I am stealing things from the lobby of The Stewart.
So far, I’ve scooped up a small, pedestal-shaped side table, a stack of glossy magazines, and a shiny candleholder from the lobby of this tony 19-story residential high-rise where I’ve been standing the past 20 minutes. Just as I’m wedging an ornamental reindeer sculpture under my right arm, I hear the lobby door open.
Finally, I think. Someone who works here. But instead, it’s a barefoot guy carrying a filthy Trader Joe’s tote through the lobby of downtown Phoenix’s fanciest new building. I’m not surprised to see him; several tenants have complained to me that homeless people routinely wander in, helping themselves to Keurig macchiatos and treating The Stewart’s lobby as a crash pad. This fellow nods as he walks past, headed toward the lounge behind me.
“The coffee maker’s broken,” I call out, but he keeps going. I shrug and head out onto Central Avenue, walking north toward home. I don’t really need an occasional table or a statue of a reindeer, and anyway, my car is parked in the opposite direction. But after visiting The Stewart on three previous occasions and finding no security or anyone working the concierge desk, I’ve begun wondering what might keep me — or anyone — from just helping myself to all the nice lobby decor.
I make it all the way to Garfield Street before turning around and heading back. I stop to talk to Lynda Brakebill, who’s leaning against a building where I used to go for gyros in the 1980s.
“Look at all the stuff I just swiped from your lobby,” I say to her, because Lynda (“That’s Lynda with a Y!” she’d growled at me when I’d met her the day before) had explained that she owns The Stewart. But because Lynda was carrying a half-dozen plastic shopping bags crammed with all manner of dirty Styrofoam cups and appeared not to have bathed for several weeks, and because I know that The Stewart belongs to a Scottsdale-based developer called the Empire Group, I figured Lynda-with-a-Y was lying.
Lynda isn’t impressed with my haul. “You better just go put all that back,” she says, then glares at me.
“I planned to,” I reply. “I just wanted to prove how badly your building’s security sucks.”
Lynda leans in close. I smell spearmint and tooth decay. “Why’re you always hanging around here?” she whispers.
“Today I’m meeting a guy who lives at The Stewart,” I explain. “He says there are all kinds of things wrong with the place, and he wants to talk to me about it.”
Lynda hollers something after me as I turn to trudge back toward The Stewart, but her comment is sucked into the swoosh of the light rail train that speeds past us.
Back inside, I replace the little table, the reindeer, the magazines. While I’m doing that, the guy I’m there to meet, a writer named Joey Robert Parks, comes around the corner. Joey moved in last July, after which he began emailing me a laundry list of tenant troubles: electrical failures in multiple units, dead air conditioners, brown tap water, leaky water lines. Soon, I was hearing from other tenants, all of whom were enraged by the building’s lack of security, which led to squatters in empty apartments, and by the lousy communication from Avenue5 Residential, the Seattle-based property management firm that runs the place. And especially by a recent decision to turn two floors of the building into a rent-by-night Airbnb free of tenant background checks, which has brought a new transient element to the building.
I point to the silver owl figurine on the vacant concierge desk. “I’m thinking about stealing that,” I tell Joey, and he laughs.
“If you did,” he tells me, “that would be the least of our problems.”
The Stewart, which opened last spring, has problems. And while busted AC units and brown tap water from a broken water heater might be expected from a just-built high-rise, there are prevailing conditions that have residents convinced they got rooked, that they’re trapped in what one former Stewart employee likened to “one of those 1970s disaster movies, where everyone is pretty and the building is even prettier, but bad things keep happening and no one feels safe.”
Parks has recently made a second career of gathering grievances against his new home base — things like badly wired breaker boxes (Parks had his repaired eight times before he was able to run any two appliances at once), the lousy water pressure, and this head-scratcher: an emergency exit button for tenants who get trapped inside the parking garage, which Parks says happens a lot. “The button was installed outside the garage,” he tells me with an arched eyebrow. “Once they figured out we couldn’t reach the button, they solved that problem by disconnecting it.” The button, still located outside the garage, doesn’t work.
He says that when air conditioning units died last summer, tenants were relocated to other apartments while repairs were made, sometimes for several months. One 19th-floor tenant reportedly camped out on a sofa in the lobby for 10 weeks before hiring an attorney, who helped her secure a comparable unit.
