The Arizona Republic
Can Roosevelt Row survive the downtown renaissance?
As Phoenix's urban core becomes a bustling, around-the-clock destination, some longtime residents fear the loss of the area's unique character
Some have dreamed of this day in Phoenix, others have feared it and most everyone agrees that it promises to change everything: Downtown is finally cool. » For years, city leaders have worked to transform Phoenix’s urban core from a place people fled after the workday into an around-the-clock destination for students, residents and professionals. They’ve waited through an economic recession and used incentives to draw investors to build here. » Now, developers are flocking downtown with plans for thousands of housing units in the next few years, breaking a previous record set in 2000 if they all make it to construction, according to Downtown Phoenix Inc. Shops, restaurants, bars and other businesses are following with equal enthusiasm.
And 1.2 million square feet of commercial construction is underway for medical, education and hospitality projects, including 600 hotel rooms. That’s similar to 2000, when big projects like Collier Center and One North Central were underway.
Some city leaders see it as an exciting transformation. But the changes also are striking a nerve with longtime residents who don’t always like what they see.
The tension is heightened on Roosevelt Row, an arts district where several hundred new apartment units will join the eclectic art galleries and businesses that are home to regular art walks and festivals. Development plans over the past several months have drawn petitions, protests and an emergency city meeting as old buildings make way for new ones.
Roosevelt Row’s advocates have started a conversation among city officials, neighborhood groups and community leaders about how to balance residents’ needs with developers’ rights. They’ve raised questions about how to add to an existing area while preserving where it came from and enhancing where it’s going.
It’s only the start of the changes.
A complicated challenge
Development in the core of a city isn’t as easy as building suburban projects on the edges, said Dan Klocke, vice president of development for Downtown Phoenix Inc. Building within existing neighborhoods through infill development is crucial to downtown, he said, but there are no obvious remedies for growing pains.
And with more than 650 housing units already under construction downtown and nearly 1,850 more in the pipeline, according to the organization, debates about how Phoenix should envision its downtown are sure to continue.
Up to 1,800 new units could be under construction by fall, Klocke said.
Plans in the area stretch from roughly McDowell Road to Lincoln Street and Seventh Avenue to Seventh Street, Klocke said. Projects also are slated off Washington Street east to 12th Street.
Leaders don’t think the trend is slowing, crediting Millennials and Baby Boomers with driving the need for urban housing and the shops, bars and businesses that come with more residents downtown. They say an improved economy is making it happen.
“People want to be here,” Klocke said, adding, “Things are finally just starting to go.”
The changes have already started on Roosevelt Row, where months of community push back has raised questions about the area’s future, and who can control it.
Over the past two decades, a core group of artists grew Roosevelt Row from a few galleries in a blighted neighborhood into a walkable hub of local food, arts and culture. University campuses and the light-rail system also changed the landscape and all are slated to expand.
Several developers said they’re drawn to that vibe as more people look for the convenience and cachet of city living. They’ve recently announced plans for multistory apartment complexes, new restaurants and retail.
“For Phoenix, the pace of change in this immediate area is unprecedented,” said Greg Esser, vice president of the Roosevelt Row Community Development Corporation board.
But some argue the area has the most to lose in a changing downtown. The broadly-bound district centers between Seventh Street and Seventh Avenue, north and south of Roosevelt Street.
Some projects drew outrage earlier this year, when plans called for replacing two 20th century homes, vintage buildings and the former 307 Lounge, a gay bar where murals by artist Ted DeGrazia still existed inside.
Concerns ranged from the impact of new development on the look and feel of the neighborhood to a loss of affordable housing. Community members had little recourse to push preservation of buildings they say make the neighborhood unique.
The Phoenix Historic Preservation Commission called a special meeting in January to decide whether to initiate a historic designation process for three of the properties — two houses built in the early1900s and the former 307 Lounge — buying time before demolition. Locals asked Phoenix leaders that day to preserve buildings that give the city a sense of history and place, especially in the arts district.
But the commission found the properties couldn’t be established as historically significant, Historic Preservation Officer Michelle Dodds said.
