Fate of Phoenix historic properties takes on renewed significance

Arren Kimbel-Sannit//October 10, 2016

Fate of Phoenix historic properties takes on renewed significance

Arren Kimbel-Sannit//October 10, 2016

The rear of the demolished Circle Records building at 802 N. Central Avenue is pictured on Tuesday, Oct. 4. The building is one of several central Phoenix historic properties to have been torn down to make room for new developments.

A lack of space has rarely been an issue for the city of Phoenix, but as developments gradually veer toward denser areas in the city center, officials and community members must find a new solution to an old problem: what to do about the city’s historic buildings.

The fate of historic properties has been a point of discussion as the downtown area has grown – 2,100 new bedrooms across more than a dozen mixed use and multifamily residential projects are expected to be added to the downtown area by 2017 – but the conversation escalated after the 1947 Circles Records building was partially demolished earlier this year to make room for an apartment building.

The Circles building, 802 N. Central Ave., like many of Phoenix’s historic spaces, dates to the state’s postwar construction boom and as such is rarely seen as old enough to be particularly historic, said Michelle Dodds, a historic preservation officer with the city of Phoenix.

Dodds, motivated by the Circles teardown, championed an amendment to the building code that will provide an extra 30-day waiting period in the permit process for the demolition of buildings of historical significance, even if they aren’t on the state or national register of historic places.

The waiting period is designed to give developers and community members time to consider other options, like moving, repurposing or selling the building, Dodds said when she pitched the amendment to the city Development Advisory Board last month.

“We’ve seen a lot of demolition of properties that are not on the historic registry but are of historic value,” she said. “We want people to slow down, think about what they’re doing, explore the alternatives and consider what will be lost.”

The amendment will affect around 300 historic buildings – those more than 50 years old or otherwise deemed historically significant by the city – and increase the commercial demolition permit fee to between $600 and $700 per building, depending on its size, said Mo Glancy, the city’s assistant director of development.

During the 30-day period, which will begin immediately after the filing of the demolition application, the city will reach out to residents of the neighborhood surrounding the historic property and post signs on the property informing the public of the building’s historical value and potential destruction.

The process is not necessarily designed to prevent demolition as much as it is to allow time for other options to be considered, said Bill Scheel, a member of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission and a prominent local campaign strategist.

“The point of all this is to force these discussions to occur earlier (in the demolition and development process),” he said. “What we need as a historic preservation committee is a seat at the table on the front end.”

However, such an amendment is a tough sell to the construction community in a city and state that avoids obstructionist development policies at all costs.

“If you get to the point where you’re issuing the demo permit and then you’re doing a historic review, and (the demolition) doesn’t happen, the developer is losing money,” said Jim Middleton, a demolition contractor at BCS Enterprises. “I don’t think it’s fair for the city to put the developers at risk when they’re sometimes investing $1 million before the permit process.”

Middleton said he is not opposed to the spirit of the amendment, but that he is concerned it could drive developers to conduct business in other cities.

Reconciling business and cultural interests is tricky, Dodds said.

“It’s not something to do alone,” she said. “It’s a community process.”

The city offers bond money to developers in exchange for conservation easements, preventing demolition for as long as the easement is valid, but that money is running out, she said.

Bond money saved the Gold Spot building on Third Avenue and Roosevelt Street when it was threatened by disrepair and dilapidation, but there hasn’t been another historic preservation bond election since the economy tanked. Some projects were pushed out indefinitely, leaving many of the city’s historic buildings ripe for the wrecking ball, or at best in limbo.

And this is where the building code amendment comes in. Phoenix, a city where some historic preservation officers predate the buildings they’re preserving, needs to show extra care to its older buildings, even if they aren’t the most aesthetically pleasing, Dodds said.

“We don’t want to lose these character-defining buildings,” Dodds said. “I’m not sure people understand — just because it’s not 100 years old doesn’t mean it’s not important.”

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