I was stunned to read this story about the future of the historic Barrister Place in downtown Phoenix. The 1915 Hotel Jefferson, now city-owned, is one of the few remaining of what were once scores of beautiful old structures downtown.
The Republic's Dustin Gardiner writes, "The hotel, which featured 150 rooms, was decked out in mahogany, marble and expensive colonial furniture. It featured a coffee shop, a cigar stand, private suites and a rooftop garden with palm trees and a fountain."
As an EMT-Paramedic, I saw it in harder times, when it was an SRO which frequently required visits from emergency responders. Amid the human tragedy and shabbiness, it still retained good bones. Unfortunately the interior was later gutted. Now the city is looking for a buyer.
Here's what stunned me: "Councilman Jim Waring...questioned whether the city could get more money for the lot, in the heart of downtown Phoenix, if a buyer could demolish the building and start from scratch."
Fortunately, he didn't prevail. But behold what your city council risks becoming, Phoenix.
Permit me one diversion. That the building has stood vacant for more than three years after the police museum and city offices moved out is a sign of the astoundingly flaccid condition of business in Phoenix.
In a city such as Seattle, Portland, San Diego or Denver, such an elegant building would be an inviting place for startups. Not in Phoenix. The enchanting Luhrs building and tower are similarly largely empty (see comments for an update). The city's "economic strategy" seems to extend no further than thinking of restaurants or hotels. Maybe the Barrister could represent a modest step forward in the hands of the right developer and leasing crew.
Back to Waring. His contempt for historical preservation might have been understandable, if lamentable, in the 1960s. Now it is ignorant and potentially ruinous. We know the value of historic buildings and a walkable city (the building was once surrounded by other businesses).
The best "start from scratch" gets is a sterile CityScape; more likely is another parcel added to the miles of empty land in the core that once held buildings, many of them magnificent.
But his attitude is not a one-off. This recycling Republican pol — he spent seven years in the state Senate — is one of the faces of a dysfunctional Phoenix City Council that is unprecedented in the modern era. Another is "Better Call Sal" DiCiccio. Both have brought national tea partyism and worse to council chambers.
Council always had conservatives. It is where Barry Goldwater got his start in politics. More recently we saw Peggy Neely. But virtually all were committed to the good of the city, not the infestation of rigid ideology. Thus with Neely, for example, council pushed ahead with light rail (WBIYB).
On Waring's home page, his biography calls him a "fighter of wasteful government spending, a champion of job-creating policies and a steadfast proponent of tough-on-crime public safety policies." Translation: Opposition to the intelligent policies needed for the nation's sixth most populous city to become appropriately livable and competitive. "Job-creating policies" means tax cuts, not a forward leaning strategy. "Tough on crime" — here's Arizona, with its high incarceration rate and corrupt private-prison racket. Meanwhile, Phoenix languishes.
"Better Call Sal" wants to run against Greg Stanton to become mayor, hence his tip-of-the-hat to a strong downtown in his most recent inaugural speech. And if you believe that, I have a bridge Chris Christie will sell you. DiCiccio is another obstructionist with an ultra-right-wing agenda. His time-consuming speeches during council meetings are the stuff of legend.
For both, there is no price to be paid. Each represents a district of Phoenix's suburbs-within-the-city, comfortably red. A majority of the voters who vote believe public employees are enemies and all Phoenix needs is lower taxes. The city would benefit long-term by de-annexing much of these districts.
Councilman Bill "Fiscally Austere" Gates sometimes sides with these two. He probably wants statewide office. I know less about Thelda Williams, who also served on council in the late 1980s and 1990s, but she seems to be a light-rail backer. Michael Nowakowski is a bit of a mystery, lately in a kerfuffle with the mayor over subcommittee assignments.
They are offset by a progressive wing: Daniel Valenzuela, Kate Gallego and Laura Pastor. Mayor Stanton tilts that way, too, and can break a tie. Early soundings on Pastor are disappointing, while Gallego gets raves.
This polarization is making it difficult to get some of the most basic work of the city done — look at all the "interim" and "acting" officials — much less apply the vision necessary to save Phoenix.
It is difficult to imagine this council accomplishing the big lifts of the 2000s — light rail, convention center, ASU downtown, T-Gen, UA med school and biosciences campus, and downtown Sheraton.
But Phoenix is nowhere near where it needs to be. It faces a host of problems, huge lost opportunities, the giant sucking sound of the affluent suburbs, linear slums...you know the drill.
Is a change to the City Charter the answer, including more council members and a strong mayor? That, dear reader, is the topic for future posts.