Last year, despite a nearly two-year legal battle and attempts by the Historic Preservation Commission to protect the building, the 122-year-old Clinton Campbell house was torn down after the owners proved the preservation of the building would be an economic hardship.
While many community members were disappointed, the debate surrounding the house had been lengthy.
It was a conversation that likely would not have happened at all before December 2016, when a 30-day demolition hold on Phoenix commercial buildings over 50 years old was put into place.
Almost a year and a half after the ordinance’s implementation, preservationists and community members say the law is changing the conversation around Phoenix’s historic building stock. Now, all commercial buildings over 50 years old, and single-family homes and duplexes in the downtown area must go through a hold process to allow for community feedback and discussion before demolition.
More than 60 properties went through the process in the first year, most of which had no historical significance and were demolished without any pushback. A few, like the Clinton Campbell house, were brought forth to the commission with mixed results. As of March, historic single-family and duplex homes in the downtown area came under a 30-day hold, similarly affecting very little properties in the grand scheme of demolition permit outcomes.
Michelle Dodds, a historic preservation officer for the city of Phoenix, said just four applications were added to the commission’s agenda for consideration of historic status, one of the options that can come out of the 30-day process. Most of the buildings that passed through didn’t see much concern, and less than half a dozen of the properties in total were eligible for historic designation.
However, Dodds said the overall process has been positive, allowing the preservation department to learn more about the buildings and giving the community and commission more chances to consider and ask for more options. More people are calling for information about buildings than ever before.
“I think there’s an appreciation for it,” Dodds said. “Maybe it’s not saved in the end, but I think there’s more of an understanding that we do have a history worth saving, and that we ought to think about these projects more thoughtfully before we just jump into something.”
She said the Clinton Campbell house was a less positive result of the process, but even that had benefits. During the 30-day hold, it was found to be a significant building, and historic preservation was able to document more about it than had it not been flagged.
While exact effects can’t be quantified, both Dodds and Bill Scheel, a member of the historic preservation commission, said it’s changing the conversation beyond just demolition permits, making developers think about options incorporating historic preservation. Scheel pointed to the Flowers building on Fifth and Roosevelt, which is now the Blocks of Roosevelt Row.
“I think there’s a lot of properties that ten or 15 years ago would have been demolished without a second thought, but the owners are now seeing the value in vintage and historic properties,” Scheel said.
Dodds also suspects there are cases where people have called for information, primarily to see if a building can be demolished, but never outright said their reason for calling.
Alison King, a preservationist, founder of Modern Phoenix and member of the Post War Architecture Task force of Greater Phoenix, said she studies every single one of the properties that comes across her desk and decides what’s worth raising a conversation about.
She said most of the properties were a dime a dozen and not worth saving.
“We have to be judicious about what is treated and saved for future generations,” King said. “You know you can’t save everything, it’s not practical and I don’t think it’s really important.”
She said the process being in place has also showed developers it’s not a huge deal, and has given the community more information and transparency than before.
“Even though at the end of the day the vast majority of those properties were demolished, I think that also helps illustrate this is not a threat to freedom,” King said. “It shows this is just another process that as we go through, and we’re learning a lot about the city and learning about what we value and what people are willing to fight for.”
Few restraints on demolitions:
Prior to the ordinance, little stopped a developer or homeowner from walking into the city in the morning, getting a demolition permit and knocking down an older building before anyone even knew the permit had been filed. Unless designated historic, the community had few protections for these buildings.
Historically designated buildings have a one-year demolition hold, or three years for landmark properties, but applicants can seek an exception because of economic hardship prior to that.
The lack of tools was a cause for growing frustration from many community members and preservationists, including Stacey Champion, a local activist and owner of Champion PR, who spearheaded the original petition that ultimately sparked the ordinance.
“Once you lose one you’re probably pretty set to lose many,” Champion said.
She had watched buildings in the area around her then-office location in Roosevelt Row disappear and held a meeting in April 2015 to discuss a Los Angeles ordinance that the Phoenix 30-day hold would later be modeled after.
The tipping point for many ultimately came in 2016 with the partial demolition of the then 69-year-old Circles Records and Tapes building just days before a scheduled meeting with the Roosevelt Action Association to discuss the building’s future.
Following the demolition, Champion held another meeting, this time crowded with angry and confused community members hoping for more tools to prevent this type of demolition from happening again.
“I knew that once that building went, there were others that were going to follow, and they did. And there was nothing in place at that time to stop that,” Champion said. “Even if the community was up in arms about it in outrage… there wasn’t enough time. they show up at five in the morning and start knocking everything down.”
Other notable cases:
Dodds said ideally a property is given a new purpose through adaptive reuse, such as the case with the Googie-style Melrose Drive Thru Liquor near Seventh Avenue and Indian School.
After a petition by Champion sparked the attention of the commission and now-owner Rebecca Golden, the building was saved. Golden had previously wanted to buy the building before the hold, but the owners who were planning on building an apartment complex next to it needed the site for parking and were putting a dog park there.
After working with the city, the developers were able to reduce their parking requirement and sold the drive-thru building to Golden who plans to reuse the building for a new restaurant called “The Googie.” The restaurant will incorporate the building, and Golden hopes eventually the drive-thru.
“I think if a neighborhood is supporting something and they want it, and they’re going to help influence it, then absolutely they should have some say in what they have to drive by every day,” Golden said. “It’s a building that really is all about that neighborhood. I mean it’s the definition of Melrose.”
In extreme cases, moving a building might be considered, but with only two movers in the entire state, it’s a costly endeavor. This was successfully done with the Wurth House prior to the 30-day hold.
The Mollie Neal House, flagged by the commission, was ultimately demolished after plans to move it proved to be too costly. The cost to move it from 10 E. Willetta Street to its would-be home in the Garfield neighborhood were estimated to be over $179,000. However, prior to demolition some items were salvaged from the house.
Still room to improve:
The 30-day hold has been helpful, but not all-powerful or the ultimate step in saving Phoenix’s historic properties.
“I think it’s been an important first step in ramping up our historic preservation efforts. We’ve definitely had some successes and awareness to the challenges our historic communities face,” Scheel said. “It’s identified our areas we can improve and where we can take some additional action if we are committed to saving our Phoenix heritage.”
Champion would also like to see more transparency and ease of access of for these buildings when the demolition permit is posted. Currently, permits are required to be posted on the building in question, and information is sent to neighborhood groups, preservation groups, and posted on the city website.
King also said she hopes the hold process will start encouraging more commercial owners to designate their buildings and formally protect them. She said saving buildings now is what builds the city’s future character.
Scheel said the lack of funding to historic preservation is putting strains on situations where the 30-day hold might have been some help. With no bond money, the historic preservation department can be too cash-strapped to help in situations like the Campbell house.
“In a couple of instances, we’ve had the 30-day hold but haven’t been able to save important properties because there’s no resources there,” Scheel said.
Bond funding is pretty much exhausted at the moment. Scheel said with no bond election in sight, there may need to be other methods explored to help raise money to protect historic properties.
Contact the reporter at Kara.Carlson@asu.edu.