The real horrors, according to Parks, are the result of crummy security from Avenue5. Although early promotional materials for The Stewart promised “around-the-clock security,” the building only offers concierge service 55 hours per week — an improvement on the 37 hours per week offered until last September — and security guards who make rounds a total of 56 hours per week.
“It’s not enough,” Parks tells me as we board an elevator for an impromptu tour of his new stomping grounds. An often-empty lobby means a lot of homeless traffic and, Parks says, a community of squatters living in various empty apartments during the building’s first few months.
“They tried solving the homeless problem by locking two of the lobby doors with U locks,” remembers Parks, who speaks in the measured tones of an English instructor. When tenants complained about this fire-code-busting solution, they were told management was ordering parts to repair the doors. Angry to find the main entrance U-locked one November morning, a homeless person demolished the glass door by throwing a rock through it.
After that, property managers took over the first-floor social room, a space intended for resident lounging. From there, staff reasoned, they could keep an eye on the transient crowd.
That’s around the time, Parks figures, that things went from bad to worse. Unit rentals have been so abysmal — during a Valley-wide housing shortage, less than half of The Stewart is currently occupied — its management is now renting out the 13th floor and part of the fourth to Sonder.com, a high-end Airbnb-type company. Although residents of The Stewart are not allowed to sublet their apartments, Avenue5 has turned a big chunk of the building into a glamorous hotel.
“And they’re doing this without any background checks,” says Parks, as we step off the elevator and head toward the rooftop pool. He’s watched a parade of Stewart employees quit these past several weeks. Last month, a stranger on the elevator offered to sell him drugs. He’s been collecting reports from neighbors about their encounters with drunk, belligerent Sonder guests, and found empty pizza boxes and dirty clothing left behind by squatters who “borrowed” empty units on several floors. For the fourth month in a row, he’s been charged late fees for his rent, though he always pays on time. The building’s Yelp reviews are terrible, with positive comments coming only from people who toured but didn’t move in.
“Look at this beautiful view!” Parks exclaims, pointing to a sparkling cityscape. We’re on the 18th floor, facing north; I can see in the distance the slightly taller, 55-year-old high-rise where I live. “The amenities are incredible, the gym is great, there’s free coffee in the lobby, it’s a gorgeous building, we have the best swimming pool anywhere,” he says, turning around and leading me past that pool and an outdoor sound system that’s blaring Babyface down onto First Street. We step into a luxurious clubhouse. “This room is beautiful,” he says, standing beside an Edward Wormley knockoff so crowded with throw pillows there’s no room to sit on it. “The sofa is beautiful. The art is nice. It all looks great.”
Even the most disgruntled tenants — and I’ve spoken with more than a dozen of them since the building opened last May — agree that the 19-story, 312-unit high-rise at the northwest corner of McKinley Street and Central Avenue is a stunner. Its gridded glass-and-mortar facade recalls Alvaro Siza’s Hudson River building in Manhattan; its exterior blasts of sunflower yellow and slate gray hint at the midcentury shtick of its interiors, the marble-and-maple of its lobby. Because The Stewart was built atop a former record shop, longtime valley favorite Circles Records and Tapes, its 22 floor plans have been named for famous pop music artists. One can live in a studio unit called Ronstadt for about $1,500 a month, while $2,400 will get you a one-bedroom Elton or the much smaller Clapton. (Seventeen of these layouts are named for white rock ’n’ roll artists, though four of the five named after black singers are among the most expensive offered, including, somehow, Michael Jackson at around $3,400 per month. Fans of country or disco or jazz are out of luck; there’s no Sister Sledge floor at The Stewart, no Parton or Coltrane.)
The elevators aren’t bad, either, I tell Parks as we ride down to his 477-square-foot studio on the eighth floor, for which he pays $1,650. (Utilities and “common area fees” are billed separately to Stewart residents.)
“Sure,” he agrees. “It’s all luxurious on the surface. Like a magic trick. You’re paying attention to the shiny stuff, and then your kitchen cabinets fall apart, or you get an electrical shock from your front doorknob because the fuse box is a mess.”
We stop at an outdoor garden patio just outside Parks’ kitchen window, from which a house cat glowers at the pretty city view. Parks is ticking off a list of complaints — the parade of Stewart employees who’ve quit in recent weeks, the drug dealer he met on the elevator last week, the reports from neighbors about their encounters with drunk, belligerent Sonder guests — but the piped-in music is playing so loudly I can barely hear him.
Inside Parks’ tidy apartment, I spot a portable phonograph and a hardcover copy of Sybil; the cat appears to be hiding. Parks has heard that only 70 of The Stewart’s 312 units are rented. (I’ll check the building’s website a few weeks later and find that about half the place appears to be spoken for, though this doesn’t include the 30 units on the two floors set aside for subletting.)
Parks tells me he’s spoken to someone at Apartments.com who told him that other new downtown residential high-rises, including 44Monroe, Cityscape, The Link, and Block 23, are getting nearly 200 tour requests per week. “She said The Stewart averages 17 requests per week,” he says, this time raising both eyebrows. He attributes all the vacancies and the lack of interest to rumors about The Stewart’s bum security and crappy conditions, but I wonder if there wasn’t a pall cast on this gorgeous new high-rise right from the start.
After buying the former Stewart Studebaker building in 2015, the Empire Group told local preservationists and the city of Phoenix they intended to protect and restore the gorgeous 1947 Streamline Moderne structure. They planned, they said, to drop their big, pretty building right on top of it.
Then, they set about tearing the building down.
Busted by building-huggers and the city, the Empire Group and its parent company, Aspirant Development, issued an apology and began backpedaling like crazy. They promised to preserve the facade’s rounded-glass bump-out, where Studebakers once slowly spun on a giant turntable. For some at the city and at Phoenix Historic Preservation, it was too late. A tax incentive that had been offered to Empire got yanked, and both local preservationists and fans of the former home of Circles Records and Tapes placed Empire on their personal shit lists.
I want to share my too-little-too-late theory with Aspirant, and with the Empire Group, and with Avenue5. But all my 37 phone calls and 16 emails get me is an official statement from Stewart management.
“Privacy issues prevent us from commenting on matters specific to individual residents,” the statement reads. “We can assure you that the comfort and care of each of our residents is our primary focus, and we are grateful to have the opportunity to serve them. It is not unusual for a newly constructed community, especially one with such a comprehensive amenity package, to face unforeseen glitches. We are committed to working hard to find solutions to concerns that arise. We will continue to listen to our residents and collaborate on services that will enhance their living experience.”
Not according to a whole bunch of people who live there, they won’t.
Not everyone is miserable at The Stewart. I meet a man in the lobby named Will who says he’s very happy at The Stewart. And Julie Hill, who’s been a resident there since July, swears she’s having a perfectly fine time.
“Maybe my expectations are different than my neighbors’,” she tells me over the phone. “Or maybe it’s because I have the largest apartment here. I live in the Nicks, on one of the top floors. The management has been very responsive to my requests.”
I ask Julie if she thinks she’s getting better treatment because she’s paying more. “I hope not,” she says. “I read the Facebook page for the building and I think, ‘These people are having a different experience than I am.’ I do agree the ownership should reconsider the nightly rental thing. And they could step up the security game a little. Guys who live on the street talk to one another, and right now they’re saying, ‘Things are loose at The Stewart. You can get in through the front door.’ And if they can, they’re going to.”
I’m back at The Stewart. It’s late at night, this time, and I’m here to meet with a group of tenants who want to talk about why they’re thinking about breaking their leases and getting the heck out of here. I park in my usual spot, a prospective-tenants space in what used to be the warehouse of Circles Records and Tapes. When I yank on the lobby’s back door, it’s locked.
Good, I think. At last, some sort of security. As I turn to go, a young man in jeans and a sweater opens the door and invites me inside. His name is Mark, he tells me, and he’s the concierge. He works until 11 p.m., after which a security guard, who patrols the building, takes over.
“Why’d you let me in?” I ask Mark, who hasn’t asked who I am or what I’m doing there.
“Because you pulled on the door,” he shrugs.
Mark has brought his puppy to work with him. I hand him my business card and ask if this is a service dog. He laughs and says, “We don’t have a property manager right now,” which I take to mean “So I can do whatever I want, including bringing my 8-week-old husky to work with me.”
I should have seen the puppy an hour ago, Mark tells me. “She was running all over the lobby.” A car pulls up out front, and Mark goes out to help the driver carry in brown paper grocery sacks and a pallet of water bottles. He ushers her to the elevator while she explains that she’s delivering groceries to a friend. “We get a lot of Uber Eats here,” he tells her.
Mark and I are joined by the security guard, a swarthy fellow named Marty who says he’s moved here recently from Texas. “I’m trying to figure out who’s smoking pot on the 10th floor,” Mark tells Marty, “so I can get them evicted.”
He turns to me. “I wouldn’t mind marijuana,” Mark explains, “if it didn’t smell like ass.”
A woman wearing a T-shirt printed with the Sonder logo lets herself into the lobby. “Here to put out a fire,” she calls to Mark, then rolls her eyes. “Aw! Look at your puppy!”
“What’s Sonder?” I ask after she boards the elevator, even though I already know.
“They’re the rental company on the 13th floor,” Mark explains.
“So, part of this building is a hotel?” I ask.
Mark thinks about it for a moment. “Yeah,” he finally says.
"I had some shitty shit happen to me in Alabama, and I came here to start over,” Idealia Cleveland-Hayward tells me. “I deserve a good place to live.”
She was, she says, excited about moving into The Stewart last September. “I’d been having a really bad year. I got a divorce, there was domestic violence, a bankruptcy. I found this place and I was like, ‘This place is beautiful!’”
But her reception wasn’t so beautiful, Cleveland-Hayward tells me over the phone. “My first day, I noticed there was never anyone in the lobby. I couldn’t figure out how to move the elevator. I’ve never been in no fancy-schmancy shit like this before; I don’t know how to use a fob for an elevator. There was no staff there to help me. I kept pressing the emergency button and no one answered.”
Cleveland-Hayward was eventually rescued by a friendly neighbor.
Her first month there, Cleveland-Hayward’s electricity went south. “If I ran my washer-dryer and my CPAP machine at the same time, the power went out,” she remembers. “I was in the Navy; my background is in technology, so I know a little basic shit about electronics. This is a luxury building? Electricity isn’t a luxury.”
Every time her power blew in her 15th-floor apartment, says Cleveland-Hayward, she’d call downstairs. “I’m saying, ‘Fuck, come fix this shit!’”
She pauses. “Sorry about my language — I’m a sailor. Anyway, at first I was like, ‘This is a new building, things will go wrong.’ But then over time pretty much everything is going wrong, and we’re all the test dummies for this place.”
Then there was the night in November when the fire alarms went off. “I was deployed in the Persian Gulf,” Cleveland-Hayward says, her voice rising. “When those alarms went off, I’m having flashbacks to 2001 on the Kitty Hawk in the middle of the war. I grab my dogs and go down 15 flights, and I see all this water coming out of this building. More flashbacks. I don’t need this shit after my shitty year. This is crazy.”
Cleveland-Hayward found out later that a homeless person had messed with the fire alarm, setting it off on several floors. When she emailed management to complain, she didn’t hear back. “Finally, the manager’s daughter calls me,” she recalls. “I say to her, ‘You don’t want me in here going apeshit on this motherfucker!’ And she’s like, ‘Oh, it’s not a big deal, someone just tampered with the alarm on the 16th floor, it’s okay.’”
She pauses to take a deep breath. “Some homeless guy got into the building and pulled the fire alarm and there’s water coming out of everywhere, and it’s okay? No. No, it is really, really not okay.”
The final straw came, Cleveland-Hayward says, when she found out that two floors of The Stewart would be rented to Airbnb clients. “I said to the manager, ‘Are you shitting me? I’ve got a stalker-ass ex-husband, he’s upset with me, this man gonna be after me. He’s a Dateline story, a 20/20 story waiting to happen. What if he rents a room and comes looking for me?’”
She was assured by manager Samantha Spidell, who has since left The Stewart, that all Sonder clients would be given background checks when they booked a stay at the building.
