Wow…just attended the Camelback East Village Planning Committee regarding historic overlay and landmark designation for the David Wright Residence designed by famed Frank Lloyd Wright. Ultimately, a motion to recommend historic preservation and landmark status to the planning commission and city council was passed with a nail biting 9-5 vote. Can’t even comprehend that anyone actually voted to not recommend historic landmark status.
I won’t go into much detail on the significance of this property as it has been written about at length…and in my opinion is a no-brainer that it is worth of historic landmark status and culturally significant to the history of Phoenix the story of Frank Lloyd Wright. When so many other municipalities have seen it fit to preserve his buildings, Phoenix does not want the stain on it’s reputation of being the city that allowed the first Frank Lloyd Wright structure to be intentionally torn down in 40 years.
Several people have commented this home is the most significant work of architecture in Phoenix, by the most significant and greatest American architect of all time.
This iconic work of architecture and history is a huge deal, so much that as we were in the midst of the meeting the New York Times was publishing a story about it online and would later be on page one of the paper. Over the next couple days a myriad of both local and national news outlets would bring attention to the attempted cannibalism of this beautiful home.
This article will be more of a commentary on the planning process itself, or more so, the circus show of city planning process gone wrong.
If you have never been to a village planning committee meeting I highly encourage it as it’s an incredible insight into the city planning and zoning review process for the city of Phoenix, and this one was heated and intense exchanges!
If you ever have attended a HOA meeting, imagine a HOA meeting on steroids with the chairman running the meeting on an uber power trip.
Directly on my right was Anne Wright-Levi (great granddaughter of Frank Lloyd Wright), to my front was famed current Arizona architect Will Bruder, and all around were other passionate preservationists from different industries. I knew it was going to be interesting.
What’s a village you ask?
The city of Phoenix is divided into 15 Urban Villages (see map below). Each Village has a Village Planning Committee that is appointed by the City Council. The Village Planning Committees assist the Planning Commission in the performance of its duties. Village Planning Committee activities include: identifying areas or provisions of the General Plan text that need refinement and updating; identifying problems and needs related to implementation of the General Plan; defining in greater detail the intended future function, density and character of subareas of the village; and commenting on proposals for new zoning districts or land use districts.
There were a few items on the agenda before they got to the David & Gladys Wright House, such as approving a developer’s plans for building a luxury apartment complex at 44th St and Camelback and another apartment building at 16th St and Highland.
The typical format for these meetings for new development or redevelopment is to have a developer/person/company present their plans for developing a parcel to the village planning committee and go over its intended purposes and how it will impact the surrounding area and neighborhood. Then there is a Q&A between the committee and the applicant (developer) to address any concerns of the committee. Finally residents of the neighborhood weigh in with their opinions and either voice their support or disapproval for the project.
This particular case is different in that it is a city entity acting as the applicant (Historic Preservation Office) filing a request for the Village Planning Committee to recommend historic overlay for the property and landmark status to the Planning Commission, and, ultimately the City Council in a few weeks…and it is the developer who is objecting to the applicant (HPO) and wants to tear down the house, split the lot in two, and build 2 soul-less mega McMansions.
Kevin Weight and Michelle Dodds of the Historic Preservation Office did a wonderful job in outlining the criteria making a property eligible and worth of historic preservation and landmark status, which is what the whole meeting was SUPPOSED to be focused on – Does the property meet the criteria for not only historic preservation, but also the highest designation for a historic property, landmark status.
Then it was the current owner’s turn, who actually attended the meeting this time (skipped first round), and had their attorney give a heated monologue claiming it was illegal and against the city’s own policies to initiate a historic overlay process without the consent of the owner, brought up Prop 207 issues and pretty much said,
“You can’t allow it. We won’t allow it. The courts won’t allow it. You’re buying a lawsuit, basically, by approving it, by pushing it up the chain. You’re buying a lawsuit for the City of Phoenix. And we’re gonna win. And the house is gonna come down anyway. I urge you to deny the application…”
(I’m not an attorney so can’t comment on the validity of his statements…all I know is as mentioned by the Historic Preservation members the city attorneys (while not present) gave the advice to go ahead and proceed with historic preservation and if the owners have a problem with it, it will be dealt with in court. Furthermore, Grady Gammage Jr, arguably one of the most knowledgeable and well respected attorneys versed in zoning and land use in the Phoenix area offered up counter points to dispute the premise of it being perfectly legal, just not necessarily commonplace with city policy or the preferred method. Further the developer’s threat of a Prop 207 claim is questionable, as they may not be able to claim much in terms of forced financial loss when they already the opportunity right now to sell to an interested, preservation minded buyer for just over $2,000,000 considering they purchased it for $1,800,000 just a few months ago.
