Kitchens told the city that they were conducting gas line construction in the area, Hall testified. The city then helped Maker Kitchens relocate 36 people who at the time were living on the block. After that, the dinosaurs were installed.

"Based on the events that transpired, it is my belief that [Phoenix Kitchens] failed to fully communicate its intentions … and in bad faith caused the city to remove unsheltered individuals from and then clean the right of way adjacent to the property so that they could install these metal sculptures and structures in the [right of way]," Hall wrote.

The city denied the company's request for a permit for the structures, and for several weeks attempted to have the business remove them, court records show. 

In January, a city contractor visited the site to evaluate how much it would cost to remove the sculptures. On January 13, the city sent a letter to Phoenix Kitchens instructing it to remove the dinosaurs by the end of the month — or the city would do so at a cost of $5,000.

But Phoenix Kitchens has fought to keep the sculptures standing. Electric Supply President Bill Morlan, who owns an adjacent property, admitted to New Times in December that he paid for one dinosaur but later removed it.

Currently, just one dinosaur — the massive metal triceratops — and about a dozen metal structures remain in the Zone. The property was still fenced. Some of the sculptures had smaller metal dinosaurs or cacti atop them that have recently gone missing or been removed.

Blaney's comparison of the dinosaur sculptures and the tents in which some in the Zone have found shelter gets to the heart of the criticism about his ruling. Activists have argued that his ruling conflicts with a federal injunction that prevents the city from enforcing camping or sleeping bans against people who have nowhere else to go.

Elizabeth Venable, an organizer with the Fund for Empowerment and an advocate for the rights for unsheltered people, said that simply ordering the city to clear out the Zone raised many questions.

"They're going to have to offer a good deal of housing, as far as I'm concerned," she said.
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