Temple of Doom

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Hemphill and Levine aren't speaking. (Things have simply become too nasty; Hemphill actually got so choked up talking about the issue that we had to pause our interview.)

So when Hemphill told me that the unnamed developers were willing to give the building to Levine as long as he moved it off-site, I thought we'd broken the impasse.

But when I called Levine, I realized that this one won't be resolved with a phone call.

"For real historic preservation, buildings aren't supposed to be taken out of their context," he said. "That's not an appropriate compromise."

At that point, I knew I was dealing with the same old Michael Levine, the passionate preservationist who'd rather go for broke than accept terms that were almost good enough.

Indeed, in the course of our 45-minute conversation, Levine went on to say that one city official needs to be fired, called Hemphill a "prevaricator," and accused the troupe itself of "always having their hand out" and trying to cash in on city bond money. Some things don't change, even with a good lawyer.

One thing is clear. What Levine wants is no less than for the Black Theater Troupe to break its agreement with the unnamed developers.

No matter that, for the troupe, that would be lunacy. It's not just that breaking escrow could well doom the troupe, already broke, to a charity deal with a group Levine puts together. It's that the developers are unlikely to walk away quietly. They've already assembled the rest of the block.

"What nobody is saying is, 'If they sue you, we'll pay the legal fees,'" Hemphill points out.

Indeed, Michael Levine is threatening to sue the Black Theatre Troupe himself. "There is nothing off the table at this point," he promises.

But is Levine making a mistake by rejecting a compromise so quickly?

It's one thing if Levine's goal is keeping downtown from getting stuck with another boring high-rise. It's another thing entirely if it's about the Holocaust survivors.

If that's the case, maybe it's worth giving up the sense of place to save the space.


A few months ago, I wrote about the lousy deal that the city of Phoenix made with Veolia Transportation, the French company that manages its bus service ("Taken for a [Bus] Ride," August 9, 2007). Without soliciting proposals from a single competitor, or even doing a real market analysis, the city had inked a new three-year deal with plenty of perks for Veolia — more money, less accountability.

I'm not the only one troubled by Veolia's new contract. Turns out, it stinks so badly that the feds decided to pull their portion of its funding.

On October 12, the Federal Transit Administration wrote city officials to say that the contract with Veolia violated federal procurement rules. The federal government is now refusing to give Phoenix any money for bus maintenance — a loss of $3 million a year.

Since the contract is good for three years, with the option of two one-year extensions, the city could eventually lose $15 million.

City Manager Frank Fairbanks referred me to one of his deputies, Tom Callow. Callow and I didn't manage to connect before my deadline, but I'm eager to follow up with him. For one thing, I want to know how the city is going to prevent this kind of screw-up in the future. Fifteen million dollars is a lot of money, and it's ridiculous that the city threw it away just because staffers couldn't be bothered to shop around.

Dianne Barker is the gadfly who complained to the FTA in the wake of our story. She hopes that the feds' decision will teach the city a lesson: "They're going to know nationally that we've got an energized citizenry and we're going to be watching them!"

Ladies and gentlemen, consider yourselves warned . . .

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske