While I’m traipsing through Brussels, Bruges, and Berlin this week, the Blooming Rock blog will be featuring guest posts from some of my favorites writers and thinkers in Phoenix.  Today’s post is by Victoria Vargas.  Victoria is a writer, historic preservationist, archaeologist, and lover of small dwellings. She blogs at Smaller Living about the adventure of living small in a (very) big city.

“There is probably no action authorized by local governments more singularly fiscally irresponsible than the demolition of a historic building for a surface parking lot.” Donovan Rykema in The Economics of Historic Preservation (2008, revised edition)

Despite significant community opposition and protest led by members of the Downtown Voices Coalition, demolition of the historic Sahara Inn is underway … and for what?

A surface parking lot. It’s true, they’re paving paradise to put up a parking lot.

Yes, there are plans that ASU will eventually raise sufficient funds to build a new College of Law on the parcel and the parking lot is just a two- to five-year interim use, but that’s just hopeful thinking at this point. There’s no money in the state budget for this now nor is there any guarantee there will be in the upcoming years. So the question remains as to why the Sahara Inn buildings needed to come down now, if at all.

Why Tear Down a Usable Building When Empty Lots Abound?

As Taz noted here on Blooming Rock in an earlier post:

“There doesn’t seem to be a good reason for why ASU and the City of Phoenix have their sights set on the Sahara when there are so many dirt lots close by that could be used for the same purpose.”

Sean Sweat, known on social networking sites like Twitter and Yelp as the Phoenix Downtowner, argued the same point when interviewed by the local ABC affiliate, Channel 15. With the Sahara demolition a done deal, Sweat is leading the charge to block the parking lot plan and have the land used for a much-desired public park instead. On September 9th, 2010, the St. Croix Villas Homeowners Association, led by Sweat, President of the HOA, filed an appeal to the Phoenix Board of Adjustment to oppose the zoning decision that allows a parking lot on the site. The board hearing is set for October 7th. So a piece of the fight still continues and we’re waiting to see how it plays out.

The Economics of Parking in the Sahara

Let’s set aside for the moment the issue of the massive waste of natural and man made resources that were embedded in the Sahara Inn buildings, which are now in the process of being torn down and hauled off to the landfill. Let’s also not dwell on the loss of the one of the last pieces of our local history from an entire post-war booming culture of tourism – like the roadside mini-resorts on Van Buren-nor on the fun bit of historical trivia that says Marilyn Monroe stayed at the Sahara during the filming of the 1956 “Bus Stop.” Let’s focus for a moment instead on the economics of the lot’s intended use as overflow parking for the Sheraton Hotel.

First, there’s the lingering question as to whether the planned parking lot is really needed. According to the News 15 story, Colliers International said, “there are in excess of five spots for 1,000 square feet of office space in downtown Phoenix; in most urban downtowns there’s just two or three.” Jason Harris, the Deputy Director for the Downtown Development Division, responded, “[o]n the numbers standpoint that may be true but who controls the parking and at what prices that is the difference.”

If the high price of existing parking in the area is a major motivator for building a parking lot on the property as Harris implies, then it must follow that it is a more economical option, right? Okay, let’s do the math. The City bought the Sahara Inn property for $6 million and the demolition costs to tear down the extant buildings are cited as $742,000. Without including the cost of construction for the planned 250 parking spaces, landscaping, and art walk, that means the price per parking space will be $26,968. How is that more economical than the high prices for parking in the area alluded to by Harris? Yes, the parking lot is intended as an “interim measure” until ASU secures the funding for their new College of Law complex, but that’s if they secure the funding. $26,968+ per parking space?

Let’s not forget that those expensive parking slots won’t even benefit local residents or students who need to park downtown. The City is paying for all of this so the lot can be used for overflow parking for the Sheraton. It just doesn’t add up. Given all the good work the City has been doing to promote adaptive reuse of existing building in recent years, it’s especially sad and confusing to see the Sahara get bulldozed.