Protesters later carried a coffin down Seventh Street during Super Bowl festivities at the end of January, chanting “Save Roosevelt Row!” as they walked past rush-hour traffic in the rain.
Later that month, a group of residents, business owners and community groups called the Downtown Voices Coalition sent a half-page letter to Mayor Greg Stanton stating, “The demise of the Roosevelt Row Arts District is at hand.” “The time to act is now,” it concluded. Artists are almost universally pushed out of arts districts due to gentrification, said Wayne Rainey, owner of the gallery monOrchid that is near several developments under construction.
Residential units downtown are already at 94 or 95 percent occupancy, Klocke said. Though there’s a wide range of rental rates, new construction means they “will probably be climbing,” he said.
And tension still is high because buildings protected by neither zoning nor historic designation can be demolished at the discretion of their owners.
“I think it’s important people realize Roosevelt Row is not opposed to growth and development,” Rainey said. “All we ask is first do no harm.”
Activists win and lose fights
Roosevelt Row’s evolution over the past several months has brought a combination of celebration and defeat to neighborhood activists.
The former 307 Lounge was turned to rubble last month to make way for iLuminate, an 111-unit apartment complex under construction by Colorado-based Baron Properties.
Months of petition gathering and negotiations to save or move the building ended in March, when the developer revealed the DeGrazia murals to the public for a weekend event before the demolition.
The developer said the larger mural was too hard to try to save. The effort to preserve the smaller painting for future exhibition “just wasn’t meant to be,” said Lance Laber, executive director of the DeGrazia Foundation. It crumbled after being removed from the building, he said.
A sign was pinned to the fence surrounding fragments of the lounge soon after it came down, stating “Another one bites the dust ....”
But the main level of the new building will have space for local art and historic pictures of Roosevelt Row, said Scott Fisher, principal on the project for Baron Properties. A new mural will be painted outside the building and the company plans an exterior plaque to commemorate the demolished bar’s historic significance.
Baron Properties will soon start on a 104-unit sister site named Linear across the street. Both sites will rent at market rate, the company said.
Project plans were called off for a site affecting a few of the vintage properties, preserving them for now.
National developer Wood Partners didn’t close a deal slated for Roosevelt Row. City records show the company was seeking approval for a 306-apartment development called Alta Roosevelt, though the address wasn’t listed.
The company’s Phoenix Director Todd Taylor declined to elaborate when reached by phone. Plans were canceled during the height of the conflict between activists and developers.
Neighborhood leaders said the break gives the community time to regroup before another company comes to the table.
“I think it’s a pause. Someone else will follow,” said Tim Eigo, chair of the Downtown Voices Coalition. “We want this conversation to happen now.”
By early April, a house built in the early 1900s on that site was being prepped for a move. Esser from the district’s development organization said to expect an announcement about it soon.
A building boom
Some companies say the excitement surrounding downtown is leading them to invest in the area for the first time without city incentives. Others are taking advantage of Phoenix programs to develop sites that some leaders feared would be vacant indefinitely.
On Roosevelt Row, that interest is leading to success stories for the neighborhood that were once hard to imagine, Esser said.
City leaders attended the groundbreaking of Union @ Roosevelt in March, an 80-unit residential and commercial development by local company Metrowest Development. The project is receiving a city tax break to fill an amorphous lot on First Avenue and Roosevelt Street that has been vacant for decades.
The same developer already is constructing townhouses down the street.
At least two city sites could be redeveloped on Portland Street, including the historic Knipe House. The first plan for that site — which included senior housing — was contested by some and fell through at the end of last year.
Economic development leaders are negotiating a proposal for a small site nearby to build a residential and commercial project using shipping contain- ers. Down the street, a historic synagogue is under renovation.
The city, using mostly federal grants, is working on an estimated $3.5 million in improvements on Roosevelt Street, including wider sidewalks, bike lanes, public art and better lighting. The City Council is hearing plans for a Roosevelt Row and Evans Churchill neighborhood business improvement district to provide extra services for beautification, parking and marketing to the area.
Restaurateurs Troy Watkins and Kyu Utsunomiya recently raised nearly $40,000 on Kickstarter to launch the Dressing Room, a micro restaurant whose name pays homage to the drag performers who once used the space for outfit changes.
