With its cavernous spaces, handsome brick walls, and soaring ceilings supported by intricate wooden trusses, Bentley Projects is as easy on the eyes as any of the high-end artwork you might see on display there.

Wandering through the upscale gallery, bookstore, and cafe that now occupy the space, it's hard to imagine that the 1918 warehouse at Third and Grant Streets, south of Chase Field — home to the Scottsdale gallery's hip Phoenix cousin — was once a rundown commercial linen supply facility on the brink of demolition. It took a lengthy restoration to reveal the structure's unique architectural elements, and today it's a showpiece for historic preservation, a glimpse into the city's past.

But not, quite possibly, the city's future.

Now Michael Levine, the developer who saved the building that houses Bentley and owns five similar warehouses in the area, has put all of his properties on the market. His plan had been to have them restored, to create a vibrant warehouse district like those in cities like Denver and Austin, which rely on preserved old buildings for character.

But the Phoenix City Council is poised to level Levine's plans, by changing the zoning in the Warehouse District to allow for buildings more than twice as high as what's currently allowed. The move will, in effect, knock down those warehouses. The land they sit on will be so valuable, it won't make sense for Levine or anyone else to preserve what's there now. Levine, who says he can't afford to rehab all his buildings himself, was hoping the city would find a way to help him preserve them. (That's exactly what cities like Austin and Denver have done.) Instead, Phoenix is about to do the opposite.

"I want density, but it's got to be done without trampling on the history of Phoenix," Levine says. "I'm sitting on 10 to 11 million dollars of property right now. My buildings need about 10 to 11 million dollars of renovations. So I'm at zero as far as equity. They're encouraging me to tear down the buildings."

Levine says he learned of the proposals only shortly before the topic was addressed at a Phoenix Historic Preservation Commission meeting last month, adding that he was one of just a handful of people present — from either side. In fact, there has been little community input on a move that could change the face of Phoenix forever.

Mayor Phil Gordon has been pretty quiet on the subject. Considering his history, first as a developer who preserved old buildings, and then as a city councilman who fought to save downtown warehouses — and now as a mayor up for reelection, looking to gather campaign donations — there is concern over what position Gordon will take. Because of dental problems, he was unavailable for comment for several days, according to his spokesman, Scott Phelps.

At press time, the Phoenix City Council agenda for February 7 included proposals to amend the city zoning ordinance to expand the Downtown Core, shrink the Warehouse District, and make way for multistory condo developments in an area whose historic character is currently protected by a maximum building height of 56 feet (four stories). Councilman Michael Johnson, who represents the area and could not be reached for comment, planned to be out of town February 7, so council staff said the proposals would be discussed but the vote postponed to a later date.

The decision will not be made lightly, if the city's leaders take to heart the language in the Warehouse Overlay zoning that put the height limitation in place in 1993. The restriction, according to the city zoning ordinance, was designed to "ensure that the basic visual character of the area remains unique and complements, rather than duplicates, other districts or developments in Phoenix."

There are two substantially different versions of the proposals being put before the council — one by city staff and one approved by the Planning Commission. Depending on the final wording of the amendments, the Warehouse District could potentially be built up to airport height limits (which range from 175 to 220 feet). By comparison, the Hotel Westward Ho is 208 feet tall, and Phoenix's tallest building, Chase Tower, is 483 feet.

"It's hard to know what exactly is going to be acted upon," says Bill Scheel, Mayor Gordon's deputy chief of staff, referring to numerous revisions of the proposals. "The Mayor will support additional height in the Warehouse District, but he does want to make sure that height is an incentive to save historic properties."

By "incentive," Scheel means something called a "conservation easement." The proposal supported by city staff would require that along with the height increase, high-rise developers would be required to provide money to help restore old buildings. But the proposal is vague; it doesn't guarantee a specific square footage to be saved, or an amount of money to be allocated for restoration. And there is an escape hatch: If a developer can't negotiate an easement, they can ask the city council to vote to grant a height waiver.

In another proposal — the one approved by the Planning Commission on January 24 — conservation easements would be completely optional. Developers could go directly to the city council to get height increases up to airport height, without any efforts to preserve warehouses.

Without outside funding for rehabbing warehouses, and considering the price of raw land for new condo developments, what would protect warehouses from the wrecking ball?

The Urban Form Project, introduced last July, was supposed to help the Warehouse District and seven other central Phoenix districts with improved zoning and design guidelines that would foster shade, pedestrian-friendly streets, and distinctive neighborhoods. The project would've addressed specific downtown revitalization issues through a series of public hearings that were scheduled to continue through 2007.

But according to Dean Brennan, principal planner for the city's planning department and project manager for Urban Form, the project has been on hiatus for almost two months, since Proposition 207 passed and raised legal questions. (The proposition makes the city vulnerable to lawsuits by property owners who could claim that new zoning adversely impacts their property values.) The project also needs more funding before consultants Dyett and Bhatia can progress to the next phase. The city council vote on the funding is scheduled for February 14.

Bill Scheel, from the mayor's office, says that the zoning changes won't solve all of the area's problems. "This will not be the savior for the warehouse District in one fell swoop — it's really gonna be block-by-block efforts, and it will rely on property owners to understand that there is value in those warehouses," he says.

As for Levine, he sees the proposals as the last gasp of the Warehouse District, a sign that the city is caving to the pressures of developers.

"Basically, my bet is that these guys figured that I was such a tree-hugger historic-preservation fag that I would never tear down my buildings," he says. "But you know what? If my land is sitting there, and it's the difference between 10, 20, or 30 million dollars, I'll take those buildings down. I'll take 'em to another country and I'll rebuild them there, brick by brick."

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig