Prospective Woodlands Arts Center one step closer to approval

Members of the Legislative Governmental Mall Commission met to discuss the proposed Woodland Arts Center at the Arizona State Senate building. (Brianna Bradley/DD)

The vacant church on Ninth Avenue and Van Buren Street, previously in danger of being demolished, is one step closer to becoming Woodlands Arts Center, a venue for community events and the arts, after receiving approval from the Legislative Governmental Mall Commission Thursday.

“Van Buren has really trailed behind in the development of downtown, and the city of Phoenix sees this as great growth, and one that needs investment,” zoning lawyer Taylor Earl said in his hearing address to the Legislative Governmental Mall Commission.

Barry Aarons, a member of the commission, has seen many buildings similar to the Woodlands Arts Center move through the development review process in his eight years of experience.

Aarons has granted approval for a specific purpose, to new property owners so they could pursue building permits with the city, only to see plans get scrapped or altered. Aaron has expressed concern that the same could happen to the center.

“I appreciate the generosity of putting something like this together. I’d just like to have some assurance,” Aarons said, asking Earl if the owner would accept the development review approval with the stipulation that the center could only be used for its intended purpose.

“That is our intention. That is our plan. We also know there are struggles with this area, and … we hope that the non-profit model is successful and there is a market for it,” Earl said.

He implored the commission to approve the request to make the changes to the building without restrictions to avoid disincentivizing the good his client is doing for the community.

Earl added that even after rezoning, demolition of the church would have to be approved by the Historic Preservation Commission because the center will remain in the historical building district.

Portions of the historic property date back to 1918, and, after a series of different owners, expansions and uses the church fell into disrepair. Because of its historical significance, it was entitled to a one-year protection from being demolished.

When that expired, the former owners put the building, formerly known as old Praise Sanctuary Church, on the market. Business partners Charlie Levy and Erick Harrell bought the property in August with plans to give the space new life as a community center for the arts.

The proposed Woodland Arts Center will host a variety of different arts events. Concerts, independent film, spoken word and theatrical performances for all ages are just some of the activities intended for the future nonprofit.

Levy is an entrepreneur and concert promoter who owns and operates downtown hot spots like Crescent Ballroom and Valley Bar. His neighbor Erick Harrell is a local property manager at Proper-D Investments LLC.

“Levy is one of the unsung heroes of downtown,” commission member Don Keuth said. “He has taken buildings and through adaptive reuse, made them spectacular venues… because he looks at things holistically, he can do things like that.”

Harrell, experienced in property preservation, told Downtown Devil in September that the pair intends on keeping the building “as original as possible,” despite the fact that it needs a lot of work.

Correction: November 18, 2016

An earlier version of this story stated the Legislative Governmental Mall Commission approved the site for rezoning, but rezoning is not in the commission’s power. Instead, the commission has approved the development plans, which will go to City Council for rezoning approval. The story has been updated to reflect this.

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