A vacant office building on West Van Buren Street caught fire overnight.EXPAND
A vacant office building on West Van Buren Street caught fire overnight.
Antonia Farzan

Vacant Downtown Phoenix Building Burns Down, Clearing Way for Planned Apartments

The vacant office building in downtown Phoenix that caught fire late Wednesday night or early Thursday morning had recently been proposed as the site of a new six-story apartment complex, which would have required the 51-year-old structure to be torn down.

The property, 520 West Van Buren Street, was purchased in June 2015 by Los Olivos Office Partners, LLC, a Delaware-based company headed by local real estate developer Michael Lieb, who's known locally as "the king of infill."

On April 9, 10 days before the fire, a preliminary site plan for redeveloping the property was submitted to Phoenix's planning and development department. The meeting to discuss that plan was scheduled for May 7, staff confirmed.

A rendering of the proposed Van Buren Apartments.
A rendering of the proposed Van Buren Apartments.
Phoenix Planning and Development

The proposal involves tearing down the existing building and replacing it with a new six-story, 245-unit residential development. The Van Buren Apartments, as they've tentatively been named, would feature a mixture of townhomes and apartments as well as a "skydeck," clubhouse, and pool. A similar plan was submitted as part of the pre-application process last July.

The Phoenix Fire Department received a call about the fire at 3:44 a.m. on Thursday morning, Captain Rob McDade said. Crews continued battling the fire through mid-morning after the roof collapsed.

McDade said that it was too early to say what caused the fire or if it appears to be suspicious. Given the size of the building, it will likely take a few days before the Fire Department can make that determination, he added.

According to records from the Maricopa County Assessor's Office, the building is 51 years old. (Ironically, it once housed the Phoenix Fire Department's administrative offices.)

Typically, developers have to wait 30 days after they apply for a demolition permit before they can begin demolishing a commercial building that's more than 50 years old, and are also required to notify community members and preservationists about their plans.

That policy, which was approved in 2016, prevented the iconic Melrose Liquors building from being torn down last year.

After a building catches fire, however, it's up to the fire marshal to decide whether it presents a risk to health and safety and requires demolition. A structural engineer from the city’s planning and development department has already deemed the building to be a hazard that cannot be occupied because it isn’t structurally sound, city spokesperson Tamra Ingersoll said.

Lieb, the building's owner, did not return calls on Thursday.

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