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Untangling Phoenix’s Messy Historic Preservation Problem

Untangling Phoenix’s Messy Historic Preservation Problem

Much of Phoenix simply does not look as it did even half a century ago.

It is obvious whenever you see an old photograph of the sparse streetscapes of Phoenix, with simple block structures and the original carriages parked out front, and plug that a rough address into street views on Google Maps. It will be dramatically different.

Over the summer of 2020, two 100-plus year old structures, the Steinegger Lodging House and the Wakelin Grocery Warehouse, were demolished by their respective property owners. Although circumstances differed, both properties were designated on either the National Register of Historic Places, or the Phoenix Historic Property Register.

In the case of the 131-year old Steinegger Lodge, which sat next to the Professional Building/Hilton Garden Inn, it evoked palpable and unifying anger regarding why a structure clearly historic, and on the National Historic Register of Historic Places, could be so easily met with a large backhoe and demolition crew.

Compounding the collective angst, there was no requirement to salvage, and no effort by the property owner to retain any vestiges of the building. Nineteenth century millwork, bricks, and the original staircase crunched by the force of a crane. The same was true with the Wakelin produce warehouse a few weeks later.

This was a tragedy to the local preservation community — but by no means isolated. When you learn about Phoenix’s historic preservation problem, it becomes clear that a mixture of unique issues, rather one simple failure, are at play.

The buildings’ status on the different historic registers did not prelude the building from demolition by a motivated property owner. According to Jim McPherson, a local activist and vice president of the Arizona Heritage Foundation, the system is “honorific,” and without the weight of official government protection.

However, putting a historic property on the National Register of Historic Places is a gateway to grants, credits, property tax relief and other incentives. According to Chris Cody, the Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer, this is where confusion with historic preservation begins when a mere gateway to preservation is interpreted as cudgel for protection.

“When you become involved with the National Register, you’re effectively bringing the Keeper of the National Register in as an appeals body for local zoning decisions,” Cody said. “A lot of these towns in the valley are still leaning the National Register too heavily for this stuff, which creates entanglements, issues with misperceptions.”

In the case of the Steinegger Lodge, built in 1889, more than two decades prior to Arizona‘s incorporation into the Union, the current conditions of the structure hastened its demise.

The lynchpin of its destruction began in 2008 when the lodge and its roof were significantly damaged by construction workers renovating the neighboring Art Deco style Professional Building, rehabilitating it as the Hilton Garden Inn.

The Steinegger had already been declared unsafe for occupancy when it was shut down by the city in 2004. But, exposure to the elements further deteriorated the foundation, bowing the wood flooring and destabilizing the exterior brickwork. Until destruction, the roof of the lodge was left significantly damaged.

When the Phoenix Historic Preservation Commission opted not to give the building preservation status, it was on the basis of findings in a report that they requested that the building owner prepare to verify the actual condition of the building rather than its historical value.

“I think that [report] took the wind out of the opposition,” local preservation activist Roger Brevoort said.

Brevoort notes while a plan to save the lodge existed and several monetary offers and incentives were potentially available, the findings of the inspection report, overseen by structural engineers, who had previously inspected the building in 2005, sealed its fate.

“In our opinion the building is structurally unsafe to occupy.  It should be condemned and torn down to prevent the possible collapse into the adjacent buildings during the occurrence of an earthquake or high wind event,” the final report read.

Over several days in early July, the demolition was slowly carried out, taking down the original structure and its subsequent expansions. Again, no effort was attempted to salvage the brickwork or design features, which was carted off to a landfill.

To local activists, like Steve Dreiseszun, it is indicative of favoring the expediency of business than preserving the architecture of the past.

“It would have been a substantial investment to save that building, but in my view it was oversold as far as its inability of anyone to save it,” Dreiseszun said. “The question was never asked, ‘What would it take to save it.’ It was automatically assumed that it was a hardship.”

In the Historic Preservation community, the circumstances of how the lodge was eventually demolished is referred to as Demolition by Neglect, where a structure is allowed to decay, whether intentionally or not, without intervention by the property owner to the point where demolition is inevitable.

If there was a bittersweet silver lining in the road to demolition of the lodge, it’s that city ordinances allowed communities time to mobilize — albeit unsuccessfully. Several groups. Including Preserve Phoenix, the voice for advocacy in Phoenix garnered major attention on social media.

Due to a recent change to Phoenix Historic Preservation ordinance, a property owner can no longer simply pull a demolition permit on a 50-year old commercial building in Phoenix and teardown the historic structure the next day.

The ordinance now requires a 30-day waiting period on destruction before it a structure can be legally demolished. This is a new development in local historic preservation, as until recently activists only learned of about demolition permits when the wrecking balls appeared on-site.

This was exactly what happened to the lodge when the property owner took out a demolition permit in early June – it delayed destruction by only a month. If the Historic Preservation Commission had initiated a historic overlay, that action could have granted even more time for the owner to evaluate options and have a discussion with the preservation advocates who were offering alternatives.

