Local First Arizona panel discusses historic preservation and Phoenix’s “tear down culture”

Michael Levine, a local historic property acquisition specialist speaks at Thursday's event. (Veronica Graff/DD)

Michael Levine has spent a significant portion of his life on the preservation of historic buildings, but said that he was near giving up on the idea at a Local First Arizona event Thursday.

Local First Arizona, a non-profit dedicated to the growth of local businesses, held a panel discussion, titled LFA For(u)m: Preservation and Teardown Culture, in the old Beth Hebrew Synagogue, saved and owned by Levine, dedicated to the subject of historic preservation, adaptive reuse and “teardown culture” in Phoenix.

“I was ready to throw in the towel on historic preservation,” Levine said. “There were four buildings that were demolished between yesterday and today.”

Levine has utilized his own capital to purchase and save buildings in Phoenix since the 70s alongside creating his own business, Levine Machine.

“It’s kind of a weird business plan to buy things or save things against your own economic interest,” Levine said.

Architects Eddie Jones and Bob Frankenberger, along with professor Adriene Jenik of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts sat alongside Levine on the panel discussing their perspectives on the subject.

“Historic preservation isn’t about nostalgia,” said Jones. “For me, it has more to do with irreplaceable quality.”

However, historic preservation proves difficult in practice.

“Historic preservation is its own enemy a lot of times,” Frankenberger said, referencing the red tape of owning historic property. “[People] are scared to death that they’re going to do something wrong.”

Phoenix’s struggle to attract residents was referenced throughout the conversation as well as discussion about economic motivation.

Frankenberger said that historic status often stabilizes, if not increases, the value of neighborhoods.

“We just have to convince the Legislature that it’s good for the economy,” Frankenberger said.

RELATED: Historic preservation debate leaves Phoenix needing more precise economic data

Jones highlighted the importance of artistic agency in buildings within a community.

“Mediocrity never has a place in my community,” Jones said. “If a mediocre old building gets torn down and is replaced by something really excellent and beautiful, then I’m all for it. Having said that, it’s so interesting, so challenging to accept the art that’s there.”

A lack of imagination might be a problem regarding the old buildings, but “once they’re gone, you can’t get them back,” Jenik said.

Correction: November 22, 2016

An earlier version of this story referred to the title of the event as For(u)m. It has been updated with the correct, full title.

Contact the reporter at smcrowe@asu.edu.