Adaptive Reuse in Phoenix: The Good News

“Adaptive reuse is the process of tailoring old structures for purposes other than those initially intended. As old buildings outlive their original purposes, adaptive reuse offers a process to modify these buildings for new uses while retaining their historic features. As a result, an old warehouse may become an apartment building, or a rundown church may find new life as a restaurant.” Yuri Artibise in the Phoenix Downtown Journal

The good news is that although we lost the fight to keep the Sahara Inn out of the landfill and have it renovated and repurposed (e.g., ASU College of Law or dorms), there are numerous examples of successful and innovative local adaptive reuse projects that have been completed or are underway. The September 2010 issue of Phoenix Magazine ran a timely article called, “Adapt a Building,” naming some of the great recent and soon to be completed examples of local adaptive reuse, such as the Children’s Museum of Phoenix, The Duce, Copper Star Coffee, Paisley Town, CO+HOOTS, Goldspot Market, and Sun Dee. Add to that list the Vig, many of the buildings in the Melrose District on 7th Ave in Central Phoenix, and Hanny’s, among others.

Adaptive reuse is gaining some ground locally, especially within the City of Phoenix. Yes, I know that sounds ironic given the current controversy surrounding the Sahara Inn’s fate. However, in the past few years, the City of Phoenix has taken important steps to help preserve our historic building stock. In 2009, the City won a Valley Forward Environmental Excellence Crescordia Award for its Adaptive Reuse Program called Three New R’s: Rezone, Reuse, Revitalize. After a successful pilot Adaptive Reuse Program in the Spring of 2008 to help streamline the process to convert and modify existing buildings, the program was expanded and:

“…now includes buildings constructed prior to the year 2000, increases the size limits from 5,000 square feet to 100,000 square feet and allows for occupancy change flexibility. This expansion of the program provided increased opportunities to rezone, reuse and revitalize vacant strip malls, big box centers and other blighted community areas and keep them out of the landfill.” Yuri Artibise in the Phoenix Downtown Journal.

So the seeds for easing the way for developers to adaptively reuse existing structures have been planted, thanks to Phoenix Development Services Director Mark Leonard and Executive Director of Local First Arizona Kimber Lanning who led the formation of the city’s Adaptive Reuse Task Force. The program provides guidance, expedited time frames, and reduced costs to customers looking to adapt old buildings. The program participants can save between two weeks to three months in their schedule and $2,000 to $40,000 during the development process.

It’s hard to reconcile Phoenix’s award-winning Adaptive Reuse Program success story with the subsequent teardown of the Sahara Inn, especially given vocal community opposition to the latter. With the Sahara’s demolition, Phoenix is sending a mixed message to anyone who may wish to invest here, effectively saying, “do as we say, not as we do.” That’s unfortunate as it costs the City credibility and trust points with the broader community. We can do better, Phoenix.

So How Do We Sell Historic Preservation and Adaptive Reuse in Tough Economic Times?

The reality is this: for a historic building to be adaptively reused, the project must be economically viable…period. We don’t need any more historic building museums. We need our historic building stock to be an integrated, productive, and useful part of our urban fabric. I love historic building museums as much as the next person, but what really gets me excited is when I walk into an old building that’s been given new life and new use, and is actively engaging and contributing to the local community and economy. CO-HOOTS immediately comes to mind as an excellent example of the latter.

Educating more developers and city officials that adaptive reuse can provide a less expensive alternative-not more expensive, as is commonly thought-with longer lasting economic and environmental benefits is an important first step in making adaptive reuse of existing buildings the rule instead of the exception in Phoenix. Thankfully, we have some powerful tools we can bring to the table in these discussions. Two of these tools I consult repeatedly are books by Donovan Rykema, The Economics of Historic Preservation: a Community Leader’s Guide and Feasibility Assessment Manual for Reusing Historic Buildings (both are available from the National Trust for Historic Preservation). Rypkema is a leader in providing the analyses that show how historic preservation is typically a more fiscally responsible option than teardowns and new-builds.

In The Economics of Historic Preservation: a Community Leader’s Guide, Rypkema provides an illuminating list of the numerous economic benefits of historic preservation. Several of these are especially pertinent in the current economic climate here in Phoenix:

1. Historic preservation creates jobs: “Dollar for dollar, historic preservation is one of the highest job-generating economic development options available.”

2. Historic preservation creates more jobs than the same amount of new construction. “As a rough rule of thumb, half of new construction expenditures go for labor and half for materials. In a typical historic rehabilitation projects, between 60 and 70 percent of the total cost goes toward labor.”

3. Historic preservation has significant and ongoing economic impact beyond the project itself: “(1) new businesses formed; (2) private investment stimulated, (3) tourism stimulated, (4) increased property values, (5) enhanced quality of life, sense of neighborhood, and community pride, (6) new jobs created, (7) compatible land-use patterns, (8) increased property and sales taxes, and (9) pockets of deterioration and poverty diluted.”

4. Historic rehabilitation activity is often a counter-cyclical activity that stabilizes the local economy: “While some see historic preservation as an activity that can only be afforded in prosperous economic times, in fact the opposite may be true. Many cities have found that historic preservation is one of the few bright spots when the rest of the economy is in the doldrums.”

Finding the Right Use for a Historic Building or Structure

Although it’s not always possible, it is best if an existing building or structure is considered for its adaptive reuse possibilities, instead of bringing an already conceived need that the building may not be able to fill and, therefore, may be subject to demolition instead of rehabilitation. Additionally, it is important to go through a feasibility study for a proposed adaptive reuse of a building early in the planning process to be sure the building and the project are a good fit. In Rypkema’s Feasiblity Assessment Manual for Reusing Historic Buildings, the tools and methods for conducting such an assessment are laid out clearly and concisely for city planners and consultants to follow.

Encouraging the City, developers, and business owners to take the time to go through this feasibility assessment process (only about two to four weeks if done by a professional) so expectations, needs, and possibilities are clearly determined, is an important step in saving extant buildings from flawed property planning. Too often, this step is missed and a building will fall for lack of advance understanding of its unsuitability for a project before the developer is committed and has purchased the property.

Historic Buildings Needing New Uses

The authors of “Adapt a Building” in Phoenix Magazine issued their wish list of historic buildings needing adaptive reuse before they go the way of so many others we’ve lost, such as the Sahara Inn. Among those listed is the Hayden Flour Mill, a City of Tempe project that’s near and dear to my heart as I led the cultural resources team in preparing the property for redevelopment. Our work included the development of a historic preservation plan, outlining preservation priorities to guide the future planning for the property. Sadly, when the economy took a nosedive and Mortgages Ltd. went bankrupt, Avenue Communities’ redevelopment plans for the Hayden Flour Mill property stalled for lack of funding and are still on hold.

One of the best memories I have of the Hayden Flour Mill project was a historical team meeting held at our “Mill Avenue Office” (aka the back patio of Rula Bula, which has a splendid view of the mill). We were having a brainstorming session with Don Ryden of Ryden Architects, the historic architect on the project, regarding the possible uses of the poured-in-place concrete silos on the property. The developer was considering a possible use as a boutique hotel, similar to the Quaker Square Inn Hotel built in a historic grain silo complex in Akron, Ohio. However, Ryden’s study of the structure determined that the interior diameter of the silo towers was too small for them to house hotel rooms, so another use was needed that would provide a long-term, economically viable use for the owners.

We came up with a series of possible uses (and some combined uses), including records storage for ASU, private wine vaults, interpretive space in the underground spaces, rock climbing practice facilities, and even a wine and cigar bar on the rooftop grain elevator operations structure called Rapunzel’s. The point of sharing this story is that this kind of thinking about possible uses instead of trying to force an ill-fitting project into the limitations of an extant building or structure is what is needed on a larger scale. By envisioning the possible alternative uses of our historic architectural stock that’s endangered, we can then market that use to the appropriate investors and developers, organizations, city departments, or institutions that would be the best match for adaptively reusing the building or structure.

