Stewart Motor Co., the Studebaker dealership, in the 1950s.
I knew they would do it, only when and whom the "they" would be. After Circles Records closed in 2010, I worried every time I passed the empty building. The only surprise was the speed with which much of the cherished former Stewart Motor/Circles Records, built in 1947, was demolished.
Aspirant Development, a unit of Scottsdale-based Empire Group, says it wants to build apartments on the site at Central and McKinley. It bought the parcel for $2.65 million. The company had even scheduled a meeting with the Roosevelt Action Association neighborhood groups on the Monday when...ooops!...two-thirds (or less) of the streamline moderne structure was torn down.
In a way, it's a salutary development that there was enough outrage to stop the tear-down and cause Aspirant to hire the ubiquitous Jason and Jordan Rose to handle damage control. Mayor Greg Stanton had this to say on Facebook:
I am angry that in the middle of negotiating a plan to save the iconic Stewart Motor Company building, the developer began demolition. After my office participated in discussions between the developer and neighborhood leaders, I was confident that a resolution would be found. However, sadly, it appears that the developer was acting in bad faith.
The City’s Community and Economic Development Department was in the middle of discussions with the developer, Empire Group. Some of the agreed terms of the discussion stated that the developer would not demolish or remove any portion of the existing building on the Site prior to submitting for construction permits. Empire has plans to build a 19-story apartment building on the 1.24-acre site.
If only such consciousness had been around when hundreds of irreplaceable buildings were bulldozed in the 1980s and 1990s. Yet even now, the unofficial Preservation Police can't be everywhere at once, particularly when so much of the deck is stacked against them.
The developer even apologized. But here's the rub: Aspirant appears to be holding the remains — basically the facade — hostage in order to secure a tax break from the city. Something like a 25-year moratorium on property taxes. In exchange, it would build the 19-story apartment tower with pieces of the old building incorporated into a boring new glass lookalike design. After the developer's behavior, this will be a tough sell to Council.
One activist put it this way, "It's a shit show. These developers say, 'the Arts District, the Arts District! But Roosevelt Row is basically two blocks. (The developers) have shit on the community every chance they've gotten."
There are a lot of moving pieces and some members of the Resistance are working behind the scenes. Others have posted a petition online (you can sign using that link) asking the city to instate a new ordinance to protect historic buildings. One model is found in Los Angeles, where a petition for demolition of a building 45 years or older requires notification of abutting property owners and a prominent sign warning of the impending action.
My fear is that nothing will be built. As has happened so many times before, a player will unveil shiny new renderings. But in the end, we'll be left with yet another blighted empty lot to be endlessly flipped. The site of the (perhaps) Lennar apartments at McDowell and Central — which should be one of the most coveted parcels in the metropolitan area — sat empty for decades, finally ending up in the portfolio of a real estate investment trust in Tel Aviv (!).
This is a danger of facing the entire "downtown boom" in Phoenix. The big driver is ASU and its students. Everything else, however optimistic the green shoots, is very small scale. Real-estate speculation is the economy in metro Phoenix, not a result of the economy. And few of the actors really get, much less are passionately committed or possess the urban toolbox, to really work the center city. It's much easier to work on the fringes with tract houses, tilt-up commercial buildings, and championship golf (a stagnant-to-dying pastime).
As a result, Phoenix has largely missed out on one of the most remarkable phenomenons of the past 60-plus years, the return of companies and residents to the downtowns of America's most vibrant cities. It's the one favorable piece of the hoped-for "Great Reset" that is actually happening many places. Downtown Phoenix's victories have been dearly won, and things are far better than even a decade ago, but let's not kid ourselves. Phoenix is competing for talent and capital against other big cities, not Fresno.
Remedies will be difficult because state laws, especially the destructive Prop. 207, severely restrict cities doing anything to get in the way of the sacred private property owner. Otherwise, empty lots could be taxed at a higher rate, thus preserving building stock. As things stand, even a modest effort such as the LA ordinance would probably face a court challenge — by hustlers who don't even give a damn about the heart of the city.
What really chaps me is that Phoenix is so populated by newcomers, and even many old-timers grew up in the 'burbs and moved farther out, that people don't even remember that the city once had a decent downtown. It was killed off and bladed through many years of malpractice, venality, absent-mindedness, and the death of corporate and moneyed stewards committed to the city's good.
When you ride light rail (WBIYB) up north Central and see the vacant lots, remember...there were once buildings there, many as worthy or more than Circles. In the case of Stewart Motor Co., it was part of a dense cluster of auto dealerships, amid other useful businesses, running from Van Buren to Roosevelt (the DeSoto Central Market is a survivor). Even into the 1970s, this urban fabric was still in place before the tear-downs began.
It's a civic crime for which we are still paying.