Thursday, February 08, 2007

Builders Coveting Historic District

Builders Coveting Historic District
Monica Alonzo-Dunsmoor ~The Arizona Republic ~ Feb. 4, 2007

Increasing development pressure for high-rise towers in Phoenix's historic Warehouse District has city planners rewriting the rules for building heights and preservation.

Years of work to rejuvenate the heart of downtown Phoenix continues to pay off, and now developers have their eyes on land just south of the city center for skyscraping condominiums.

The Warehouse District, roughly from Madison to Lincoln streets between Seventh Avenue and Seventh Street, is peppered with about 40 warehouses that once stored furniture, produce and other merchandise. Many other warehouses have been demolished over the years to make way for such things as a baseball stadium and a basketball arena.

The district was created to preserve the character and unique architectural mix of the buildings in that historic pocket of the city. But the land is prime for development, especially if it lures the dwellers that area desperately needs.

Phoenix Planning Director Debra Stark said the challenge is balancing the competing interests of landowners, developers and historic preservationists.

She said there were real opportunities in the Warehouse District.

"You want to restore and protect the history of a city," she said. "But you also want to allow for the exciting and new development."

There are competing proposals over building heights, but both allow projects up to 250 feet in some parts of the district.

The debate is over what the trade-off should be with developers to preserve the warehouses.

Phoenix planning commissioners say that a developer should be able to build as high as 250 feet on a 30,000-square-foot parcel in exchange for buying a 30-year conservation easement. Or they can simply go to the City Council for approval.

A conservation easement generates money to restore a historic warehouse, then guarantees its protection for at least 30 years.

City staff members say that such preservation efforts should get a developer only up to 140 feet on a 30,000-square-foot parcel and that the City Council should have the final say on anything taller than that.

Some property owners believe neither proposal goes far enough to protect the legacy of those warehouses.

But there is little protection now, even for warehouses on the Phoenix Register of Historic Places. If the owner of a warehouse on that list wants to tear down it down, the city can withhold a demolition permit only for a year.

But officials also are grappling with political concerns, including appeasing developers with high-rise projects just north of the Warehouse District who have plotted their projects based on neighboring buildings being capped at 56 feet, or 80 feet with a waiver.

And 250-foot towers in the Warehouse District could easily mar views or devalue properties.

Planning Commissioner Joan Klechner said any proposal should be simple and straightforward to encourage development in an area that people have talked about improving for more than a decade.

"We finally have developers who understand and are willing to renovate the best of the historic warehouses in exchange for getting as much height as they can for their buildings," she said. "It's a fair trade."

The district has piqued the interest of developers such as Dale Jensen, a Diamondbacks general partner and investor in the Phoenix Suns.

Jensen has closed on a deal to bring the Champ Car World Series street race to that area and is working on an entertainment district there as well. It would create entertainment, retail and dining options in the area.

But Mike Levine, a historic preservationist and property owner, said the proposals give unfair advantage to developers who own or have interest in several properties in the district.

He said that those owners can "buy" all the conservation easements they need from themselves to build their towers. And because preserving a building is defined only as making it watertight and structurally sound, it doesn't guarantee that the historic character of the area will truly be restored.

Another problem is that a developer can buy an easement on a warehouse that needs very little restoration and get the same amount of height credit as investing in a warehouse also worthy of saving but that requires much more work, Levine said.

"This poorly vetted, ill-conceived plan being pushed through to meet the deadline of one developer is not the way to do urban infill," he said. "Especially not at the expense of historic preservation."

Robert Dunn, who owns a small piece of the Warehouse District, questioned why any changes were necessary.

He said that developers have been allowed to go higher than 200 feet in that area, citing the 22-story Summit at Copper Square at Jackson and Fourth streets.

"This is certainly not right for us," he said.

Search for homes in any of the Phoenix Historical Districts.

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