“I don’t know about that,” Cleveland-Hayward tells me just before we hang up.
I don’t know about it, either, so I decide to find out. I book a one-night stay at The Stewart via Sonder’s website. I make a second reservation on Hotels.com, where a one-bedroom will run me $133 for the night, with taxes and fees of $128.72, nearly doubling the bill.
Neither asks for my date of birth or my home address, both necessary in criminal background checks.
I think it’s weird that The Stewart is renting out an entire floor of units via Airbnb-type websites. But what do I know about running a luxury high-rise in the 21st century? So I call Tina Tamboer, a Phoenix-based residential housing analyst. Tamboer publishes The Cromford Report, an economic housing review; I figure she’ll have some insight into whether it’s strange that a new high-rise would suddenly turn 30 units over to a rent-by-night company.
“If I lived there, I’d be pissed,” is the first thing Tamboer says when I explain the Stewart situation. “I wouldn’t want to come home to an empty building with no doorman and all those people living there from a transient Airbnb.”
Tamboer explains that buildings like The Stewart can sublet units — even though they don’t allow residents the same courtesy — because Arizona is short on regulation of the relatively new sublet industry.
“Zoning doesn’t really affect short-term rentals right now, so anyone can Airbnb.” she tells me. “People are building entire condo complexes in Show Low for the sole purpose of Airbnbing. That may change, but in the meantime, I wouldn’t like paying for a luxury rental in a place full of transient partiers. It’s not cool.”
When I tell Tamboer that the building is less than half full nearly nine months after opening, she gets quiet. “I’m a real estate expert, not an apartment expert,” she finally says. “But I can tell you that given the demand for rental housing in the Valley right now, that’s an unusually low occupancy rate.”
I ask if she thinks word has gotten out about The Stewart’s brown water and the squatters and the lack of security. I start to say that maybe potential renters think $1,600 a month is too much to pay for 477 square feet when it comes with faulty electricity and homeless people sleeping in the lobby. But Tamboer interrupts me.
“They’re paying how much for how many square feet?” she demands. “You can get a house for that!”
(According to Apartment List, a platform that measures national rental community statistics, the number of renters in Phoenix’s has grown by 3.5 percent since last year; the national average is 1.4 percent. The city’s median rental price for a two-bedroom is $1,099.)
Before we hang up, Tamboer suggests I investigate what other new-build luxury rentals near The Stewart are going for, and I don’t tell her that I already have. I know that Cityscape, a 24-story high-rise built in 2014, rents a 560-square-foot studio for about $400 less than Joey Parks is paying for his 477-square-foot model. Up the street, the 12-year-old, 34-story 44Monroe has a 965-square-foot one-bedroom, two-bath unit that’s going for $1,600. And The Link, the 30-story new kid on the block at Third Street and Pierce, offers 500 square feet for $1,500 a month.
Then again, none of these apartments is named after a rock star.
"I’ll bet they don’t have to boil water every time they want to mop the floor,” a man named Jesse James Ferrell says when I mention what people are paying for housing at The Link. He and I and a half-dozen other Stewart residents are seated in the living room of his 16th-floor unit, a tidy, modern-industrial-themed space that Ferrell has filled with an impressive collection of contemporary art. I’ve come here to listen to these people complain about life at The Stewart.
I recognize some of their names from The Stewart’s Facebook page, where I’ve seen a woman named Taylor post a question about whether the fire panel will always beep, the elevator floors always be covered in dog urine, and the trash chutes always overflowing. (Comments tell her these conditions and others have prevailed since June.) In another post, a resident named Charles complained that a package addressed to him had been left in the mailroom unattended. Before Christmas, one resident posted a 24-minute video of the time he spent trapped in the parking garage; another tenant posted a photo of an elevator flyer telling seventh-floor residents their parking spaces have been reassigned to Sonder guests.
“I will call a tow truck if I find a Sonder car in my space,” says a man named J.P. Finley, who sells high-end real estate for a living. His neighbor, Mimi Dagot, groans.
“You still don’t have hot water?” Dagot asks Ferrell, who last month posted a video of a homeless man dancing to a Liz Phair song in The Stewart’s lobby.