As the discussion turned to many of the legal concerns about telling the property owner what he can or can’t do with his property came in to play, the committee kept losing focus of the purpose of the meeting and the application of the Historic Preservation Office. The Village Planning Committee is NOT a court of law, it does not need act as a jury, it does not have to dissect the interpretations of the law…that’s what the court system and legal professionals are for if it gets to that point.
The purpose of the meeting was to determine if the property meets the criteria for historic preservation and landmark status as outlined by the Historic Preservation Department and if so recommend to the Planning Commission it be designated to landmark status, and ultimately make the recommendation to the city council. The committee seemed to lose focus of that purpose by all the legal babble and scare tactics from the 80/81 Meridian attorney, and then several members of the committee with the chairman being most vocal ridiculed the Historic Preservation Office reps for not bringing city legal counsel to answer some of the legal concerns.
In Michelle and Kevin’s defense, as mentioned by Kevin, they did not bring legal counsel because in the previous meeting held at the Historic Preservation Office (first step in this process) and open to the public, not a single legal concern was ever brought up….why? Because the owner/developer never showed up to the first meeting!!! Much like they failed to show up to the property after inviting the Mayor and Planning Commission members out to visit the site, standing them up last week.
Even more EGREGIOUS, was that while some members of the committee pompously criticized the HPO for not bringing legal counsel, when the time came for Grady Gammage Jr, again, arguably one of the most knowledgeable and well respected attorneys versed in zoning and land use in Phoenix, to offer his legal opinion as a public comment, they abruptly and rudely cut off him off after around 2 minutes of speaking, yelling out “Time!” like we were all taking the SAT exam and had just ran out of time. Pencils down!
Yet in the previous action items on the agenda earlier in the night, they let concerned residents babble on at length with extremely liberal time limits regarding much more seemingly insignificant issues, like whether or not to allow left turns out of a new apartment complex being planned. The purpose of the resident feedback is to voice opinions from those concerned, and if that’s the important thing in hearing opinions, if a handful of people worried about traffic flow from the prospect of allowing left turns out of a proposed apartment complex are deserving of lengthy standing on a soap box speeches, then maybe with now over 20,000 signatures in an online petition the committee should take things a little more seriously and not be so anal on imposing minute time limits on a man giving the most insight to the committee’s NUMBER ONE concern regarding legal rights.
Does not compute.
Why cut him or others off so abruptly? Maybe certain members (thankfully a minority) of the committee had already made up their mind before ever hearing the preservationists’ concerns.
Come on…really??? Scary to think this guy is on a committee like this contributing to decisions.
When it came time to initially vote, there was an attempt to postpone the decision until next month’s meeting. Michelle Dodds explained that would be pointless because the Planning Commission is meeting next week and the city council will meet soon after that (and those entities are supposed to take into account the recommendations of the Village Planning Committee). Still, the vote to postpone was split 50/50 between 14 members, which is a failed motion, so thankfully that effort died and the motion was made to continue the vote on recommending historic landmark status or not.
The 9-5 vote in favor of preservation, also came with the recommendation of finding an equitable solution (not financially putting out the developers) and also to strive for a permanent stay of demolition rather than the typical 3 year period.
In another recent twist after fears of stealth demolition without proper permitting, the city of Phoenix has dispatched police to be stationed outside the property 24 hours a day on a watch to ensure no illegal demolition occurs. Photo courtesy of John Covington
Even the mayor is fighting for preservation.
“The planning commission is right to take action to protect this historic property. I look forward to working with the prospective buyer and property owner to ensure they fully understand how important this historic Frank Lloyd Wright home is to our city.”
Join the cause and voice your support for preservation by signing the petition.
And if you want to attend the next meeting in the process here are the details:
Planning Commission Hearing
Tuesday, October 9, 2012 at 6:00pm
City Council Chambers
200 W Jefferson St
Phoenix, AZ 85003