Final Thoughts

“In the Great Recession, architects, contractors and developers are hurting. It’s time to get creative. It’s time to think small and doable. It’s time to stretch, professionally, outside one’s comfort zone. It’s time to build community, not towers.” ~ Jim McPherson in “Adapt a Building” in Phoenix Magazine

Amen, brother. Amen.

When historic buildings are demolished, not only are we losing the embedded energy in construction materials that get dumped in the landfill, but we also lose a piece of our collective soul in terms of the historic character, shared identity, and history of our communities. Sadly, the throwaway consumerism mentality of the post World War II era has extended to our architecture as well. When you visit places like Portland, Oregon, there is a distinct historic character and flavor to the downtown that Phoenix lacks. That’s because even during the recession in the 1980’s when other cities like Phoenix were bulldozing their treasures, Portland resisted. There are still pockets of Phoenix and the rest of the Valley that are rich with historic character and potential. Won’t we do what it takes to save what remains of our architectural legacy before it’s gone the way of the Sahara Inn for more surface parking?

Want to learn more about adaptive reuse here in the Valley? Check out these resources:

Grand Avenue 2010 Re-Dapt Tours held in concert with the Grand Avenue Festival on September 25, 2010. These tours highlight some of the great adaptive reuse successes on Grand Avenue.

Why Phoenix Needs Old Buildings on Jane’s Walk Phoenix blog

Google Map created by Jim McPherson showing the location of many of the area’s adaptive reuse projects

Arizona Preservation Foundation Awards – lots of wonderful, award-winning adaptive reuse projects shown here

Lavine Machine Development website for the firm’s adaptive reuse projects. There are some real gems here.

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11 Responses

  1. Will Novak says:

    I’ve noticed the West side of the Sahara is still up. Its the side of the structure that could potentially house great street retail. Im not sure why its still there, but Im holding out some tiny bit of hope that maybe at least it can be kept.

  2. Sean S says:

    nice post 🙂

    two quick corrections though: I’m the treasurer of St Croix’s HOA (not the president)

    the BOA hearing is now scheduled for 11/4

  3. Gene Urban says:

    Thanks for spreading the word on adaptive reuse and preservation. The Sahara is one in a long line of mistakes made in the name of progress. As Yuri Artibise clearly stated, the Sahara had value to the community. Too bad the decision was left to short sighted thinkers. A bit like the Fox Theater.

    We have a historic preservation meetup group going now too. Anything we can do to spread the word and wisdom of preserving our past is important.

  4. Victoria Vargas says:

    Will, here’s hoping!!!

  5. A correction on my article just came in from Sean Sweat: he’s the Treasurer of the St. Croix Villas Homeowners Association, not the President.

    Also, the zoning hearing for the Sahara is now scheduled for 11/4/2010.

  6. Steve Weiss says:

    I’d say let go to that dream, Will. And let the powers that be at the city know of your resentment, and at least speak up strongly against the proposed parking lot. That little bonus for both the Sheraton and KPNX Channel 12 can still be halted.

  7. Wayne Murray says:

    Great article. This has happened all overe Europe for decades, revitalization is the norm for development. Not development from scratch. It also happens in other cities in the US. We need developers who will lead the way in showing other developers how to “profit” from this kind of action. No developer is going to listen to a bureacrat or a preservationist on how to “make economic sense”. Find a few who are willing to lead and support them in everyway as “the example for the future”. McDowell Road between 7th Street and the 51 is ripe with historic small structures that a remarkably preserved in nature and could fit models for easy adaptive reuse……also surrounding great affordable neighborhoods and two of the largerst medical facilities in the state within walking distance…..Why is this not happening…..???????

  8. Taz Loomans says:

    Wayne, there is a forming McDowell Merchants Association around the area you described, and I’m involved in it. If you’re interested in the area, contact me and maybe we can find a way to make historic preservation a priority in the area…

  9. nice work.A bit like the Fox Theater.very good Buildings. thanks for telling me.

  10. […] on adaptive reuse and Historic Preservation: we have to celebrate our history and our diversity. Mix of old and new […]

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