And the1920s DeSoto building just reopened as a market and eatery off Central Avenue. The project received $250,000 of grant funding to transform what might have been demolished into a community market space, Dodds said.
“It was in the saddest shape for a long time,” she said. “What a nice save.”
The community doesn’t always agree about what makes a good project, said Scott Sumners, Phoenix’s deputy economic-development director. The city tries with every new project to respect both private property rights and neighborhood concerns, he said.
Economic development relies on the construction jobs, residents and retail opportunities new developments bring, he said — which occurs only when companies choose to build in Phoenix.
Developers rely on certainty in the planning process, Sumners said. He said some of the city and neighborhood factors that may have led Wood Partners to abandon its Roosevelt Row project raise concerns about companies losing interest in Phoenix.
“It’s sending a confusing message to the private sector,” he said. “That’s not good from a development standpoint.”
And there’s little the city can legally do to force project changes on private land.
The city can’t stop a development that follows the zoning codes in place when the process was started, said Alan Stephenson, director of Planning and Development. Throughout downtown, that code describes the character of neigh- borhood areas as well as rules for factors such as height, density and parking.
“When they meet those requirements, we can’t say ‘no’ to a project,” Stephenson said.
Even properties with historic designation can be demolished, Dodds said, though the city reviews the request and can delay the process for up to a year. There are city incentives for rehabilitating historic buildings and for adaptive reuse, but both are voluntary programs.
“We can coax them and try to convince them, but it’s up to the property owner,” Dodds said.
Small changes to private property rights can mean big costs for the city.
Under Proposition 207, passed by Arizona voters in 2006, property owners are guaranteed the rights allowed on their property when they bought it. Otherwise, the city must compensate them for any decrease in property values.
The proposition doesn’t stop the city from imposing restrictions, said Christina Sandefur, senior attorney for the Goldwater Institute. But zoning, historic designation or other factors affecting how an area develops can be more difficult to change unless a property owner supports it.
For residents, that means it’s difficult to enforce community vision statements and preservation plans, documents that are toothless even when they’re approved by the city.
“(Developers) are not doing anything illegal. They’re doing exactly what they’re allowed to do,” said Bob Diehl, a community activist who fought the recent demolition on Roosevelt Row. “And that’s exactly the problem.”
Big projects will continue to change downtown as the city seeks developers for its land and proposals that are in their early stages are finalized. Already, construction sites are prolific throughout Phoenix’s core.
On McKinley Street, demolition started last month on a colorful strip of galleries and small businesses to make way for the 118-unit complex Proxy, said Dan Tilton, managing member of Tilton Development Company. The housing aims to draw law students, professionals at the emerging biomedical campus and other
people who want a convenient location downtown, Tilton said.
Within walking distance, a “barcade” — a bar with arcade games — and a vintage shop off the district’s main street are also under construction.
Further west, the city is seeking developers for a chunk of land on Fillmore Street that has room for up to 1,000 new residents. Wood Partners is set to move forward with an additional apartment complex of roughly 230 units across the street.
Developers and their projects can’t be simplified into good and bad, said David Krietor, president and CEO of Downtown Phoenix Inc. But it’s important for community members to voice concerns about what’s coming to their neighborhoods, he said.
“We shouldn’t settle,” Krietor said. “We shouldn’t have to settle.”
With Phoenix-owned properties, residents have more say in the final result. The city collects feedback before soliciting proposals.
The dialogue is just as important for private projects and needs to start earlier on, said Eigo of the Downtown Voices Coalition. He said there were potential compromises on Roosevelt Row, like moving buildings, that may have worked but ran out of time.
“We shouldn’t have to scram- ble to do that,” he said.
A group of activists met this month to start an action plan as they expect demolition threats to continue with the expanding biomedical campus and development of the warehouse district downtown. They talked about demolition ordinances used in other cities that push transparency and allow for public input, said Stacey Champion, who organized the event.
“We as a community have to push for those tools to be there,” she said.
But moving forward, most say the growing pains are inevitable as downtown develops.
“It’s a tough thing to do,” Klocke said. “Every community goes through this.”