When the Phoenix commission votes to give historic status, it starts a countdown clock of a single year to allow the city and a building’s property owner to negotiate on terms to save the structure. This doesn’t guarantee a building’s survival, but it might give the building a second chance.

If it seems like the city is slow-moving to act, it’s partially by design. In decades past, the Historic Preservation Office was a much more forceful entity. Now, under the city’s current Planning & Development department, the office works closely with other city planners to move historic interests, while not impeding business.

To outsiders, that same dynamic of being frustratingly impartial affects the Phoenix Historic Preservation Commission, which is comprised of different occupational segments of the community. Yet, McPherson thinks that balance of its members is a good thing. The committee includes people from a variety of backgrounds, including a realtor, historian, archaeologist, attorney, and general citizen representatives.

“Those folks are nominated by [city] council members, so that could inject a little bit of politics because sometimes the person nominated is not a diehard preservation advocate, which again you want the balance, you want the dialogue,” McPherson said. “But, I have seen a trend where commissioners have not been as aggressive on the advocacy side.”

The membership of the Commission does change as terms expire. However, to activists, the current commission makeup is not as aggressive as it has been in the past.

According to Brevoort, the shadow of Prop 207, a land use law which passed in Arizona in 2007, looms over the city’s decision-making as the fate of structures continue to come up. Proposition 207 passed with 60% approval. It potentially requires the government to reimburse land owners when regulations could result in a decrease in a property’s value.

The concern is that if an action by the city devalues a person’s historical property, then the owner can sue for monetary damages. Brevoort says there’s never been a successfully-tried Prop 207 case but this hasn’t stopped city attorneys from erring on the side of caution, thereby hindering efforts at designation by the City Historic Preservation Office. This is true in Phoenix, and in other Arizona cities, he says.

It’s a solitary job for a group of loosely coordinated citizens to preserve the city’s architectural history; because of its age as barely a century old city, Phoenix already had a deficit of existing 19th Century architecture.

Back in 2014, McPherson and his organization spearheaded a successful effort to save the Art Deco Civic Building on the Arizona State Fairgrounds. The task to save this WPA project, built in the 1938, often met fundamental barriers, like access to the state fair board in charge to start a dialogue. It took months to arrange a series of meeting with the various parties. All of which is to say it is very time-consuming, almost full-time, to save a single building

“It would be nice to have the 600-pound gorilla, which is Phoenix, be able to stand up on its own and have that initial effort and we’d come in, the Arizona Preservation Foundation, comes in, if you really do need that support.”

But, one more unavoidable reality concerning the present state of Historic Preservation is the following: There’s simply no dedicated state or local funds for such projects. Bonds are exhausted. The nearest dedicated historic preservation funding, the Arizona State Parks Heritage Fund, will be available again in 2029, but not before more important line items like education are funded first.

On top of this, Arizona has not enacted a State Investment Tax Credit to coincide with the Federal Investment Tax Credit for income-producing renovations, which increase the effectiveness and economic viability of both credits. At present, 38 states have a state-level credit that is in all cases a hugely successful preservation and economic development incentive.

This doesn’t mean homeowners are hopeless. There is a state property tax reduction program for residential owners of non-income producing properties. There are 8,000 homeowners in the program statewide, according to Eric Vondy, with the AZ State Parks Office. The program reduces the homeowner’s burden if they are inclined to maintain or restore their property. The tax reduction program is technically a reclassification program of what that property owner owes in taxes, which amounts to almost a 50% reduction.

In a perfect world, Brevoort, McPherson & Dreiseszun offer similar, yet differing perspectives for better preserving the local architectural record, from integrating salvaging materials into the demolition permit, reusing those materials, and mandating a building plans with a property owner if they were to demolish and rebuild.

According to Cody, minor solutions, not structural changes would go a long way to addressing the gaps in ordinances, like the city finally implementing demolition by neglect ordinances and making demolition applications come with required re-hearing every year in the event they’re denied, which would bring Arizona to the historic preservation standards of the rest of nation.

Cody, the Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer comes to Arizona with an education of Historic Preservation from cities like New Orleans and Charleston, the latter of which he called the “golden goose” of preserving its architectural history.

In a place like Charleston, their Historic Preservation office takes a much more proactive role in preservation. Cody gives an example of an occasion when two comparably historic buildings both structurally failed at about the same time, which left no other recourse than to demolish.

However, as a condition to approve a demolition permit, the city required the property owners to make 3D scans of the structure and drone footage to extensively document the structures’ existence.

But, strong historic preservation itself is conditional upon government departments, like the Historic Preservation Commission, being empowered to use their authority to act to set conditions rather than concessions.

If there’s a built-in fault to that logic, as Dreiseszun sees it, when concessions were already made to the property owner, there are deficits to the value of the building itself.

“I hear a lot, ‘It’s a hardship to the owner. It’ll be too costly.’ Well, it’s always gonna be that way because you have to advocate for the building,” Dreiseszun said. “When you’re advocating for the owner, they’ve lost their responsibility.”