“No, I don’t,” Ferrell says. Dagot, who’s holding a fish-bowl-sized wine glass containing a splash of merlot, groans again.
“Every time I ran my washing machine, the power in the rest of the apartment would go off,” reports Parks, who’s seated next to Dagot. Behind them, the city sparkles with nighttime lights.
“Aren’t you the one who filed a complaint with the fire inspector when the lobby doors were locked?” I ask Finley, who nods. “And she’s the one who guarded the front door when it got smashed in at 4 in the morning by some homeless guy,” Finley says, pointing to a woman named Barb.
Barb holds up a small can of Mace. “The property manager went home, and there was no front door,” she explains. “I stayed for two hours, until the police showed up.”
“You’re all talking at once,” I say, feeling like a schoolmarm. “I can’t hear you.” I tell them I’ve interviewed a former Stewart employee who says the building can’t afford 24-hour security because it’s struggling to service millions of dollars in debt, but they’ve already heard that story.
“I’m paying $3,500 a month after fees for a two-bedroom, two-bath,” Finley reminds me. “I feel like I paid for a Mercedes and got a Geo Prizm. I shouldn’t have urine smells outside my door, bugs in the hallway, a piece-of-shit $5 toilet seat. I shouldn’t be running people out who clearly don’t live here.”
A woman named Raye Jean Becker who used to live at another high-rise not far from here admits she wants to stay. “But is it too much to ask that our key fobs work?” she asks, and everyone starts talking at once again. “If things don’t change, I’ll be moving when my lease is up,” she yells above the din.
No one, I point out, seems keen on breaking their lease.
“We all like it here,” Dagot insists. “Last night was Wine Night, and management nixed it without telling us. But we all showed up anyway and hung out. The views here are great. It’s close to a lot of cool stuff. We’ve become friends. We’re talking about a softball team.”
She stops and looks around the room. “But we need to feel safe in our own homes.”
“I’ll break my lease,” Parks offers. “I’m already looking at other places.”
Everyone agrees that management never tells residents anything. They learn of plumbing issues when hallway carpets are soggy, read about squatters on the Facebook page.
Talk turns to the Sonder thing, which everyone is keen to gripe about. Parks heard about a party, thrown by a Sonder guest in the social room, where people were smoking; The Stewart is a smoke-free building. Ferrell rode up in the elevator the other night, he says, with a drunk guy who was carrying a knife.
“I don’t think any of us would have moved in here if we knew they were going to rent by the night,” Becker says. Everyone agrees.
As I’m leaving, Ferrell shows me how his bedroom door doesn’t close or latch. “And there’s a big space under my front door,” he points out. “So, if I’m having sex, anyone getting on or off the elevator can hear it.”
In the hallway, a trio of industrial dehumidifiers is making a racket. “Looks like there’s been another flood,” Barb moans, stepping over an extension cord.
“I guess I’ll go up to the roof and see if the hot tub works,” Finley sighs. “Last night, it was cold.”
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I drive home along Central Avenue, thinking about middle-income people like me who live in big, shiny buildings and don’t want homeless people sleeping in the lobby. It seems mean, but also practical. At home, I walk through the lobby and the late-night doorperson calls out a greeting. She’s chatting with a tall man in a leather jacket who’s holding a gift-wrapped box. “That’s a nice bow,” she tells him. “Let me just call up and tell them you’re here.”
On the elevator, I telephone The Stewart. I want to ask Mark if he phones tenants before sending guests up to see them. My call is answered by a recording of a cheerful British man, assuring me that The Stewart is “available seven days a week to better serve our residents and the interested community. It is our vision to deliver world-class service to all. Cheers!”
I dial each of the extensions offered: 1 to learn more; 2 for the leasing office; 3 for resident services; 4 for concierge; 5 for emergency maintenance; 6 for the after-hours property manager. While I wait for someone to answer, I think about Mark, who wants to evict people for smoking pot, and about the new Empire Group high-rise going up at First Avenue and Monroe Street that’s scheduled to open in the fall. I picture Lynda-with-a-Y and her collection of Styrofoam cups, and Barb and her pocket-sized Mace, protecting the lobby of the building where she lives because the security guard has gone home.
And I listen as the telephone at The Stewart rings and rings and rings.